Revise Iraq to save it

Since the departure of the US Army from Iraq, President Obama has kept a clear distance from the dysfunctional and fast-deteriorating Government of Iraq and, more specifically, from Prime Minister (PM) Nouri Al-Maliki, who today has twenty-six days in power remaining to him. At first, he was disappointed that Maliki squandered an historic opportunity to keep the US Army in the country and maintain the momentum for a hard-earned stability. Later, he was frustrated at the failure of Iraqi political leaders to build their nation and protect Iraq’s unity.

It was not a surprise therefore that President Obama did not feel compelled to help the Iraqi Government after the country fell prey to the Islamic State’s (IS) expansion. He waited until late last week before offering limited military and humanitarian assistance to the Kurds, while emphasising that such assistance to Baghdad would be conditional on the removal of Mr Maliki announced this morning and on the creation of a ‘national unity’ government.

It is the system, nothing personal

President Obama has repeatedly placed much of the blame for the current crisis on Maliki for his sectarian rule. Interestingly, it was Mr Obama and his administration who insisted on Maliki serving a second term – despite Sunni and Kurdish warnings. His diplomats lobbied hard for the ‘devil they knew’, the ‘only man who can hold Iraq together’. They must have lived to regret this.

The truth is, Maliki is a product of Iraq’s past history, its current system of governance and the evolving culture of violent sectarianism. He is also a product of the Iran-US conflict over influence in the entire region.

Iraq has always been a jigsaw puzzle, with non-complementary parts forced together by the power of empires and ruthless dictators. And once these forces are lifted, the pieces cannot be put back together again or governed from a central location. Any attempt to do otherwise, will keep the rivers of blood flowing and widen the rift irreversibly. Iraq has always been a cradle of rivalry, bloodshed and extreme tendencies, and now its current constitution and system of governance are exposed to subjective interpretation and exploitation.

System failure

Ironically, when the Obama Administration was disillusioned, and wanted Maliki removed from office, they waited for Iraq’s natural ‘democratic’ process to do it, a process which Maliki had mastered for his own survival. Despite his unpopularity, burning all bridges and failing to provide security, public services or rule of law, Maliki had managed to forge the biggest political alliance and win the largest portion of electoral votes. He was able to centralise power (such as security, military and intelligence) into his own hands, using it as a tool of dictatorship and for eliminating the opposition.

In short, Maliki’s last two terms have demonstrated that the current constitution and democratic process in Iraq cannot keep the country together or prevent the emergence of dictatorships.

Shia-Sunni-Kurd, same old

The Shia in Iraq are the majority and the House of Shia will continue to win lead positions in Baghdad’s Federal Government. However, the House of Shia has been a hostage of Iran’s overwhelming domination, devoid of independent thinking and decision-making. The new PM, Haider Al-Abadi, has been a senior figure in the Dawa Party, a staunch supporter of Maliki policies and a known hardliner against Sunnis and Kurds. He may be pragmatic and as a new PM intent on trying to mend fences: nevertheless his constituency remains the same as that of Maliki, which by no means could reassure the Sunnis and Kurds. Too much optimism has the tendency to be premature, and therefore is too risky.

The Sunnis are currently divided between those who are now under IS rule (the majority) and those who are not. True Sunni engagement in the political process cannot be achieved while their land remains occupied and their constituencies inaccessible. The majority of ordinary Sunni as well as their tribal leaders have long felt alienated by the Shia-dominated Iranian-sponsored government in Baghdad. The majority of Sunnis did not sign up to the 2005 constitution, and after Maliki’s prosecution of prominent Sunni leaders, they felt more and more alienated by Baghdad, a state that has paved the way for IS occupation. Now, IS’ remarkable efficiency, the Sunni’s political fragmentation and the Iraqi Army’s inefficiency leave little room for optimism for Sunni Arab liberation from IS rule in the short and medium term. If and when they are liberated from this newly established Islamic State, they may well not submit to the rule of Baghdad under the Iranian-sponsored Shia majority rule, under the same constitution which they never signed up to. The Sunnis will ask for a greater say in the design and implementation of strategic and day-to-day leadership of the country.

The Kurds, on the other hand, have always had their Region which remained a de facto independent state. Now, after facing a series of political, economic and military confrontations with Baghdad, they are feeling less like Iraqis than ever before. Even in the absence of independence, the Kurdish leaders have made it clear that under no circumstances will they accept the status quo in Baghdad, or the Shahristani-style management of oil revenues. Crucially, they will not hand over the governance of the disputed territories (covered in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution) which they have controlled since Maliki’s demoralised army retreated in disarray in the face of IS advances. For the Kurds, post-Maliki Iraq will not be the same as pre-Maliki Iraq.

