Shia power struggle in Iraq
At the root of the Iraqi Shia’s troubles lie the competing ambitions of their leaders, writesSalah Nasrawi
The first thought that must have crossed the minds of many Iraqis when they learned about the fight that broke out between a Shia member of parliament and a Shia politician at a Baghdad television building was that the much-feared Shia power struggle had come to pass earlier than many had expected.
“This is a state of militias,” was a comment widely posted by Iraqis on social networks this week, referring to the surge in the number of Shia paramilitary groups in the country and the increasing militarisation of the Shia political factions and their meddling in both public life and state affairs.
The brawl began in the reception area of the Dijla TV station when MP Kadhim Al-Sayyadi of the State of Law bloc and Baligh Abu Galal, a spokesman of the Citizen’s Bloc, accidently ran into one another.
Both groups are within the Shia National Coalition that has been in control of the Iraqi government since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The brawl started when Abu Galal, scheduled to appear on an evening talk show, did not return the greetings of Al-Sayyadi when the later appeared in the reception area on his way out of the studio. The bickering that followed quickly escalated into a fight that turned into shooting.
Both Al-Sayyadi and Abu Galal have a long history of squabbling with other Shia politicians, sometimes inside parliament or on the air. In May, Al-Sayyadi was beaten up by Shia Sadrist Movement MPs during a debate to elect two ministers. A few months ago, Abu Galal was at the centre of a dispute with an influential Shia tribe that had accused him of slandering an MP belonging to the tribe.
Beneath the chaos looms a complex struggle between Shia leaders that reveals much about the country and the surprisingly opaque nature of power in Shia-led Iraq. On the surface, the Shia National Coalition is a broad grouping encompassing the country’s main Shia factions. Real power, however, rests with an inner circle of oligarchs.
The most recent, and probably the most daunting conflict, grew out of the reforms that Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi has promised to carry out in response to the widespread protests that have taken place since August against rampant government corruption and poor services and in favour of calls for change.
The struggle has also been fueled by the rise of the Shia militias that first arose after the US-led invasion to confront Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups and were reinvigorated following the seizure of swathes of Sunni-populated territory in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS) group, threatening Baghdad and Shia-dominated central and southern Iraq.
Al-Abadi’s reforms, though too meagre to matter, have been met with resistance by the Shia oligarchs who dominate the government and parliament. Last month, the parliament withdrew its support for Al-Abadi’s reform package, accusing the prime minister of overstepping his powers.
Many of Al-Abadi’s reforms, such as scrapping top government posts, target Shia politicians accused by protesters of corruption, incompetence and negligence. Among those whose jobs have been axed is Al-Abadi’s predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki who has the post of vice-president in Al-Abadi’s administration.
Some of the measures introduced by Al-Abadi, including cuts to the hefty benefits received by MPs and senior officials that have been key demands of the protesters, have been challenged by Shia politicians who use their positions to fill their pockets through endemic corruption.
Four months after promising the reforms, Al-Abadi is still battling opposition that threatens his authority. Last month, Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was again declared off limits a few days after Al-Abadi said he would open it to the public. Lifting restrictions on the 10 square km area has been a major demand of the protesters.
But the emergence of the Shia militias remains the most serious challenge to Al-Abadi. The Iran-backed paramilitary forces that have officially become part of Iraq’s armed forces as the Hashid Al-Sha’bi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), are quickly moving to the centre stage of Iraq’s politics and becoming a threat to Al-Abadi’s authority.
Last month, PMF leaders pressed the parliament to send the draft 2016 budget back to the government, demanding increases in funding for their units which they said was not sufficient to allow them to fight IS.
They leaders have also been pushing for increases in the numbers of the Forces, which are now believed to include some 120,000 fighters and aspire to play a larger role in the country’s domestic security.
Al-Abadi seems to be under the hammer of his fellow Shia politicians, who are taking advantage of Iraq’s troubles to cash in on his faltering efforts at curbing corruption, improving government efficiency and taking down IS militants.
The future of Al-Abadi’s government is currently the most discussed topic in Iraq. In recent weeks, there have been frequent reports in the Iraqi media about efforts by Al-Abadi’s opponents to call for a no-confidence vote in his government in parliament.
Other reports have suggested that the beleaguered prime minister has lost the support of Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has been backing Al-Abadi’s reforms. During a visit to Najaf, the seat of Al-Sistani’s authority, last month, Al-Abadi did not meet the cleric, a sign that Al-Sistani is probably discontented with the slow pace of reforms.
Opposition to Al-Abadi is also growing within his own Dawa Party, and Party leader Al-Maliki, who fought to stay in office and prevent Al-Abadi from taking over following last year’s elections, is widely believed to be working to overthrow Al-Abadi.
In a stunning remark, the head of the Party’s bloc in parliament, Ali Adeeb, told the Washington Post last week that Al-Abadi was perceived to be “illegitimate.” The statement reflects the deep divisions within the Dawa Party, which has shelved a conference planned this month to elect a new leadership and review the stances taken by Al-Abadi.
After 13 years in power following their rise in US-occupied Iraq, the Shia religious parties are sinking into ever-deeper disarray. Their corrupt and power-greedy leaders are sacrificing competence and unity in the face of the country’s political chaos.
Their maneuvering to block the badly needed reforms, insistence on clinging onto power, and in particular their fierce competition for power and resources have led them to be at war with themselves.
Worse still, the increasing role played by the militias and the militarisation of the Shia groups could drive the country into a political showdown. The prospect of an internecine Shia war looks steadily more alarming and its possible impact on Iraq’s national politics is growing.
On Saturday, Al-Abadi made a passionate appeal to his rivals to abandon a “competition which is aimed at finding fault with others”. He urged them “to belong to the country and not to their political affiliations”.
As if to test the will of his opponents and disperse perceptions about his own weakness, Al-Abadi also trumpeted his achievements in terms of reform and vowed to continue implementing his anti-corruption programme.
Both assertions, however, are now looking rather doubtful.
Al-Abadi may stay in office until the end of his term in 2018, thanks to the complicated political procedures that will be needed to find a replacement. But he will be a lame duck at the mercy of a conglomerate of Shia oligarchs and militia leaders whose agenda is to keep the government under their control.