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Protesters display a huge Iraqi flag during a demonstration in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, on 13 August 2015. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

Iraq Conflict Alert

A wave of protests has brought Iraq to the edge of yet more serious conflict. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has introduced sweeping reforms to halt the deterioration but in a manner that may make things worse. An important course correction is needed if he is to survive politically and Iraq is to avoid what could become in effect a military takeover.

The country has seen protests over the systemic inadequacy of service delivery before, but this crisis lays bare two overriding problems: massive, deeply entrenched corruption and growing militarism heightened by the war against the Islamic State (IS). The power grid’s failure during extreme summer heat was the trigger that turned general discontent into anger about governance and the political class. An ineffectual effort to overcome the crisis and start addressing fundamental problems could turn that anger into fury, precipitating a breakdown of the post-2003 order.

The protests tie into an intra-elite power struggle that opposes the prime minister, a year in office, to Iran-backed Shiite militia commanders whose credibility has been burnished by the war against IS and who seek to capitalise on popular disenchantment to assert control.

In tackling simultaneously the two most pressing problems, Abadi appears to have the support of the marjaiya, the Shiite religious leadership. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s 7 August call on him to institute overdue reforms amounts to an instruction and political cover. But the street’s explosive, anti-establishment mood could easily benefit Shiite militias claiming to be a radical alternative – even if several commanders are former officials with an abysmal government record.

Abadi is fighting a difficult two-front battle: against a political class whose failings brought the crisis but with which he is associated and whose support he can assume only if his reforms promise to change little; and against adroit, emerging challengers whose ambitions are backed by considerable resources and recently acquired legitimacy. The way he introduces change is critical.

The Shiite political leadership saw its legitimacy plunge over the past year, as it proved impotent against IS’s takeover of Sunni-populated areas. Those standing up to the threat were Shiite militias organised under the “popular mobilisation” umbrella to defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. Their success in partially pushing back IS resonated with unemployed young Shiites, who could measure that against the shortcomings of politicians locked within the Green Zone. Devoid of conventional prospects and in many cases even basic education, many joined the militias as the only way to have an income. Many are now in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The past year’s events opened a rift among Shiite forces. Militias with strong Iranian ties, such as the Badr Brigade, the League of the Sons of the Righteous and (Iraqi) Hizbollah, benefited the most, owing to a plentiful supply of weapons and military advice. Their commanders, especially Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri and the League’s Qais al-Khazali, became military heroes, their portraits prominent in Baghdad’s central districts, while commentators in social media began referring to leading politicians, including Abadi, derogatorily as inbitahi (“inert”). Some senior members (including Abadi’s predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki) of established parties – al-Daawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Ahrar list – aligned with the militias to recover credibility.

Already in July, Khazali called for replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one that would empower Iran-friendly figures, such as President Fuad Masoum and Maliki (now vice president), at the expense of the prime minister and legislature.

In Basra, the League used protests against electricity shortages and criticism of local officials to delegitimise provincial institutions, providing impetus for the protests to spread throughout the south and into Baghdad and threaten the political and religious establishment. Sistani extended his support to Abadi and called on him for major reforms in an attempt to change the course of events. This compelled even militia commanders and their allies to declare support for the reform program but also put it on Abadi to get results.

The absence of a clear plan is glaring, but other deficiencies could also scuttle the reform. Abadi has reduced his government’s size by scrapping some ministries, merging others and cancelling multiple deputy prime minister and vice president posts; he has also reduced ministry advisers and ministers’ bodyguards and created committees to select candidates for senior positions on merit and review officials’ salaries and benefits.

The package appears to tackle corruption and senior appointments based on party affiliation or ethnic/sectarian grounds. Yet, implementation repeats old unhelpful patterns. Abadi announced reforms frenetically to show real change, but they lacked a framework, criteria for decisions, a timeframe, and implementing agencies and procedures. With so much unclear, the public sector’s mid and upper ranks, where nepotism is most deeply rooted, have started to shift loyalty toward the militias to save their jobs.

Another troubling aspect is the decision to shun consultations with political blocs that are mistrustful and reluctant to surrender important positions both nationally and provincially. This risks alienating the support he needs to make substantive cuts. In the provinces, reforms have affected only the appendages of the petty-patronage network, mid-level local officials. In Baghdad, apart from the cancellation of the vice president and deputy prime minister posts, reform has been limited to statements and nominal threats about dismissal of controversial figures and representatives of minority groups whose departure would buy time. Disconnect with the political blocs prevents substantial achievement.

