While ISIL continues its killing spree against Muslims, Christians, Kurds, Turkmen and even stone statues, Baghdad is entangled in a narrow web of political inter-fighting, external pressures and a hesitant leadership. The main question facing Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi at present is how to define the limit of change required to rid the government of corruption and put the country on the right track, if it is not already too late.
The popular protests, started around electricity outage, is developing fast to a yet to be defined political horizon. Iraqi politicians, probably among the worst in the world, tried first to contain and divert the popular street protests. When this proved difficult, they called for a confrontation with the people and appealed to Ayatollah Sistani to tell the protesters to go home.
It is a peculiar moment in the recent history of Iraq. A moment that shows the uncovering of soft spoken sophisticated politicians for what they truly are, a bunch of sectarian talk heads or outright thieves. But it also shows the seeds of a civil society wakening and rejecting sectarianism, partition and corruption. Abadi is standing in the cross roads between the two forces, the politicians and their backers on one hand and the protesters in the other, trying disperately to play a balancing role.
But why Abadi does not use the moment to swiftly clean political Baghdad and put it together? Why does not he side clearly with the forces of change, particularly that he has the support of Sistani? Well, it is not as easy as it seems at the first glance.
The challenges facing Abadi are in fact greater than what even the protesters see. One example: When former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki fled Baghdad to Tehran for fear of corruption charges and potential arrest, Iranian officials bluntly said that any legal procedures taken by Abadi against the former Prime Minister will result in Tehran pulling out its support and fighters from Baghdad’s defenses against ISIL. Abadi had to reconsider.
Iranian authorities condemned the protesters as “un-Islamic”, for whatever that means. Its political cronies in Iraq hired thugs to beat the demonstrators. Women in public rallies were harassed and pictures were taken to be printed in pro-Iranian media the following morning. All the familiar tricks were used to break the protests.
The protesters found support from the Iraqi Shia spiritual leader Sistani. Sistani rejected the pleas of the political elite in Baghdad to call off the protests. Instead, he called on Abadi to “be firmer in reforming the government”. He warned that the country is heading to partition and pointed to the fact the corruption caused the fall of some regions of Iraq into the hands of ISIL. Yet, Abadi in not free handed.
The two facts of life in Iraq is that corruption is the norm and that Iran has a powerful presence in Baghdad. While Tehran made a mistake it must be regretting by now when it relayed on corrupt politicians, there was hardly a choice.
And Iran does necessarily see in an independent Iraq something to aspire for. The more Baghdad is dependent on its Shia neighbor, the closer Iran to achieving its regional strategy. ISIL has given Tehran the perfect context to move Baghdad towards more dependence on its big neighbor. While this is obvious to all Iraqis, they understand that they need Iran to face the challenges which the country faces. As the Iraqis cannot separate Iran’s assistance from its intentions, they have to accept them as a package. And in that lies Abadi’s dire strait.
But for all fairness to the current Prime Minister, there are no viable Iraqi force yet to mount a solid base for a relatively independent Iraq. When a political elite is transplanted by a foreign force after an invasion, we should expect an extremely distorted organ. The country’s political elite is corrupt and ready to sell anything to preserve their posts. These posts give them upended access to money and influence. The army is deliberately weakened in favor of sectarian militias. And ISIL is a double curse. It is used as a pretext to tighten Iran’s grip on the country. And it represents an existential threat to Iraq as a country.
The task of preserving a relative independence for the Iraqi nation is falling on the shoulders of the civil society. This potential game changer is faced, as could be expected, by Tehran’s wrath and corrupt politicians’ persistent ambushes. Yet, it will be a long way before the civil society can make a real difference. Grass-roots civil political movements form in a slow process. And the current protests, mainly by urban middle class is still in its early phases.
Sistani seems to see the challenge facing Iraq as a nation as it truly is. He is trying to encourage the clean politicians, few as they maybe, to pick the stick and carry on in the long march of saving Iraq. But all the odds are against any sizable degree of success in achieving this task.
Abadi needs Tehran. It is essential to preserving the regime and the country. But the irony is that he has to sacrifice Iraq’s independence to keep the country. While the Iraqi elite of the likes of Nouri Al Maliki know only one master-Tehran, Sistani remained loyal to Iraq. He issued a statement calling for change when Maliki was fighting desperately to keep the Prime Minister chair. And now, he is openly encouraging the protests in the street and yelling at Abadi to carry on. But even if Abadi cleaned the government from the cancer of corruption, he will have to go and knock on the doors of Tehran for security assistance. Furthermore, Tehran can cause him enormous troubles if it decided to. Iran seems to have surrounded Baghdad with a complex and tight net of cronies, agents, polticians and paramilitary groups. The best that Abadi can hope for is a clean but dependent Iraqi government.
Some politicians call for declaring emergency, dissolving the Parliament and suspending the constitution. They say that Iraq needs a period of at least one year during which a new constitution would be written and the focus would be directed at improving security and fighting corruption.
The reason why this argument is false is that it addresses only the form. So long as Iraq does not have a solid “national” force, neither sectarian nor corrupt, implementing these recommendations will change nothing. The internal battle against sectarianism and corruption is necessary to crystalize the right patriotic alternative. If sectarian and corrupt groups are not defeated in an opened fight with Iraqi patriots, the patriotic alternative will never be fully formed in content. It is only the fight for country, not for sect or for a religious leader even as nationalist as Sistani, that makes true patriots.
Moderate leaders in the South and the Center, Shias and Sunnis, should come together to protect their country and stand by their people. What is at stake is not only the mission of cleaning Baghdad of the rubbish that accumulated there for long decades, it is to save the country. The Iraq we see looks like a dying old man. There is a new young Iraq being born. But we are not certain it will be strong fast enough to prevent the tragic end waiting this great country.