What is happening in Iraq?

PM Abadi has locked himself into a political bind, and it is unlikely that he would find a way out of it other than having to resign his post. The United States government had put too much of a bet on Abadi as its only necessary partner in Iraq, and may find it does not have enough leverage over various political actors towards the goal of keeping Abadi at the helm. Those actors, who feel sidelined and spurned by American engagement with Abadi, may sense that the Obama administration needs to demonstrate, to the American public, that it is doing something against the jihadists in Iraq, rather than risk suggesting American disengagement from the country if the Iraqi politicos do not play along with its political preferences.

Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle. Abadi declared that he seeks a “fundamental government reshuffle” and a cabinet of “technocrats” rather than politicians. Allegedly, his vision entails replacing all the ministers except for two, with the Minister of Planning staying in place, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi (the current oil minister) heading foreign affairs. Abadi believes that a reshuffle would buy him time and goodwill in the minds of an increasingly disillusioned Iraqi public, as expressed on social media, and that he can deflect criticism away from him towards the political process and its main actors. He also believes that his Da’awa Party flank is secure since if he goes, then Da’awa will not be able to suggest a replacement for him from its own ranks, and the PM slot will go to another Shi’a political bloc. Abadi also thought that he had neutralized Sadr by coordinating the announcement of the reshuffle with him. He cited Sadr’s support to convince panicked Da’awa cadres that his ‘leap ahead’ would not jeopardize the party’s hold on the PM slot.

But there are two problems with his justifications for this reshuffle. Administratively, the ministers holding the portfolios that are most relevant to Iraq’s immediate challenges—finance, security, and regional balances—are able administrators who enjoy a measure of political clout. I can think of only three weak links who should be changed in the following institutions: Finance, Central Bank, Planning, Oil, Electricity, Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. One would be hard pressed to think of a better replacement for Hoshyar Zebari as Finance Minister or Adel Abdul-Mahdi for Oil, for example. If Abadi cannot work with this current team as it is, then that is probably an administrative failing on his part.

Politically, Abadi has been unable to forge a meaningful alliance between his SOL faction with Hakim and Sadr, even though Najaf wanted to see that happen. The manner by which Abadi had managed his relationship with Hakim, in particular, seems to reflect a political failing on the former’s part. The resignation of Hakim’s ministers from the cabinet is allegedly imminent. If Abadi’s chief political complaint, as relayed to the Americans, is the danger that Maliki poses to his authority, then the current rupture with Hakim should have been unnecessary. It is highly likely that Hakim will begin an aggressive move now towards forming a Shia-Sunni-Kurd political majority in parliament to replace Abadi, and to rework the political arrangement arrived at when the government was formed.

Those two failings, administrative and political, are best encapsulated in how Abadi mismanaged his coordination with Sadr ahead of the announcement.

Mr. Sadr goes to Baghdad. Sadr had other ideas for how to make use of Abadi’s overture to him. Sadr, being Sadr, went maximalist with a list of near-impossible demands. He initially embraced Abadi’s call, and then went ahead and publically laid out a formula for how the candidates for the new cabinet portfolios should be picked. He named individuals to various committees that would be tasked with vetting and picking candidates, essentially denying Abadi his prerogative as chief executive. Not only that, but the mechanism is likely to be rejected by the rest of the political establishment. But it wouldn’t be up to them to vocally say ‘no’—Abadi has to do it.

One can suggest that Sadr is just being erratic and impractical. But there seems to be more method to what he is doing. Sadr may have deliberately constructed a political trap for Abadi, and it seems that latter has now figured out that he is trapped. Sadr must also be mindful that with Sistani seemingly bowing out of the pro-reform debate, then the field is open to Khamen’i. That is essentially the ‘gentlemanly’ agreement arrived at two years ago between Sistani and Khamen’i; if the former takes the lead in shaping the Iraqi polity, then the latter will acquiesce. If not, then Khamen’i gets to have a go. Sadr knows about this agreement, as do many others. He may have determined that Khamen’i would lean towards other ‘Sadrist’ factions (such as AAH) who have demonstrated more loyalty to Iran. So Sadr had to act.

Sadr built-in a timeline for his proposal: 45 days. He also coupled his reform agenda with a plan to re-invigorate the pro-reform Friday demonstrations that had been ongoing for six months. Sadr intends to headline this Friday’s demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir square by promising to lead his flock in prayer.

