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HomeMiddle EastIraq’s Premier, Facing Protests, Proposes Government Overhaul

Iraq’s Premier, Facing Protests, Proposes Government Overhaul

A demonstration on Sunday in Baghdad to show support for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after he proposed government reforms.
August 9, 2015

BAGHDAD — Facing widespread protests against government corruption and poor services as well as a crucial call for change from the country’s top Shiite cleric, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday proposed to radically reshape the dysfunctional political system of Iraq that has been entrenched since the American invasion in 2003.

The proposals, which came as the war against Islamic State militants has stalled in western Anbar Province, were wide ranging and included a new corruption inquiry and eliminating what has been a hallmark of the American-imposed system: sectarian and party quotas in the appointment of top officials. Dramatically, Mr. Abadi also vowed to eliminate the three vice presidency positions, largely ceremonial jobs that come with expensive perks.

Those jobs are held by three figures that have dominated Iraqi politics since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime: the former prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; Ayad Allawi, a Shiite whose Sunni-dominated bloc won the most seats in national elections in 2010; and Osama al-Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni leader.

“We are witnessing the end of the post-2003 Iraq,” said Maria Fantappie, the Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group.

With the backing of the Iraqi street — protesters gathered in Baghdad on Sunday to support Mr. Abadi — and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric who holds enormous sway over the country’s Shiite masses, Mr. Abadi, in swift fashion, shifted the narrative that had grown around him as a weak and ineffectual, although well-meaning, leader.

Mr. Abadi became prime minister last year after calls by the international community for a more inclusive leader to replace Mr. Maliki in the face of the threat by the Islamic State, the militant group that seized on the resentments of the Sunni community to capture much of Iraq’s north and west.

Mr. Abadi’s proposals were greeted with statements of support across the political spectrum, including from Mr. Maliki and Mr. Nujaifi, a reflection of the mandate Mr. Abadi has been given from both the demonstrators and Mr. Sistani, whose representative called for change in an important sermon on Friday. The reform plan was immediately approved Sunday afternoon by Mr. Abadi’s cabinet, but some of the measures, including the elimination of the vice presidencies, need to be approved by Parliament, which is scheduled to vote on the proposals on Tuesday.

“It’s the boldest we have ever seen Abadi act,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraq expert and senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, located in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. “He had not been decisive up to this point.”

The protests, which began in recent weeks amid to the searing heat of Iraq’s summer — temperatures have consistently been above 120 degrees Fahrenheit — and the lack of electricity to power air-conditioners, grew into a wide-scale rebuke of corruption and an ineffective political system.

Ms. Fantappie, who recently visited Iraq, said she felt here a palpable sense of grievance among the public. “There is a really strong and growing sentiment of mistrust among the Iraqi public against the political class,” she said.

The Shiite religious leaders in the holy city of Najaf quickly backed the protest movement, which seemed to emerge from a grass-roots effort rather than a political party, forcing Mr. Abadi to act.

“After putting the trust in God and responding to the faithful calls of the marjaiya, which has drawn clear lines to activate political and administrative reforms, and to respect our beloved people’s will in achieving their legitimate demands, I submit these procedures before the cabinet,” Mr. Abadi said on Sunday in a written statement, referring to the clerics in Najaf.

With Iraq facing a financial crisis as oil prices drop, Mr. Abadi also said he would drastically eliminate government jobs and some ministries, eliminate three deputy prime minister positions as well as the vice presidential posts and reduce the perks of politicians, including the large and expensive security details that political leaders have long felt entitled to. The proposal goes to the heart of grievances expressed in peaceful rallies in Baghdad and other cities in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq.

In sum, Mr. Abadi’s seven points of reform, which he released on Facebook and his official website on Sunday and included reopening corruption cases against top officials, seemed to transcend the particulars and represent a wide statement of rebuke against the entire political system that has taken root since the American invasion. Notably, Mr. Abadi pushed for the elimination of one of the system’s hallmarks: the quotas used in the selection of top officials.

In acting so decisively, Mr. Abadi strengthened his position in Iraq’s political scene, but analysts note that his government is only one of the country’s power centers. The other is an assortment of Shiite militias and their leaders, including Hadi al-Ameri, who leads the Badr Organization and has close ties to Iran. These groups have proven far more effective in fighting the Islamic State than the army that Mr. Abadi commands, and they have enjoyed immense popularity among the Iraqi public.

Mr. Ali said that in eliminating so many government jobs, including that of the Sunni vice president, and promising to abolish sectarian quotas, Mr. Abadi risks further marginalizing Iraq’s Sunni minority, whose disenchantment with the policies of Mr. Maliki’s government played a critical role in the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. For now, though, that risk has been overshadowed by the risk of doing nothing in the face of public unrest and the calls from the Shiite religious leaders, who hold sway over Iraq’s Shiite majority.

Crucially, Mr. Nujaifi and Salim al-Jubouri, the Sunni speaker of Parliament, said they supported the reforms. Still, much of Iraq’s Sunni population lives in territory controlled by the Islamic State, with little connection to politicians in Baghdad.

With the fight against the Islamic State, Mr. Ali said, it will be crucial to “convince Sunnis that this in their interest.” He added, “These are revolutionary steps for the Iraqi political system.”

Another open question is how Mr. Maliki, who fought to the end last year to keep his position and has worked behind the scenes to undermine Mr. Abadi in a bid to return to power, will react if he is stripped of his perks, particularly his ample security detail. While he has publicly backed the reforms, many people point to the support he still enjoys within the Dawa Party, the Islamic party that Mr. Abadi is also a member of, and say he will not go quietly.

“Even if he is removed, he won’t be out of the picture,” Mr. Ali said.

Still, the scenes of peaceful protests followed now by meaningful gestures of reform have given many hope that political change could finally upend more than a decade of corruption, violence and ineffectual government.

How Mr. Abadi’s government handled the protests — by embracing them rather than facing them down with violent police action as Mr. Maliki’s government did in the past — was in itself a statement that Mr. Abadi is trying to be a different leader than Iraqis are accustomed to.

At Friday evening’s outsized protest in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, some police officers and soldiers put flowers in the muzzles of their rifles.

“We put roses instead of bullets to reflect our intentions for the people,” said one police officer, who only gave his first name, Baha. “This is how we receive the protesters, who are calling for their rights and my rights at the same time.”

Omar al-Jawoshy reported from Baghdad and Tim Arango from Istanbul; Falih Hassan and Ahmed Salah contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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(via NY Times)