Iraq in political limbo after stalled reform attempts

AP , Saturday 16 Apr 2016

Iraq MPs
REFILE - ADDITIONAL CAPTION INFORMATION Members of parliament, who held a sit-in in protest over a list of candidates presented by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for the cabinet's new line-up, stand during a news conference at the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq April 16, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Failed attempts to oust the speaker of parliament and a fresh ultimatum from an influential Shia cleric have left Iraq in a state of political limbo. Backroom negotiations continued late into the night Saturday between Iraq's powerful political blocs after lawmakers attempting to oust speaker Selim al-Jabouri failed to maintain quorum.

A simmering political crisis in Baghdad escalated this week when parliament failed to approve a new Cabinet lineup presented by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The shakeup was just the most recent effort by al-Abadi to salvage promises of reform first made last August in the form of austerity measures that he claimed would also help combat corruption.

Following the Cabinet vote delay, parliamentarians staged a sit-in Wednesday demanding the country's top political leadership step down, including the speaker and prime minister. The protest quickly descended into a brawl with the country's elected leadership throwing punches and water bottles. Eventually the scuffles subsided and no one was seriously hurt.

Hours after the failed vote in parliament Saturday, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a handwritten statement giving parliament 72 hours to vote in a new Cabinet.

"If these conditions are not met then let it be known that the people will decide," al-Sadr wrote. Al-Sadr credits his ability to mobilize thousands across Baghdad and the country's Shia south to stage protests and a sit-in in Baghdad with pressuring al-Abadi to move forward with the initial Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month.

However, many Iraqis blame the lawmakers themselves for squandering billions in oil money, leaving the country with crumbling infrastructure and abysmal services more than 10 years after the US-led invasion and the lifting of international sanctions.

Sunni lawmaker Mishan al-Jabouri, who has assumed a lead role in the anti-corruption protest within parliament, was himself convicted of embezzling millions of dollars in 2007. Al-Jabouri evaded his prison sentence of 15 years by fleeing to Syria and was only allowed to return to Iraq in 2012 after being issued an amnesty decree under then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

This year Iraq was ranked one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International, an international monitoring group.

"The word reform has just become a sort of instrument for each side of the political class to blame the government and the prime minister," said Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group's senior Iraq analyst, explaining that Iraqi leaders are standing under the banner of reform merely as an attempt to hold on to personal and party power.

Al-Abadi was only forced to submit a new Cabinet lineup after his initial nominees were met with instant opposition from Iraq's political blocs, which rely on patronage systems to remain in power. Several of the Cabinet nominees subsequently withdrew from the list claiming they didn't desire the posts.

"Everyone is appealing to reform, but not in a legitimate way," Frantappie said.

The United Nations on Friday called on Iraqi leaders to resolve the political crisis, warning that instability could jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State group, which still controls much of northern and western Iraq.

"The only party that benefits from the political divisions and chaos .... is Daesh," said the UN's acting head of mission to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The costs of the war against IS, along with the plunge in the price of oil — which accounts for 95 percent of Iraq's revenues — have caused an economic crisis, adding fresh urgency to calls for reform. Iraqi officials predict a budget deficit of more than $30 billion this year.

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