Something’s Rotten in the State of Iraq (Part 1)

By Geoff Moore

You may have come across the news on March 25th of a bombing at an Iraqi football stadium south of Baghdad in which at least 29 people were killed.[1] Yet, as has been the case ever since the Islamic State rapidly took Iraqi territory almost two years ago, the terrible violence overshadowed a critical and ongoing event in Iraqi politics. This is the first of a two part analysis of what is happening in contemporary Iraqi politics.

Protests in Iraq last summer represented massive public frustration over corruption and power outages.[2] Although the country threw billions of dollars at the problem, it persisted for months during the hottest part of the year.[3] Between then and now, a much bigger storm has begun to materialize on the horizon. Several related developments affecting Iraq’s politics and economy have come together in early 2016. Most visibly, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was able to organize a rally of 100,000 Iraqis outside Baghdad’s Green Zone on February 26th, and then continue Friday protests there for several consecutive weeks.[4]

Muqtada al-Sadr, known for his opposition to the United States and the creation of the Jaish al-Mahdi (al-Mahdi Army, known now as the Peace Brigades or Peace Companies), has taken aim at corruption in Iraqi politics.[5] The goal of al-Sadr’s protests, which transitioned into a sit-in outside the Green Zone walls, was to force Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to finally introduce reforms promised in lieu of last year’s protests. The main demand is the replacement of cabinet ministers with technocrats unaffiliated with any political parties. The parliamentary committee doing the vetting of new ministers has been looking for candidates who “have a higher degree in their field of specialization and at least 15 years of experience, as well as a plan of action.”[6] These standards are seen as the necessary steps required to halt rampant corruption.

Replacing corrupt officials with technocrats seems like a logical solution, but it barely begins to address the confluence of events that have created this situation. Transparency International ranked Iraq 161st out of 168 countries in its 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, and a recent document leak exposed how the oil company Unaoil facilitated a multi-million dollar bribery scheme, implicating high ranking officials in Iraq’s Ministry of Oil. Making matters worse is the drop in oil prices which began in 2014. The Iraqi government and the economy are dependent upon oil revenues, the loss of which has made it difficult to pay the salaries of 7 million workers, and contributed to Baghdad’s oil dispute with the Kurdistan Regional Government.[7] On top of that, the (non)existence of “ghost soldiers” on the ledgers allows salaries to be paid into the coffers of corrupt officials in the army or the defense ministry.[8] Journalist Saif Hameed recently pointed out that the vast corruption and low oil prices are “depleting the central government’s financial resources at a time when … [Prime Minister] Abadi needs to ramp up funding for the U.S.-backed war against Islamic State militants.”[9]

Al-Sadr is therefore showing his skills as a political operator by taking the reins of populist sentiment around the country. Although it has been reported that many of the protestors in recent weeks have been al-Sadr’s Shia supporters, al-Sadr has voiced support for Sunni Arabs. Ibrahim al-Marashi argues that since Sunni protests in the Anbar province in 2013, al-Sadr “sought to portray himself as part of a combined, deprived Arab Sunni-Shia opposition against an Arab Shia-Sunni political elite that was seen as indifferent to their demands, corrupt and ineffective in terms of governance.”[10] It is clear that frustration with corruption and al-Abadi’s inaction has now been simmering for some time.

There is an argument that Haider al-Abadi has been restrained by the Iraqi political system itself. Iraq’s Council of Representatives operates with a “proportional representation-party list electoral system.”[11] This feature of the power-sharing system prevents single-party rule, for the same reasons the federal system prevents a highly centralized government. The resulting parliament requires coalition governance. The two largest blocs in the current coalition are the State of Law Coalition and the al-Ahrar bloc, represented by al-Abadi and al-Sadr respectively.[12] Al-Ahrar and the Sadrist Movement, among others, would like to see the “quota system” changed. They believe that the political system unfairly entrenches the parties and politicians in positions of power based on religious or ethnic representation rather than merit.[13]

