by: Theodore Bell, Patrick Martin, Jessica Lewis McFate, and Kimberly Kagan
Key Take-away: The government of Iraq is planning sweeping political reforms and attempting to reshuffle the cabinet. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is even calling for the elimination of the Vice President and Deputy Prime Ministers positions. These officials include former Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, a rival of Haider al-Abadi. These events mark the first anniversary of the formation of current Prime Minister (PM) Haider al-Abadi’s government. Iraq’s leading religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is actively backing the Prime Minister and thereby pressuring Shi’a political parties to comply. The Sadrist Trend and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), two of Abadi’s major, Shi’a coalition partners, have supported the reforms, which will go to Iraq’s Parliament on August 11. It remains to be seen whether they pass and whether the officials will step down.
Sistani is involved not only to reaffirm Abadi as premier, but also to protect him against removal by rivals. Qais Khazali, the leader of Asai’ab Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia, called for Abadi’s resignation on August 7. AAH has lately joined former media outlets favorable to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in calling for replacing Iraq’s parliamentary system with a presidential system, in which Iraq’s leader would be selected by popular vote, rather than a vote among members of parliament. Maliki has been trying to position himself as the preferred political candidate of Shi’a militias and likely sees himself as a possible next leader of Iraq. Supporting a presidential system would thereby give Maliki a greater chance of being elected without being beholden to party deliberations over who becomes PM.
Massive protests began in Iraq on July 31 rejecting lack of services and government corruption: Popular demonstrations against poor services and corruption have continued since July 31 in Baghdad, Diyala, Sulaimaniya, and throughout southern Iraq. Although protests over service shortages had previously occurred in June in Basra, they did not spark demonstrations that were either continuous or broadly based through southern Iraq. Popular anger has been directed at local governments over power and water shortages and at the Electricity Minister. Central government officials from across the spectrum, including PM Abadi, have endorsed the protesters’ demands as legitimate and have simultaneously warned against politicization and escalation of security.
Ayatollah Sistani’s representative delivered a landmark sermon on August 7 supporting the Prime Minister: Ayatollah Sistani’s representative encouraged PM Abadi to implement a meaningful reform agenda as a solution to the protesters’ grievances. The sermon preceded popular demonstrations across southern Iraq planned for the Friday evening, indicating the Najaf establishment’s desire to steer the protests in a peaceful direction and foster support for PM Abadi’s government. The sermon notably did not accuse PM Abadi of poor governance. Rather, it identified systemic “administrative and financial corruption” as the source of poor public services. Ayatollah Sistani called on PM Abadi to be “more daring and courageous” in his anti-corruption campaign and to remove any public official, regardless of political rank or religious or ethnic affiliation, who obstructs reform. The sermon further encouraged the Prime Minister not to fear “rejection” by political forces because the “people will support him” in this effort. PM Abadi seized this opening provided by Ayatollah Sistani and issued a televised statement following the sermon that promised a “comprehensive reform plan” and calling on “political forces to cooperate in its implementation.”
Several major political parties are now endorsing PM Abadi’s reforms. Several major Shi’a political factions had publically supported Abadi’s reform program following Ayatollah Sistani’s Friday sermon. ISCI’s Mowatin Bloc declared its support for PM Abadi in implementing reforms on August 7 and called for an emergency session of the CoM to discuss the reforms. The Sunni Speaker of the Parliament, Salim al-Juburi, stated that protesters’ demands were legitimate and that the parliament will discuss the demands in its next session on August 11. The Sunni Etihad Bloc on August 8 affirmed the importance of anti-corruption reforms and stated that the responsibility lies with PM Abadi. The pan-Shi’a National Alliance also voiced its “full commitment” to Ayatollah Sistani’s directive and for PM Abadi in preparing reforms on August 8, as did Moqtada al-Sadr, the Sadrist Trend leader. Sadr’s response, and those of other major Iraqi Shi’a political formations such as ISCI, indicates that the major Shi’a parties are concerned that the demonstrations will undermine their positions and political power, as they hold office in many of the southern provinces. Shi’a parties are also likely attempting to keep the protests non-violent.
PM Abadi’s reforms have passed the Council of Ministers and may pass the Council of Representatives. PM Abadi’s reform agenda, announced on August 9, passed unanimously by the Council of Ministers (COM). The reforms included the removal of the three deputy Prime Minister and three Vice Presidential (VP) posts, a reduction in salaries for all senior government officials, and a two-year party and sectarian limit on top appointments in government. Critically, the reforms would result in the elimination of Maliki’s VP position. But while the reforms passed in the CoM, they must also pass a CoR vote scheduled for August 11 to go into effect. A spokesperson for ISCI’s Mowatin Bloc, loyal to the cleric Ammar al-Hakim, stated that Mowatin would vote in favor of the reforms, as did al-Ahrar bloc, a component of the Sadrist Trend loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. ISCI and Ahrar’s reactions, in this regard, are consistent with previous statements in support of PM Abadi, including Mowatin’s instructions to its ministers on August 7 to resign in order to allow PM Abadi to implement reforms via the reappointment of ministers, and the decision of Deputy PM Bahaa al-Araji, an Ahrar member, to resign shortly before PM Abadi announced the reforms.