Abadi also risks his endeavour by putting it on shaky constitutional ground. Rushing to regain the street’s favour, he launched it partly outside the constitution, cancelling the vice presidents’ posts, for example, without legal power to do so. This sets a precedent that could be overturned by the Supreme Court and exploited by political rivals to remove him.

Abadi has raised expectations of a deeply impatient public. Failure to meet them would play into militia commanders’ hands. They and their allies do not want to openly defy Sistani, but if street dissatisfaction peaks again, they will be ready to sow chaos, especially in southern provinces where frustration grows daily. Militia members in the protests could spark clashes with police or popular mobilisation branches affiliated with other Shiite groups lacking equal Iranian support, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades. If popular anger explodes, those on the militias’ side could denounce existing institutions as obsolete and, on the pretext of reestablishing order, use military superiority to impose their rule.

Abadi needs to display consummate political skill. Rather than unilaterally rushing through dramatic changes that challenge the legal order, he should work with his political partners to put forward a clear, realistic plan that reinforces that order, using Sistani’s support to manage expectations and mitigate the street’s impatience. In particular, he should build on unprecedented, but temporary parliament and council of ministers support to introduce a new, non-sectarian brand of politics and governance with the following elements:

  • A concerted effort with parliament to pass or revise implementing legislation for key constitutional articles, whose absence or inadequacy has blocked a workable government system for a decade. It should prioritise reversing party control of state institutions and reviving parliament’s role in national and provincial affairs. This requires a political parties law regulating activities, duties and funding; revision of the provincial powers law to define relations between central and provincial governments and give parliament more oversight of provincial officials; a law delineating the role of the security forces, including police and army, and addressing militias’ status; and regulating employment procedures in all ministries to ensure fair, non-partisan competition.
     
  • Close cooperation with his political partners to effect the cancellation of senior government posts without a major backlash. Particularly the Shiite political blocs need to calculate that compromise on senior posts is the ticket to longevity and influence. Recognising the difficulty in removing his own and allied parties’ corrupt officials, Abadi should instead set the tone for governance going forward, making clear corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated from anyone, and instructing police and judiciary to act against offenders regardless of political affiliation.
     
  • Use of external support to gain time needed for results. Years of state dysfunction cannot be surmounted in a few weeks or months. Abadi already has help from an actor (Sistani) who could persuade protesters to be patient. Western governments, particularly the U.S., should openly declare support of a prime minister they helped install and of the reform effort, so as to preserve and strengthen the political process and institutions they have invested in. Abadi should reach out to Iran, which has an interest in protecting Iraqi territorial integrity that is under threat from militias Tehran empowers but whose actions foster centrifugal forces, in effect partition.
     
  • The Baghdad political elite can save itself only if it changes its ways meaningfully. This requires rooting out the corruption that has kept many in power regardless of competence, and reinforcing the many institutions that have become empty shells.

If the current reforms prove little more than window-dressing, they will mean the end of the political life of the prime minister and large portions of the political class. In their place, militia commanders would ride popular anger and military supremacy to power. There are many precedents in Iraq’s history. It was, after all, only a year ago that IS used Sunni anger and a lightening military strike to impose repressive rule in large parts of the country.

Baghdad/Brussels

The Perils of a Post-ISIS Iraq

Originally published in Foreign Policy

In Kirkuk, the extremist group's defeat risks rekindling old ethnic and religious conflicts — unless cooler heads prevail.

The Islamic State fighters who occupied Sheikh Burhan Mizher al-Assi’s village in northern Iraq did not content themselves with simply blowing up his home. They also destroyed the tombstones erected above his parents’ buried remains in the local cemetery.

Assi, a respected Arab member of the elected Kirkuk Provincial Council, is now an internally displaced person (IDP) in Kirkuk after the Islamic State overran a good part of the governorate in June 2014. To add insult to injury, the man who led the destruction of the sheikh’s property was a member of his own tribe, the Obeid.

Such traumas have been all too common during the war against the Islamic State. They also highlight a discomfiting fact: In Iraq, the Islamic State is mainly a local problem. The extremist group’s Iraqi contingent has very few foreign fighters and instead reflects the radical turn taken by some in the Sunni Arab community against the existing political order.

