Iraq’s new prime minister may succeed in forming a government, but he will have to operate within narrow bounds, writes Salah Nasrawi
With a constitutional deadline fast approaching, efforts to form a new government in Iraq have hit a snag amid rising sectarian tensions and a continued struggle for power. The impasse comes as government forces battle to slow Islamic State (IS) advances into Sunni-populated areas of the country.
The difficulties in creating a new government underscore the deep gulf between Iraq’s political groups. Ethno-sectarian conflicts and IS threats are tearing the war-ravaged nation apart more than 11 years after the US-led invasion.
On 11 August Iraq’s President Fouad Masoum nominated Shia politician Haider Al-Abadi as the new prime minister, replacing incumbent Nuri Al-Maliki, who agreed to step down after weeks of struggle to stay in office for a third term.
Al-Abadi has 30 days to form a new government before he can formally take office. The new, all-inclusive government will be tasked with ending Iraq’s political conflicts, putting an end to IS threats and trying to put the country back together.
His nomination was welcomed across Iraq, including by Sunnis and Kurds who called on Al-Abadi to form an inclusive government that would end Al-Maliki’s legacy of government failure. His divisive and authoritarian rule is seen as being largely responsible for the present quagmire.
US President Barack Obama, whose administration pressured Al-Maliki to step aside, has called Al-Abadi’s appointment a “promising step forward” and pledged assistance to his partnership government. Al-Abadi also won endorsement from Saudi Arabia and Iran, two Middle East rivals pitted against one another in Iraq.
Iraq’s political stalemate stems from the post-Saddam Hussein ethno-sectarian political system that effectively split parliament into three hostile fronts and created communal divisions.
The power-sharing formula orchestrated by the US occupation authority and empowering majority Muslim Shia and ethnic Kurds has infuriated the minority Arab Sunnis who ruled Iraq for 80 years, triggering a violent Sunni uprising to press for a return to the old system.
But although Al-Abadi has promised to form a partnership government, many Iraqis believe that the political challenges remain the same. The key point is how to provide the glue that will hold Iraq together by treating its divergent communities on equal terms.
Indeed, Al-Abadi’s efforts to form a national-unity government have already stumbled over Iraq’s many communal vested interests. The question of how to show the Sunnis and the Kurds that he is ready to break away from Al-Maliki’s divisive and authoritarian style of governance is at the centre of Al-Abadi’s problems in forming the new government.
Some Sunni members of Iraq’s parliament pulled out of the coalition talks this week after a grotesque attack on a Sunni mosque. Scores of Sunni worshipers were killed during a raid on a rural mosque in Diyalah, east of Baghdad, on Friday following an attempt to assassinate a local Shia leader.
The lawmakers said they were protesting against what they characterised as state-backed retribution against the Sunni minority in response to the IS-led insurgency that has seized huge swathes of the country since June.
Several Sunni groups have put tough conditions on their backing of the new government. The National Alliance, a Sunni bloc that has the allegiance of most Sunnis in the parliament, has listed a set of conditions for it to participate in the government, including annulling the de-Baathification law introduced after the US-led invasion.
Among other grievances, Sunnis want to see their inclusion in key ministries such as defence, the interior, and foreign affairs as well as the national security and intelligence departments.
They also want to see a set of measures for the Sunni provinces, such as halting military operations against insurgents and reactivating local police forces to carry out security duties.
An alliance of Sunni tribes opposed to Al-Maliki said in a statement that Al-Abadi would not bring the real change they wanted to see before they would put down their weapons. Some tribes insisted that they would not fight against IS insurgents unless they saw progress in their provinces.
Meanwhile, the country’s Kurds have also set conditions for their participation in the government. At the top of their demands is that the new government should not challenge the de facto annexation of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other territories captured after the IS thrust.
The Kurds are also demanding the return of eight months of state revenues withheld from them over a dispute on oil exports. In addition, they want the government to endorse independent oil exports from the Iraqi Kurdish region. They want Baghdad to fund their Peshmerga forces and supply them with weapons from the central government.
Kurdish negotiator and outgoing foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari was quoted by Al-Sharqiya television on Monday as saying that Al-Abadi must make written commitments to implement these demands within a specific time framework.
Zebari said the Kurdish delegation negotiating with the government would insist on guarantees from “Iraq’s friends” that the forthcoming government would implement the Kurdish demands.
Some Kurdish officials have threatened a referendum on independence in the Kurdish region if Al-Abadi does not accept these pre-conditions.
If Al-Abadi is not able to move swiftly in forming a national unity government, one reason will be that these Sunni and Kurdish conditions are beyond what he is able to accept.
Like Al-Maliki, Al-Abadi is haunted by the Shias’ traumatic past and the present-day atrocities by Sunni extremists. The Shias fear that pro-Saddam elements will return to power if they make concessions such as allowing former army officers back into key government, security and military posts.
Al-Abadi also cannot take the risk of releasing the tens of thousands of Sunnis who have been charged with terrorism. He will be reminded that the thousands of IS militants who have been butchering Shias, including their leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, are former detainees who were released by the Americans or people who have escaped from jail.
The IS-led seizure of territories has consolidated the opinions of hard-line Shia who are opposed to the inclusion of Baathists and Sunni insurgents in the government or giving them an amnesty.
These groups have been growing and becoming more ruthless, especially as a result of the larger role they have been playing with the security forces in combating the IS-led Sunni insurgency. Shia militias have also been intimidating or harassing Shias who do not agree with their extremist policies.
On Monday, Baghdad Shia resident Sana Talekani wrote on her Facebook page that armed men had killed her cousin because he was married to a Sunni woman. She said the men, presumably belonging to a Shia militia, sprayed her cousin with bullets from machine guns while he was walking to his home in a busy Baghdad neighbourhood.
The rise of the Shia militias, with their shadowy connections, highlights the challenge Al-Abadi will face from within the Shia community if he goes too far in accommodating Sunni insurgents in the government and the security forces.
There are also signs that Al-Maliki may be stirring up trouble for Al-Abadi and that he may exploit any leniency toward Sunni insurgents in order to decry threats to the Shias and use these to agitate the Shia street against Al-Abadi.
Last week Al-Maliki showed he was ready to play such a spoiler role when he called on Al-Abadi to reject any “preconditions” in his attempt to form a government. “Setting pre-conditions before the formation of the government will damage the political process,” Al-Maliki said in his weekly address to the nation.
Al-Abadi is also unlikely to give in to the Kurdish conditions. On Monday he told reporters that the problems with Kurdistan should be solved “according to the constitution,” a formula also used by Al-Maliki to avoid resolving outstanding problems with the Kurds.
Iraq’s lingering political crisis should be viewed in the context of its ethno-sectarian political system. The quota system, introduced to achieve consensus, has turned Iraq into a dysfunctional country ruled by a sectarian and power-greedy political class.
The problem is also one of leadership. Iraq’s challenges are diverse, and they need visionary and efficient leaders to tackle them. Iraq’s leadership has a record of failures, the roots of which can be traced to the past and lingering echoes of mistrust.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s political elite has failed to display the leadership qualities needed for transformation and reconciliation. Al-Abadi is no exception, regardless of his trumpeted, but untested, qualifications and his career in government and parliament in the post-Saddam era.
Iraq’s malaise, compounded by unabated communal strife, is largely due to such deep-seated problems. The country’s political elite has failed to fill its leadership role in the transitional period.
Al-Abadi, coming from the same ethnic and sectarian backgrounds as the rest of Iraq’s leaders, cannot be expected to display the skills and vision needed to pull Iraq out of the abyss.