Ahmad Mousa/Demotix. All rights reserved.
One year after Haider Al Abadi took over the premiership and the US commenced airstrikes against ISIL or ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq - AIQ), Iraq is grappling with not only an increasingly menacing existential threat posed by ISIL, but also an intensifying wave of protests. Erupting in Basra—Iraq’s major port and above all where the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s oil exports stems from—the protests swiftly swept through southern provinces, eventually reaching the capital Baghdad.
The demonstrations were initially sparked by a brutal heat wave, which has been exacerbated by an indefensible chronic shortage in the electricity supply and by almost non-existent public services. They have dramatically expanded, however, forcefully calling for an all-out war on corruption and swift political reform.
These protests have sent shock waves across the Shi'a political blocs, largely because they are severely undermining their credibility and legitimacy with their Shi'a powerbase. The three biggest Shi'a political blocs, which have persistently been at the heart of all Shi'a-led governments since the US-led invasion in 2003, are the State of the Law (SoL), which is led by the Dawa party, and from which comes not only the incumbent prime minister, Abadi, but also his predecessors Nouri Al Maliki and Ibrahim Al Jaafari; Islamic Supreme Council (ISC) led by Ammar Al Hakim; and the Sadrist Al-Ahrar bloc.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising to see the top Shi'a cleric (marja), Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, swiftly scrambling to forestall these currently peaceful, yet perilously tense demonstrations from sliding inexorably into an all-out Shi'a vs. Shi'a confrontation. This would have disastrous implications for the on-going war against ISIL. After all, the thousands of Shi'a paramilitaries and volunteers who enthusiastically answered Al Sistani’s call to take up arms in June 2014, thereby forming the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), have undeniably eclipsed the Iraqi army in spearheading the counter-offensive—which has not only halted ISIL’s lightning advance towards Baghdad, but also clawed back control of highly strategic areas, such as Amirli, Jurf Al Sakar and Diyala province.
These resounding triumphs took place while the US stood idly by, adamantly refusing to back up the PMF. In the final stages of the offensive in Tikrit, however, the US launched airstrikes fearing that an emphatic victory by the PMF without any visible US participation would critically undermine its newly established influence and fragile presence in Iraq.
Apart from the fact that the protests are essentially taking place in Shi'a areas, Al Sistani has intervened for the following reasons: first, the protests that started in Basra in early July were largely in defiance of a stark warning by Ammar Al Hakim on 10 June, bluntly threatening that the protests would cross the red lines of Governor Majid Al Nasrawi and the ISC-led local council. He also accused protest organisers of playing into the hands of ISIL by destabilising Basra. Unsurprisingly, these unprecedented threats spectacularly backfired. But it was beyond doubt the killing of a protester in the Al Madayna district of Basra on 16 July that served as a rallying call, ultimately precipitating the spread of the protests into southern Iraq. The accompanying slogans also became scathingly critical, specifically targeting Ammar Al Hakim and Bahaa Al Araji, former deputy prime minister and ex-president of Al-Ahrar. Thus it became abundantly clear that they were incapable of defusing the deepening crisis.
Second, with the leadership of both the ISC and Al-Ahrar stunned by the sheer ferocity of the anger towards them, they swiftly responded by pointing the finger of blame at Maliki, and, far more ominously, inciting their followers to target him, thus seriously threatening to plunge Shi'a areas into an escalating tit-for-tat campaign.
Third, both blocs claim to represent Al Sistani despite his strenuous denials, critically threatening to imperil the unwavering confidence of the Shi'a masses in Al Sistani.
Fourth, Al Sistani was acutely aware that Abadi relied heavily on both Al-Ahrar and the ISC to challenge and ultimately torpedo Maliki’s bid for a third term as prime minister, but lacked the powerbase to defy or stand up to those blocs. Consequently, Al Sistani sought to shore up Abadi’s position as a priority.