The damage that results from incidents such as the one that befell Assi isn’t just on the surface — they are reshaping identities and loyalties in one of Iraq’s most multicultural areas. Many of the same Iraqi Sunni Arabs who once opposed the U.S. occupation and resisted attempts at demographic engineering by Kurdish parties now find themselves as “guests” of those same parties. As newly minted IDPs, they have become more accommodating to Kurdish ambitions and plead for U.S. help in liberating their homes from Islamic State control.

Yet many Kurds remain suspicious of their erstwhile Sunni Arab adversaries, conflating them with the Islamic State and trying to exploit their current misfortune to press for an advantage in long-running ethnic disputes. They thus risk setting the stage for the next round of conflict.

This dynamic is especially visible in Kirkuk, where both city and governorate have been claimed and fought over by Iraq’s central governments and Kurdish political parties for decades. The Iraqi constitution drafted after the U.S. occupation in 2003 specified a set of procedures for settling Kirkuk’s future status — whether it would become an independent region or arrive at some other political arrangement — but its terms have yet to be carried out. Frustrated by this lack of progress, the Kurdish parties have pressed forward, gradually seizing control of Kirkuk’s administration and security. As the Islamic State seized the predominantly Sunni Arab areas to the south and west in June 2014, Kurds entrenched their power in the city and the majority-Kurd areas to its north and east.

The approximately 60 percent of Kirkuk governorate not under Islamic State control plays host to more than 700,000 IDPs. Some originally hail from inside the governorate, but most come from the nearby provinces of Diyala, Nineveh, Salahaddin, and Anbar. The vast majority of these IDPs are Sunni Arabs, displaced from their homes and villages when the Islamic State seized them or in subsequent violent attempts by government forces and associated militias to recapture them. Sometimes a lack of general security prevents these people from returning home; sometimes political actors — Shiite militias or Kurdish Peshmerga — would simply prefer they never return.

Hawija, a mainly Sunni Arab town in the governorate’s agricultural heartland, became a focal point of Iraq’s intersecting Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Kurd conflicts in 2013. Back then, the local population rose up against what it perceived as arbitrary detentions and institutional neglect perpetrated by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. The protests were met with repression — more than 40 civilians were killed in several days of violent confrontations with security forces — turning the town into a poster child for all the ills that would facilitate the Islamic State takeover one year later.

Today, the Islamic State’s territorial gains are being reversed. A campaign to liberate Mosul and its surrounding towns and villages in Nineveh governorate is heating up. But Hawija remains in the extremist group’s grip — even as the area in Kirkuk under its control has been cut off from the group’s strongholds further north and in Syria. As a result, residents are now being starved because they have lost their lifeline to other Islamic State-held areas and the limited trade that came with them.

Liberation, therefore, cannot come a moment too soon for the citizens of Hawija. The big question is: At whose hand? The Iraqi Army is disinclined to get its fingers burned once more in the town and is terribly overstretched as it gears up to retake Mosul. And so the local population and its exiled political representatives are left with an unpalatable choice of militias: either the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which have been known to “cleanse” reconquered Sunni areas wherever Shiites also reside, or the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have been engaged in similar practices involving Arabs.

If it were up to the people of Hawija, it would be neither. They’d rather have a force comprising their own folk — Sunni Arabs from these areas. But the more powerful militias have prevented them from establishing an armed force, so they indulge in desperate calculations. If it’s the Kurds who come in, they are likely to seek revenge for the brutal execution by the Islamic State of captured Peshmerga and to wreak enough destruction that local Arab populations are deterred from ever again attempting to block Kurdish ambitions in Kirkuk governorate. Sunni Arabs also fear the Kurds would seek to detach Arab areas from Kirkuk and bequeath them to the adjacent Salahaddin governorate, which falls under the control of the central government. Kirkuk’s Sunni Arabs vigorously oppose such a step, as it would deprive them of access to their long-established market for agricultural produce and Kirkuk’s oil wealth.

Some Hawijans hope they might get lucky if liberation comes at the hands of the Shiite PMF, because those militias are not interested in permanently replacing Sunnis in an area that has no Shiite population. Moreover, they speculate, their town is not located along the route that Iran’s proxies are accused of seeking to clear between the Iranian and Syrian borders. Yet any military action involving the PMF will not draw U.S. air support, and so the battle with the Islamic State could be protracted and result in severe damage to the town.Destruction, the town’s residents fear, is coming either way.

