North Africa, West Asia

Inside Baghdad: the current state of play

The deal over cabinet nominations by PM Abadi and Sadr conclude months of intensifying protest in Baghdad’s famous Tahrir Square, demanding the reform of an ethno-sectarian political quota system.

Mehdi Al-Katib
5 April 2016

Sadr City, Baghdad, July 2005. Wikicommons/ CPT photo. Some rights reserved.The weeks to come will see Iraq-watchers bracing themselves while the ever-unpredictable political circus of Baghdad politics plays out. Iraq's parliament is out of session until Sunday, after Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi presented his new fourteen nominations for his sixteen-member technocratic cabinet last Thursday. The objective of this list of nominations is to rid the governing cabinet of vested interests; a streamlined technocratic cabinet was seen as the substitute solution.

Parliament will have a total of ten days to vote on Abadi's nominations this coming Sunday. This decisive move, which caused political upheaval in all of Iraq’s politics blocs, has been made in the face of rampant corruption. Abadi now faces a dangerous battle with an Iraqi political elite that deploys government resources to strengthen their patronage networks. They fear anti-corruption measures will weaken their influence. 

PM Abadi has already faced a political backlash for his proposed controversial cabinet reshuffle. Recently re-elected head of the influential Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Ammar al-Hakim, has demanded, “if we have a totally technocratic cabinet, then PM Abadi must be a non-partisan technocrat or PM Abadi must go”.

The fourteen-minister list for Parliament was hand-picked by PM Abadi “on the basis of professionalism, competence, integrity and leadership ability” (original list below) after significant pressure on him from the Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (previously named Iraq’s most dangerous man) to select nominees unaffiliated to political parties. Other than ex-Finance Minister Ali Allawi and supposed heir to Iraq’s monarchy, Sharif bin Ali, the names on the list are all new faces to the cabinet.

This non-partisan list was certainly a result of Abadi's negotiations behind closed doors beginning with Sadr, suggesting that Sadr is serious about reinforcing his new image as a man of the people. Last Thursday, Sadr called Abadi's move "courageous", told protestors to call off the sit-in which he had initiated on Sunday March 27 but to continue their weekly Friday protests. Finally, he publicly suggested to party leaders that if parliament doesn't approve the nominations, the Sadrists will topple government including Abadi himself (emphasized by Sadr’s use of the Arabic phrase Sheli’ w Geli’, meaning to ‘uproot’).

Frustration of the Iraqi street

Abadi's attempt to establish a technocratic cabinet comes after pent-up frustration with the mass-scale corruption of the governing elite on the part of the Iraqi street. Dissatisfaction with corruption has mobilised thousands of Iraqis to flood the streets for months on end, with protesters numbering over 100,000 at times. Video evidence has emerged showing an audience at Baghdad’s Al Rasheed theatre chanting anti-government slogans at MPs who were present until MP Shurouq al-Abaychi was kicked out. Some have quoted a sum of $300 billion as having gone missing from government coffers since 2003.

Iraq is in the bottom ten in Transparency International's Corruption Index, holding the position of 161 out of 168 countries. Bribes and kickbacks have become normal practise in the political and social structures around jobs and permits; yet extremely few cases have been investigated. Last Saturday, Abadi called for investigation into bribery and kickbacks related to state oil deals after Australia’s Fairfax Media and Huffington Post published a report alleging senior Iraqi Government figures were involved, including the current Minister of Education Hussain al-Shahrestani.

The deal over the proposed cabinet nominations by PM Abadi and Sadr brought to a climax almost nine months of intensifying protests in Baghdad’s famous Tahrir Square

The deal over the proposed cabinet nominations by PM Abadi and Sadr brought to a climax almost nine months of intensifying protests in Baghdad’s famous Tahrir Square, where government was called upon to take urgent action to clamp down on corruption, appoint Ministers on a meritocratic basis and reform the ethno-sectarian political quota system.

Baghdad’s corridors of power

Abadi's move is clearly an attempt to kill off the partisan and elite nature of Iraqi politics. The Iraqi political establishment is not satisfied with how Abadi has managed the country. One of the main complaints levelled against PM Abadi is that he previously lost many opportunities to push through reforms despite being one of the only post-2003 Iraqi leaders that had significant regional, international and domestic support.

A government official I spoke to attributed Abadi’s inability to capitalise on his widespread support to his hesitant and indecisive personality; although his cabinet nominations list may suggest otherwise, that he can make tough decisions when needed. 

Iraq’s political crisis has seen several ministers resign in the run up to PM Abadi’s technocratic cabinet reshuffle nominations. Prior to the publicity storm surrounding this cabinet reshuffle, a private secretary to a current minister told me that several ministers found it problematic that Abadi was considering removing political heavyweights who are major movers and shakers on his policies.

