By Zayd Alisa
One year after Haider al-Abadi took over the Iraqi premiership and one year since the U.S. began airstrikes against the Islamic State, the country is grappling with not merely an increasingly menacing existential threat posed by IS. Even more alarming, an intensifying wave of protests erupted over the last month in Basra – Iraq’s major port where the overwhelming majority of Iraqi oil exports stem from – and swept through southern provinces, eventually reaching the capital of Baghdad.
Although the demonstrations were initially sparked by a brutal heat wave (and exacerbated by an indefensible chronic shortage in electricity supply and almost nonexistent public services) they have dramatically expanded, forcefully calling for an all-out war on corruption and intensifying demand for swift political reform. These protests have undoubtedly sent shock waves right across the Shia political blocs, largely because they are severely undermining their credibility and legitimacy at the heart of their Shia power base.
The three biggest Shia political blocs that have persistently been at the heart of all Shia-led governments since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, includes the State of the Law (SoL), that has consistently been led by the Dawa political party of the last three prime ministers; the Islamic Supreme Council (ISC) led by Ammar al-Hakim; and the Al-Ahrar bloc led by Moqtada al-Sadr. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising to see the top Shia cleric (Marja), Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, scrambling to forestall these currently peaceful, yet perilously tense demonstrations from sliding inexorably into an all-out Shia vs. Shia confrontations, which would have highly disastrous implications for the ongoing war against IS.
After all, it was undeniably the Shia paramilitaries and thousands of Shia volunteers, who enthusiastically answered Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s call, in June 2014, to take up arms, thereby forming the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) that has by far eclipsed the Iraqi army in spearheading the counter-offensive. Further, the PMF has not just halted IS’s lightning advance towards Baghdad, but clawed back control of highly strategic areas, such as Amirli, Jurf al-Sakar, and Diyala provinces.
All these resounding triumphs took place while the U.S. stood idly by, adamantly refusing to back the PMF. In Tikrit, however, the U.S. launched airstrikes in the final stages of the offensive, fearing that an emphatic victory by the PMF without any visible U.S. participation would critically undermine its newly established influence and fragile presence in Iraq. Part of the reason for the U.S.’s rejection of the PMF is their opposition from Saudi Arabia (the home of Sunni Islam) under the pretext that the PMF’s success would not only consolidate Iran’s growing influence, but ultimately pave the way for what former Iranian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal brazenly described in March as the take over of Iraq by the region’s leading Shia competitor (Iran).
Meanwhile and apart from the fact that the protests are essentially taking place in Shia areas, the Shia Marja has intervened for a number of reasons. Firstly, the protests that started in Basra in early July were largely in defiance of a stark warning by Ammar al-Hakim, on June 10, bluntly threatening that such protests would cross the red lines of the Governor Majid al-Nasrawi and the local council led by his bloc, ISC. He also accused protest organizers of playing into the hands of IS by destabilizing Basra.
Unsurprisingly, these unprecedented threats backfired but it was beyond doubt, the killing of a protester in the al-Madayna district of Basra on July 16 that served as a rallying call, ultimately precipitating the sweeping protests which engulfed southern Iraq. The accompanying slogans also became critical, specifically targeting Ammar al-Hakim and Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji, who is the leader of the al-Ahrar bloc. Thus, it became abundantly clear that both leaders were fully incapable of defusing the deepening crisis.
Secondly, with the leadership of both the ISC and al-Ahrar deeply stunned by the sheer ferocity of anger towards them, they swiftly responded by, not merely pointing the finger of blame at al-Maliki, but rather enticing their followers to target him in protests and verbal attacks. While politically beneficial for their blocs, doing so seriously threatened to plunge Shia areas into an escalating tit-for-tat PR campaign. Thirdly, with the al-Ahrar bloc and the ISC, to a larger extent, claiming to represent the Shia Marja despite his strenuous denials. Therefore, critically threatening to imperil the unwavering confidence of the Shia masses in the Marja.
Fourthly, the Marja was acutely aware that al-Abadi, who relied heavily on both the al-Ahrar bloc and the ISC to challenge (and ultimately torpedo) al-Maliki’s bid to become PM for a third term, lacked the power base to defy those blocs. Instead, the Marja sought to shore up al-Abadi’s position as a priority. Fifthly, to assume leadership of these increasingly growing, yet alarmingly vulnerable protests and to firmly block all attempts to highjack them. Finally, it was a golden opportunity for the Marja to starkly remind Shia politicians – especially those who have grown increasingly arrogant, corrupt, and defiant – that the Marja is not only the incontestable and reigning Shia bloc calling the shots, but also the bloc fully capable of pulling the plug on their political momentum.
