From Maliki to Abadi:
The Challenge of Being Iraq’s Prime Minister Part 1 of 2
By: Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee
On April 30 and May 20, 2016, protesters, including supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, breached the heavily fortied Green Zone in Baghdad that houses Iraq’s Parliament as well as the prime minister’s office. Challenging the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and demanding reforms, the protesters were eventually confronted by security forces, leaving several dead.
Haider al-Abadi headed the new government that was voted into power by the parliament in September 2014. This new government was hailed by the United States; by Iraq’s most powerful Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; by the prominent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and by most Kurdish and Sunni parties. The only voiced objections came from the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his associates.
Ending Maliki’s prime ministership became a necessity for all those parties, who saw him as a divisive figure with a legacy of exclusivist and authoritarian policies. The United States had played an important role in forcing Maliki out of office despite his sweeping victory in the April 2014 general election.
U.S. officials, including President Obama, had criticized Maliki for following policies that undermined the achievements of 2008, when cooperation between U.S. forces, the Iraqi government, and local Sunni fighters helped create a proper framework to undercut al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Likewise, Iraqi parties that had been critical of Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies hoped that Abadi would abide by power-sharing agreements and govern in a more inclusive mode. The new prime minister promised to do so in his governmental program, announcing ambitious plans for national reconciliation, for improving relations between Iraqi communities, and for reforming state institutions.
This Brief reviews Abadi’s premiership so far and seeks to answer the following questions: How much has Abadi’s governance differed from—or resembled— Maliki’s? And has the transition from Maliki to Abadi led to any significant change in Iraq’s political dynamics?
The Brief argues that, despite improvements in his style of governing, Abadi could not make a significant alteration regarding major political issues, especially those pertaining to relations with the Kurish and the Sunni groups, constitutional reforms and political and security arrangements in the war against ISIS.
The necessary conclusion is that Iraq’s main problems are systemic and related to the way the whole political system is structured. A Shia prime minister like Abadi needs to command a broad constituency that is loyal to and supportive of him in order to make the concessions and compromises that a new political compact would require.
Abadi, although armed with good intentions and the desire to make a difference, lacks such a constituency and, as a result, has not been able to make those changes.
The Da’wa Party and Intra-Shia Rivalries
To understand why Abadi has not yet been able to deliver the changes he promised, one needs first to look at the dynamics shaping intra-Shia politics.
As a result of those dynamics, Abadi lost the support of his electoral bloc, State of Law (SOL), without securing genuine support from alternative Shia forces.
Consequently, the main challenge to his prime ministership came from within his Shia base, leaving him in a weak position from which he was unlikely to be able to institute essential reforms at the national level.
Since the formation of Iraq’s transitional government led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari in 2005, Da’wa, a Shia party, has occupied the prime ministership.
The early decision to award this position to Da’wa was a compromise between the then two largest Shia groups, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by the Hakim family, and the Muqtada al-Sadr movement. The two groups and their leading families had fiercely competed and clashed both politically and militarily.
This led various Shia groups to conclude that selecting a Da’wa member as prime minister was the minimum requirement for securing unity in the Shia alliance, given that the party was the smallest among the three groups contesting for power in Iraq.
Similar calculations led to the appointment of Maliki to the position in 2006, especially after the Kurdish alliance refused to agree to a new full term for Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was accused of having engaged in a unilateral style of leadership. During his first two years in office, Maliki appeared to be very weak and was largely ineffective. His constituency in the parliament comprised only a handful of Da’wa MPs.
He was constantly complaining that he had no real power over his government and that ministers and other state offcials followed the instructions of their parties rather than his directives.
In this context, Maliki seems to have concluded that his survival required a loyal political bloc rather than a deal between ISCI, Sadrists, the Kurdish alliance, and the Sunni coalition, none of whom had any interest in empowering him. The political scene began to change signifcantly in 2008, especially following the Maliki-led military operation in Basra, which forced Sadr’s militia to withdraw from Iraq’s only port city and the source of about 70 percent of its oil production.
Additionally, the formation of the Awakening Groups, which helped downgrade al-Qaeda in Sunni areas and reduced sectarian violence in Baghdad, had further strengthened Maliki and reconstructed his image as a strong and determined leader. Building on those successes, Maliki formed State of Law (SOL), a Da’wa-led coalition which emerged as the largest and most popular Shia coalition in both the provincial election of 2009 and the general election of 2010.
