Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Abadi’s first year in office

Haider Al-Abadi marks his first year as prime minister of Iraq this week, but the population has nothing to cheer about, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Abadi’s first year in office
Al-Abadi’s first year in office
Al-Ahram Weekly

When Haider Al-Abadi became prime minister of Iraq a year ago he vowed to change the tone of the government left behind by his embattled predecessor, Nuri Al-Maliki, and pledged to take the war-torn and corruption-ridden nation onto a new path of stability and reform.

In his inauguration speech, Al-Abadi pledged roll back the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group from the vast areas it had seized earlier, improve economic conditions, restore services and work to end Iraq’s polarised political landscape.

Many Iraqis and foreign governments pinned high hopes on Al-Abadi’s ability to bring about a new era of change and reconciliation among Shia and Sunnis and stem the turmoil largely caused by Al-Maliki’s autocracy.

US Secretary of State John Kerry praised Al-Abadi’s cabinet as having the “potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq.”

Today, Al-Abadi is facing massive street protests and public anger against government corruption and poor services, as well as calls for change by top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who fears that ineptitude will jeopardise the Shia-led government’s future.

A six-point plan presented by Al-Abadi to the parliament on 8 September promised to beat back IS and suggested a wide- ranging development plan that includes rebuilding Iraq’s ailing public service infrastructure.

Al-Abadi assumed office as a compromise candidate after Al-Maliki’s attempts to stay in office for a third term were rejected by Iraq’s political groups because of his dysfunction, corruption and divisive policies.

He came to power shortly after IS captured huge chunks of territory, including the strategic northern city of Mosul, which led to the collapse of the Iraqi security forces and a sense of tragic national defeat.

Soon after he took office, the Iraqi security forces, aided by Iran-backed Shia militias, succeeded in driving the militants out of several districts around Baghdad and the eastern Diyalah province and retaking former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

But the campaign to expel IS from the rest of Iraq has largely stalled. More than a year after its fall, Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, remains under IS control and has been declared the capital of its Islamic caliphate. The jihadists also still control large areas in Kirkuk and part of Baiji, which hosts Iraq’s largest oil refinery.

In May, Iraqi forces received a setback when they lost Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, to IS. Since then the army and Shia militias have been bogged down in a fierce battle to dislodge the militants from most of the province that makes up nearly one third of Iraq’s territory.

 Al-Abadi’s record of fighting corruption has also been dismal. Though he made fighting graft one of his priorities, corruption and waste remain widespread. Months after he took office Al-Abadi has showed no willingness to deal with the thousands of corruption cases that remain in the drawers of the Integrity Commission, the country’s anti-corruption body.

In the military, where rampant corruption was blamed for the failure to stem IS’s rise, Al-Abadi has sacked army officers accused of corruption and uncovered 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who had received army salaries without actually being present in the field or showing up for work.

But Al-Abadi has failed to make the radical reforms that are badly needed to overhaul the armed forces and make them meet national security challenges by providing defence and ensuring stability.

Major corruption by the political class, such as smuggling oil and milking Iraq’s foreign reserves through the country’s shadowy banking system, has been left untouched. Millions of dollars pour every day from cash-strapped government coffers through Iraqi Central Bank currency auctions to banks and foreign exchange bureaus that are mostly owned by members of the political elite.

Al-Abadi has also failed to fulfil his promises to improve badly needed public services such as electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection, public health and housing. This summer residents of Baghdad and other cities suffered from power outages that left them with only a few hours of government-supplied electricity per day amidst a searing heat-wave.

Most Iraqi cities and towns are suffering from chronic shortages of drinking water or poor-quality water, broken sewage systems, uncollected waste, dysfunctional public health systems and other problems that make life miserable.

Al-Abadi’s failure to take swift and concrete action to achieve his promises has increased public frustration, especially after the government approved a belt-tightening budget for 2015 following a sharp fall in oil revenues.

With oil prices plummeting and the economy squeezed by inefficiency and corruption, Iraq’s humanitarian crises have worsened. According to the recently released International Organisation for Migration Displacement and Tracking Matrix, more than eight million people across Iraq, nearly a quarter of the population, are currently in need of humanitarian assistance.

In July, thousands of people demonstrated in Baghdad and Basra against power cuts as temperatures topped 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). The protests spread to other cities in central and southern Iraq, as demonstrators rallied against government corruption, poor services and mismanagement.

The protesters received an unexpected boost from Al-Sistani who warned that Iraq could face partition if the government did not make necessary changes. Feeling the heat, Al-Abadi announced a reform package to curb corruption and mismanagement, including by scrapping some senior government posts, cutting security details and other perks for officials, and encouraging corruption probes.

Al-Abadi also ordered the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, which hosts key government offices and the residences of most of Iraq’s ruling oligarchy, to be opened to the public.

However, many Iraqis have denounced Al-Abadi’s promised measures as false reforms designed to deflect the disgruntled public from the real issues and avoid taking genuine action.

Even Al-Sistani has expressed dissatisfaction with Al-Abadi’s foot-dragging and demanded that he do more to improve services, fight corruption and reform the judiciary. As a result, Al-Abadi’s reform programme seems in doubt. Based on the evidence, Al-Abadi seems reluctant to stand up to the corrupt and power-greedy ruling class which is resenting change and posing as a particularly acute barrier to reform.

On Saturday, the parliament shot down motions to censure the electricity minister, Qassim Al-Fahdawi, whose department is responsible for the acute power shortages, because most of the political parties benefit substantially from contracts given out by his ministry.

While Al-Abadi has ordered the military units responsible for protecting the political leaders to be disbanded, the nearly 20,000-strong force, which costs the government billions of dinars (millions of US dollars), is still intact.

One reason why Al-Abadi’s real reforms seem rare, or even nonexistent, is the entrenched political resistance that blocks any significant change. To end Iraq’s political stagnation, Al-Abadi needs to stem the unbridled power of the ruling Shia oligarchy and their backers in the religious groups who continue to take advantage of the state’s paralysis and its fragile institutions.

Al-Abadi seems to be aware not only of the challenges but also the risks ahead. When he launched his reform programme last month under pressure from the protesters, he vowed to continue on the path even if it costs him his life.

But while Al-Abadi keeps cosying up to the corrupt Shia oligarchy, especially those in his Dawa Party and Al-Maliki’s State of the Law bloc, pro-reform activists are taking the risks and appear to be paying dearly for it.

This week several activists in the protest movement were reportedly killed by gunfire or bombings. Their brutal deaths underscore the dangers of activism in a country crippled by sectarian, ethnic and political disputes and riddled by political gangs, organised crime and militias.

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