Pre-existing frustration with Abadi and the protests combined to prompt ministers such as Oil Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi to resign ahead of the cabinet reshuffle. Transport Minister Baqir al-Zubeidi and Youth & Sports Minister Abdul Hussein Abtan handed in their letters of resignation on 22 February. Ministerial resignations seem to be political moves to apply pressure on Abadi to take these figures more seriously. It seems that these resignations backfired. Instead, Abadi has moved  to rid the new cabinet of the whole bunch.

Government members expected that Abadi would go into parliament on Thursday and present two options; either the full list of original ministers or a new list of nine technocrats. The sixteen-member cabinet with fourteen declared nominations took everyone by surprise - an entirely unexpected move, especially the writing off of three key figures by Abadi.

Several ministries were merged, such as the ministry of finance with the ministry of planning as well as the ministry of transport with the communications ministry. Almost all expected Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Higher Education Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to stay in office. The removal of these heavyweights will prove challenging for Abadi. The removal of Jaafari as FM was less surprising considering the history of internal friction between him and Abadi.

A Kurdistan Regional Government official informed me that the President of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, was not happy with the proposed changes because the two Kurdish names on Abadi's list are relatively independent. The Kurds want a share of twenty percent of representation in Iraq’s cabinet. But Zebari, a heavyweight in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (one of the largest groups in the Kurdish alliance coalition) believes Oil Minister nominee Nizar Saleem Numan will not represent the Kurdistan bloc in the Iraqi government, since Numan is a relatively neutral figure, with no strong ties to the Kurdistan Regional Government political parties. Last Sunday, Numan had his house surrounded and was forced to withdraw as Oil Minister nominee according to Sajad Jiyad from the Bayan Center for Planning and Studies.

The next six days will tell us how this proposal has been taken and how it will fare in the run-up to Sunday when parliament will be in session again to vote on Abadi's proposal.

The protests: a pan-Iraqi movement?

Last Thursday, Sadr ended the two week sit-in in front of the Green Zone (officially the International Zone) and left for Najaf in a fleet of 24 armoured vehicles. The sit-in was an escalation by Sadrists of the Baghdad protest movement. The protests began last summer as a relatively secular and nationalist movement yet the numbers began to fluctuate and decrease towards the end of 2015.

When Sadr called for Abadi to implement a technocratic government on 13 February he reinvigorated the Iraqi street to continue taking to the streets expressing their dissatisfaction with state corruption. Encouraged by the huge turnout, many independents, Sunnis, Kurds, Shias and secular Iraqis attended the revived protests; it would be reductive to portray the protestors as homogenously Sadrist.

In previous weeks the anti-corruption protests were widespread; with reported protests at Samawah University, small protests in Kirkuk and Kurdish Sulaymaniyah around October 2015 and February 2016. Almost every major Shia Arab city has also had people hitting the streets and calling for reform, from Baghdad to Kut, Hilla, Karbala, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Amarah, Samawah, Nasriyah and Basra.

Without a doubt, Sadr's ability to activate masses of the Shia population has caused a slant in the ethno-sectarian composition of what could be a pan-Iraqi social issue where Kurds, Sunnis and Shias have shared grievances. This is indicative of the lack of strong character-based populist leadership amongst non-Sadrist Iraqi factions, whether we look at the Islamic Dawa party, ISCI, Sunnis or Kurds. The Sunni bloc and Kurds are usually players in these processes, but the past week's crisis was a largely Sadrist-inspired affair.

The rebranding of Moqtada al-Sadr

Sadr has the capacity to garner huge popular support for the purpose of political change and therefore has to be taken seriously. It was reported that crowds of over 100,000 Iraqis protested in Baghdad alone. This figure almost doubled when Sadr addressed the crowds. Sadr’s populist pressure and cabinet proposals have been used as leverage for Abadi riding on the coattails of legitimate street protests to reshuffle the cabinet.

Abadi could also minimise internal threats in his own al-Dawa party, such as his rivalry with ex-PM Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has managed to usurp the Islamic Dawa Party from underneath Abadi’s feet and influences many of the party members. Abadi has more  legitimacy over his predecessors when it comes to clamping down on government corruption, and could be seeking to utilise this window of opportunity before the country descends further into a downward spiral of chaos.

Sadr used the popular movement to prompt Abadi to take impactful action which has previously been lacking. He called the fortified Green Zone a "bastion of support for corruption", urging anti-corruption protesters to turn up in numbers outside the Green Zone and Tahrir Square. Sadr's supporters cut through the barbed wire into the Green Zone with the guards ironically, yet unsurprisingly, aiding them. In fact, one of the generals at the gates kissed Sadr’s hand on his way in. After Abadi missed Sadr's ultimatum to propose a cabinet on the Saturday March 26 deadline, Sadr moved into the Green Zone and set up camp in protest. This became Sadr's base for all the negotiations and public speeches.

