Abadi faces deadlock, threat of further turmoil
Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shia cleric who has galvanised the Iraqi street with calls for an end to corruption that has ravaged the country since 2003, have massed in Baghdad as the political elite remained at loggerheads over how to resolve the worsening crisis.
The swelling protest coincided with al-Sadr’s announcement of his latest deadline for the installation of a new cabinet.
Fisticuffs in parliament, an attempt to unseat the speaker and a sit-in by parliamentarians have been among the headline events in a political meltdown that amounts to a self-inflicted diversion from what Iraq’s allies say is the bigger crisis facing the country — the continued stranglehold of the Islamic State (ISIS) on a large part of Iraqi territory.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, regarded by the United States, Iran and others as Iraq’s last best hope for restoring political order and pursuing the war, faces calls for his resignation from a rump parliament, which is itself deeply divided.
Abadi is paying the price for attempting to dismantle Iraq’s sectarian power-sharing quota system under which corruption proliferated and factional placemen presided over a collapse of governance.
“Unfortunately, the prime minister has undermined his own courageous efforts several times by mishandling the politics of important programmes,” observed Kenneth Pollack, of the Brookings Institution, who toured Iraq in March. “He failed to consult with key Iraqi power brokers before announcing his reform agenda and the end of last summer and got little buy-in for his proposals.”
The spur for reform came from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, regarded by many Shias inside and outside Iraq as their supreme religious guide. His calls for an anti-corruption crackdown were taken up by al-Sadr, who organised mass anti-corruption protests that took his supporters to the gates of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified government area in Baghdad.
However, Abadi’s failure to fulfil a pledge to establish a non-sectarian government of technocrats has turned the Shia street against him.
With former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki manoeuvring to use the crisis for his own ends, the outcome is far from predictable. A worst-case scenario, however, is potential clashes between rival Shia blocs. ISIS, which has repeatedly carried out terror bombings in Baghdad, is likely to exploit the swelling crisis.
The ability of outside powers to influence the outcome is limited. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Baghdad in March, reminding Iraqi leaders that: “National reconciliation is an important part of the strategy to defeat Daesh, [an Arabic acronym for ISIS] who have ruthlessly exploited divisions and targeted the marginalised and disenfranchised.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry visited in April. This was seen as a gesture of support for Abadi but a US State Department spokesman said the main motive was to ensure that the Iraqis did not “lose sight of the need to stay focused on the fight against” ISIS.
Meanwhile Iran, despite claims in Iraq that the Islamic Republic’s clerical leaders are behind Maliki’s manoeuvrings, is for now in favour of keeping Abadi in office. It has sought to prevent an attempt by Maliki to oust his successor.
MPs from the Shia Badr bloc, which is close to Iran, pulled out of a parliamentary session that was threatening to create further confusion by appointing a replacement for speaker Salim al-Jabouri, who resigned. He was the most senior Sunni official in the Baghdad government and his departure bodes ill as sectarian passions intensify.
Badr bloc leader Qasim al-Araji said the move could have resulted in two rival governments, a situation that would undermine the fight against ISIS. “We’re against dividing parliament and we want to maintain the democratic political process in Iraq,” he said.
The Badr bloc’s decision to deprive the rump parliament of the necessary quorum to oust the speaker averted the complete paralysis of government. However, with some politicians determined to maintain privileges and patronage and the street clamouring for reform, the deadlock persists.
In another time and another place, the solution might be to have elections to break the stalemate but it is difficult to see how a valid vote could be held when a large segment of the country is occupied or close to the battle lines. Much of the Sunni population is under occupation or internally displaced — and in an ugly mood.
Sadr raised the prospect of elections in a statement appealing to the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to help find a solution to the crisis “even through holding early elections”.
The intervention came after MPs failed to have a session to decide whether to replace Jabouri.
Sadr told his followers to keep up the pressure with more rallies in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. The fear is that this menacing deadlock will end up being resolved on the streets.