Almost irreversible

The reality is that Iraq is now broken beyond repair, divided beyond amendment and failed beyond recovery. If Iraq’s geopolitics, demographics and political history are not enough to make it ungovernable, its constitution, political dynamics and new realities on the ground are. Clearly, the chances of all fences being mended and irreconcilable interests being united, in a civilised, democratic and peaceful manner are slim. Slimmer still are the chances of the Shia, Sunni and Kurds ever trusting one another for a harmonious co-existence. They never had a common vision, let alone a shared one. Many believe that dividing Iraq along the existing ethno-sectarian boundaries may have a greater chance of achieving longlasting peace than forcing them to co-exist.

Therefore, all those attempts to keep Iraq in one piece and force the unwilling components to continue to live and rule together are more-or-less futile. Iraqis know it, Obama knows it and the rest of the world are coming to realise it. Yet, everyone, other than the Kurds, seems to insist that it is not time to divide Iraq, that there is still some glimmer of hope and the country could still be resurrected. They all want to run the extra mile. However, insistence on this path comes at a price, which is not easily affordable unless all parties were willing.

The last throw of the dice

If Iraq is to be saved and kept intact, apart from a new national unity government, a whole new political and constitutional arrangement must be negotiated. New mechanisms must be invented to prevent sectarianism and force leaders into nation-building.

Based on the past eight years’ experience, numerous articles of the constitution require revision, addition or deletion, to help democracy be delivered. There are almost 50 outstanding pieces of legislation that are required to complement the constitution, that are however yet to be passed by the Parliament. These gaps of legislation are often filled by referring back to old Iraqi laws which are invariably designed for ultra-centralised power.

The fact that the Kurdistan Region prospered while the rest of Iraq failed, confirms the views that power must be decentralised in Iraq. Regional or provincial Governments should assume greater decision-making authority over local security, economy and public services.

The Federal Court, Electoral Commission and other independent bodies must be protected via additional robust mechanisms from politicisation and external influences. To stop future PMs becoming dictators, future Presidents of Iraq must command greater power of veto (permanent block) over any major legislations proposed or action passed by the PM. The PM’s authority over cabinet decisions, or appointments of senior military and civilian positions should be diluted.

For the Sunnis, their first priority is to be freed from IS, their communities rebuilt and their tribal and political leaders rehabilitated. The Sunnis must be reassured that the current Shia majority rule comes with workable checks and balances, greater protection of their territories and equal political and economic opportunities.

The Kurds find the current federal arrangement with economic, diplomatic and military reliance on Baghdad, inadequate and grossly unworkable. Some Kurdish leaders have been asking for confederal relations with the rest of Iraq, which cannot be accommodated by the current constitution, and may not keep Iraq intact. Instead, they should be granted greater political, economic and military sovereignty within the boundaries of Iraq.

The hydrocarbon (oil and gas) legislation has been a contentious and divisive issue that precipitated a series of never-ending crises. This must be solved once and for all. The structure and function of the State Organisation for Marketing of Oil (SOMO) must be reformed to provide greater transparency, with active participation of provincial Governments. The KRG would argue that Regions must acquire the ability to develop their energy sector independently from Baghdad.

Baghdad should never be able to use the budget, particularly the payment of salaries, as a political tool to force other political leaders into submission. Finally, the Kurds have gained control over the so called ‘disputed territories’, which includes the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. They want this new reality to be made permanent and enshrined in a revised constitution.


For Iraq to survive the forthcoming turbulent years and impossible challenges ahead, its political and legal systems must be significantly revised. However, none of the revisions will be easily achieved. The proposed changes are too radical and, in the absence of mutual trust, good will and collective leadership, none would be acceptable by the opposing sides.

The Baghdad government under PM Al-Abadi is the least likely to willingly devolve power or give up central control over sovereign issues, such as oil, defence, military or control over disputed territories. The amendment of the constitution is, by design, a near impossible task. It requires political will as well as a pan-Iraq referendum. The former will not be emerging soon, and the latter is not possible while the Sunni Triangle is under IS occupation.

Thus, removal of Maliki from power is by no means the beginning of Iraq’s recovery. Iraq is inherently hard to govern, hard to keep in one piece and impossible to lead. After Maliki’s removal, the Iraqi people and the Al-Abadi Cabinet will be in for a rough ride, with little hope of keeping the country intact.

Original version published in OpenDemocracy

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