Will Al-Sistani step in to break Iraq’s political deadlock?
Iraq’s new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi took the oath of office last month along with 14 ministers of a Cabinet that needs 22 members. This marked the culmination of a month-long process of political uncertainty, turbulence and deal-making since he was named prime minister by newly appointed President Barham Salih.
Abdul Mahdi’s accession to high office is fortuitous. The country’s former oil and finance minister and vice president did not participate in the national elections in May. He explained in a Facebook post that month that he could not be prime minister as his vision and goals would never obtain political support.
His program included making state institutions effective and free from political interference, controlling the country’s militia, and combating ethnic, sectarian and tribal divisions.
This vision resonated with Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance romped home with the highest number of seats in Parliament, but who wanted to see a government of technocrats, not politicians. As the complex process of coalition development came to an end in late September, with Al-Sadr aligning with the No. 2 grouping, the Fatah alliance headed by Hadi Al-Amiri of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units militia, he identified Abdul Mahdi as the appropriate leader of the next government.
It is now apparent that Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri do not share the same views on government formation. Al-Sadr rejects the old “quota” system of allotting ministerial portfolios to political groups — a veritable division of national spoils — while Al-Amiri wishes to see rewards for groups like his own that have made great efforts to combat Daesh. His focus is on the interior and defense portfolios.
His all-too-infrequent interventions in the political space have had extraordinary implications for a nation that is groaning under the twin scourges of conflict and corruption.
This divide has prevented Abdul Mahdi from obtaining parliamentary approval for eight ministers, including the interior, defense and justice ministers. The two competing alliances, though ostensibly on the same side, vetoed each other’s nominees in a destructive zero-sum endeavor. However, the prime minister was able to get ministers for foreign affairs, oil and finance, and is retaining with himself the interior and defense portfolios. There are threats of impeachment against some ministers for past misdemeanors.
Fifteen years since the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, the country is experiencing nationwide civil conflict, deepening ethnic and sectarian divides, and widespread destruction of infrastructure and governmental institutions. People are witnessing the near-total collapse of civic services, including the supply of drinking water and electricity, continued violence from extremist elements, and pervasive corruption on the part of politicians they elected to provide governance.
This popular rage was exhibited through agitations in southern Iraq in September, which finally persuaded the normally apolitical Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to break his silence and demand that the next government meet the people’s requirements.
But not much has changed on the ground. Reports from Basra, which provides the bulk of Iraq’s oil revenues, suggest that popular anger remains unassuaged, but the people now see no advantage in street protests. They are watching with deep cynicism the calls for public demonstrations from their elected representatives, who are upset that no one from Basra is in the new Cabinet.
Besides the politicians from Basra, those representing the Turkmen and Kurds are displaying both greed and disunity. The former are upset that ministerships have not gone to their community, while the Kurds continue with their century-old divide between the Barzani and Talabani clans. The former, much diminished after the fiasco relating to the “independence referendum” last year, is upset that its candidate for president was not successful and that victory went to the candidate from the Talabani side in Sulaymaniyah. Issues between Baghdad and Irbil remain unaddressed.
The national security situation also remains parlous, with daily reports of bombings by Daesh elements even a year after they had been comprehensively defeated. This violence reflects the feeble character of the official security forces, since effective power remains with the numerous militia that have not been disbanded or disarmed. They remain a lethal and fractious presence and are often accused of targeting their opponents on a sectarian basis. There are widespread concerns that Iraq could see the revival of earlier conflicts with extremist elements.
The divided national edifice is also constantly buffeted by the rival claims on the government in Iraq from Iran and the US. Though Iran was able to obtain the government of its choice in Baghdad, the US has made life difficult for Iraq by insisting on enforcing sanctions on Tehran: A blow to Iraq’s crucial energy and trade ties with its neighbor. While Iraq’s leaders have publicly accepted US demands, most observers believe this is just lip service since the ties between Iraq and Iran are too deep and mutually important to be abandoned at the behest of Washington.
Amid the grim scenario that is Iraq’s reality, all eyes are once again turning to Al-Sistani. His all-too-infrequent interventions in the political space have had extraordinary implications for a nation that is groaning under the twin scourges of conflict and corruption. Can he wave his wand and save his people? No one else seems available.
• Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.