Iraq’s PM losing control amid political tension
BAGHDAD - Faced with a storm of political tension and public anger, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is increasingly losing control over events in his country.
Abadi is relying on Iraq’s key Iranian and US players for survival, showing no will to face Kurdish territorial ambitions and failing to prevent protesters from storming sovereign buildings in the capital.
Within his own Shia community, Abadi has little influence over militias affiliated with powerful clerics, who are forcibly protecting some of their community’s neighbourhoods in Baghdad or leaving them almost lawless to settle old scores.
For many Iraqis, Shias and Sunnis alike, the country is slipping into the abyss under Abadi, who is largely seen as full of words but no deeds at a time when Iraq is in dire need of action.
“Iraq is totally a lawless country,” said Abdullah Durei, 47, a civil engineer. “Gangsters stop motorists at traffic lights and strip them of their vehicles.”
Ibrahim al-Taei, 32, a Shia mechanical engineer at Baghdad’s Oil Ministry, said his brother was kidnapped on March 20th by Shia militiamen. They demanded ransom of $25,000, which was paid.
Abadi is widely blamed for the rising tensions in the country due to his reluctance to impose reforms or limit the influence of religious parties and government officials loyal to them.
Powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al- Sadr ordered his followers to have weekly demonstrations to pressure Abadi. Other Shia politicians, concerned with losing privileges, criticised the move and asked militias loyal to them for help against Sadr’s militia, sparking clashes in Baghdad on May 20th.
The repeated storming of the fortified Green Zone of government buildings by protesters on Fridays has resulted in increased disdain for Abadi’s cabinet.
In a May 20th incident, protesters crossed police lines and stormed the prime ministry and legislature buildings in the Green Zone. It was said officials fled their offices shortly before the protesters arrived.
Hours later, the protesters were forced to withdraw and Abadi showed up in the cabinet building and warned he would punish the perpetrators.
Subsequently, social networks were awash with pictures of young protesters at Abadi’s office. “For the first time, we see a government that collapses and disappears every Friday but comes back to work on Saturdays,” one person wrote.
Iraqi lawmakers predicted that storming the Green Zone could be the start of a revolution that would push the country to the unknown.
A day after the second storming of the Green Zone, US President Barack Obama asked Abadi to tighten security.
“What kind of a man is he to seek Obama’s approval to protect his own office,” wondered Iraqi lawmaker Talib al-Kharbeet. “This guy should not be our prime minister.”
There has been much criticism of Abadi for his handling of the country’s financial crisis. He is blamed for looking at foreign help to ease a growing cash crunch, instead of combating corruption.
The Iraqi government is finalising an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to receive $13 billion to support Iraq’s economic recovery as it fights the Islamic State (ISIS).
“Consecutive governments wasted tens of billions of dollars. I wonder what the $13 billion can do apart from adding more debt,” Kharbeet said.
Baghdad political analyst Raheem al-Shimari said the state “is falling apart because the government and the greedy political elite abandoned the people”.
“The country needs a strong leader who listens to the poor, not to corrupt politicians,” he said.
Abadi’s weakness is also evident in his reluctance to face Kurdish leaders who speak openly about declaring independence in northern Iraq. Early in May, Kurdistan regional security chief Masrour Barzani said Iraq was non-existent as far as the Kurds were concerned, a comment that angered Baghdad politicians who demanded a stern response, which never transpired.
Instead, Abadi dispatched an envoy to apologise to Kurdish female lawmaker Ala Talabani, who lost her shoes while fleeing the parliament building after it was stormed by protesters.
Some say a desperate Abadi started the battle for Falluja to cover up political blunders and to rally Shia foes, especially al-Sadr’s militias, behind him against a common enemy, the Sunni ISIS militants.
On May 23rd, the Iraqi Army and police, backed by Shia militias, Sunni tribal fighters and US-led air strikes, launched a major offensive to recapture Falluja, which fell into the hands of the jihadists in early 2014. Falluja is a key city an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.
Iraqi lawmaker Zaytoun al-Dulaimi warned that “greater chaos” will eventually hit the country due to the government’s failure to address Iraq’s problems and to eliminate the Sunni insurgency. Iraq’s Sunni minority thrived under dictator Saddam Hussein but its interests were ignored by Shia cabinets after the US-led invasion of 2003.
Despite defeats in recent months, ISIS has carried out a series of deadly attacks on Shia targets, killing about 200 people in and around Baghdad since May 15th, further undermining government credibility.
“The armed groups are getting stronger in Baghdad,” Dulaimi said. “Terrorists are striking hard. All the politicians should put their personal ambitions aside and work together to save the Iraqi people from the current chaos and the coming disasters.”