The State of Law Alliance may split in the Council of Representatives vote on reforms because Abadi is competing with rival Prime Minister Maliki for control of their common political bloc. Abadi’s own State of Law Alliance (SLA) may not be uniformly in favor of the reforms. Abadi came to power as part of this political bloc, but he does not have its full support, as former PM Maliki remains a dominant figure within it. SLA members have contradicted one another, with one calling Abadi’s reforms “illegal” and “unconstitutional” and another praising the removal of the deputy positions. Pro-Maliki social media outlets were largely silent on the subject of the vice president and deputy positions but voiced generic support for Abadi and reforms. In addition, the head of AAH’s political bloc in the CoR, Hassan Salim, supported the reforms, but added that the other reforms were required to improve the Integrity Commission, which he claimed did not do enough to fight corruption.
The legislation may pass in the CoR even without the unanimous support from within the SLA, which is likely split between those who support PM Abadi and those who support VP Maliki. Article 59 of the Iraqi Constitution provides that all legislation requires an absolute majority of the members present in order to pass, with a quorum being reached at 164 members, or 50 percent of the CoR. As such, legislation requires between 83 and 165 votes for approval, depending on the number of MPs present for the vote. If every member of the Sadrist Trend, ISCI, Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and major Sunni and secular party attends the vote and support the reforms, PM Abadi will have 149 votes in favor. If the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Gorran (Change) party join the KDP and vote as a single Kurdish bloc, they will bring an additional 30 votes in support of the reforms. In this scenario, SLA would be unable to block the vote even if every SLA member of parliament voted against the bill. The SLA could not block the reforms under the above conditions even if the PUK, Gorran, the SLA, Fadhila, and Islah opposed it, which would result in a 149-140 split.
PM Abadi’s government appears to be in a strong position to execute reforms immediately. Instead of leading to greater instability, protests, Shi’a politicians, and the marja’iya all seem to be empowering PM Abadi and bolstering him against rivalries and cascading challenges.
The Power Politics Behind the Reforms:
Ayatollah Sistani has used the protest movement as a platform to raise a national political reform agenda on Abadi's behalf. His sermon gave rise to an immediate, coherent, and drastic reform agenda by PM Abadi, which was received with shocking equanimity by a vast array of political actors, whose COR votes auspiciously equate to a majority - which is exceedingly hard to achieve in Iraq, especially without VP Maliki’s camp within the State of Law Alliance (SLA). This rapid coherence of a national reform agenda and potential COR majority on the heels of a sermon by Ayatollah Sistani suggests premeditation and preparation. One might therefore look to the past few weeks, or months of protests, political moves, and sermons for evidence of an alignment forming in advance of the events of August 7-10.
Prime Minister Abadi hits his first anniversary in office this week, likely prompting a review of his tenure. Iraqi politicians had likely agreed to give Abadi a year in office under the current power sharing arrangements. Sistani confirmed Abadi as Prime Minister but allowed him to alter the terms of the deal by which he came to power. Ayatollah Sistani may also have used his sermon and its influence over protesters to head off a politically de-stabilizing effort that would have undermined Abadi’s government. There is evidence that AAH tried to undermine Abadi on August 7, in events described below.
Shi’a political competition has been intensifying since January 2015. Some Shi’a political parties have answered more faithfully to Iran than to Najaf over the past year. Based on national elections, the basic internal rivalries reflect realignment with or opposition to Maliki, who had ultimately stepped down from office under intense domestic, international, and Shi’a clerical pressure. PM Abadi was chosen as a compromise candidate for PM. Abadi’s first year in office may be characterized as one in which he faced multiple existential threats to his office and to the integrity of Iraq’s central government: namely, a difficult war against ISIS and attempts by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias to subvert the control of the ISF.
Over time, PM Abadi’s vulnerabilities have likely increased, due to lack of confidence, turmoil, internal competition, and direct rivalries. For events instead to be going in Abadi’s favor, it is reasonable to hypothesize that Abadi took preemptive measures not only to reform the central government through anti-corruption and decentralization campaigns as promised, but also to execute political re-shuffles of a drastic nature to eliminate direct threats to his office and make reform possible. It seems unlikely that Abadi just got lucky. Rather, it seems more likely that Ayatollah Sistani, PM Abadi, and other political players determined to combine forces ahead of time in pursuit of national reforms.
The question is, what specific threat were they countering?
Maliki has been opposing Abadi and advocating for a presidential system.
Maliki had been trying to undermine Abadi. When he stepped down as Prime Minister, Maliki retained significant influence within the SLA, which is also Abadi’s party. He has previously attempted to position himself since January as a militia leader; and he unleashed a social media campaign against Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi following the fall of an Anbar military outpost in April, though Maliki himself never issued statements implicating himself in the campaign. Maliki thereafter took further steps to represent himself as a leader of the militias that were mobilizing to fight ISIS, thereby attempting to marginalize or possibly re-capture the Ministry of Defense for his agenda. Maliki was also making a play to convert Iraq from a parliamentary to a presidential system by having allies advocate for that new system. Pro-Maliki media outlets and AAH have echoed this theme for nearly a year.
