Iraq: The end of sectarian politics?

Iraq is heading toward a serious crossroads, warn Iraqi analysts.

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-sadr
For most Iraqis, the cabinet reshuffle is seen as the last hope to achieve the mission of fighting corruption in government offices [EPA]

As the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, struggles against a deadline set by parliament to put together a new non-party cabinet, Iraqi analysts say the current political crisis is the outcome of a culture of political compromise that offered only half-solutions to Iraq’s chronic problems.

“This is the result of the sectarian quota system and the legislature’s utter failure at addressing the core issues, including the rampant corruption within government offices and poor living conditions,” said political analyst Basem al-Sheikh.

On Saturday, hundreds of supporters of the Iraqi Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, stormed into the parliament building, forcing its speaker to adjourn the session amid warnings by Abadi about state failure. A move that analysts say is likely to undermine al-Sadr’s political standing.

“When al-Sadr allowed his supporters to storm the parliament, he lost his ability to be a key political player,” said Ali Taher al Hammood, a Baghdad University sociologist. While al-Sadr will continue to wield influence among his supporters, however, al-Hammood explained that “all political blocs in parliament will ally against him”.

READ MORE: What are the reasons behind the return of Muqtada al-Sadr?

Since last August, Abadi has come under mounting pressure as anti-government demonstrations have persisted in several cities across Iraq such as Basra, Baghdad, Nasriyah and Najaf over poor living conditions, including electricity cuts and water quality. Protesters have also called for tougher measures to fight the rampant corruption within government offices.

Abadi responded then by a proposal to overhaul the government bureaucracy, scrapping three vice presidential posts and the offices of three deputy prime ministers. The six posts under threat represented various political and sectarian blocs in the government.

The current crisis has two sides: While there are those who feel the pressing need to save the nation and get rid of corruption, on the other hand there are others who exploit this situation for their political interests.

by Hamed Al-Mutlaq, Iraqi MP

Abadi also promised to investigate corruption, reappoint all senior officials based on professional rather than sectarian standards, and reduce the number of security personnel protecting senior officials in order to cut down on waste.

Abadi said that “party and sectarian quotas” should be abolished, and the candidates chosen by a committee appointed by the prime minister.

Abadi’s proposal was welcomed by the various political parties and protesters who viewed the reform package as a first step to rid the country of the rampant corruption and put an end to the decade-long sectarian quota system instilled after the US invasion and occupation of Baghdad in 2003. 

Abadi’s reform package was backed by the cabinet and approved by parliament. He has since been criticised for failing to take decisive action. On February 9, Abadi called for a “radical cabinet reshuffle” to include professionals, technocrats and academics.

On February 27, Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr led one of the biggest protest rallies in Iraq’s modern history. Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad to demonstrate against corruption and the government’s backtracking on reform plans, as called by al-Sadr.

On March 28, Iraqi parliament issued an ultimatum for Abadi to present a new non-party cabinet to fight corruption or potentially face a no confidence vote. 

Abadi has also come under pressure from within his own party which has pushed back against the reshuffle, fearing it could weaken the political patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade.

Last week, Iraq’s parliament approved a partial cabinet reshuffle proposed by Abadi, bowing to mounting public pressure for reform, including mass protests led by al-Sadr.

WATCH: Is people-power emerging in Iraq?

By replacing ministers chosen on the basis of party affiliation or ethnic or sectarian identity, Abadi risks disturbing the delicate balance of Iraq’s governing system in place since the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003 which toppled President Saddam Hussein.

But for the majority of Iraqi protesters, the cabinet reshuffle is seen as the last hope to achieve the impossible mission of fighting corruption within government offices and save the failing economy. Iraq, a major OPEC oil exporter whose income comes almost exclusively from oil sales, has struggled to pay its bills amid the fall in global crude prices.

Iraq crisis deepens with storming of parliament

The 2016 budget projects a 24 trillion Iraqi dinar ($20.44bn) deficit financed largely by aid from international organisations such as the World Bank.  

Abadi’s reform package, if implemented, would aim to dismantle the country’s patronage system and root out corruption undermining the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

But is a non-sectarian system sustainable in Iraq today?

Hamed Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament, believes that political powers ought to put the Iraqi people’s interests first.

“The current crisis has two sides: While there are those who feel the pressing need to save the nation and get rid of corruption, on the other hand there are others who exploit this situation for their political interests.” 

Fadi Al-Shammari, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party, agrees that the political division came as a result of the competition between political agendas and leaders. But he, nonetheless, seemed optimistic. “The outcome of this crisis will be for the best of the political process and new democracy,” he told Al Jazeera. “We may see trans-sects political blocks and perhaps in the coming elections there might be mixed lists of candidates.”

While al-Hammood described the political crisis as an indicator of an inter-Shia power struggle, however, he added that change will not be crucial. “There might be a change in the scene, but it will not at all be a major change.”

Other analysts concur. “Any major shift in the political scene in Iraq does not seem possible,” said Iraqi commentator Walid al-Zubaidi. “Simply because it will mean that the current elite will lose all its privileges and will be at risk of judicial investigations, especially since many Iraqi politicians face corruption allegations.”

Source: Al Jazeera