by Patrick Martin
Key Take-Away: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced a major cabinet reshuffle on February 9 in an attempt to reform his government. Political blocs are unlikely to tolerate losing control over their ministries, however, and could unite to override the prime minster if he attempts to undercut them. Shi’a religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who formerly backed the prime minister’s reforms, has ceased to give political sermons, depriving PM Abadi of his public backing. Meanwhile, PM Abadi’s political opponents and Iranian proxy militias have escalated their efforts to restrict his powers over the past month. PM Abadi’s survival in office may be tenuous at best, and there is a possibility that the cabinet reshuffle could backfire against him, weakening him further or leading to his removal. Actors who previously supported PM Abadi’s reform programs may consider ousting him in the event of non-implementation of the reform agenda. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who previously expressed strong support for PM Abadi’s reforms, gave him only 45 days to implement wide-ranging reforms, threatening to “withdraw confidence within the Council of Representatives” in the event of failure. PM Abadi’s weakening and possible removal would strike a serious blow to the U.S.’s ability to support the ISF in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, as it is likely that a pro-Iranian – and anti-Coalition – political figure would secure the premiership.
Context of the Cabinet Reshuffle Announcement
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced in a televised speech on February 9 a “radical cabinet reshuffle” with the intent of replacing members of his Council of Minister (CoM) with technocrats and academics. He has announced no details of what the reshuffle will look like or to what extent the CoM will change. The Speaker of the Council of Representatives (CoR) and a senior member of the Sunni Etihad bloc, Salim al-Juburi, noted that any reshuffling of the CoM would have to be approved in the CoR in accord with the constitution. PM Abadi, when strong, has been able to make changes. He reduced the size of the CoM and reshuffled positions on August 9 and 16, 2015 during a brief period when his opponents were hesitant to openly oppose the reforms, particularly because he had the public backing of Shi’a religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In theory, PM Abadi can accomplish major reforms and fundamentally change the composition of his government.
In practice, it will be nearly impossible for PM Abadi to replace senior leaders of political blocs with technocrats and maintain his seat as prime minister. PM Abadi does not command a strong majority in his own Dawa party, let alone the support of other political blocs participating in his tenuously balanced unity government. Political blocs covet control over ministries as sources of patronage and political influence, and divergent parties will likely set aside their political differences to block any attempt to deny them control over ministries. The move could therefore unite the political blocs against him and generate a meaningful threat of a no-confidence vote. An attempt by PM Abadi to change the composition of the government would thus be likely to fail and may constitute political suicide.
Rumors first emerged of PM Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle on January 19, when anonymous sources claimed that PM Abadi would replace members of the CoM, most of whom are senior members of political blocs, with less senior members. He later confirmed that he was pursuing a cabinet reshuffle during a conversation with media on January 25 but offered no further details. Unconfirmed reports list six ministers as being targets for replacement. They include Education Minister Hussein al-Shahristani of the State of Law Alliance (SLA); Interior Minister Muhammad al-Ghabban of the Badr Organization; Bayan Jabr of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI); Electricity Minister Qasim al-Fahdawi of the Loyalty to Anbar bloc; Industry and Minerals Minister Muhammad al-Darraji of the Sadrist Trend; and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). If true, these reports indicate that PM Abadi is not attempting to cut any one party out of the CoM or targeting any particular bloc. However, the inclusion of Ghabban is noteworthy, as he is a senior member of a proxy militia and subordinate to Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri, who rejected earlier reports of his rumored removal on January 20. The Badr Organization values its control over the Interior Ministry, as it provides Amiri and his Iranian backers with a large degree of control over the country’s police forces and a number of security agencies.
