Iraq’s Abadi at crossroads: Win or leave
UTICA (Michigan) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s capture of Falluja from the Islamic State (ISIS) is a master stroke that shows the militants he means business and his political adversaries, especially among Shia clerics, that he is a strongman capable of protecting their interests, influence and gains.
However, the triumph will be quickly forgotten if not followed by steps to root out ISIS from across Iraq and pursue a vigorous reform agenda to end state corruption and improve public services.
Abadi must address several other significant sticking points, such as the political rift among Shias, the growing power of pro-Iranian militias, a flood of refugees displaced from domestic conflict zones, Kurdish defiance of his rule and public outrage over the pace of reform.
“Liberating Falluja is a good first step in the right direction,” said Jawad al-Tae, a retired Baghdad university professor. “This should be an incentive for the prime minister to press ahead with his promised reforms, to emerge as a man of his word who can deliver.”
The government has begun a campaign to improve Abadi’s public image after accusations by opponents among Shia clerics that he was a hesitant leader incapable of effectively ruling Iraq.
Since the first days of the assault on Falluja, government-run media outlets have portrayed Abadi as an audacious leader, showing him in black military uniform, rubbing shoulders with soldiers and military commanders on the front lines.
The prime minister rushed to announce the liberation of Falluja to capitalise on the victory against ISIS, although the jihadists still controlled several areas in the Sunni city, 60km west of Baghdad.
Iraqis, especially the country’s marginalised Sunni minority, argue that the prime minister’s first steps should focus on curbing the power of Shia militias that are accused of atrocities against civilians fleeing Falluja.
Seeking revenge for the massacre of 1,700 Shia military trainees at the hands of ISIS fighters in 2014, Shia militiamen allegedly harassed, tortured and killed refugees from Ameiriyat, Falluja, Karma and Saqlawiyah.
Shia militias detained at least 640 men fleeing Falluja. They were questioned about suspected ties with the jihadists and 49 of them were killed and the rest are missing, according to Iraqi media reports.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged the Iraqi government to take immediate measures to ensure that all people fleeing Falluja are treated in accordance with international humanitarian laws.
Baghdad-based political analyst Bassem al-Sheikh said Abadi had gained some public support after recapturing Falluja, “yet he has to reassure the people of recaptured Sunni areas that they are safe from sectarian armed groups. It is an urgent task in order to ensure the complete defeat of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Abadi’s other moves should be to “push for real political and economic reforms to calm public anger over widespread corruption”, Sheikh pointed out.
Responding to massive street protests last summer, Abadi promised political and economic reforms but his endeavour was bogged down by resistance from some of his key partners in power, anxious they may lose their traditional clout.
“Abadi achieved military success but that was stained by his constant political failure. He let down the protesters before. He should end corruption without fearing the Shia politicians,” said Hazem Saeed, a Baghdad resident.
Iraqi lawmaker Ali al-Alaq, an Abadi confidant, blamed the prime minister’s problems on Shia leaders who accuse him of inability to lead the executive authority and command the armed forces.
Abadi has shown little willingness to confront Shia officials who mock him. His confidants describe him as a bashful and polite politician who hates to make enemies or blunt public statements.
Sceptics, including pro-Iranian politicians and militias, are led by former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is widely held responsible for the corruption and mismanagement that left the state almost bankrupt.
“With some credibility after the Falluja battle, the premier should act against corrupt officials without fearing the red lines. More people are now ready to support him as he is trying to fix the mistakes of Maliki,” said Sheikh.
Another pressing issue that must be addressed soon is soured relations between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. In mid- 2015, the Kurds turned their backs on a deal that allowed Baghdad to receive 17% of oil revenues generated from sales in Iraqi Kurdish areas. In return, Baghdad cut funds allocated in its federal budget to punish Kurdish leaders.
Mending fences between Baghdad and the Kurds would be vital for the success of Abadi’s long-anticipated operation to drive ISIS fighters out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Kurdish security forces, known as peshmerga, have achieved victories against ISIS near Kirkuk and Mosul in the past. Kurdish leaders are aware that peshmerga participation is essential to any attempt to drive ISIS from Mosul.
Thus, the president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, announced that before the start of Mosul battle “everybody should know his obligations and rights”, echoing Kurdish territorial demands to annex some areas from Nineveh province to Kurdistan in return for peshmerga help to recapture Mosul.