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Iraq and the Shiite Internal Opposition

Shiites demonstrating in Iraq

Not just ISIS: the three open fronts of the Abadi government

In his televised speech to the nation in late December, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared: “If 2015 was the year of liberation (of Ramadi, Ed.), 2016 will be a year of important victories, which will put an end to the presence of Da’esh in Iraq and Mesopotamia… We are on the brink of liberating Mosul and this will be a fatal blow to De’esh,” the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.



As a matter of fact, the fight against ISIS is only one of several open fronts for Shiite Prime Minister Abadi, and is not even the most dangerous one. The Iraqi prime minister is weak, and under attack. His enemies are not just the black flag wielding jihadists, but his very own ministers in double-breasted suits, heads of the Shiite parties, the religious majority in power in Iraq. Considering the seriousness of the jihadist threat in the country and the absence of a shared alternative, the Shiite political movements do not put the government in crisis, but they also don’t allow Abadi to govern.



The Shiite militias supported by Iran


The current Iraqi government is engaged on three fronts: the military, the economy, and politics.



On the military front, the next objective is Mosul. For the Iraqi armed forces this will be a difficult task: they have to advance more than 200 kilometers into enemy territory and siege a large urban centre, which the Islamic State will ruthlessly defend, due to its political and economic value - it is the country’s second largest city and provides tax revenues and oil. Furthermore, government action is greatly restricted by the role of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shiite militias supported by Iran: they are a powerful weapon in the common fight against the Islamic State, but whose employment delegitimizes the Iraqi government. The al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias are progressively taking control of different areas of Iraq while simultaneously seeking to impose themselves as political players. One solution to the strengthening of militias outside the ranks of the army would be the merger of the different unofficial units into a single locally recruiting National Guard, but that would also mean conceding a role to the Sunni militias, against which many Shiite politicians are strongly opposed. In December, Abadi appears to have approved the recruitment of 40,000 Sunni units.



A second front is the economic one. The historically low oil prices do not help a country that derives 90 percent of its revenues from oil exports. Furthermore, corruption and inefficiency of the institutions have now become a problem to solve for the future of this nation at war, and the popular protests are widespread and ingrained. Iraq needs investments, starting from fundamental sectors like drinking water and energy. Cities such as Ramadi are to be rebuilt anew, while the rest of the country is still suffering the consequences of thirty years of war and embargo.



The third and perhaps most insidious front, is the political one. Here there are essentially three problems; the reconciliation and inclusion process of the Sunni component. Secondly the political and economic reforms, and the fight against corruption, and finally, foreign policy. Regarding the national reconciliation, the prime minister is committed to finding some sort of solution to readmit Sunnis inside the institutions of the Iraqi state, thus tearing them away from the gravitational pull and the coercive power of Da’esh. In his political program, at the time Abadi announced a national reconciliation project, whose cornerstones were two laws: that of the de-Ba’athification and that of the National Guard. The first would reopen the State institutions and political life to Sunnis, excluding only the most egregious cases of collusion with the deposed regime. The legal text approved in December was not, however, voted by the Sunni parties themselves - which hoped for a law in their favor - and this would indicate that the issue is not being resolved. With regards to the National Guard, the law has been blocked by the opposition of the Shiite parties, who want to maintain dominance on the ground with their militias. The only consolation for the Sunnis was the approval of amnesty for the hundreds imprisoned by the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for sectarian reasons.



A feudal system of control


Even the economic, political and anti-corruption reforms that Abadi has attempted to launch have been blocked. The bottom line is that the Iraqi parties have established a “feudal” system of control of ministries and institutions, which they use as instruments of power and a source of income. For example, in order to guarantee electoral consensus, the ministers have hired tens of thousands of workers, far beyond the necessary amount. Naturally, cutting the budget or reducing personnel would put the ministries on a collision course with the respective controlling party. Therefore, the party system’s opposition to the reforms is strong, and time again the Parliament has lost the majority or postponed the approval of specific laws. The parliamentary faction is also flanked by a growing public opposition, in response to the extremely unpopular reform proposals such as reducing wages and pensions in the public sector.



Among the first to want the fall of the Abadi government is his very own Da’wa party, within which names of his possible replacements have been circulating for some time now. The list includes names like that of his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, and the pro-Iran Ali al-Adeeb, one of the leading members of the Da’wa party, and a candidate for the position of prime minister in the past, or even Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Badr militias which were born in the 1980s in Iran, formed by Iraqi exiles and former prisoners.


What is worrisome is the fact that in November when Abadi met with the religious leaders in Najaf, ayatollah Ali Sistani - the most important Shiite religious figure in Iraq, who in the past has openly supported him - did not meet with him.



A final battleground is that of foreign policy. Today, the United States and Iran find themselves with a common enemy, the Islamic State; but the reality is that the relations between the two governments regarding Iraqi military and political matters remain very tense, which negatively influences Iraq’s political powers. Just consider the strong push from Washington for political inclusion of the Sunnis, opposed by the Shiite militias, openly backed by Tehran.