On August 9, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Abadi caught Iraq by surprise when he outlined a new reform program. This included cutting the number of top officials and bodyguards and dismissing the current vice presidents and deputy premiers, ending the ethno-sectarian quota system when choosing government posts, and setting up a special committee to investigate corruption. These were meant to address some of the structural issues that have plagued the Iraqi government since it was created in 2005 following the U.S. invasion. Many ministries and deputies, for example, are created simply to give one of the ruling parties more spots in the government, which are then used to dish out patronage and steal public funds.
Abadi’s first move caught the public’s attention as it included removing two ex-prime ministers, Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi, and two party leaders, Osama al-Nujafi and Salah al-Mutlaq of the Mutahidun bloc. To add to that, many believed that Maliki, who was pressured by the U.S. (and Iran) to resign following ISIS’s blitzkrieg into Mosul a year ago, was plotting in the background against Abadi to regain the premiership. The prime minister needed the approval of the cabinet, which he received, and a vote in parliament that is planned on Monday to OK their dismissal. One of them may stay in office, however, as the constitution calls for a vice president.
What led the prime minister to take these actions was a month’s worth of protests and a call for action by the leading cleric in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Starting in July citizens across central and southern Iraq took to the streets against chronic power shortages, corruption, and for better governance. That culminated in a massive day of demonstrations on August 7 across Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Karbala, Babil, and Dhi Qar. Two major Hashd al-Shaabi groups, the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl Al-haq, the League of the Righteous, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) that have become widely popular for fighting the Islamic State, joined in on the rallies as well. That same day Ayatollah Sistani’s representative gave a Friday sermon in Najaf calling on Abadi to take more strident action against graft and to name those standing in the way of reform. For the last five years there have been protests in Iraq about electricity outages and government waste, so this was nothing new. What was different was the involvement of the Hashd and the Grand Ayatollah.
Although Sistani comes from what is known as the quietest school of the Shiite clergy that has never meant he was absent from social and political affairs in Iraq. Since 2003 he has made a number of statements about problems in the country, including corruption. The anger in the streets witnessed over the last month made him make a direct appeal to the premier to do something about it.
As for Badr and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, they appeared to be opportunists trying to attach themselves to the protests to win more support from the Iraqi street in their ultimate goal to win more political power in the country. Both are not only armed groups, but political parties as well with Badr being a major player in the State of Law bloc and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq having won one seat in parliament in the last election. Given this pressure Abadi felt like he had to do something, which led to his announcement.
The real issue now is whether Abadi has the support and influence to make substantive changes or just symbolic ones. Dismissing the vice presidents and deputy premiers falls into the latter category. None of those officials have any real power, and they have done nothing meaningful since their appointments in 2014. More importantly, Maliki will still head the Dawa Party and be a major player in the larger State of Law bloc as well. He has been trying to build up ties with various Hashd groups to expand his base, and there are many in the security forces that owe their positions to him. Likewise Osama Nujafi and Salah al-Mutlaq will maintain their leadership positions within the Mutahidun list. If parliament approves their firing they will also still receive lavish pensions and have a security detail.
The prime minister’s dilemma is that he is extremely limited within his own government. Abadi was put into office as a caretaker and be the anti-Maliki who was known for centralizing power, and attacking both his enemies and allies alike, which caused deep divisions throughout the country. That meant Abadi didn’t have any mandate to carry out any serious structural changes. He can’t even count on the full support of his party as he comes from Dawa and has to compete with the former premier. The ruling parties are also deeply committed to ethno-sectarian politics and corruption to rule. Quotas are used to ensure that every party that wins a seat in parliament gets a piece of the public pie with a ministry or other office. Bribes and theft are also employed in patronage systems to win votes and support, and ensure that all of the ruling coalitions are implicated and therefore will not protest the widespread corruption.
There is also the fear among other parties that Abadi and his State of Law bloc might use these reforms to remove their political opponents when reducing the number of ministers and offices. That could lead to a new political crisis on top of the war with ISIS, and lead to more chaos in the country.
Abadi may well be committed to political reforms, but he is severely constrained in what he can do. Despite the protests and Sistani’s call for action, he is up against the vested interests of all the ruling parties that want to maintain the status quo despite what they may be saying publicly right now. Getting rid of the vice presidents and deputy premiers was a way to take action, while not presenting any real challenge to the government system. What Abadi does next will go a long way to show whether he is able to enact meaningful change or just hopes to appease the public.