The other ministers on the list are also powerbrokers in their parties. Hussein al-Shahristani is the former Minister of Oil in the Maliki government and a relative of Ayatollah Jawad Shahristani, Sistani’s son-in-law and representative in Iran. Bayan Jabr was Maliki’s Minister of Finance and a prominent figure in the Badr Organization when it was still a subsidiary of ISCI. Qasim al-Fahdawi was the former governor of Anbar and is a prominent Sunni politician. Hoshyar Zebari served as Maliki’s Foreign Minister and has been the leading KDP official in Iraqi national politics. Muhammad al-Darraji was Maliki’s Housing Minister and remains a top Sadrist official.
PM Abadi’s announcement came after a month of brazen impunity by PM Abadi’s primary opponent, the Iranian proxy militias, who demonstrated their intent to undermine Abadi’s rule through four major developments in 2016.
1) Iranian proxy militias openly rejected and expelled Iraqi Security Forces in the militia hub of Basra. Security in Basra had deteriorated precipitously due to the forward deployment of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) from the province to the front lines to fight ISIS and secure Baghdad. As a result, militias, often called “criminal gangs” in the Iraqi press, proliferated and violence between rival groups escalated. In response, PM Abadi sent an armored Iraqi Army (IA) brigade to Basra on January 13 to re-impose order and disarm the groups as well as warring tribes. However, a force from the armored brigade got into a confrontation with members of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, (KSAS), an Iranian proxy militia, during which several KSAS members were injured. Proxy militias then made a joint statement on January 16 rejecting the presence of security forces from outside the province and demanding that it leave. The brigade withdrew from Basra on January 19, one week after it deployed. The successful expulsion of an IA brigade from Basra, Iraq’s main oil-producing province and a major historical hub of militia activity, demonstrated the weakness of PM Abadi’s authority and the willingness of Iranian proxies to openly defy his authority.
2) Iranian proxy militias have been openly maneuvering to undermine the ISF and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS Coalition in Iraq by positioning the Popular Mobilization at the forefront of security operations. Proxy militia leaders have been pressuring PM Abadi heavily to invite them to participate in operations to recapture Mosul while U.S. officials insist that Iranian proxy militias must not engage in any future operations. The participation of Iraqi Shi’a militias in a Mosul operation would enhance the narrative that the Popular Mobilization is the essential ally of the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS, undercut U.S. influence and participation in a Mosul operation, undermine the legitimacy of the Iraqi Security Forces, and expose the predominantly Sunni province of Ninewa to sectarian abuses and violence. Proxy militia leaders have been meeting under the pretext of discussing the importance of the Popular Mobilization with some frequency since early January. These meetings included a January 14 visit by senior proxy militia leader and U.S.-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to the Ministry of Defense (MoD), as well as a meeting between Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri and the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Ammar al-Hakim, on January 20. Senior proxy leaders Amiri, former U.S. detainee Qais al-Khazali, and Abu Alaa met on February 8 and 9 to discuss Mosul in particular. These attempts to undermine the ISF and the Coalition reduces both PM Abadi’s freedom to operate independent of Iranian control and the ability of the U.S. to assist the ISF in recapturing territory from ISIS.
Above: Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri (far left), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali (second from left), and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada leader Abu Alaa (third from left) at a meeting on February 8 to discuss the Coalition’s insistence on preventing the Popular Mobilization from participating in Mosul operations.
3) PM Abadi’s reform agenda has ground to a halt. PM Abadi launched a major reform initiative in August 2015 following a fiery anti-corruption sermon by the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme religious authority and a key ally of PM Abadi. However, despite an initial flurry of successful reforms and unparalleled popular support for PM Abadi from thousands of civil demonstrators in Baghdad and southern Iraq, his political opponents have successfully blocked his reforms one month into his initiative. Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, in particular, the former PM whose removal was PM Abadi’s top priority in the August 2015 reforms, succeeded in keeping his position within government. Maliki has aligned himself with the Iranian-backed proxy militias for more than a year. He leverages them as a powerful force, and they leverage him as a powerful politician. Since then, political blocs have blocked the passage of all major reforms; an ill-fated attempt to change the salary scales for federal employees even faced resistance from Sistani himself. In addition, no major legislation other than the budget has been able to pass the CoR due to irreconcilable differences between Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish parties on the particulars of key laws, such as the National Guard Law, Federal Court Act, and the Justice and Accountability Law. Iranian proxy militias publicly rejected the National Guard Law in September 2015, after which discussions on the draft law withered away. Iranian proxies’ ability to stifle government legislation poses a serious threat to national reconciliation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’a, and highlight the weakness of PM Abadi, whose selection in September 2014 was based in part on promises to see that these laws passed.
