Can populist demagogue help resolve Iraq’s ‘profound political crisis’?


The top U.N. envoy in Iraq strongly urged the country’s leaders and civil society on Friday to work together to resolve the current political deadlock, warning that the ongoing crisis and chaos are only serving the interests of Islamic State extremists, Associated Press reports:

Despite notable progress on the ground against the Islamic State group, Jan Kubis told the U.N. Security Council that enemies of Iraq — “first and foremost” IS extremists — “stand to benefit from political instability and lack of reforms.” The “profound political crisis” engulfing Baghdad and the country has paralyzed the work of the government and parliament “and added a new layer of complications to the already complex set of military, security, humanitarian, economic and human rights challenges the country is facing.”

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (above) have been holding demonstrations and sit-ins for months to demand an overhaul of the political system put in place by the United States following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. On Saturday, hundreds of his supporters stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and broke into the parliament building.

Kubis said a majority of Iraqi political blocs have rejected replacing the cabinet created on the basis of party affiliation or ethnic or sectarian with a cabinet of technocrats sought by al-Sadr and protesters who argue this is the only way “to enact genuine reforms, get rid of a powerful patronage system and achieve success in fighting corruption.”

The cause of Iraq’s political paralysis is neither ideological nor sectarian. In fact, most of the main actors in the continuing dispute are Shiite Islamists, argues Zaid al-Ali, a visiting lecturer and fellow at Princeton. The disagreement is instead based on mutual distrust, which is fueled by the incompetence and corruption that have formed the basis of Iraq’s political system since 2003. There are two simple and necessary changes that should be made immediately, he writes for The New York Times:

  • First, members of Iraq’s Parliament are some of the best-paid legislators in the world. This has had the effect of attracting candidates for the wrong reasons. Salaries, benefits and pensions for members of Parliament should be significantly reduced.
  • Second, the electoral commission must be given wide-ranging powers to disqualify candidates who violate basic campaign rules. In the past, some candidates have openly bribed, manipulated and threatened voters, while financing their campaigns with embezzled funds without any serious penalties. The result is a Parliament populated by society’s worst elements, full of incompetents who have no vision apart from their own enrichment and empowerment. These people should never have been allowed to run for Parliament.

“It might be hard to imagine the enactment of new electoral rules given Iraq’s political situation. But there is a precedent,” adds Ali, the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy”:

In 2009, the Parliament was forced to move from a closed to an open electoral list system because of pressure from Iraqi civil society (including religious institutions, think tanks and major media outlets) and from the international community (including the United Nations, the United States and the European Union). Given the current level of popular anger, there’s a strong possibility that similar pressure could be exerted today, giving strength to efforts to reform electoral rules.

The Iraqi government agreed not to press charges after a judge issued an arrest warrant for Sadr in connection with the killing of prominent Shia leader, Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei.

Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi analyst and commentator, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that Sadr blamed the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, for fracturing his Mahdi Army and peeling off followers to form a rival militia known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq:

When the Iranians and most Shiite politicians accepted the rule of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr was one of the only Shiite leaders to openly criticize him for his violent crackdown on non-violent protests by Sunni Arabs. Even some of Sadr’s most potent critics acknowledge that, for the moment, he has lined up on the side of reform. Kanan Makiya, a historian whose latest novel, “The Rope,” explores the complicity of Shiite leaders in covering up the murder of al-Khoei (right), told me that Sadr today “is a populist demagogue who happens to be riding the right wave at the right time.” Nonetheless, Makiya is concerned: “I worry that Abadi may become beholden to this very dangerous man.”

After the recent storming of parliament “there is not the same level of feeling that this is an untouchable class,” says Renad Mansour, an analyst at Carnegie Endowment. “This is a special time in Iraq, and something has changed in the Iraqi psyche.”

Laith Kubba, former spokesperson for the Iraqi government when the country’s current foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Jaffrey, was in charge, fears the country could spiral out of control and break up in the next three months.

In speaking with the BBC, Kubba, who is now with the National Endowment for Democracy, explained that Iraq appears to be in a period of transition and al-Sadr “has no clarity about what comes next.”

If parliament resists the demands of the protesters, Kubba fears the country will break down into “primarily a Shia-Shia fight, initially” and eventually fall apart, with the Kurds declaring full independence from the rest of Iraq.

At least for now, the protests serve Abadi well, since the prime minister “does not have a natural constituency,” says Mohamad Bazzi, a professor of journalism at NYU who reports on the region. But the political paralysis has set back Iraq’s campaign to retake its second-largest city, Mosul, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Bazzi tells the Council on Foreign Relations:

The core of the problem is the system of sectarian apportioning of positions that starts at the top and works its way to the middle and bottom rungs of government. That’s why the political parties, especially the Shia parties, don’t want to change the system.

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