It was General David Petraeus who made Maoists of us all. The Chairman famously understood “the people” as the sea in which the revolutionary swims. The insight that insurgencies are won and lost in the hearts and minds of the local population was the principal concept behind the success against al Qaeda of the U.S.-led Surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. And so it is today, with the fight against al Qaeda’s Iraq successor, the so-called Islamic State.
In President Barack Obama’s war, domestic developments in Iraq and Syria are likely to be far more significant than the White House decisions that currently dominate the headlines. No amount of Reaper drones, Tomahawk cruise missiles, Gulf allies, or boots on the ground will be the right amount if the rule of Baghdad’s Shia majority is intolerable to the Sunni populace of western and northern Iraq.
With Iraq’s two armed ministries, Defense and Interior, still unfilled in the government of new Prime Minister Heidar al Abadi, the critical battle playing out in Iraq is the political one in Baghdad. The Defense Ministry will likely be filled by the Sunnis, and with a large Shia majority in Parliament the post will not go to anyone particularly radical. Interior is a different matter. It will go to the Shia majority and is the subject of an ongoing struggle with very high stakes indeed.
Abadi, whose own fairly moderate nominations for both posts were swiftly rejected in the middle of last month, has signaled that a final vote is unlikely to come until the second week of October, following the Eid al Adha holiday.
Abadi’s nomination as Iraq’s new prime minister in August was a success for the Obama administration after its belated decision to get serious about helping Iraq to replace the catastrophically sectarian, incompetent and insular Nouri al Maliki. The bad news about Abadi was that he was a long-term functionary of Maliki’s own Dawa Party. The good news was that Abadi was not Maliki. Westward-leaning, familiar with the modern outside world, and the most distant from the regime in Tehran of any major Iraqi Shia politician, Abadi has long been known to be a collegial figure in Iraqi politics, well-liked if not to that point impressive.
So at a time that could not have been more critical, the world held its breath regarding Iraq’s new leadership, hoping for the best. What were Abadi’s true colors, and if they were good ones would this genial but so far inconsequential player have the strength and skill to give them effect?
Iraq’s new slate of ministers, voted in on September 9, two days ahead of deadline, provided the first clues. The new cabinet is not, for the moment, so much Abadi’s as it is an expression of the underlying pragmatism of Iraq’s political system, a feature that coexists with equal importance but a tiny fraction of the attention alongside the country’s well-known fundamental problems. Reidar Visser, a leading analyst of Iraqi politics, points out that the new government has seven Sunni ministers compared to 11 in the last, Shia-chauvinist Maliki government. “Inclusiveness,” says Visser, “must be judged on policies, not on numbers.”
The most important signals in the new cabinet thus far relate to the Kurds. They effectively swapped the prestige of the Foreign Ministry for the material influence of the Finance Ministry, hopefully underwriting an eventual fix to Baghdad’s failure since January of this year to pay about $1 billion per month in budget allocations owed to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The new Oil Minister, the Shia Adil Abdul Mahdi, is a long-standing friend of the Kurds and will be far more congenial than his predecessor to Kurdish positions regarding independent oil contracts and exports.
Both changes represent meaningful improvements to Iraq’s prospects of sticking together. The KRG boasts a new 600-mile border with a terrorist “state” that has mercilessly exposed the weakness of the once-vaunted Peshmerga. With an increase in its influence in Baghdad, and redoubled U.S., Iranian, and European commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity, the KRG will not be announcing independence any time soon.
Abadi has made numerous encouraging moves since the formation of his government, but for the moment these have been largely in the realm of talk and symbolism. He has renounced his foreign (British, in his case) citizenship, foresworn the grandiose quasi-Ottoman honorific that Maliki increasingly used, cancelled the practice of posting prime ministerial portraits in government offices, closed the “Office of the Commander in Chief” that Maliki used to centralize military command under his personal direction, and fired Maliki’s top two operational generals.
Abadi has announced that secular Shia former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who until Maliki’s second term was the parliamentary standard bearer of Iraq’s moderate Sunnis, will have “full authority over the national reconciliation file.” While nobody yet knows what, if anything, this means, Allawi’s acceptance of the role indicates that for now the Sunni mainstream wants to give Abadi a chance. Abadi has welcomed Human Rights Watch back to Iraq and called for reinvigorating Iraq’s Human Rights Commission. After a week in power, his government voted to address specifically the independence of three key state institutions that had been compromised under Maliki’s accelerating Putinism: the Central Bank, the Electoral Commission, and the Supreme Court.
Of particular concern to Sunnis, Abadi has stated as prime minister that he has no objection to a Sunni federal region as long as it comports with Iraq’s constitution. The document, which uses the word “federal” and its derivations over 40 times, provides a clear path to the establishment of additional KRG-style regions—in the Shia south or Sunni west, for example—but Maliki would never have supported the idea in public, much less countenanced moves to this effect in Parliament.
Abadi has called for the disbanding of Shia militias and announced an end to shelling and aerial bombing in civilian areas, effectively meaning Sunni cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah where the rebels have taken hold. So far no progress has been attempted on the first of these, and little has been made on the second.
The most consequential single task before the Abadi government in coming weeks is the choice of Interior Minister. It is fundamentally a matter of what to do about the country’s Shia militias. As such it could not be more important in determining whether Iraq’s Sunnis join the fight against the Islamic State the way they turned the tables against al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008.
From the militia perspective, the Shia factions in Iraq break down as follows. On the Iranian side are Badr and Asab al Haq, controlling about 20 parliamentary seats between them and both genuine Iranian proxies under the control of International Revolutionary Guard chief Qassem Suleimani. On the Iraqi nationalist side are the less well armed but far more popular Hakim and Sadr parties, with a combined 61 seats in the Parliament. In a world without intimidation and corruption, the latter could usually be relied upon as counterweights to Tehran’s influence.
Iraq’s influential senior Shia clergy, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, played a key role in Maliki’s eventual acceptance of the parliamentary numbers against him. By the last weeks of Maliki’s premiership, Iran—lukewarm on him during all but the very end of his premiership—was his only supporter outside of his inner circle of family and a small rump of diehard Parliamentary clients. Sistani continues to be a significant bulwark against Tehran among Iraq’s 65 percent Shia majority.
The Iranian factions, Maliki’s among them, are now promoting Badr chief Hadi Amiri for the Interior job. Their victory would mean nothing less than putting Iraq’s police and paramilitary apparatus in the hands of the country’s leading pro-Tehran militia. U.S. pressure was important in preventing this from happening the first time around, when Abadi announced the majority of his cabinet. Now comes the key moment in the fight to rid Iraq of the Islamic State and guarantee the country’s near-term future.