Is Abadi’s “Good Faith” Enough to Reform Iraq?

August 13, 2015
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

Demonstrators chant in support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in the poster, during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Iraq’s fight against ISIS has dominated headlines for the last several months, but in recent weeks Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest something far more basic and essential to daily life: electricity.

Amid soaring temperatures, thousands of people have protested over the past six weeks in the streets of Baghdad, Basra and other Iraqi cities over frequent power cuts, mismanagement of essential services and government incompetence and corruption. Last week, they won the backing of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, lending more weight to the protests.

On Sunday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded to the demonstrations with a package of political reforms aimed at tackling government inefficiency and waste, while reducing the influence of sectarianism that has long plagued politics in the country.

The reforms call for eliminating six high-profile positions from Abadi’s government — three deputy prime ministers and three vice presidents, including his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. The proposal would reduce the personal security details for senior officials, reopen cases of corruption, remove sectarian quotas from consideration when filling senior government posts, and combine government ministries to increase efficiency and accountability.

The proposal comes at a crucial juncture for him. When Abadi took office nearly one year ago, Iraq was in a state of political crisis. Maliki, who was widely criticized for his authoritarian and sectarian politics, had refused to step down. He was also blamed for helping to create the conditions that would allow ISIS to flourish and seize major Iraqi cities.

Today, Abadi has managed to change the tone of government left behind by Maliki. He’s made transparency more of a priority, and been more willing to engage with his former colleagues in parliament.

That’s won him support, including the approval of more than 70 percent of Iraqis in a Gallup poll from March. But experts say he has yet to address many of the major reforms that Iraq needs — national reconciliation, overhauling the economic and political structures, power sharing among Iraq’s communities, and basic infrastructure repairs.

“One year on, everyone who knows Abadi likes him personally, and everyone believes in his good faith,” Zaid Al-Ali, an Iraqi attorney and author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future,” told FRONTLINE. “But he’s got little to show for it. I don’t think that’s necessarily his fault. I think there are very few people who could have done a better job, simply because the constitutional system of governance, the entire legislative framework is rigged against any type of reform.”

Among his more symbolic accomplishments, Abadi managed to reach an agreement on oil with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq last year, that would allow Iraqi Kurdistan to export 550,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for payments of more than $1 billion a month from Baghdad. Even though the Kurds later decided to pump their oil directly through Turkey, the agreement was “the first formal gesture that this was a different cabinet from Maliki’s cabinet,” said Randa Slim, a director at the Middle East Institute. It signaled that Abadi’s government was “looking at negotiation as a means to resolve political differences.”

Abadi’s cabinet also approved a draft law earlier this year that would create a national guard, a measure meant to soothe Sunni grievances about Shiite security forces policing Sunni provinces. The measure, however, remains stuck in parliament.

This week’s reform plan could face a similar outcome. On Tuesday, lawmakers voted unanimously in favor of the proposal, but experts agree that only time will tell if Abadi is able to achieve any real reforms.

“In Iraq, nothing matters until it actually happens,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy. “The mere fact that parliament has passed this law is meaningless. We now have to see whether Abadi is able to actually make this stuff happen.”

“All Iraqi politicians and members of parliament claim to be in favor of reform,” Al-Ali said, “… but of course they all engage in corruption. They’ll all vote in favor, but when it comes to implementing the plan, they’re going to put up obstacles. And that’s not new, that’s something that’s been happening for the past 10 years.”

In addition to opposition from a reluctant parliament, Slim said Abadi is likely to face opposition from his own political party — the Dawa party — which has been in power since 2003, “because they are the ones who stand to lose the most.” And it remains unclear whether Abadi’s reform agenda will have the support of the Sunni leadership, Shiite  militias and stakeholders next door in Iran.

“If he cannot deliver on these reforms, that will weaken him more in terms of his credibility in the eyes of all Iraqis — Sunni, Shiite and Kurd,” Slim said.

While Abadi’s reform agenda is politically ambitious and risky, experts pointed out that it fails to touch upon many of the other deep-seated issues that have fueled this summer’s mass demonstrations across Iraq.

“The issue is that people in their daily lives get abused by the police, get abused by the judges. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have access to adequate health care,” Al-Ali said. “Their problem is not that there are three vice presidents. That’s not the issue.”

Iraq has ranked within the top 10 most corrupt countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for the last three years. Decades of war and sanctions left behind a crumbling infrastructure. Iraqis rely on generators to try and fill the gap left by frequent power outages. Electricity cuts this summer reportedly stuck Iraqis with only a few hours of power provided by the government, in 120 degree weather.

Meanwhile, the sectarian forces that were unleashed in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq were never truly resolved. No national reconciliation ever took place, and without it, Slim warned that “Iraq will be prone to many threats that are rooted in feelings of marginalization and victimization by one group or another.”

In the midst of all these long-standing problems, the Iraqi government’s fight to retake territory from the self-proclaimed Islamic State drags on. Iraq has continued to rely on Shiite militias — legitimized as “popular mobilization” forces — to take the lead against ISIS despite some of them being accused of rights abuses. But such reliance on Shiite militias has raised concerns that they would further inflame sectarian tensions in Sunni areas.

Still, experts say it’s not as if many other politicians could do better than Abadi at this point, because they would face the same obstacles of a broken political system and a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. As Abadi himself told the nation in televised remarks this week, “The process will not easy; it will be painful … The corrupt will not sit by without lifting a finger.”

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