4) Proxy militias targeted U.S. personnel in Baghdad. An unspecified Iranian proxy militia kidnapped three American contractors in southern Baghdad on January 15, just two days after U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployed to Iraq to begin operations as part of a specialized targeting force to target ISIS. It was the first kidnapping of U.S. personnel in Iraq since the U.S. withdrew forces from Iraq in December 2011. The U.S. and the Coalition are PM Abadi’s main allies in the fight against ISIS, but Iranian proxy militias, and Iran by consequence, aim to expel the U.S. and replace Coalition support with Iranian and/or Russian support. The kidnapping was an embarrassment for the Iraqi government and demonstrated the level of impunity that Iranian proxy militias have in Iraq, as well as the threat they pose to the U.S. and its efforts to assist the ISF fight ISIS.
Reasons for the Announcement
The timing of PM Abadi’s announcement was likely deliberate and a product of a combination of motivators. First, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has shifted away from his political outspokenness to return to the more quietist position he originally favored. The supreme religious authority had supported PM Abadi’s previous reform efforts in August, and his representatives have frequently given sermons on the necessity of passing government reforms and anti-corruption measures. However, he has more recently become frustrated with the government’s inability to combat corruption, calling for a technocratic government as Iraq’s budgetary crisis increased. Sistani’s representative announced on February 5 that his weekly political sermons were suspended unless demanded by new developments. The change may be leverage to prod Abadi into taking reform members, or it may result from Sistani’s declining health. Regardless, Sistani has called for government reforms vigorously between August 2015 and February 2016, making his opinions clear. PM Abadi likely would not even attempt the reshuffle without Sistani’s previous statements. Second, PM Abadi may have privately secured the support of key figures within the political blocs, including senior members of the State of Law Alliance (SLA) who do not support the Iranian proxies, as well as in ISCI and the Sadrist Trend, without necessarily notifying the whole group. Leaders within these groups supported PM Abadi’s previous reform efforts, primarily as a means of weakening their political opponents and increasing their relative power within the government. However, ISCI’s Ammar al-Hakim stated on January 27 that any move to reorganize government must be “justified and non-impulsive,” suggesting that he knew little about the specifics of the cabinet reshuffle. In addition, a member of the Dawa Party, of which PM Abadi is a member, stated that PM Abadi had not brought up the cabinet reshuffle in a recent party meeting. It thus remains unclear to what extent he consulted senior political leaders about the specifics of the cabinet reshuffle prior to its announcement.
PM Abadi may also have initiated the cabinet reshuffle after detecting a move against him by his opponents. An imminent threat to his political survival made by his political opponents and/or Iranian proxy militias might have forced the PM to make a gambit to increase his control over the government and improve its performance while protecting himself from a possible move to oust him. PM Abadi’s opponents have been laying the groundwork for months for PM Abadi’s eventual departure from power and replacement by a figure that is more supportive of Iranian-backed militias. Maliki himself has been attempting to increase his attractiveness as a successor candidate by openly siding with Iranian proxy militias and opposing PM Abadi.
Reactions to the Announcement
Iraq’s political blocs almost unanimously voiced their approval for a cabinet reshuffle, as was the case with PM Abadi’s previous reforms. Some political leaders used the reform language to attack one other, indicating that they intend to use the reforms to increase their political position at the expense of their rivals. However, recent statements have been laced with threatening language that indicates a growing dissatisfaction with PM Abadi among the Shi’a parties that underscores his precarious position.