He subsequently became more confident in making his own decisions, pursuing a more aggressive approach, and acting in a more authoritarian way, in particular seeking to consolidate his personal power over state institutions.
Although he could not acquire full control, he was heading in that direction, especially after his sweeping victory in the general election of April 2014. This explains why the Muqtada al-Sadr movement and ISCI decided to overcome their history of hostility and work together to counter the threat caused by Maliki’s increasing popularity and his consolidation of power.
But it was only when Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, fell to ISIS, and several units of the Iraqi army collapsed, that new conditions for challenging Maliki began to materialize. The United States blamed Maliki and his policies for intensifying the sectarian divide that had created a suitable environment for ISIS to recruit and mobilize and to acquire territory. U.S. officials concluded that it was necessary to have a less divisive prime minister in order to advance the war against ISIS.
The most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, also favored removing Maliki. Additionally, several senior Da’wa members, including Abadi, thought that Maliki’s insistence on staying in office for a third term would jeopardize the party’s chances of maintaining the prime ministership.
At the end, Maliki was left with only one major backer: Iran. Despite Iran’s backing, however, the party could not ignore Sistani’s will. In the end, Sistani’s position and the United States’ desire to see a new prime minister put enough pressure on Iran so that it withdrew its support for Maliki.
Shia religious authorities and major groups, particularly the Sadr movement and ISCI, hoped that Abadi would be less authoritarian and more willing to share power.
Their long-term objective was to undermine Maliki’s influence within state institutions and the military, which, as prime minister and commander-in-chief, he had managed to solidify by appointing his loyalists to key senior positions. In the end, Da’wa and other State of Law (SOL) leaders were emboldened to propose a new candidate for the position.
In August 2014, the Shia Alliance accepted the nomination of Abadi to be the new prime minister, and the Iraqi president, Fuad Masum, asked him to form a new government, notwithstanding Maliki’s objections.
Abadi’s Prime Ministership: Undoing Maliki Despite the broad support that existed for replacing Maliki, Iraqi political parties have been less interested in installing an effective prime minister and enabling him to succeed.
Undoing Maliki was the main objective, even if the price was to move back to the 2006 conditions, with a weak prime minister amidst a chaotic political scene. Abadi had to choose between fighting the influential networks that Maliki had embedded within state institutions, or allying with the latter in order to secure the support of SOL, which was still led by the previous prime minister.
The conflict between Abadi’s need to be different from Maliki and his desire not to be at the mercy of other political groups helps explain his hesitation and indecisiveness, as well as some of his political ventures. When Abadi came to office, the main challenge he faced was to prove that he was different from Maliki.
He spent his first months in office trying to distance himself from the latter’s legacy by adopting a more institutionally based and inclusive style of leadership, building better relations with Parliament and exhibiting a higher level of administrative professionalism.
Specifically, Abadi took three significant steps toward reversing Maliki’s leadership style. The first was to eliminate the position of commander in chief, which Maliki had used to circumvent the Ministry of Defense and make military decisions in isolation from the formal chain of command.
This was seen as a necessary step toward restructuring the Iraqi army according to professional standards, especially as it was followed by replacing most of the military commanders that had served under Maliki with new ones.
Secondly, Abadi’s government agreed on the “cabinet by- law:” a set of rules governing the meetings of the Council of Ministers in such a way as to organize its decision-making process. Non-Da’wa parties had often argued that the absence of this by-law had helped Maliki concentrate the government’s powers in his office.
This measure was intended, at least theoretically, to make the operations of the government a collective responsibility, rather than concentrating it in Abadi’s own person.
Thirdly, Abadi reversed his predecessor’s policies by accepting more decentralization. He withdrew Maliki’s objection to a parliamentary amendment that transferred some of the federal government’s authority to the provinces.
He further extended this policy when he declared his first reforms package on August 9, 2015, abolishing four ministries and transferring their authority either to other ministries or to the provinces.
What Abadi could not significantly change, however, was the dysfunctionality of Iraqi institutions in addressing major political issues. It is important to note that Abadi’s government was established as a national unity government, based on a political agreement among major Iraqi parties. The agreement stipulated that the government should be based on a “real partnership” and should seek to achieve national reconciliation.
