Attempts at Unification Could Divide Iraq More

9 MINS READAug 14, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
Attempts at Unification Could Divide Iraq More
Iraqi men hold placards during a demonstration at Tahrir Square, Baghdad, in support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's reform plan, Aug. 9.

Iraqi protesters are demanding that Baghdad combat corruption. Demonstrations erupting throughout Iraq highlight the government's inability to provide consistent electricity and other public services, but protests have broadened into a show of general discontent levied against endemic government corruption. In response, Ali al-Sistani, arguably the country's most powerful Shiite figure, called on the government Aug. 7 to address the protesters' demands. Two days later, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi presented to lawmakers a complex program of reforms, even promising to resign if significant progress was not made to solve the problem soon. Then, on Aug. 11, a parliamentary majority — 297 out of 328 members — approved the ambitious program of reforms presented by al-Abadi.

The Iraqi parliament's support of the reforms is a shocking display of political unity in a country where sectarian violence and mistrust have become the norm. Of chief importance among al-Abadi's now approved proposal is the elimination of the sectarian quota system that has defined Iraqi politics since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003. Al-Abadi's expediently issued and approved program has created a sense of optimism for genuine change in Iraq, but the entrenched sectarian interests in the country may either prevent the reforms from being implemented or else plunge Iraq into even deeper sectarian conflict.

Broadly speaking, Iraq is made up of three distinct groups. The majority Shiite-Arab community controls Baghdad and the oil-rich southern regions. The minority Sunni-Arab section of Iraq is located in the relatively resource poor central and northwestern areas of the country. The Kurdish minority, though landlocked, controls much of the northeast and a significant amount of oil as well. There are also small but significant pockets of other groups, including Iraqi Turkmen and Iraqi Christians.

The story of how a sectarian quota system arose in Iraq begins after the First Gulf War. In the early 90s, a series of meetings between parties opposing then-strongman Saddam Hussein resulted in the creation of the Iraqi National Congress. At a 1992 conference in Salah al-Din, representatives of Iraq's main opposition groups agreed that a quota system proportional to population would be used to assign membership in the opposition congress, allocating positions to Shiites, Kurds, Arab nationalists, Iraqi tribes, democrats, liberals, Assyrians, Christian, Communists and Sunni Islamists. The quotas, factions and the institutions themselves have changed over time, but the use of quotas in selecting political representation stuck.

When the United States helped the Iraqis rebuild their government following the 2003 invasion, a transitional administration known as the Coalition Provisional Authority was assembled using a similar quota system. Shiites, Kurds Sunnis, Assyrians, Turkmen, and women were defined as the groups. The thought was that Iraq's government and identity were too fragile and that without the quotas the country would fracture into at least three parts. The system succeeded in implementing a democratically elected parliament in Iraq as early as 2005, but the government was defined by dissension, sectarian rivalry and ineffectiveness, all of which led to the current popular dissatisfaction. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office from 2006-2014, has been blamed, in particular, for stoking sectarian tensions during his time in office and for contributing to Iraq's failure to coalesce into a centralized state.

Ethnic and Sectarian Divisions in Iraq

Ethnic and Sectarian Divisions in Iraq

Indeed, much of the country has already fragmented. Iraq, to the extent that it still exists, has survived more through the support of outside powers than as a result of its own cohesion. The Islamic State controls large portions of Iraq's Sunni-Arab heartland, and though Iraqi-Shiite militias, Iranian-backed troops, peshmerga forces and Sunni Tribes — heavily supported by the United States — have managed to fight the group to a stalemate in Iraq for now, the Sunni part of the country is still divided and unstable. The Kurdistan Regional Government has preserved and enhanced its autonomous region in the northeast. And, while peshmerga fighters have become an instrumental part of the fight against the Islamic State, Iraqi Kurds have taken advantage of the conflict to seize new territory, most notably the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in June 2014. The Kurdish government is also becoming more confident in competing with Baghdad, exporting its oil through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline unilaterally as opposed to making sure all oil sales flow through Baghdad.

Protests and Electricity

Popular unrest is the proximate cause of al-Abadi's push for reform and why the typically fractious parliament approved the proposal. The protests began as an outpouring of dissatisfaction with Baghdad's inability to provide reliable and consistent electricity in the sweltering summer heat: Temperatures in Baghdad this summer have routinely risen above 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). Additionally, the hygiene and quality of tap water in the country has also been a point of discontent.

Iraq's electricity sector is suspected to be rife with corruption. Baghdad spent some $27 billion from 2003-2012 but was only able to increase its capacity by 1,000 megawatts. By comparison, the Kurdistan region spent just $1 billion and increased its capacity by 2,000 megawatts, though there have been protests in recent weeks against a lack of electricity in Kurdish regions. In 2014, the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity requested $12 billion to combat the situation but only received $4.7 billion from the state budget. There is currently more than a 4,000-megawatt difference between available production capacity and actual demand.

Unfortunately for Baghdad, the electricity sector is just one problem of many. Numerous Iraqis blame the sectarian quota system for creating an environment where ministries and development programs are centered on party patronage, sectarian politics or tribal loyalty as opposed to capability and efficiency. The reforms al-Abadi introduced will not prevent more blackouts or purify the tap water: Only sustained investment and development can solve those problems. But these smaller issues have become a microcosm for the corruption and graft that pervade the Iraqi political system, and al-Abadi's proposal is aimed at addressing these larger issues.