The Marja’s decision, nevertheless, to throw his weight behind al-Abadi is fraught with risks, especially in the light of his government’s feckless performance and his feeble leadership on the political, economic, public services, and (perhaps above all) military fronts. His implacable determination to wholeheartedly embrace the U.S. strategy of actively sidelining the PMF has irrefutably handed IS its most remarkable victory in 2015: Seizing control of Ramadi, capital of Anbar provice.
Al-Abadi, at the behest of the U.S., defiantly refused to allow the PMF to defend the city, even when its defenses were teetering on the brink of total collapse. Yet, he quickly appealed to the PMF – on May 17, the same night Ramadi was overran by IS – not only to shore up the defenses of Baghdad but also to lead the efforts to wrest back Ramadi. Though while al-Abadi’s track record does not inspire much confidence, the Marja is in an unenviable position of having to back him up, given that neither an early elections nor replacing him through a vote of no-confidence are remotely viable options.
As the popular disenfranchisement with al-Abadi’s government intensified, the Marja deliberately distanced itself from the prime minister, fiercely rejecting numerous attempts by ministers and even leaders of the political blocs to meet up with al-Abadi. It was, however, on Jul 31, when the Marja publicly gave his ringing endorsement to the protests, prompting a dramatic surge in numbers,thereby, preparing the ground for the Marja’s spokesman Ahmed al-Safi, on Aug. 7, to present Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s own road map for comprehensive reform. The gesture decisively instructed al-Abadi to be more daring and more courageous in combating widespread corruption in his highly ineffective government. He also forcefully instructed al-Abadi to reduce excessive salaries and privileges of senior officials, halt appointing senior officials based on sectarian or ethnic basis, investigate old and new cases of corruption and name and shame political blocs sabotaging reform.
Al-Abadi promptly seized the Marja’s life-line, announcing, on Aug. 9, a seven-points plan including a number of key policies. Firstly, the plan abolished the three posts of Vice President, meaning the removal of not only al-Maliki (al-Abadi’s arch-rival, and is able to wield considerable power as al-Abadi’s boss in both the SoL bloc and Dawa Party), but also Ayad Alawi, an a former Iraqi parliamentary member, and former Speaker of Parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi. According to documents released by Wikileaks on June 22, both Alawi and Nujafi have been heavily supported politically and, even more shockingly, financially by Saudi Arabia’s intelligence ministry.
Secondly, scraping the three positions of deputy prime minister, essentially removing Bahaa Al-Araji, who is being investigated for alleged corruption. Thirdly, slashing the number of bodyguards for senior officials. Finally, establishing an independent committee to investigate all cases of corruption.
Given that none of the political blocs want to be seen defying the explicit will of the Marja, the plan was smoothly endorsed by al-Abadi’s cabinet and parliament. Yet, it is doubtless, however, that the political blocs would tenaciously hold on to their hard-fought for privileges, thwarting reform efforts every inch of the way. Of course, this raises the fundamental question: Has al-Abadi got what it takes to implement Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s anti-corruption dictates?
While the jury is still very much out, the very first signs are far from reassuring. Al-Abadi’s announcement on Aug. 16 of ostensibly shrinking his cabinet by a third is a stark violation of one of the central undertakings in his own seven-points plan. In reality, doing so only tightens Marja’s already formidable grip on all the major ministerial positions by failing to oust ministers who are also the top leaders of their own blocs.
Yet more ominously, it reflects what is, at best, a prime minister incapable of departing from his foundering tip-toeing approach, while at worst, a prime minister frantically striving to cover up his faltering and inherently weak leadership by the most brazen display of amateurish spin. No wonder that such a leadership is fervently embraced by a U.S. administration hell-bent on maintaining IS as a credible threat to Iraq and Syria, ensuring that their staunchest backers (Iran and Russia) are far too busy propping them up, rather than expanding their influence in the Middle East.
Zayd Alisa is a Middle East political analyst, writer, and human rights activist with an expertise in Iraqi affairs. He is also a frequent commentator on Iraq with numerous appearances in televised media as both guest speaker and in live debate.
[Photo courtesy of U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office]