Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s Shia power struggle

As Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr ratchets up the rhetoric, a face-off between Iraq’s Shia ruling cliques is looming large, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Amid fears of a growing government crisis, tensions between Iraq’s Shia factions are widening as the country remains mired in violence and multiple political and ethno-sectarian conflicts.

The rift has been amplified by prominent Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr mobilising tens of thousands of his followers across Iraq to protest against the lack of initiatives by Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to fix his dysfunctional government and combat corruption.

With the rise of Shia militias in the country following the advances of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq in summer 2014, the widening gulf between the Shia political factions reflects new dynamics in Iraq’s politics that are expected to influence the country’s course in the months and years to come.

Al-Sadr’s strategy seems to be to take advantage of Al-Abadi’s failure to implement hugely needed reforms in the government and to blame the prime minister for the country’s exacerbating crisis.

On Friday, Al-Sadr’s supporters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square for the third consecutive week in a massive anti-corruption rally called by the influential cleric to press demands for reform and to dump the inefficient cabinet.

A week earlier Al-Sadr gave Al-Abadi a 45-day ultimatum to deliver on his promises to replace his politically appointed ministers with professionals in order to carry out the reforms.

As part of a reform package Al-Abadi pledged after nationwide anti-corruption protests which started in the summer to form a new cabinet of technocrats in which political parties would not be represented.

Al-Abadi has said that the country’s broken political system, based on power-sharing between its three main ethnic and sectarian communities since the US-led invasion in 2003, is the chief impediment to his reforms.

Nearly two years after he came to office on a platform to end Iraq’s political stalemate, stop a never-ending cycle of violence, combat corruption and improve basic public services, Al-Abadi has shown himself to be unable to deliver on his promises.

The list of gripes against his government is long. The protesters blame his government for failing to fight graft and provide essential services. Pervasive corruption is widely seen as being behind the country’s economic and political turmoil which gave rise to the IS terror group.

In a move designed to involve political blocs in his reform plans, Al-Abadi has asked them to nominate technocrats as candidates for ministerial positions in the new cabinet. He has said he hopes a cabinet of professionals will help to push his stalled reform programme onwards.

However, the proposed government overhaul has pitched Iraq into another spell of political chaos as the country faces the daunting challenge of driving IS militants from cities they have occupied since summer 2014 and an unprecedented economic crisis precipitated by falling oil prices.

Political groups whose members occupy all government posts have resisted Al-Abadi’s attempt to sidestep them by bringing independent experts into the cabinet, a move they fear will reduce their influence.

The crisis of Al-Abadi’s government has however underscored the fascinating intricacies and paradoxes of Iraqi Shia political life 13 years after Shia groups came to power following the ouster of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion.

In a classic collective reaction, a Shia alliance of main political groups has since emerged to protect the community’s interests and to stand up to the Sunni minority’s resistance to newly acquired Shia rule.

The alliance of the mostly religious groups has succeeded in consolidating its grip on the government and marginalised rivals, including secular Shia, though not without difficulties.

Internecine differences, power struggles and sometimes strife have given birth to the alliance out of necessity. But Al-Abadi’s plans to overhaul the government to meet the protesters’ demands for reform has, however, set the scene for even greater rows.

The Shia Iraqi National Alliance has rejected the reshuffle plan and has insisted that the present power-sharing system that distributes seats in the government according to sectarian and ethnic quotas should remain in place.

The deep-rooted competition between the three main partners in the alliance, the Islamic Daawa Party, the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council (ISIC) and the Sadrist Movement, has resurfaced.

Leader of the Daawa Party Nuri Al-Maliki was Iraq’s first prime minster after the post-Saddam elections in 2005. He consolidated the party’s power base by using state resources during his two terms in office.

Al-Maliki, who fought to stay in office and prevent Al-Abadi from taking over following elections in 2014, is reportedly working to overthrow Al-Abadi, also a top Daawa Party member, and make a comeback.

The head of party bloc Ali Al-Adeeb said on Sunday that the group would not relinquish its quota allocation in the cabinet. In January, he told the Washington Post that Al-Abadi was perceived to be “illegitimate,” and Al-Adeeb’s latest remarks have been interpreted to mean that the party could replace Al-Abadi with Al-Maliki if the former insists on a reshuffle.

While the row reflects deep divisions within the party, it also underlines its intentions to keep the premier’s post within its ranks.

The other partner (ISIC) is headed by cleric Amar Al-Hakim. Three of its senior members serve as prominent ministers holding important portfolios such as the oil and transport ministries.

The group, mainly a political front for the influential Al-Hakim family of Shia clerics, has positioned itself as the main contender for the Shia leadership in Iraq, pitting itself in fierce competition against the Daawa Party and the Sadrist Movement.

Al-Hakim has categorically rejected Al-Abadi’s reshuffle proposals, suggesting that the Daawa Party prime minister should also go with the other ministers he wants to fire. He said the reforms should not be “shortchanged” by simply changing a few cabinet ministers.

This refers back to Al-Sadr and his massive anti-corruption campaign. Al-Sadr is one of the most influential Shia leaders in Iraq, and his Sadrist Movement is composed of three distinct units: a populist movement, a political bloc in parliament and a powerful paramilitary force.

Al-Sadr has transformed himself from a firebrand cleric who leads a lawless militia into a statesman and forceful campaigner with a powerful grassroots political group that has expanded in working-class neighbourhoods across Iraq’s Shia-populated cities.

His anti-government drive is part of a strategy to consolidate his power base among Shia who are disgruntled by Al-Abadi’s poor leadership and failure to put up much of a fight to end corruption.

But Al-Sadr’s campaigning also has other tasks, primarily to outmaneuver his competitors in the Shia alliance. His main target is the Daawa Party because he believes that Al-Abadi’s plans for a government reshuffle that will exclude politically affiliated ministers will only benefit the Daawa Party as it will keep Al-Abadi at the helm of the government.

One of his campaign’s main goals is to embarrass Al-Abadi and show that the days of his Daawa Party in government are numbered.

The other reason behind Al-Sadr’s newly confrontational rhetoric is the surge of the Shia militias. Al-Sadr, who rose to prominence during the US occupation of Iraq, has capitalised on his anti-US drive to launch his Jaish Al-Mahdi (Al-Mahdi Army) militia finally to oust the Americans. 

The rise of scores of Shia paramilitary groups following IS advances in summer 2014 has made Al-Sadr felt threatened by newcomers to the arena of Iraq’s Shia militias. His main concern is that his Sadrist Movement and its armed wing the Al-Salam Brigades will no longer be the most powerful player on Iraq’s Shia stage.  

Yet, whether Al-Sadr will revel in his new image as a Shia reformer or not, his massive anti-government mobilisation has further deepened the Shia schism and put the ruling coalition in disarray.

At the heart of the impasse is the Shia leadership’s competition over resources and political influence. While the feud is showing the darker side of Iraq’s Shia politics, the widening gulf could set the country on a yet more perilous path.

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