How long al-Abadi has been planning this reform agenda is unclear; his program is relatively developed for a response to spontaneous unrest. Whatever the case, it is clear that popular unrest has reached a point that Baghdad can no longer ignore. Protests, which started in the oil-important southern Shiite-dominated city of Basra and extended to other areas in the south, culminated in a massive demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Aug. 7. Participants numbered in the tens of thousands. Notably, the Baghdad protests included the Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group for the Shiite militias upon which Baghdad has come to depend to fight the Islamic State. After Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite leaders in the world, called on Prime Minister al-Abadi the same day to "strike with an iron fist" against corruption, it was clear that Baghdad could not ignore the protests.

The Shape of Reform

Al-Abadi's proposed reforms are deliberately broad. They include everything from reducing bodyguards for state officials to fiscal reforms meant to reduce tax evasion. However, the most important reforms aim to curtail, if not eliminate, the sectarian quota system, which defines how Iraqi political appointments have been made in the past. The reforms go so far as to eliminate three vice-presidential and other deputy ministry positions, all allotted on a sectarian basis.

As of Aug. 11, three vice-presidents representing the various sects serve in the Iraqi government: former Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who held the premiership from 2006-2014; Ayad Allawi, a former Baathist and Shiite who represents a Sunni-dominated bloc; and Osama al-Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni Arab leader. The proposed reforms would eliminate all three positions. Al-Maliki, whose political power has rapidly dwindled since political partners and formerly neutral Shiite blocs abandoned him to support al-Abadi in 2014, has come out in support of the proposed reforms even though it means the elimination of his position. It would be a mistake to assume al-Maliki will simply go along with the reforms without attempting to secure his own power, but the overwhelming popular support for the reforms means al-Maliki will have to make his moves outside of his previous executive office. The response of the other two vice presidents is less clear. Reportedly, al-Nujaifi voiced his support for the reforms, along with the speaker of parliament, a Sunni. However, a video on Gali Kurdistan Satellite TV showed al-Nujaifi calling the proposed reforms "unconstitutional" and "unilateral."

As well as eliminating the vice-presidential positions, along with a few other offices, al-Abadi means to transform Iraq's government by removing officials, politicians, and bureaucrats who were appointed as a result of party patronage or sectarian loyalty rather than professional competence. The appointment of political independents could very well be the first step in stabilizing Iraq's governing institutions, making them offices for the betterment of the country as a whole rather than prizes to be won in a sectarian battle where paranoia over the power of an opposing group is more important than sound governance. The problem is, however, that the same dynamics that led to the implementation of the sectarian quota system are still present and have arguably only increased.

Indeed, one of the reasons the Islamic State was able to develop in Iraq was because of Sunni suspicion and frustration with al-Maliki's sectarian politics. The Sunnis are a minority and are concerned about being marginalized in Iraq's central government. Removing the assurance of a Sunni voice in central government discussions and administration could inflame tensions even more.

The same concern applies to the Kurds. Though Kurdish President Massoud Barzani voiced support for the reforms through a statement released by the Kurdistan Regional Presidency, other members of Barzani's own party warned of civil war and crisis should posts not be distributed according to the agreed sectarian lines. It is one thing to support an abstract reform in principle, but it is quite another to support it if a Shiite is appointed to a position that was previously held by a Sunni or a Kurd, or vice versa. And it is comparatively easy for a Shiite leader like al-Abadi or al-Maliki to do away with quotas — they are members of the majority sect after all.

Assessing the Situation

There is much speculation about al-Abadi's true aims: Is this a bold power play meant to marginalize his Shiite rivals and grant him significantly more power over the affairs of state? Or is al-Abadi an Iraqi patriot who recognizes that the quota system was a solution to Iraq's sectarian divisions that only exacerbated those divisions, preventing the forging of an Iraqi identity and strong central government that could withstand the complex task of rebuilding Iraq after years of war and dictatorship? Such speculation is immaterial. Even if al-Abadi's moves are noble and he hopes to take an unprecedented step in Iraq's recent political history — toward becoming a meritocracy where skill and ability rather than sectarian and tribal affiliation are most important — he is too constrained to succeed.

There are positive indicators, to be sure: that the protests have been mostly non-violent even with the participation of Shiite militias; that key power brokers in the Iraqi government, including Shiites and prominent Sunnis and Kurds, have voiced their support; that parliament passed the reforms unanimously. But these are nascent signals. Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites must be convinced that supporting such reforms are in their best interests. It is one thing to support an abstract reform in principle that has the backing of the masses, it is quite another to see it executed by the ruling classes. Foreign powers, including the United States and Iran, have an interest in ensuring that Iraq maintains cohesion and will work hard to guarantee that Iraq's sovereignty remains intact. This, combined with political skill and good will, may be enough to begin a new phase of development in the field of Iraqi politics — or at least delay Iraq's inevitable political conflict. But al-Abadi's move is a high-stakes maneuver, and if he has overplayed his hand, Iraq's fractures could become even more pronounced.

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