Iraq: What was that all about?

Gridlock. Standstill. Impasse. Paralysis. Standoff. These sorts of words may describe Iraqi politics today. But it didn’t have to be so. After a tumultuous three months of high political drama in Baghdad, we can look back and conclude that the crisis was unnecessary, frivolous, and its hoped-for resolution, if Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has his way, will not lead to fundamental reform. And Iraq needs reform. This need has taken on an existential aspect for the survival of the state. Yet three months were wasted that would have been put to better use if the contours of this reform had been fleshed out. The principal culprit for this waste of time and energy has been the instigator of the crisis: Abadi. Unfortunately, what little space availed itself for a political resolution was choked off by the Obama administration’s insistence on keeping Abadi in place.

A brief review. Abadi surprised everyone—including U.S. officials, it seems—by giving a late night speech (February 9) during which he laid out his demand for a ‘fundamental’ cabinet reshuffle, upending Iraqi politics by his desire to replace his current ministers with “technocrats and academics”. He then flew off to Germany on the following day. The cadres of the political class were left scratching their heads: Why did he do that? The majority of his ministers were moderately capable, especially the ones handling the security and economic portfolios, and they worked well with him. Who are these technocrats? Who is going to pick them? Why would Abadi think that they would be better at running the ministries than the ministers already at hand? He also decided to pull this stunt without consulting the heads of the political factions in the country, a country that functions through parliamentary procedure and consensus—not to mention a country that is at war and in serious financial trouble. Again, why did he do that?

Abadi countered that he has a new reform package, and he wanted to implement it without being encumbered by politics. But exactly whom in the cabinet was impeding his ‘reforms’? And what were these reforms anyways? A review of Abadi’s reform package reveals that portions of it were excerpted or borrowed from other reform recommendations available on the internet, some suggested for countries such as Sudan and Algeria. It was boilerplate, vanilla, and generally uninspiring. The kind of drab, box-ticking talking points that a United Nations bureaucrat may author. The package did not address the existential problem that Iraq faces: current oil revenues only pay off, on a good day, 50-60 percent of the public sector payroll bill. This basic equation is not expected to change any time soon, given that very few traders expect oil prices to rise significantly in the next year or so. The only kind of relevant and immediate reform that Iraq needs would have to address this gap between revenue and overhead. But that would be deeply unpopular, as it would be anywhere in the world. It would require leadership, political capital, and a national narrative of ‘We’re all in this together’ to push it through. Abadi has proven unwilling or unable to take the lead. In lieu of actual hard choices, Abadi can nimbly leap forwards, to distract and defer. He thought he had a good thing going with the magic word ‘technocrats’, but that would only solve Iraq’s actual problems if these technocrats managed to lay golden eggs. Abadi’s ability to buy time while pursuing such theatrics had worked well for him previously, but there is not much one can do if one leaps into quicksand.


Abadi during the tumultuous parliamentary session of March 31st.

The sandman cometh. One of the key questions that the Iraqi political class attempted to answer throughout this crisis was “Does Abadi have a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr?” My own conclusion is “No”. At first, right before making his big announcement, Abadi thought he had Sadr onboard. But he did not realize what an ‘alliance’ with Sadr entailed. By asking Sadr to support Abadi’s bid to upend Iraqi politics, the door was left open for Sadr to regain relevance, and relevance is Sadr’s primary motivator. Especially if it means that he can eclipse the “traitors”, those who began as Sadrists but then seceded from his authority. Based on knowledge of conversations between Sadr and his closest circle in 2004, a case can be made that Sadr chose the path towards armed escalation with the United States in order to remain relevant after swaths of his followers began peeling off. More recently, Sadr has watched as Sadrist renegades, principally Asa’ib Ahlul-Haq, attained high popular regard and stature within the Popular Mobilization Forces. Sadr had to find a new way of eclipsing them.