Accordingly, the government was to work within six months to propose an amnesty law, to reform the de-Baathification law (officially called the Accountability and Justice Law), to amend Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, and to expedite the processing of detainees’ cases. (These were mostly Sunni demands.)
Moreover, the agreement stated that likewise within six months, the government would ban any military formations outside the state (this was referring particularly to the powerful Shia militias); restructure Iraqi military forces by making them more professional and inclusive; regulate the operation of anti-terrorism units and intelligence bodies; and establish new security frameworks for the provinces.
Additionally, within three months, the government would complete the formation of the “National Guards:” an arrangement initially proposed by the U.S. to integrate Sunni tribal and local fighters in the security apparatus and give them more responsibility for defending their areas.
The agreement also included other provisions instructing the government to reform the administration, activate anti-corruption measures, decentralize governance, and resolve disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
None of these deadlines have been met, however; once in office, Abadi lacked the leverage to establish the consensus needed to legislate and implement them. The Shia alliance itself was deeply divided. Maliki and his allies, mostly Iranian-backed groups such as the Badr organization and Asaib Ahl al-Hak (AAH), did not trust Abadi, thereby depriving him of the support of his own coalition, SOL.
Sadr, Hakim, and other groups that had supported removing Maliki wanted Abadi to focus on dismantling Maliki’s network of influence within state institutions and were less interested in enabling him to be an effective leader.
Meanwhile, the Da’wa Party was split between Abadi’s and Maliki’s allies and was therefore not in a position to develop an active approach to confronting all these challenges.
The Difficulty of Making a Difference Politicians in a weak position cannot make strong and sustainable deals—and this is an important lesson that can be learned from the Iraqi experience. Lacking a broad and committed constituency, Abadi could not reform relations with other communities, nor set forth a clear vision for post-ISIS Iraq.
The Kurds Relations with the Kurds have continued to be problematic since Maliki’s second term and seem headed in the direction of more tension. Baghdad and Erbil, “the capital of Kurdistan,” disagreed on the share of the Iraqi budget and on how to manage Iraq’s and Kurdistan’s oil resources.
The KRG has been complaining since the rise of tension with Maliki’s government, particularly during his second term (2010-2014), that it has not been receiving the stipulated 17 percent of the federal budget, including expenditures on the region’s security forces, the Peshmerga.
This percentage was established by the interim government of Ayad Allawi and was meant to reflect the population of areas under the KRG, although many Arab politicians questioned the accuracy of this percentage, given that Iraq had not conducted a reliable census since 1987 and that a considerable number of Kurds live outside such areas controlled by the KRG, including Kirkuk and Diyala.
For its part, Baghdad protested against the contracts that the KRG had unilaterally signed with international oil companies (IOCs) to invest in its oil fields and export production without the approval of the federal government. The two sides offered different interpretations of the constitutional provisions addressing the management and exportation of oil and whether that was an exclusive authority of the federal government or one shared with—or that could be unilaterally assumed by—the region.
Abadi and his minister of oil, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, tried to negotiate a new deal to resolve those disputes with the KRG. In November 2014, the two sides reached a temporary agreement, albeit one that could not stand for a long time, especially once oil prices plummeted and the two sides started to look for ways to compensate for their shrinking resources. Currently, there is no functional arrangement governing relations between Baghdad and Erbil.
Currently, the government plans to integrate some thirty to forty thousand Sunni fighters in the PMFs, and intends to propose a law organizing them as a military body composed of about one hundred twenty thousand members and affiliated with the Ministry of Defense.
There is a common belief, however, that the PMFs still largely function as an autonomous force and that Abadi’s control over their actions is limited if not nominal, his ability to act as an effective commander in chief thereby compromised by the presence of these powerful armed forces on the ground. In addition, many Sunni politicians accused PMFs of acting as a sectarian organization and committing crimes against Sunni civilians.
Abadi also failed to coordinate more effectively with Sunni tribal and local forces fighting against ISIS, which was seen as a necessary step for defeating the terrorist groups and preparing for post-ISIS challenges. But his hands were tied by the pressure exerted by Shia parties and militias not to transfer significant military responsibilities to untrusted Sunni fighters.
If we add to this the deep divisions within Sunni communities, it becomes clear that the conditions for establishing unified and inclusive security arrangements are not yet in place. Abadi’s lack of leverage here has prevented him from making a big difference even if he had the will to do so.