ISCI was the most publicly supportive of PM Abadi’s reshuffle, issuing a statement calling for a government of technocrats. The ISCI Transport Minister, Bayan Jabr, stated his approval of the cabinet reshuffle. Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of ISCI and a supporter of PM Abadi’s prior reforms, voiced his approval for the reform process, adding that the party quota system, wherein ministries and key positions are determined based on party affiliation, needed to end. Hakim did meet however meet on February 14 with Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri, an Iranian proxy leader, indicating that ISCI is coordinating a response to the reforms with PM Abadi’s opponents rather than fully endorsing PM Abadi’s reform package. Other parties, including the Kurdish Gorran party and the Sunni Etihad bloc, also issued statements of support for the cabinet reshuffle.
Other parties largely distanced themselves from the cabinet reshuffle debate. Iyad Allawi, the leader of the secular Wataniya bloc, expressed skepticism about the process, stating that the current CoM composition was already technocratic, as most of its members held advanced degrees. However, a Wataniya leader later stated that the bloc endorsed reform proposals by the Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Similarly, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) stated that the reshuffling “does not concern the Kurds” who “paid the price” for putting their trust in the previous government reshuffling in August 2015 which removed Kurds from key positions within the security forces.
The State of Law Alliance (SLA), led by PM Abadi’s primary rival, Vice President (VP) Nouri al-Maliki, used more threatening language in its support for PM Abadi’s reforms. Although the SLA Education Minister, Hussein al-Shahristani, offered to present PM Abadi with his resignation in a show of support for the reshuffle, the move was largely symbolic and obscures the true position of pro-Maliki elements within the SLA. One State of Law Alliance member stated that there was a need to form a single parliamentary group out of multiple political blocs to assign PM Abadi “or someone else” with the formation of the new government, again, threatening no confidence. A large contingent of the SLA has openly discussed removing PM Abadi in the past, issuing a letter on October 27, 2015 threatening to “withdraw their mandate” from PM Abadi due to his lack of consultation with political blocs on his last major reform program regarding salary scales for government employees; at least one Maliki supporter openly speculated about the possibility of replacing PM Abadi. Maliki himself openly opposed PM Abadi’s reforms in October 29, 2015, insisting that PM Abadi’s decision to abolish the post of the Vice President in August was not constitutional and that political blocs could withdraw their “mandate” from PM Abadi. Maliki has been positioning himself to succeed PM Abadi in the event of his removal, and he has secured the support of Iran and its proxy militias. Previously, the pro-Maliki elements of the SLA have used the threat of a no-confidence vote to constrain PM Abadi’s freedom of action, but his most recent reform announcement could open the door the prospect of removing PM Abadi becoming a reality.
Above: VP Nouri al-Maliki (center) attends a memorial service on January 27, 2016, for a Popular Mobilization leader, seated between Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri (right) and Kata’ib Hezbollah leader and U.S.-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (left). Maliki frequently meets with Popular Mobilization and Iranian proxy leaders and is likely Iran’s preferred candidate for the premiership in the event that PM Abadi be removed from office.
The most alarming reaction came from, Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Trend, who called for a comprehensive reform program on February 13 but threatened to oust PM Abadi from office. Sadr insisted on wide-ranging reforms that included reform of financial institutions and the judiciary, the formation of a technocratic government, and comprehensive security sector reform that included parliamentary votes of approval on all division leaders and military staff. Sadr’s statement highlighted issues that demonstrated his desire to see the reform program undermine the position of the SLA, Sadr’s primary political rival within the Shi’a political establishment; his insistence on “purging” the judiciary is rooted in Sadr’s insistence that Medhat al-Mahmoud, the head of the judiciary and a long-time ally of SLA leader VP Nouri al-Maliki, must leave office. However, Sadr also stated his frustration with PM Abadi’s inability to pass reforms, and only gave PM Abadi 45 days to implement the reforms and provide a reform program for the upcoming year or he would “withdraw confidence from PM Abadi in the CoR.” The explicit wording strongly suggested that he would pursue either a no-confidence vote, but could be interpreted as a threat to withdraw the Sadrist Trend from the government. Shortly afterwards, leaders in the Sadrist Trend’s al-Ahrar Bloc stated that they would withdraw from the political process if Sadr’s 45-day deadline was not met.