Consequently, if Sadr did not have a firm alliance with Abadi—one that coordinated actions in tandem—then the next question that may arise is “Does Sadr have a deal with someone else?” The answer is again, “No”. What this crisis revealed to me is that no one—not Hassan Nasrallah, not Qasem Suleimani, not Ammar al-Hakim, not Sadr’s nephew, not his chief aides (M. Ya’coubi, W. Zamili, W. Kreimawi, S. Obeidi), not the politburo of the Sadrist movement—has any unique insight into Sadr’s thinking, or the means to influence it. His mind is quicksand, as Abadi soon discovered. That said, there are two sets of ‘brakes’ that Sadr acknowledges and responds to: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Iranian Leader Ali Khamen’i. They can make him stop, but they cannot steer him. And even when these brakes are applied, the skid marks that Sadr leaves in his wake are enough of a reminder that we are dealing with a person who lurches haphazardly to and fro, and his movements might as well be described as policy by divination. Recently, ‘relevance’ for Sadr meant hoping onto the bandwagon of the madaniyya demonstrations that had been gathering since last summer, in an effort to rebrand himself as “The Shepherd [or Overseer] of Reform”.

Sadr, and everyone else, was extremely lucky to have performed all those dramatic stunts without violence breaking out. Slapping around a couple of members of parliament, and rampaging through its halls, does not count as violence by Iraqi standards. Hence, in retrospect, it was all very entertaining to watch. However, having his followers scale the walls of the Green Zone to take a dip in its fountains was Sadr’s ‘nuclear option’. Anything beyond that may tempt his luck and draw blood. Sadr do not seem to have the stomach for that; he also understands that neither Sistani nor Khamen’i would tolerate it. Besides, Sadr has already achieved his goal of becoming relevant. Yet what is the harvest he touts after doing all of this? We are back to Abadi’s meager and ultimately inconsequential ‘reform’ of bringing in the technocrats. So much build-up and noise for so humdrum of a culmination. That is one half of the answer to “How did we arrive at ‘Gridlock. Standstill. Impasse. Paralysis. Standoff’?”

Enabling dysfunction. For the last three months, the political class was keen to tease out the opinions of what they (mistakenly) regard to be the triumvirate of ultimate authority: ‘Najaf’ (the grand ayatollahs, but specifically Sistani), the ‘neighbors’ (the Iranians), and the ‘friends’ (the Americans). It seems that both Najaf and Tehran gave plenty of room for Iraqi politics to breathe and find its footing. While it is always foolhardy to give a definitive account of what was said by either two, because it is always happens to be their intent to keep their channels opaque and their messaging secretive, yet Najaf and Tehran seem to have indicated that if the situation requires it, then they are fine with replacing Abadi. Najaf went even further to suggest that should the National Alliance (the Shi’a bloc in parliament) prove too unwieldy of a political vehicle, then it can be abandoned, and individual Shi’a parties can seek alliances with individual Sunni and Kurdish parties and slates. This was a breath of fresh air into the dank halls of identity politics. Suddenly, the political class was given free rein to creatively reconstitute itself. For that to happen, a complete reshuffling of the deck—one that includes the PM’s position, the presidency, and the speakership of the parliament—must necessarily happen. The political process should have been allowed to take its course.

ahmad falah abadi biden

Caricature by Iraqi artist Ahmed Falah

Unfortunately, there was pushback from Washington. Whether this pushback can be judged by its opponents as shortsighted and cynical, or ‘realistic’ as its proponents would have it, remains to be seen. The Obama administration, after remaining more or less agnostic for two months, came out strongly for Abadi. As far as the Americans were concerned, Abadi was the man they could work with, and replacing him with would incur their displeasure, so much so that they would allow the anti-Islamic State military effort to taper off. Maybe Washington’s sympathy for Abadi is a function of projection: the Obama administration knows too the frustration of working with an intransigent political establishment. But Iraq’s is a parliamentary system, and whoever plays by those rules must develop the habit of working within the system. Abadi chose to reject the rules. Adding insult to injury, he delivered his list of technocrats to parliament on March 31 in a ‘sealed envelope’, so much so that the new cabinet he proposes is now referred to by that moniker. But while the members of parliament, as well as the political bosses of the country waited for the Speaker to break the seal and announce those names, young advisors working in Abadi’s office were leaking the names on social media. It was a powerful message of contempt by the Prime Minister for the political class. However, in choosing to alienate them, he seems to have forgotten that it was this same political class that picked him for the post back in September 2014. Nowadays, Abadi seemingly operates under the illusion that he can remain in place by presidential veto—the U.S. President’s, that is.

