Are the divisions between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq so severe and entrenched that they are irreconcilable? Has Iraq reached its proverbial end? Though re-inventing itself as a federal, power-sharing democracy in the wake of the American invasion, Iraq’s political development since then has remained path-dependent, unable to shake off Saddam’s authoritarian legacy. Discrimination against the recruitment of Sunnis in the institutions of the state and the withholding of Kurdistan Region’s share from the federal budget hampered the socio-political cohesion of the Iraqi state under Maliki. While it is tough to predict how developments in Iraq will manifest in the future, Iraq’s new political dispensation under Haidar Al-Abadi is actively striving to move beyond Maliki’s destabilizing ethno-sectarian legacy and treading the path of dialogue and reconciliation.
Post-Maliki Iraq: The Kurds
After assuming power, Abadi set on a course by bringing the Sunnis and Kurds back into the national fold. A significant achievement with respect to the Kurds was a major oil and budget deal with the Kurdistan Region. Signifying Baghdad’s new conciliatory approach, Prime Minister Abadi was quick to point out that though imperfect, the deal was needed, and defending it stated that “even if I win a little bit more than him or the other way around, at least we’re not both losing.” A closer look at the agreement reveals that it is the KRG that has benefited more, as the deal implicitly grants the KRG the prerogative to export its own oil independently of Baghdad.
Will more available resources from independent oil sales as well as the federal budget, secure and stabilize the KRG-Baghdad relationship? It is not surprising that given Iraq’s volatility an equal number of commentaries express doubts over the sustainability of the deal while others hail it as a success. No wonder then that only a few weeks after the deal was struck, President Barzani reiterated his desire for Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq, signifying the intention of the Kurdistan Region to go its own way.
Post-Maliki Iraq: The Sunnis
Maliki’s majoritarianism alienated the Sunnis to the extent that as a counterpoise, the Sunnis put their weight behind an extremist, militant ISIS. Haidar Al-Abadi attended to the Sunni grievance by appointing Khalid Al-Obeidi, a Sunni as Iraq’s Defence Minister, a post which had been reserved by Maliki himself. Furthermore, in a symbolic bipartisan gesture, Abadi visited Kadhimiya, a Shia area, and Adhamiya, a Sunni area on the occasion of the birth of the Holy Prophet Mohammed.
The issue of attending to Sunni re-engagement in Iraq is a thorny and complicated one. It continues to be inflammatory because of the capitulation of the Iraqi Army and Baghdad’s reliance on the Shia-dominated Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Unit. The Mobilisation Unit, now allegedly led by Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, was established by Nuri Al-Maliki, a few weeks before his abdication from power as a last-gap measure to mobilise both Shia militias and Sunni tribes in the war against ISIS. Though the Unit, bolstered further by increased allocation for the military and security institutions in the 2015 budget, has reportedly supported Sunni tribes in Ramadi, Dhuluiya and Heet, their presence in the Sunni areas is inflaming sectarianism with the Sunni tribes protesting their massacre at the hands of the Shia-led security forces. The Sunni grievance against the Shia popular fighting force is combined with the claim that the “Iraqi government is a tool in the hands of Iran”, as echoed by the Anbar tribal chief.
However, Al-Obeidi, the Sunni Defence Minister representing the Iraqi state, not a particular Sunni tribe, does not view Iran in similar terms. In December 2014, Al-Obeidi was in Tehran and signed a defense cooperation agreement with the Iranian Defence Minister by way of which Tehran promised to cooperate with Baghdad in order to refurbish the Iraqi National Army. In a statement, Al-Obeidi stated that, “we assume Iran’s increased support for the Iraqi armed forces as a strategic necessity.” As Baghdad tries desperately to rebuild and restructure its Army, which according to Abadi will take three years, the reliance on the Hashd Al-Shaabi, Peshmerga and militias in the war against ISIS needs to balance itself out against Sunni complaints relative to their marginalization and victimisation. The reintegration of disaffected Sunni tribes is thus a major challenge not only for the Abadi government but also for the Sunnis in power in Baghdad.
Tackling Corruption and Domestic Opposition
Prime Minister Abadi has also made clear his intention of weeding out corruption from the Army and stated publicly that 50,000 ghost soldiers exist in the Iraqi Army whose salaries are received fraudulently by their officers. The conviction to stamp out corruption not only from the Army but other public institutions was manifest in Abadi’s solemn declaration that he would not back off even if it led to his assassination. The sacking of 26 military commanders for corruption and incompetence and protests by dismissed local government “ghost” employees in Basra is indicative of the Abadi’s government approach.
Furthermore, Abadi also dropped all pending lawsuits filed by the Maliki government against journalists. Interestingly, Abadi has countered domestic opposition for his war against corruption and inefficiency from none other than Maliki who stated that the ‘army is free of ghost soldiers except for a few rare cases which are being followed up.’ Maliki also denounced the Baghdad-Erbil Agreement by reiterating that the ‘oil of Kurdistan is like the oil of Basra, and it belongs to Iraq.’ Tensions between Abadi and Maliki were apparent in that Abadi complained about Maliki to American officials specifically accusing the former Iraqi Premier for his role in handing down a death sentence to a Sunni politician, Ahmed Al Alwani.
Compromise as the way forward
Abadi has won respect from many quarters including President Barzani who praised Abadi for taking good steps, while “previously, there was discrimination.” The politics of Abadi, in contrast to the authoritarianism of Maliki, amplifies the fact that the Shia, Sunni and Kurd identity is not inherently antagonistic to each other and is reconcilable provided measures are put to that effect by the government in Baghdad. However, thorny issues including the disputed territories still need to be dealt with.
Paradoxically, and rather surprisingly, while the Iraqi government has set an implementation date of September 8, 2015 for Article 140, the 2015 budget does not include money for the “compensation” aspect of the Article. Furthermore, sufficient pressure exists on Abadi from within his own State of Law Coalition which continues to view Iraq in zero-sum terms. The retaliatory measures of the Coalition and accusations and claims for financial compensation from Erbil on account of KRG’s independent oil sales between 2006 and 2014 when Maliki was in power, is a major challenge to be dealt with.
As oil prices dip in the international market and the war against ISIS intensifies, Iraq finds itself trapped between a rock and a hard place. While Abadi has shown that it is perhaps not too late for Iraq to resuscitate its fledgling polity and reform it in ways that is acceptable to all components of Iraqi society, the signals from Baghdad suggest that alternative political solutions are being considered and assessed. In a Dawa Party meeting in December 2014 which also included Nuri Al-Maliki, the idea of a Shia Region in central and southern Iraq was contemplated.
Is this then the probable future for Iraq, that is, an asymmetrical federal arrangement where the cohesion of the Iraqi state perseveres albeit with significant socio-political and economic autonomy for the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds? Whatever solution the future might bring forth, a win-win outcome for all sides is to pragmatically proceed with power-sharing and negotiated compromise as the essential principle of political life. Consequently, if all three major components of Iraqi society do decide to part ways or work out a formula for co-existence in an asymmetrical federation, it is best that they do it peacefully rather than through further bloodshed and violence.
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About MERI: The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region. Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.
MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).