Sistani has put Maliki in a bit of a twist. Since August 7, VP Maliki has been doing what he can to use the language of reform to redirect the attention at his political opponents while he has publicly declared his support for Ayatollah Sistani’s reform directive. It will remain important to monitor VP Maliki’s response to the unfolding political developments in light of PM Abadi’s initial steps to enact government reforms.
The Iranian-backed militias and their political affiliates were corporately making a move against Abadi at the behest of Qom, which Ayatollah Sistani and many nationalist Iraqi Shi’a political parties rejected. The Iranian-backed Badr Organization endorsed the peaceful protests on August 6, prior to Ayatollah Sistani’s sermon, but did not declare its intent to participate and warned against losing focus on the anti-ISIS fight. Badr issued a brief statement following the sermon in support of Sistani’s call for reform, without providing any additional details on either the sermon or the demonstrations. Amiri stated that he “added his voice” to the demonstrators, but that he could not participate because he was “busy” with the fight against ISIS, in line with Badr’s ongoing political agenda to promote itself as a capable national military force that will liberate tracts of ISIS-occupied Iraq. Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH), another Iranian-backed militia, did not issue a statement on the subject at all, despite having stated its interest on July 18 in interrogating the Electricity Minister, seeking to punish corruption, and ending the electricity crisis. The Nujaba Movement (NM), another Iranian proxy militia, had stated its intent to participate in the Friday protests but there was little indication of significant Iranian proxy participation in the largely-peaceful protests on Friday. The Iranian proxy groups’ limited public responses to the unfolding political developments are likely due their inability to rally direct opposition to Ayatollah Sistani as well as their preoccupation with anti-ISIS operations.
While AAH did not overtly participate in the demonstrations, AAH leader Qais al-Khazali, in a speech delivered on August 7, asserted that PM Abadi faced “a major historic responsibility” and that the PM should submit his resignation if he is unable to address the need for reforms. Khazali also used the speech to repeat AAH’s call for the transition to a presidential system, an initiative championed by AAH and widely regarded as a method by which to empower VP Maliki, whose relationship with AAH is well-established. In this context, Ayatollah Sistani’s sermon may be seen as an effort to empower PM Abadi against the political designs of AAH, its patrons in Qom and Tehran, and VP Maliki. AAH’s rhetoric therefore indicates the group’s political divergence from the majority of Iraq’s major Shi’a political actors and point to AAH’s intention to leverage the protests against PM Abadi to obstruct political reform by calling for the PM’s resignation and a transition to a presidential system, an initiative VP Maliki himself advocates. It will therefore remain important to monitor the development of protests in southern Iraq, where VP Maliki’s SLA is dominant, given that VP Maliki and AAH may seek to leverage the localized demonstrations against the national government.
What to watch for:
While PM Abadi’s reform initiative unanimously passed in the CoM, it must also pass in the CoR on August 11. Pro-Maliki elements within the SLA will not be supportive of attempts to curb VP Maliki’s influence by eliminating his VP position. Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has voicedsupport for the reforms, as has Osama al-Nujaifi of Mutahidun. Meanwhile the PUK and Gorran (Change), the two Kurdish parties acting as the opposition to the KDP, the majority party in the Kurdish Parliament, may not be fully supportive of the reform agenda. The PUK has voicedsupport, with the caveat that all inclusions to the reform program be “legal” and constitutional, indicating hesitation to approve unspecified components of the reform agenda.
However, SLA is unlikely to vote as a single bloc given that PM Abadi is also a member of the Dawa Party, which is a component of the SLA. Furthermore, Ayatollah Sistani’s endorsement of reforms is all but certain to garner pro-reform and anti-VP Maliki votes from within the SLA. This precedent was set in August 2014 when the major Shi’a parties voted to replace then-PM Nouri al-Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi. In this instance Ayatollah Sistani’s call for a “new prime minister who has wide national acceptance” prompted the SLA to fracture, with half of the SLA, including 38 Dawa Party members, voting against then-PM Maliki.
It is thus unlikely that the CoR will vote against a reform bill, especially given the political legitimacy that the reform initiative enjoys on account of its endorsement by Ayatollah Sistani. The likeliest method for blocking the reforms is therefore an obstruction of the vote scheduled for August 11. VP Maliki’s allies may insist that the reforms require amending the constitution, prompting a lengthy bureaucratic process. Opponents of the reforms may also seek to obstruct the process by adding amendments unpalatable to pro-reform parties. Speaker Salim al-Juburi’s introduction on August 10 of a 16-point reform paper for consideration by the CoR illustrates political parties’ intent to use the reform momentum to achieve further goals. However, the paper Juburi introduced is not attached to PM Abadi’s reform bill, and will be voted on separately, though includes caveats that would antagonize Shi’a party members. If PM Abadi’s reform agenda is brought to the CoR on August 11 in its current form, it is therefore highly likely that the CoR will vote in favor of the reforms.