One American detractor of the U.S. administration’s policy told me that they are “running out the clock, hoping that Iraq will be someone else’s problem.” I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt, so that we can discuss their actions rather than their motivations. After all, if last week’s policy prescriptions don’t pan out, we should all try to figure out the road ahead rather than wallow in recrimination. Abadi’s proponents in Washington make three reasonable arguments: the focus should be on combating IS and retaking Mosul; Iraq can’t afford to change its leadership in the midst of its negotiations with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; and, there is little chance that the political class would agree on a replacement in a timely manner.

Let’s tackle these points in more depth:

The war against IS: The battlefield successes that were earned by Iraqi security forces had very little to do with Abadi’s charisma or leadership. His visage is not what compels the Iraqi soldier to fight. In fact, on the day that the Sadrists ransacked parliament, Iraqi forces managed to retake the town of Bashir near Kirkuk. The fight went on despite the political wrangling in Baghdad. While Abadi has been helpful in fostering avenues of military cooperation with the United States, he does so because he needs it, and it would be quite a stretch to imagine that his replacement would tend to refuse it. Abadi has said the right things when it comes to the excesses and abuses of the PMFs against Sunnis, but it wasn’t his authority that limited their damage, rather it came about through the efforts of the PMF leadership to ‘contain’ such abuses. There are complex considerations running through the minds of the PMF leadership as to why they did that, one of which has to do with what Iran’s endgame is in Iraq that is yet to be defined (see the last paragraph in this post). Furthermore, the United States must begin to consider that the manner by which the enemy fights may change as it closes onto Mosul, and the prospect that the previous modus operandi of the jihadists may shift from one that harries and distracts, towards one that is more tenacious in holding ground. Rushing a military campaign for Mosul based on what we had seen previously from the enemy needlessly gives a tactical advantage to the jihadists. The other component of the fight against IS, which sadly remains unaddressed, is what vision can Abadi articulate for what life is going to be like for the people of Mosul and Fallouja after the caliphate? If Abadi lacks the skillset and standing to push through a modest political measure such as a government reshuffle, then what can he realistically deliver on by way of a comprehensive settlement with Iraq’s Sunnis? Should the people of Mosul be left to contemplate either one of two fates, that of a ‘good enough’ post-IS Tikrit on the one hand, or the desolation of Ramadi on the other? There must be more on offer in parallel to the military effort, and one would be hard pressed to spot what value Abadi brings to that endeavor.

The World Bank/IMF loans: The Iraqis went to the World Bank and the IMF after trying every other avenue for securing loans and selling bonds. They did so on the advice of the financial institutions that rejected them. The Iraqis were told by these institutions to use the excuse of IMF conditionality to push through painful reforms back at home, such as cutting public sector payrolls, before showing up again and asking for a loan. However, should it turn out that the Obama administration is pressuring the IMF to water down its conditions, then how would these loans help Iraq in the medium to long term? That would essentially mean that Iraq would borrow from the IMF in order to pay public sector salaries. This is hardly a recipe for fundamental reform. The Obama administration may even harangue other states at the G7 summit later this month in Japan to pony up some more cash for Iraq. More cash so that employees at state factories that don’t make anything, or bureaucrats dosing off at their desks, can still get their paychecks for the next seven to ten months. Because that’s how long those loans would last when measured against some of the more rosier scenarios. So if even the IMF won’t compel Abadi to do the hard stuff of reform, then the infusion of cash serves no purpose other than keeping his premiership on life support for a little while longer—cash that will dissipate quickly leaving Iraq with no other recourse for reasonable, timely and meaningful loans in 2017. Washington may want to cut Abadi some slack, and argue that he cannot be held responsible for the spending excesses of his predecessor. Except that he should be: Abadi presided over parliament’s finance committee all through former PM Maliki’s second term. Abadi did not even take his predecessor to task over the ‘missing’ budget of 2014. As such, is Abadi the best candidate at hand to rescue the country from its financial morass?

