Baghdad, Iraq – Bridging the gap between Iraq’s various political factions is the biggest challenge that will face the new Iraqi government in its battle against the Islamic State group, Iraqi lawmakers told Al Jazeera.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad at the start of a Middle East tour to rally support for the campaign against IS.
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Iraqi Prime minister Haidar al-Abbadi asked for international support to defeat ‘the cancer of IS’
Abbadi, who has received unprecedented international and regional support, including from rival regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, has faced pressure to form a government of national unity that includes all Iraqi political factions in order to join the war against the Islamic State (IS) group.
The IS took over the provinces of Nineveh in the north on June 10, as well as large parts of the Salahuldeen and Anbar provinces in central and western Iraq where daily fighting is taking place between IS fighters and the Iraqi army, backed by Shiite militia and volunteers including some Sunni tribes such as al-Jobour, abul Fahad, abul Thiabe and al-Jaghaifah tribes.
“The biggest challenge for Abbadi and all other blocs is fighting terrorism and liberating the areas controlled by IS. This is the priority now as our people in these areas have been captured by those criminals,” Salah al-Jobouri, a prominent Sunni lawmaker said.
“The first thing that we have to do now is to form the national guard troops, as it is unreasonable to leave our areas under the control of IS. Forming local armed forces was one of our main demands,” Jobouri added.
On Monday evening, Iraq’s parliament approved an inclusive government made up of members of the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi, whose governmental mandate is based on a political document agreed upon by all the political blocs. Abbadi’s government won the backing of 177 out of 189 lawmakers.
Lawmakers call Abbadi’s government the “government of the mightiest” because it includes many well known political figures, such as Ibrahiem al-Ja’afari, the Shiite head of the National Alliance bloc named as foreign minister; Adel Abdulmehdi, the Shiite former vice president appointed as oil minister and Rosh Nuri Shawier, a Kurdish former deputy prime minister who will become finance minister.
“The formation of [Abbadi’s] government reflects a vision… He [has made a call] to adopt the decentralised administration, to launch an administrative revolution, to separate political and administrative posts and to make use of services from the private sector,” Ibrahiem Bahr al-Uloum, a former Oil minister, currently an independent lawmaker, said. “These are good bases. If he succeeds to translate [them into reality], he will be able to achieve a lot,” al-Uloum added.
Abadi’s deputy prime ministers are Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd who served as foreign minister during the last three governments, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni Muslim who served as deputy prime minister in Nouri al-Maliki’s government, and Baha al-A’araji, a Shiite Islamist and head of the Sadrists bloc, led by the top Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, in the parliament.
The parliament also approved the appointment of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the position of vice president along with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and the ex-speaker of parliament Usama al-Nujaifi.
The new government was formed at a critical time after the Islamic State seized control over swaths of Iraq’s northern territory during the past three months and now poses a major threat to the autonomous Kurdish region. The IS fighters are backed by most of the Sunni tribes which felt marginalized and targeted by the former Nuri al-Maliki government.
The absence of a united Iraqi front to face the threat posed by IS has been a major challenge. Long-term disagreements between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the appropriate share in oil revenues, the Kurdish takeover of disputed areas such as Kirkuk as well as salaries of Kurdish Pashmerga troops, which have gone unpaid, have weakened both sides and hampered cooperation in addressing the IS threat.
Abbadi vowed to resolve outstanding issues between Sunni and Kurdish communities. He presented a political document which was agreed upon by all the political blocs in parliament. The agreement includes various time tables to resolve all outstanding issues ranging from one to six months.
According to the 18-point document, it aims at “moving forward with national reconciliation, issuing a general amnesty, modifying the Debaathification law [a law issued in 2005 banning all Ba’ath party members from engaging in politics] as well as modifying the anti terrorist laws during the first six months”.
One of the important points highlighted in the document is the Iraqi government strategy to fight IS. The document refers to the formation of ‘new local forces as well as national guard troops in Sunni provinces’ as part of the plan to fight IS. The key component of this force will be the local population itself who would be armed by the government and enjoy the backing of their local communities.
“The results of this [local fighters fighting IS], will be fast and effective as these troops will be guided by local commands who know their territory well and they [the new troops], will be backed by their own tribes and communities,” said Abdulwahid Tuama, an independent political analyst.
“The other important factor is that this policy will exclude the sectarian and ethnic factor which IS uses to incite Sunnis to fight alongside them against what they said are Shiite militias or Kurdish militias,” Tuama added.
Member of Iraq’s Kurdish community came under regional and international pressure to work alongside central government against IS whose fighters are no more than several kilometers from the Kurdish capital Irbil.
Abbadi told lawmakers on Monday that his government is committed to “resolve all the problems between the federal government and (KRG) according to the constitution and the principles of the partnership.”
However, Kurds, not content with what Abbadi offered them, have threatened to withdraw from the government after three months if he does not deliever on his promises.
“One of the urgent demands, for us, is equipping and funding the peshmerga as IS is only one kilometre away from the Kurdish area. If the government refused to give us weapons, IS will overrun the (Kurdish) region,” said a senior Kurdish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We have not received any guarantees. We want written and signed guarantees from Abbadi and his Shiite allies, stating that he will achieve our demands,” he added.