With Sadr’s support, the threat of a no-confidence vote against PM Abadi becomes a genuine possibility. A vote of no-confidence requires a questioning session, a request for the no-confidence vote from at least 50 CoR members, and successful passage of the vote with an absolute majority in the CoR. Previously, it would have been extremely difficult for Maliki’s allies to engineer a successful no-confidence vote. Were the Sadrist Trend to withdraw from government, however, it would be more likely, though not given, that a no-confidence vote could succeed.
Possible Courses of Action
With the threat of a no-confidence having become more realistic with Sadr’s statements, it is clear that PM Abadi is losing support. How the cabinet reshuffle process plays out could fundamentally change the composition of the government, or result in its collapse. This presents several steps that could be taken over the course of the cabinet reshuffle.
PM Abadi could attempt a genuine cabinet reshuffle that replaces ministers with genuine technocrats possessing few if any political ties. This course of action is highly unlikely; political blocs would immediately obstruct any attempt to oust their ministers from the CoM without their consultation. It would also likely rally numerous competing political blocs together to oust PM Abadi from his post to collapse the CoM.
PM Abadi could oversee a partial cabinet reshuffle, with some ministers being replaced. Although it is possible that some of the new ministers could be true technocrats, the reality is that political blocs covet control over ministries far more than they value an accountable and functional government. It is far more likely that political blocs compete to oust one another from each other’s cabinet positions. In this case, as with the previous reforms in August 2015, the Sadrist Trend and ISCI would most likely attempt to displace SLA ministers from their positions in the CoM, and vice versa.
More dangerously, the reshuffle could get bogged down in political competition and fail. If PM Abadi fails to succeed with a cabinet reshuffle, then he would be exposed to a vote of no-confidence, particularly if failure drives the Sadrist Trend from the government. This is a worst case scenario, particularly because if PM Abadi were to leave office, then his replacement would almost certainly be less accepting of the U.S. and the U.S.-led Coalition in the fight against ISIS. The nomination of Nouri al-Maliki as PM in particular would be a heavy blow to the U.S., as he has become vehemently anti-American and has transformed himself into an Iranian proxy actor. This would increase the ability of Iran to increase its involvement in Iraq and expel the U.S. from its leading role in the anti-ISIS fight as well as from the country itself. However, Maliki remains a highly controversial figure, detested by the Sunni and Kurdish blocs as well as the Sadrist Trend, and it is not at all a given that he could secure the nomination.
The removal of PM Abadi would make it dramatically more difficult for the U.S. and the Coalition to conduct anti-ISIS operations; for Iraq to address its political and financial problems; and address political divides between competing parties, especially national reconciliation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’a. Coalition initiatives, such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s proposal of the integration of U.S. advisers present at forward bases and with Iraqi military units in a future Mosul operation, would likely be blocked by a new government. Although announcement of the cabinet reshuffle appears bold, it indicates PM Abadi’s weak position and the threats he faces from his opponents. There is a high likelihood that the initiative backfires and fails to achieve any substantial reform, further weakening of PM Abadi’s powers and increasing the relative ability of his opponents to constrict his freedom of action. Failure could be the pretext of PM Abadi’s ouster, while even a stalled reshuffle could expose him to attack by his pro-Iranian opponents. The U.S. must quickly provide support to PM Abadi and his government, and above all financial support that helps to ease Iraq’s budgetary crisis, strengthens the Iraqi Security Forces, and creates leverage that the U.S. and Abadi can use to accelerate effective reforms.