Iraqi war on ISIS fades amid political sniping
BAGHDAD - Domestic turmoil over unfulfilled reforms promised by the Iraqi government is weakening the country’s resolve against the Islamic State (ISIS) and threatens divisions among powerful Shia clergy who want their pro-Iranian militias included in the battle against the Sunni militants.
Iraqis have participated in daily protests for several weeks to press demands for comprehensive reforms, which include bringing to justice corrupt officials who squandered the country’s oil wealth.
That, on its own, is a minefield that could lead to the collapse of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s carefully selected alliance and the dismissal of the cabinet.
“The current political deadlock is a loophole that can be used by the enemy against us,” cautioned Sunni lawmaker Talal al-Zobaie. “Politicians should set aside all their differences and unite their efforts to defeat ISIS.”
“No doubt that the feuds among politicians over cabinet trophies will negatively affect our war on ISIS and the morale of the soldiers on the front lines,” he said.
Protesters have been demanding an end to widespread state corruption and for a reshuffling of the cabinet in which many ministers, backed by powerful political or religious groups, are allegedly involved in large-scale corruption, money laundering and abuse of power.
Public anger and disappointment have intensified over the pace of implementing the reforms Abadi promised. Seen as a cautious politician, Abadi exhibited considerable reluctance in confronting the main political and religious groups that are keen to maintain sway and protect personal gains.
Initially, Abadi proposed independent technocrats to fill some cabinet posts. However, he came under tremendous pressure from politicians and religious parties who claimed the candidates failed to meet the criteria of technocrats or adequately represent all geographic areas in Iraq.
Instead, the dominant political groups circulated other names, prompting powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to call on his supporters to stage sit-ins near Iraqi ministries, virtually shutting down several government offices in Baghdad.
The political impasse has had a toll on the war against ISIS by Iraqi security forces struggling to recapture areas lost to the militants in 2014.
The long-awaited battle against Mosul in northern Iraq flared on March 24th but soon waned. At first, Iraqi officials hailed the start of operations to recapture Iraq’s second largest city. Later, however, they insisted that the actual battle was still ahead and that the brief offensive was part of what the Americans said were “shaping operations” to prepare the Iraqi Army for what is expected to be a tough and protracted war.
In the western city of Hit, the Iraqi Army reported progress in its efforts to recapture the predominantly Sunni city in the vast Anbar province. Military operations against ISIS were put on hold as army units were dispatched to Baghdad to maintain order as influential Shia clergy locked horns on Abadi’s reforms and protesters poured into the streets.
Abadi’s hesitation to use Shia militias in the war on ISIS is contributing to an inter-Shia competition, which is weakening the front against ISIS, top Shia politicians and senior clerics argue. The militias are loathed by Iraq’s Sunnis for their alliance with Iran.
Abadi admitted on April 15th that Iraq was vulnerable to ISIS due to the absence of a strong government.
“A great damage is being done to the country because of the conflict of interests and visions,” Abadi said. “No reforms could be carried out amid such divisions.”
Making things worse is the political struggle in the legislature. Lawmakers, backed by al-Sadr, voted to remove parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, promising also to change the president and the premier at a later stage.
The lawmakers even picked a replacement for Jabouri, leaving the Iraqi parliament with two speakers claiming the post.
Abadi said the differences crippled the parliament and “could affect the heroic operations to free our cities and villages from Daesh”, an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Yet, Baghdad-based analyst Bassem al-Sheikh said the same political groups that have militias are using the ISIS threat to win political concessions from rival groups in the legislature and the government.
“Some militia leaders are threatening the Iraqis that they might quit fighting Daesh, if their political privileges are touched,” he noted.
Iraqi security forces, backed by Shia militias, have made gains in the war against the Sunni insurgents but they are far from inflicting total defeat on the jihadists.
The UN mission to Iraq has expressed deep concern over the political crisis and called on top politicians to engage in constructive dialogue to resolve differences.
Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy special representative of the secretary-general for Iraq and acting head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said the crisis is threatening to paralyse state institutions and weaken national unity at a time when all efforts should focus on combating ISIS and implementing reforms.
“The only party that benefits from the political divisions and chaos as well as the weakening of the state and its institutions is Daesh. We should not allow this to happen,” he said.
In Baghdad, Iraqis fear an armed confrontation between pro-reshuffle militias loyal to al-Sadr and other militias that want to keep the current political formula. People are facing difficulties moving around the city because of the tight security measures that cut off main roads.
“Even the reforms are becoming a punishment to the ordinary people. We are afraid that the Iraqi fighters and soldiers will point their guns at each other and forget Daesh,” said Baghdad resident Ahmed Abdul- Jabar.