After weeks of rallies by his followers, influential cleric launches protest to demand sweeping changes by government.
On March 31, members of Iraq’s parliament gathered in the assembly building at the fortified Green Zone for an urgent matter. They were tasked with endorsing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s list of new ministers he was scheduled to present in keeping with a deadline set by the legislature earlier in the week.
The mood was tense. Powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters have besieged the Green Zone where the prime minister’s offices are located, had issued an ultimatum to Abadi to announce his reform plans and a new ministerial council by the end of the month.
Sadr also threatened to escalate the campaign in order to “uproot” corrupt and inefficient officials if the protesters’ demands were not met by the set deadline.
Overnight, tight security was imposed and hundreds of soldiers were deployed to police the Green Zone as Sadr followers blockaded its main entrances and vowed to remain there until Abadi concedes to their leader’s conditions.
The weeks before the parliament’s session, leaders of the Iraqi political factions failed to agree on a proposal by Abadi to form a new cabinet of technocrats as part of his reform package to meet pressing public demands after months of nationwide anti-corruption protests.
The government was stalemated as the country remained embroiled in a war to drive the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from towns they have been seizing since summer 2014.The two conflicts were made worse by a crushing economic crisis triggered by low oil prices.
When Abadi finally showed up at the assembly on Thursday afternoon he gave a sealed envelope containing the names of 16 ministerial candidates to parliament speaker Saleem Al-Jubouri following a speech to chamber.
“They were chosen on the basis of professionalism, competence, integrity and leadership ability,” Abadi said of his list of the proposed candidates.
Abadi said he will keep the defence and interior ministers in place for now owing to the country’s ongoing battle against the ISIL jihadist group.
Abadi also pledged to start reshuffling other top government jobs and lay off at least 100 senior managers. Abadi’s move showed easing tensions.
Sadr voiced support for the new cabinet, though not without conditions. He called off the sit-in but insisted that weekly demonstrations for reform will continue until parliament approves the new cabinet.
That said, it remains to be seen if reshuffling Abadi’s cabinet will end the impasse and make room for a lasting solution for Iraq’s chronic government crisis.
The lawmakers have now 10 days to agree on Abadi’s nominees. That is not a foregone conclusion, however. The issue is unlikely to pass without hard bargaining, and it could fall victim to factional politics.
The biggest hurdle for the reshuffle is the parliament. In order for Abadi to form a new government, his current ministers should offer their resignations.
If any minister in Abadi’s present cabinet refuses to resign, an impeachment by an absolute majority of members becomes necessary. At least two key cabinet members, Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zibari, have reportedly been dragging their feet.
Under Iraq’s constitution at least 165 members, or 51 percent of the legislature’s 328 members, have yet to endorse the deal. Serious objections could be a key hurdle.
Though Abadi did not disclose the names of his new ministers, a list leaked to the press showed that most of the candidates are not seen to be loyal to Iraq’s existing political blocs that dominate the parliament.
Skepticism about their professional skills as well as their political independence was also raised.
But the most serious sticking point remains the existing power-sharing formula introduced after the US invasion in 2003 which ousted the regime of Saddam Hussein and empowered both Shia and Kurds.
The rationale behind forming a government of qualified professionals is to get around the ethno-sectarian quota system in order to push reforms stalled by government’s inefficiency, corruption and power struggles.
This seems to be impossible as long as the power-sharing arrangements which only benefit the ruling ethnic and sectarian class remain in place.
To underscore this challenge, a Kurdish geologist, nominated to be Iraq’s new oil minister, turned down the offer a day after his name appeared on the list of Abadi’s candidates. He apparently did that under pressure from Kurdish parties.
Even before going to the parliament, Abadi received a high-profile snub from self-ruled Kurds. Kurdish lawmakers said they will not support a government formed without prior consultation with their leadership.
Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, who is seeking full statehood from Iraq, had threatened that his autonomous administration would consider the reshuffle as irrelevant.
There is increasing fear that Barzani wants to exploit the government crisis to further his independence agenda and hold a planned referendum for breaking away from Iraq.
Sunni blocs, strident critics of what they see as the exclusiveness of the post-Saddam political process, will most likely feel they stand to lose out. Some Sunni politicians have voiced concern that a non-political cabinet will increase their community’s marginalisation.
Perhaps the big winner in this game is Sadr himself, who has emerged with a competitive edge over other Shia leaders. By showing a striking ability to mobilise masses flooding the streets of Baghdad and other cities against the government, Sadr has proved to be Iraqi Shia’s most prominent political leader.
His drive for reform has apparently won a blessing from Iraq’s most prominent Shia spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has demanded that Abadi gets serious about tackling corruption after a wave of protests swept across Iraq last summer.
Many believed that Sadr would bow to Iran’s pressure, yet he succeeded to whither Tehran’s influence.
With his grass-roots Sadrist Movement and its powerful military wing, the Peace Brigades, Sadr has become the strongest single force for change in Iraq.
As for the deal to end Abadi’s cabinet crisis, it could only be enough to stop the government collapsing, at least until the next parliamentary elections due in 2018.
This explains why there was little sense of celebration on the streets, where the main feeling was exasperation that the compromise had come only after such a tortuous and tedious process.
The best solution for Iraq’s fundamental problems may be a complete overhaul of its dysfunctional governance system to give the country a long-term stability.
At the heart of Iraq’s impasse is the ethno-sectarian political system that was forged by the American occupation authority and gave rise to the ethno-sectarian oligarchies who want to keep the status quo.
Unless Iraq’s ruling elites drop their distorted communal and regional agendas for the sake of rebuilding their battered nation, Iraq will remain particularly vulnerable to recurrent turbulence rattling its fragile political system and its broken state.