Iraq’s new prime minister faces uphill battle

Developing Just Leadership

Tahir Mustafa

Dhu al-Qa'dah 06, 1435 2014-09-01

News & Analysis

by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1435)

Iraq will need more than a change of prime minister to create a sense of belonging among different groups that are being manipulated along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may wish he had not accepted the post in the present circumstances. The country is in political, economic and social turmoil. There are deep fissures within the State of Law coalition, an alliance of Shi‘i parties that has the largest number of seats in parliament but does not have a clear majority.

Iraq is not only divided along sectarian but also ethnic lines. The Shi‘i majority resides primarily in the south, a region left underdeveloped by successive Iraqi regimes; the Sunnis occupy the middle ground while the Kurds occupy the north. The Iraqi situation has been further exacerbated by the emergence of the takfiri group, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or its new incarnation, the Islamic State (IS) with a self-proclaimed khalifah to boot in the person of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (real name Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai).

Under Iraq’s American-bequeathed constitution, only a Kurd can be the president; the prime minister’s post is reserved for Shi‘is while the speaker of parliament must always be a Sunni. This is virtually a mirror-image of the confessional constitution of Lebanon that was imposed by the French before their departure.

Abadi, like his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki belongs to the Da‘wah Party that in turn is part of the State of Law Coalition. For weeks after last April’s election, al-Maliki refused to countenance the idea that someone other than himself could be prime ministerial material. On August 11, when the new Iraqi President Fouad Masum, a Kurd, nominated al-Abadi to form the next government, al-Maliki hit a tantrum. He insisted he was the prime minister and threatened legal action against Masum.

He (Maliki) had antagonized too many people both within his own party and coalition as well as externally to be able to retain power for a third term.

Events, however, overtook him. He had antagonized too many people both within his own party and coalition as well as externally to be able to retain power for a third term. Maliki was seen as a divisive figure even by his allies. He had not only alienated the Sunnis that resulted in the takfiris making gains in Iraq through the support of tribal leaders as well as remnants of Ba‘thist elements, but also many Shi‘is. In fact, he took the unprecedented step of trying to undermine the authority of Grand Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Sistani. This was a grave mistake and he lost whatever little support he may have had within his own party.

Following Masum’s call on al-Abadi to form the next government, the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement supporting it. The August 12 statement said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran supports all steps taken toward the completion of the political process in Iraq.” The statement also welcomed the successful appointment of a parliament speaker, president and prime minister within the timeframe set out in the country’s constitution.

It added that Iran has from the outset underscored that the appointment of a new prime minister and formation of the Iraqi government should be based on the country’s constitution, guidelines of the highest religious authorities and national consensus.

“It is obvious that the Islamic Republic of Iran as in the past will continue its support for the Iraqi government and nation in fighting terrorism and promoting the country’s stability and security,” the ministry pointed out.

It further praised efforts by Iraqi religious authorities and political figures in maintaining the country’s national unity and sovereignty and accelerating the formation of a new government.

The following day, the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, while addressing the country’s diplomats relating to a number of issues also endorsed al-Abadi. This added immense political and religious weight to the process and soon thereafter, the Da‘wah Party also came out with its own statement that all but sealed al-Maliki’s fate. Even though he had insisted that he was leader of the Da‘wah Party, when the party announced its support for al-Abadi, the former prime minister was left with no choice but to step aside. The Da‘wah Party called on political blocs “to cooperate with the constitutionally designated Prime Minister, Mr. al-Abadi, and accelerate the formation of a government in the defined time period.”

This new development was a serious challenge for al-Maliki. He tried to put on a brave face and presented himself as a responsible political player who was keen to facilitate the smooth transfer of power. Flanked by members of the Da‘wah Party as well as other prominent Shi‘i figures, he appeared on state television on August 14 and said, “I announce before you today, to ease the movement of the political process and the formation of the new government [with] the withdrawal of my candidacy in favor of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi.” It was realization, even belatedly on Maliki’s part, of the new political reality. Not surprisingly, most people breathed a sigh of relief.

Al-Abadi has a month to select his cabinet and present it to parliament for approval. He said he would limit his cabinet to 20 members. This would comprise 12 members from the Shi‘i community and four each from the Kurds and Sunnis. Hushyar Zebari, the former Foreign Minister, who is a Kurd, has been again nominated to continue in this post.

The cabinet formation is a minor challenge facing al-Abadi. Iraq faces much bigger problems that would need careful handling and sincere effort. If al-Abadi can rise above sectarian politics, Iraq may be nursed back to some form of stability.

The present turmoil gripping the country with the takfiri group, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that has occupied parts of Iraq is the direct result of al-Maliki’s sectarian policies. ISIS is neither Islamic nor has any credibility among the Muslim masses but even these thugs were welcomed by some Iraqis because they were fed up with al-Maliki’s narrow sectarian agenda.

Will the new prime minister be able to deal with the takfiri threat? It is still an open question and will depend on how he formulates policies to win the trust of other communities in Iraq — Sunnis and Kurds. Unfortunately sectarian and ethnic tendencies have been stoked in Iraq first as a result of deliberate US policies and second by Iraqi politicians following their narrow sectarian and ethnic agendas.

For all practical purposes, Iraq is no longer a unitary state. It is divided into a de facto Kurdish state in the north, with the takfiris controlling the middle region while Shi‘is are confined to their majority areas in the south.

This is a not an ideal situation and is vulnerable to exploitation by unsavory players like the US, Zionist Israel, Saudi Arabia and others. It will depend on Iraqi politicians to rise above their sectarian/ethnic loyalties to be able to make this work. Al-Maliki’s stepping aside has provided an opportunity and it will be interesting to see whether Prime Minister-designate al-Abadi is up to the task. He starts with a clean slate as far as issues of corruption are concerned. Nobody has been able to point a finger at him for doing anything wrong. As deputy speaker of parliament, he maintained cordial relations with all factions. This is to his credit but he will need skillful handling of the current uncertain political situation to be able to realize Iraq’s immense potential and give people hope beyond the turmoil that has been their fate for more than a decade.

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