Of course, the people of Hawija and other Islamic State-controlled areas don’t get to decide who reconquers their towns. The choice will be made for them. And even if the Peshmerga and PMF — mindful of potential international criticism and future war crimes trials (and contrary to past practice) — exercise extreme restraint, Kirkuk’s Sunni Arabs have reason to fear what fate will befall them the day after.

“We were not part of the former regime, nor do we belong to this terrorist network,” Assi told me. “Yet before June 10 [the day in 2014 when Mosul fell to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS] we were accused of being Saddamists and after that of being ISIS.”

The fact is that he and most of his compatriots are neither. But the accusation sticks, and it enjoys a certain logic — many in the Islamic State’s leadership and cadres are officers of the former regime’s security forces.

How a victor treats the losers shapes the battles to come. Since no overarching military strategy in Iraq guides how Islamic State-held areas should be retaken, or by whom, each party in the anti-Islamic State fight pursues its own aims. That these aims often consist in imposing collective punishment on Sunni Arabs, sometimes with brutal means, is an alarming prospect: To cast an entire community as sharing the intolerant and murderous ideology of a few among them is to ensure that the few extremists will become many. The future of groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda looks bright as a result, despite any territorial losses they may soon suffer — or even because of it, as their obligation to govern when they hold territory has proved to be a burden they are ill-equipped to meet.

If the defeat of the Islamic State is going to lead to real progress, instead of merely introducing the next stage of the conflict, Iraq needs to establish locally recruited stabilization forces in newly liberated Arab areas. The argument that such a force’s members could turn around and join the Islamic State themselves doesn’t wash; after all, there is a real threat that the entire population could join such radical groups while chafing under the rule of the PMF or Peshmerga. In 2014, that’s precisely what happened when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army — deemed by locals to be an inimical force spearheading a “foreign” occupation — tried to control, rather than protect, Mosul’s population.

Given the diversity of Kirkuk, keeping the peace was always going to be harder than winning the war. The governorate’s many communities are already desperately straining to keep the fabric of their shared society from unraveling at the hands of outside actors with chauvinist mindsets and predatory goals.

Najmaldin Karim, a retired neurosurgeon from Maryland who was elected as the area’s governor by the Kirkuk Provincial Council in 2011, has emerged as the unlikely champion of maintaining Kirkuk’s multicultural society. Karim is a longtime member of the very Kurdish movement that has traditionally sought to secure Kirkuk for the Kurds — preferably with as few Arabs in it as possible. But his experience governing this complex area over the past five years, he told me recently, has taught him that the Kurds simply cannot impose their will on others. Karim believes there is a better way to settle whether or not Kirkuk should officially be Kurdish than forcing the governorate into the Kurdish region via a controversial referendum, which would leave a deeply polarized society in its wake. Kirkuk “should be an independent region within Iraq for an interim period of five or 10 years,” he told me.

At the end of that period, Karim hopes Kirkuk’s people will have achieved a measure of mutual trust. They would then be allowed to freely choose where they want their home to be: under Baghdad, under the Kurdish capital of Erbil, or as a stand-alone region with special status and powers. Moreover, he said, Hawija “should become a governorate inside the Kirkuk region, with its own local government and budget” — in other words, maintaining its important administrative and economic links to a Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk.

The governor is floating this option with the full knowledge that, as an independent region, Kirkuk could finally benefit from the wealth of its oil resources. As it stands now, Baghdad and Erbil have deprived the governorate of oil revenues by making profitable deals over Kirkukis’ heads. Somewhat incongruously, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani, supports the Kirkuk governor in his quest. But both he and Karim insist that Kirkuk would need to be considered at least symbolically as “Kurdistani land,” the way Kurds consider Kurdish areas outside Iraq also “Kurdistani.” Moreover, the governor insists that any future special arrangement for Kirkuk would have to be approved by the Kurdish region’s parliament, which could turn out to be a significant obstacle.

Karim’s position has put him at sharp odds with his own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose enraged members have threatened him with expulsion. But the PUK is weak, having lost its leader, Jalal Talabani, to illness, and convulsed by internal power struggles. The Kirkuk governor, on the other hand, rightly senses that he has the support of the local population — including its Kurds, who eye the Kurdish parties’ inept and corrupt rule in the region next door with great wariness.

The moment, therefore, is now. As hopeless as the Middle East may sometimes seem, leaders with a pragmatic vision still stand a chance of charting a more peaceful, inclusive way forward. These leaders deserve the international community’s support, as they hold the key to making sure that the Islamic State’s defeat does not simply mark the beginning of a new set of ethnic and religious wars.