Sistani to the rescue?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is trying to implement a major reconstruction of the Iraqi government, something we talked about here last week. In fact, he’s already reduced the size of his cabinet by a full third, from 33 ministries to 22. To recap, major public protests against basic government incompetence and corruption took place in Baghdad and important Shiʿa cities like Basra, Najaf, and Karbala in late July and early August. These caught the attention of all three of the major powers in Shiʿa Iraq: Abadi and his government, the Iran-backed Shiʿa militias that have been leading the fight against ISIS, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The turning point in the affair seems to have been a public statement by Sistani, through a spokesperson, demanding that Abadi be “more daring…in his reforms.” Sistani’s message may have been meant for Abadi himself or for others in the Iraqi government who may have been standing in Abadi’s way, or both, we don’t know.

The more that comes out about the situation in Iraq over the past several weeks, though, the more it seems clear that Sistani’s official approval of the idea of reform, and his specific charge to Abadi to carry it out, was meant not only for Abadi but also for the militias, and their behind the scenes backers (Tehran, but also former Iraqi PM and current VP Nouri al-Maliki). Mustafa Habib of the Iraq-focused Niqash website explains:

Two days after the first demonstrations, Qais al-Khazali, head of the League of the Righteous militia group, appeared on television proclaiming his support of the demonstrators. The League of the Righteous is one of a dozen or so unofficial armed groups, made up mostly of local Shiite Muslims, that have played an essential role in fighting against the extremist Islamic State group in Iraq. However the League of the Righteous is also known as one of the more extreme of these groups. And most recently the militia has also become known for its support of, and patronage from, former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

On television, al-Khazali announced the creation of civilian units associated with the Shiite Muslim militias. “The demonstrators should set firm goals,” al-Khazali said, “because the problems in Iraq are not only about the Ministry of Electricity. The problems are part of the whole political system.”

Once again al-Khazali then recommended that Iraq’s political system be changed from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. This would in effect give al-Maliki, one of the League of the Righteous’ sponsors, more power again; al-Maliki tried to hang onto power after the last elections but was denied by other Iraqi politicians and he has been seen as trying to undermine his successor, current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, ever since.

The militias, then, appear to have been planning to use the public demonstrations as cover for a plan to rebuild Iraq’s government along their own, highly sectarian, lines. Anything that gives more power to Maliki and the leaders of the Hashd forces is almost by definition going to be bad news for Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities. Their planned interference in the protests was obvious enough that, according to Habib, there were some civilian activists who participated in the late-July protests who were planning to boycott later protests because they felt that the cause had been hijacked.

Abadi and Sistani have been in contact for “several weeks” (again according to Habib) about the challenges Abadi has been facing, with Sistani telling Abadi in private what he later said publicly — the PM isn’t moving fast enough or boldly enough on governmental reforms. Those conversations intensified as the protests did, and as it became clear that the Hashd forces were preparing to get involved. Sistani was convinced to make a rare direct political statement, one that was critical of Abadi, but that implicitly and pretty unambiguously expressed Sistani’s support for Abadi’s government as it attempts these major reforms. Abadi publicly pledged his commitment to the kind of reforms Sistani was talking about, and the tenor of the protests changed quickly; signs of support for the Hashd forces were largely replaced with signs of support for Sistani and even Abadi.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who looks like he is frankly tired of all your bullshit

These details help to make sense of Abadi’s decision to target the Iraqi vice-presidency with his reform plans. Aside from the fact that having three vice presidents is in and of itself a contributor to bloated, inefficient government, it’s clear that Maliki isn’t going to stop being a problem for the Iraqi government, and the whole country for that matter, until somebody stops him. The challenge there is that Maliki still has a lot of support in the Dawa Party, which happens to be Abadi’s party as well, so getting Maliki out of the vice presidency is a tall political order. But if you can’t get the man out of his job, why not try just getting rid of the job altogether?

Over the weekend, Abadi announced plans to investigate military failures in Ramadi, which could be (must be, really) part of a new anti-corruption policy, but meanwhile Maliki made it clear that he’s not going to go easily:

Mr. Abadi earlier Sunday paved the way for the military prosecution of senior commanders for the fall of another city, Ramadi. Islamic State seized Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, in May in what was a major setback for the government in its fight against Islamic State.

How quickly the prime minister acted to investigate the military’s shortcomings in Ramadi, versus the nearly yearlong investigation on Mosul, appeared to show new resolve, lawmakers said.

Mr. Maliki, who initially gave a statement of support for the government overhaul, has since appeared to question some of the measures. In local television interviews, he called the moves to eliminate the vice presidency posts and a call to allow the prime minister to replace local governors “unconstitutional.”

Maliki did initially back the reform proposal, but dollars to doughnuts he did that just so he could avoid the appearance of taking sides against Sistani. There’s no way he’s just going to give up his VP gig quietly and retire to a beach villa or something.

This has all the makings of a full-out battle for the soul of Iraq’s Shiʿa community. Is it going to be led by Abadi and Sistani or by Maliki and Tehran? We know the latter will be bad for Iraq’s non-Shiʿa citizens and therefore for Iraqi stability because, well, everybody’s been down that road before. Nobody really knows how Abadi would govern the country because he’s never had a chance to do it, but he can’t be any more destructive to Iraq’s long-term future than Maliki was.

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