Part of the logic behind Iraq’s power-sharing system was to prevent the country’s Shia, a plurality of the population, from dominating Iraqi politics at the expense of smaller religious, ethnic, and nationalist groups.[14] The last thing the US-led coalition would have wanted was a repeat of Saddam Hussein’s single-party centralized state which would control national resources. Regardless, what is most fascinating about the Sadr-Abadi faceoff is that it exposes the rift within the Shia-dominated governing coalition. The fracture is not just between al-Abadi’s Islamic Dawa Party and the Sadrist Movement, but also within al-Abadi’s own party.  Jane Arraf writes that al-Abadi “made clear from the day he took office two years ago that he didn’t choose the ministers in his cabinet. Since then it has become evident that he would dearly like to replace some of them.”[15]

Muqtada al-Sadr entered the Green Zone on March 28th to begin a sit-in inside the walls. That same day he met with Prime Minister al-Abadi. It is hard to overstate the symbolic importance of al-Sadr’s peaceful protests and his entry into the Green Zone. Arraf describes the scene as “one of the few cases where his followers have seen him up close. People were weeping as he spoke. He went into the Green Zone and he was kissed and greeted by senior Iraqi security officials.” Since that moment, several significant things have happened. On March 31st, Prime Minister al-Al-Abadi presented his list of new cabinet ministers to parliament, meeting the deadlines set by both al-Sadr and parliament.[16] Muqtada al-Sadr then ended his sit-in, but “insisted that weekly demonstrations for reform will continue until parliament approves the new cabinet.”[17] Iraq’s parliament now has until April 10th to approve the new ministers, but that does not mean this will be over. Luckily for al-Abadi, he might have a new ally in Muqtada al-Sadr.

Joel Wing’s analysis of the politics behind the new cabinet is particularly important. He explains how Abadi “has angered almost everyone,” by alienating Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia who occupy ministries and whose ministers have a vested interest in maintaining the “quota system.” Conversely, the technocratic fix is designed “to push reforms stalled by government’s inefficiency, corruption and power struggles.” This makes it significant that Sadr’s peaceful protests have been a more effective change agent than legislative action.  However, if one or more of the current cabinet ministers ignores the calls to resign, the government will have to achieve an absolute majority in the Council of Representatives to impeach that individual.[18] There is a fight coming, and it may not be pretty.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35901358

[2] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/iraq-reinvention-muqtada-al-sadr-160309061939234.html

[3] http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/shortage-electricity-cripples-economy-and-sparks-demonstrations-iraq-58980501

[4] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/iraq-reinvention-muqtada-al-sadr-160309061939234.html ; http://m.voanews.com/a/shiite-cleric-rallies-thousands-in-baghdad/3254704.html

[5] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/iraq-reinvention-muqtada-al-sadr-160309061939234.html

[6] http://m.voanews.com/a/shiite-cleric-rallies-thousands-in-baghdad/3254704.html

[7] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraqis-step-up-protests-against-corrupt-elite-as-senior-political-figures-flee-baghdads-green-zone-a6952601.html

[8] Ibid. Also see: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-soldiers-idUSKCN0JF2RZ20141201

[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-protests-idUSKCN0WR111

[10] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/iraq-reinvention-muqtada-al-sadr-160309061939234.html

[11] McGarry, John and Brendan O’Leary. “Iraq’s Constitution of 2005: Liberal consociation as political prescription.” International Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 5(4) (2007). Pg. 693.

[12] Prime Minister al-Abadi is Chairman of the Islamic Dawa Party, withing the State of Law Coalition. Dia al-Asadi is the political leader of al-Ahrar while al-Sadr is the spiritual/religious leader.

[13] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/iraq-muqtada-al-sadr-green-zone-demonstration-160329190153511.html

[14] McGarry & O’Leary (2007). Pg. 692-693.

[15] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/iraq-muqtada-al-sadr-green-zone-demonstration-160329190153511.html

[16] http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.com/2016/04/complaints-about-iraq-pm-abadi.html?m=1

[17] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/iraq-government-breakthrough-160403072455695.html

[18] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/iraq-government-breakthrough-160403072455695.html

Image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ehc_group/2809278312/

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