Fifth, he intervened to assume leadership of these growing yet vulnerable protests and to firmly block all attempts to highjack them. Finally, it was a golden opportunity for Al Sistani to starkly remind Shi'a politicians—especially those who have grown increasingly arrogant, corrupt and defiant—that he is the one calling the shots, and fully capable of pulling the plug on them.
Al Sistani’s decision, nevertheless, to throw his weight behind Abadi is fraught with risks, especially in light of the feckless performance of Abadi’s government and his feeble leadership on the political, economic, public services and above all military fronts.
His determination to embrace the US strategy of actively side-lining the PMF—whose leading role in combating ISIL has been vehemently opposed by Saudi Arabia, under the pretext that it would pave the way for what Saud Al Faisal, former foreign minister, brazenly described on 5 March as “Iran’s takeover of Iraq”—has handed ISIL its most remarkable victory of 2015: seizing control of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province.
Abadi defiantly refused to allow the PMF to defend the city, even when its defences were teetering on the brink of total collapse, yet he quickly appealed to them on 17 May—the night Ramadi was overrun by ISIL—to shore up Baghdad’s defences and to lead the efforts to wrest back Ramadi. This track record does not inspire much confidence, but Al Sistani is in the unenviable position of having to back him up, given that neither early elections nor replacing him through a no-confidence vote are remotely viable options.
As popular disenfranchisement with Abadi’s government intensified, Al Sistani deliberately distanced himself from it, fiercely rejecting numerous attempts by ministers and even leaders of the political blocs to meet with him.
On 31 July, Al Sistani publicly gave his ringing endorsement to the protests, prompting a dramatic surge in numbers, and thereby preparing the ground for his spokesman, Ahmed Al Safi, to present Al Sistani’s own road map for comprehensive reform on 7 August.
This plan forcefully instructed Abadi to be more courageous in combating widespread corruption in his highly ineffective government, by striking with an iron fist anyone tampering with public money and by immediately routing incompetent senior officials, regardless of the strength of their backing. It also instructed Abadi to reduce the excessive salaries and privileges of senior officials, stop appointing senior officials based on sectarian or ethnic basis, investigate old and new cases of corruption, and name and shame political blocs sabotaging reform.
Abadi promptly seized this lifeline, announcing a seven-point plan on 9 August. One key point called for abolishing the three posts of vice president, meaning the removal of not only Maliki—who is Abadi’s arch rival and wields considerable power as Abadi’s boss in both the SoL bloc and Dawa Party—but also Ayad Alawi, ex-prime minister, and Osama Al Nujafi, ex-speaker of parliament, both of whom have been heavily supported by Saudi Arabia.
Other points include scrapping the three positions of deputy prime minister, essentially to remove Bahaa Al Araji, who is being investigated for alleged corruption; slashing the number of bodyguards for senior officials; and establishing an independent committee to investigate all cases of corruption. And given that none of the political blocs want to be seen defying the explicit will of the Marja, the plan was smoothly endorsed by Abadi’s cabinet and parliament.
Yet undoubtedly the political blocs will tenaciously hold on to their hard-won privileges, thwarting reform efforts every inch of the way. Of course this raises the fundamental question: has Abadi got what it takes to implement Al Sistani’s anti-corruption dictates? And while the jury is still very much out, the first signs are far from reassuring.
Abadi’s announcement on 16 August, of ostensibly shrinking his cabinet by a third, while in reality tightening his political bloc’s already formidable grip on all major ministerial positions, is in stark violation of his own seven-point plan. It reflects at best a prime minister incapable of departing from his foundering tip-toeing approach, and at worse, a prime minister frantically striving to cover up his faltering and inherently weak leadership with the most brazen display of amateurish spin.
No wonder such leadership is fervently embraced by a US administration hell-bent on maintaining ISIL as a credible threat to Iraq and Syria, ensuring that Iran and Russia are far too busy propping them up to expand their influence in the Middle East.