Sadr has re-entered the public limelight in a bid to rebrand himself from militia leader to a non-partisan Iraqi nationalist grass roots leader. The fact that (mainly pro-Sadr) protesters in Baghdad brandished Iraq flags as opposed to Shia Islamic symbols could be symptomatic of this rebranded public image. He is attempting to fill the shoes of his father by posing as a leader of the Iraqi masses and the poor. Sadr’s bloc also holds 34 seats in Parliament, while trying to represent anti-government voices and so he has the advantage of being both an insider and outsider in Iraq’s political affairs.

It is important to note that members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s now dismantled militia, the Mahdi army, frequently carried out sectarian atrocities especially against Sunni civilians from 2006-2007. Some doubt Sadr’s renewed image as a nationalist figure that can represent Iraqi Sunnis as well as Shias, and it certainly will take a lot of effort on the part of Sadr to regain the trust of Sunni Muslims in Iraq. However, a recent poll by the National Democratic Institution suggests that Iraqi tribal leaders believe Muqtada al-Sadr to be a unifying figure, with 54% believing he can unite Iraq, compared to Abadi’s 48%.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that no political party in Iraq would dare clash with Muqtada al-Sadr now, in the current climate and with his powerful street politics they wouldn’t stand a chance. 

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that no political party in Iraq would dare clash with Muqtada al-Sadr now. In the current climate and with his powerful street politics they wouldn’t stand a chance. The fiery cleric is having more impact on Iraq’s political scene than any other single individual.

What will happen next?

Considering the non-partisan nature of Abadi's nominations to parliament this could help raise Sadr's popularity, making other blocs feel threatened. Whether or not Sadr will use this leverage to pressure Abadi to implement genuine change is to be seen in the upcoming negotiations. Considering Abadi's reputation for indecision amongst government insiders, probably nothing will be settled soon. Anything could happen.

A senior negotiator informed me he wouldn’t be surprised if the ten day deadline for the parliament vote would be reannounced as ten working days, the play on words used to buy more time as political blocs exert huge pressure on Abadi to scrap his cabinet list.

Just yesterday, US representatives Ed Royce and Lois Frankel gave out reassuring noises to the effect that Abadi’s position as PM is secured. Throughout the negotiations Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS, Obama's man in Baghdad, has met with PM Abadi to endorse reforms, advise that Abadi cooperates more with Iraq's political factions and reassure Abadi that there is no possibility of him losing his position as Prime Minister. But some believe otherwise. Sadr has indirectly threatened to rid Iraq of the government if parliament does not approve the proposed cabinet reshuffle. And a senior government official suggested to me that if the crisis gets serious enough, Abadi could be ousted.

There are few things certain, but it is clear that Baghdad is as stuck as ever in the world of partisan politics. But the implementation of the proposed cabinet could put an end to this fragmented Iraqi polity. Abadi and Sadr’s decisions seem to be in sync thanks to some form of  indirect communication. Last Thursday, one must conclude, was a political win for Abadi and Sadr. Should half of the proposed cabinet reshuffle list go through, Sadr and Abadi have played their cards very well.

A private source in Baghdad who has shared some of the current discussions behind closed doors, says that each political bloc in this ethno-sectarian quota system has been told to suggest three names for each of the ministries they may hold. Senior negotiators close to Abadi are likely to settle on having three Kurds, four Sunnis and seven Shias for the renewed fourteen-member list.

Considering that the list of names were leaked, it is likely that PM Abadi issued the proposals list of fourteen names of non-party ministers in an attempt to obtain an equilibrium whereby seven or eight of cabinet members are non-partisan. Abadi had to either play fully into the hands of a partisan distribution of cabinet positions or clean the whole cabinet of potential ministers loyal to a party. Quite what will materialize is unsure. This is the nature of Baghdad’s politics; only time will tell. 

Prime Minister Abadi’s ministerial nominations on Thursday March 31, 2016

Ala Dashir - Minister of Electricity
Ali Allawi - Minister of Finance
Ali Jabouri - Minister of Education
Ali Mubarak - Minister of Health
Aqil Yousif - Minister of Youth and Culture
Hassan Janabi - Minister of Oil and Water Resources
Hoshiyar Amin - Minister of Municipality and Reconstruction
Mohammed Nasrollah - Minister of Justice
Nizar Saleem Numan - Minister of Oil (withdrew nomination)
Sharif Ali ibn Ali - Minister of Foreign Affairs
Wafa Mahdawi - Minister of Immigration and Displacement
Yousif Assadi - Minister of Transportation (withdrew nomination)
Mohammed Al-Ghabban – Minister of Interior (current Minister)
Khaled al-Obaidi – Minister of Defence (current Minister)

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