Sadr also made Abadi lose face by forcing the latter’s hand over where to meet today: Sadr got his way, and Abadi had to leave the Green Zone and travel to the Kadhimiya shrine for a sit down with the visiting cleric. The optics of a PM having to bend over backwards to the leader of a political movement who is suggesting to strip him of executive prerogatives, and who is simultaneously planning to lead what is essentially an anti-government rally, is not a good one for Abadi. Furthermore, Sadr seems to have tailored his list of names for the ‘minister picking’ committees specifically to win over the liberal and secular demonstrators of Tahrir Sq., who had previously been willing to give Abadi the benefit of the doubt. In doing so, he is playing on one of Abadi’s weaknesses: his perceived sensitivity—one may say over-sensitivity—to what there liberal secularists are writing about him on social media.

It could very well be that after 45 days elapse Sadr will declare that he had given Abadi a chance, and that it is high time to change him. By then, Sadr may find that Hakim had cobbled together the necessary votes for a Shia-Sunni-Kurd parliamentary plurality that seeks to evict the Da’awa Party from power, and he may well join them.

Kurds. The PUK may be farther along towards figuring out how to share power between its internal nodes that most observers can see. But that power sharing is premised on three outcomes: striking a deal with the KDP to oust Goran, separating party leadership from KRG leadership positions, and replacing Fouad Masoum as president of Iraq. The PUK may go along with the replacement of Abadi-Masoum-Juburi in part because they need that position vacated for a member of the PUK’s triumvirate.

The KDP have their own, amply reported reasons for changing Abadi. The KDP leadership can buy time among an increasingly agitated populace, one that is agitated by financial stress, by suggesting that choosing a new person in charge in Baghdad may alleviate some of the KRG’s financial woes. Barzani may even offer the incoming PM the prospect of delaying the proposed referendum on Kurdish independence as a gesture of goodwill to Baghdad (…and to Ankara, and to Tehran, and to Washington), and turning a new leaf with the central government.

Sunnis. The ‘national’ leaders of the Sunnis feel wounded. They believe that both Abadi and the Americans have concluded that their collective political shelf-life has expired after the Islamic State took over most of Arab Sunni territories. They are also watching with unease as Abadi, and the Americans as well, put more stress on working with ‘local’ Sunni leaders such as the governors of Anbar and Salahuddin, as well as the Sunni waqf, the religious endowment. They are incensed that, in many of these cases, these local Sunni leaders were the ones Maliki had propped up as part of a systematic policy to undermine the national leaders.

Regardless of whether their feelings are warranted or not, their current situation has created an atmosphere of camaraderie and a sense of a shared political fate. They have been quietly re-forging the Sunni bloc in parliament under the leadership of Usama al-Nujeifi, and they are doing so at Juburi’s expense. The national leaders may have concluded that the Abadi-American bet on the local leaders will fall apart, given that very local considerations, such as the scale of the devastation to places like Ramadi and the Beiji refinery, and the inability to curtail abuses from the PMFs, will continue to erode the local legitimacy of ‘Maliki’s Sunnis’. Juburi’s inability to do much about PMF abuses in Diyala has wounded him, plus, he saw an opportunity in the way the other nationals were being dismissed, and he tried to take advantage of it. This did not go unnoticed by them. It is likely that if Abadi and Masoum are changed, he too would have to go.

What comes next?

Abadi would have been better served by using the time at hand to come up with immediate and fundamental solutions to Iraq’s financial crises. Estimates vary, with the government officially declaring that “all is still fine”, but the financial shortfalls between cash-at-hand and expenditures may begin showing next month, according to a well-placed source.

One can reasonably argue that the last thing Iraq needs now is to replace its Prime Minister and invite further political uncertainty. This blog had argued much the same case back in October. But it is the PM himself who opened up this door. And in doing so, he may have revealed that it is indeed time to address his administrative and political shortcomings. Gambling on a dramatic government reshuffle, without laying down the necessary political groundwork and buy-in from the major players, at this delicate and problematic time for the country, speaks to the PM’s political instincts.

With Maliki, it took the Obama administration a long while to mentally dissociate from the former Iraqi PM. This time around, political maneuverings by actors such as Hakim and Sadr may be happening too quickly for Washington’s taste, and even though it has thousands of troops and far more reaching engagement with the country, America’s leverage on Iraqi politics had been weakened. One thing to remember is that the current challenge to Abadi is not coming from actors or groups beholden to Iran. The reasons for the ‘leverage problem’ in this particular case are not wholly of Tehran’s making.

Link: Previous ‘What is happening in Iraq?’




  1. Abdulaziz Al-Wandawi · February 25, 2016

    Well said Nibras. But still, there may be some surprises that are not expected yet or even not counted for.


  2. Abdulaziz Al-Wandawi · February 26, 2016

    Friday’s demonstrations size and slogans in Baghdad, were one of the unexpected surprises. Could it be organized with Abadi? Is Abadi separating himself from Da’wa?


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