Abadi suffers setbacks in battle for reform

Friday 06/11/2015
Lonely at the top

Something’s got to give in Iraq, a country besieged by the Islamic State (ISIS) taking much of its Sunni heartland, industrial-scale corrup­tion that keeps the economy in the dark ages and the very real threat of civil war between Sunnis and Shias.

Haider al-Abadi was seen just more than a year ago as the solution to many of Iraq’s woes. It’s true that as soon as he became prime minister he clamped down on cor­ruption, particularly in the army where previous prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, some media outlets said, was responsible for draining $500 billion out of the country. Abadi recently downsized the govern­ment and fired a number of officials allegedly on the take.

However, he has failed Iraq in two major areas. First, Abadi was unable to garner support from the Sunni community to put its weight behind liberating Mosul, Ramadi and Falluja from ISIS extremists.

Abadi received a body blow from parliament, which refused to back his reforms aimed at tackling the haemorrhage of state funds in a period of financial calamity during which low oil prices hit the country harder than could have been imag­ined.

Abadi has taken on the establish­ment in a valiant bid to destroy an inherent corrupt system in which a number of humble political figures became billionaires over­night in a country where more than 20% of the population is considered in dire poverty.

Radical reforms over the summer, which included the dismissal of the vice-presidents and deputy prime ministers and cuts to salaries of government employees, have come back to haunt Abadi. Now it’s the deputies who are curbing Abadi’s efforts to root out the main culprits of graft.

Iraq’s parliament voted unani­mously to bar the government from passing important reforms without its approval in an effort to curb Abadi amid discontent over his leadership style, lawmakers said.

It’s fair to say though that many MPs are using the reform bill to send a signal to Abadi that he shouldn’t dream of being an au­thoritarian leader and should keep his place as a political sage.

The move has come at the worst time. In recent weeks there has been much talk about Iranian and Western support in hitting key ISIS positions as many predicted Ramadi being the first stronghold to be taken back.

Yet experts warn that any rise in political tensions could undermine Baghdad’s efforts to tackle an eco­nomic malaise and form a united front against ISIS militants posing the worst threat to Iraq since a US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Crucial to taking back territory in western Iraq is keeping Sunni and Shia tribal leaders happy, as both are weary of the spoils of war being used as leverage against each other.

Previously, Abadi came under fire for letting Shia militias take back Tikrit where fighters looted and were responsible for human rights abuses, which left many wondering if Abadi can control the militias.

Barely days after taking office in September 2014, Abadi oversaw the creation of an umbrella group of Shia militias aimed at fighting ISIS, which is not liked by Shia regional leaders as it undermines their political fervour; such is the complicated matrix of politics in Iraq that left the Sunni belt vulner­able to attack from extremists in the first place.

Abadi badly needs political capital as he is on the back foot. The three vice-presidents who were supposed to be fired — but are still in office — have probably been behind the MPs’ coup.

Winning a key town in the occu­pied territory of north-western Iraq — such as Ramadi, which is close to Baghdad — could be the answer to his prayers if he is to survive what is essentially a test of his endur­ance; restoring relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government would be another feather in his cap, if he can conjure up a strategy to hold on to his office while those around him jostle him to see if he will wane.

He’s also under political strains from a new secular protest move­ment that is gaining in popularity and calls for the end of the Shia- Sunni power brokering, which is responsible for ISIS taking over a sizeable chunk of the Sunni part of the country, while tribal leaders in Baghdad bickered and attributed blame to one another.

Abadi now needs a miracle. No mean feat for a man who only sleeps four hours a night as it is.