Picking Abadi’s replacement: It says much about Abadi’s skills as a politician that the political chaos that he instigated and could not control gave Maliki an opening for a comeback of sorts. However, Maliki, unlike Sadr, cannot be content with relevance; Maliki wants dominance. He doesn’t have to be PM again (and he is clever enough to know that that is a long shot, except if there is a Kurdish referendum on independence, but we’ll leave that for another time), but he would like everyone to know that he still wields the influence to pick the next top executive. In parallel to Sadr theatrics, Maliki mounted his own show under the dome of parliament, one that involved some of his acolytes hurling water bottles and tissue boxes at Abadi. Thankfully, it did not amount to much, but it did illustrate what mischief Maliki was capable of fomenting. Let us not forget that Maliki has something that Abadi doesn’t: the killer instinct—once Maliki makes up his mind for something, he will go for it, and he will bite down hard. After all, he likes to remind everyone that his brand is ‘Mr. Authority’, and there are still hundreds (maybe even thousands) of troops in the Green Zone that may answer his call. He also has a lot of money, the same money that Abadi should have expended efforts on demonstrating that it was ill gotten, if nothing but to protect his flank from Maliki’s machinations. But Abadi couldn’t even pull that off. [Abadi’s reluctance to go after him could be an indication that Maliki has something on him. Abadi is not above allegations over his own financial probity, as indicated in this 2004 report to the US Inspector General that surfaced on Wikileaks, pp. 27-33; that cell phone deal was the first big contract undertaken in post-2003 Iraq]. We still won’t know how far of a comeback Maliki can make, but we can be certain that his odds are better while Abadi remains PM.

But for now, Abadi’s replacement won’t be of Maliki’s choosing. Should the political process be allowed to breathe, then consensus can be arrived on rather quickly by the lead actors, with buy-in from Najaf and Tehran. In fact, names have been discussed throughout this whole period since the crisis began. Even Sadr may come around, seeing that he would like to exit the corner he finds himself in after using up his nuclear option. This may sound like science fiction to some, but the prospect of picking a Sunni prime minister was discussed by serious people as a way for the political class to demonstrate (to the demonstrators) that a dramatic break from the old way of doing things is being considered. Increasingly, the political class realizes that they will need to pick a new cast of characters to lead the country, a cast that comes in with enough of a cache of goodwill to sell the Iraqi people on the hard choices as they face the fiscal abyss. Ideally, Abadi, as well as Speaker Saleem al-Juburi and President Fuad Ma’asoum, would selflessly resign their posts, to save face as the political class comes to a consensus on their replacements. Needless to say, it becomes harder to convince them of doing that if Washington insists on a static course.

Peeking into Tehran’s policy-factories. There are many more things to discuss, but I want to keep this post relatively short and readable. However, I would like to highlight one last thing: watching Tehran from the vantage point of Baghdad as it stumbles to provide answers for what comes next is a fascinating experience. Here is my subjective assessment of Iran’s position and future options based on what I heard: The Iranians are astounded that the Americans don’t really care about competing for the Middle East anymore. They are in the midst of a fundamental policy realignment, one that is more tailored to Obama’s disinterest in the region—elements of which they believe to be irreversible under future presidencies—rather than the deal they struck with him. The Iranians would have had a field day with the political drama in Baghdad had they thought, as they did in the past, that any of that really matters for Washington. Yet they have lost their sparring partner, and they find themselves in a very different strategic landscape, one that they have yet to wrap their minds around. That is why they could not say much more that parroting what Sistani was saying throughout the crisis; they didn’t know what they wanted from a post-American Middle East, and they suddenly realized that they were saddled with an irksome Iraq. So much so that Iranians only piped up when Sadrist crowds began chanting anti-Iranian and anti-Suleimani slogans, and even then, all the Iranians had the energy for by way of projecting force was to deploy some of their more-pliable PMFs around the Green Zone, and revving up a few impromptu car parades, horns blaring, waving the Iranian flag in Basra. Iranian angst over what lies ahead may all add up to a decoupling of their Syria and Iraq strategies: Syria because they are in too deep, and Iraq because it is too much of a headache.


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