Has Iraq missed its chance?

Salah Nasrawi , Sunday 4 Nov 2018

Iraq may have a new government, but its ministers are not the ones who are really calling the shots

Iraq's Prime Minister-designate Adel Abdul Mahdi speaks to parliament he announces his new cabinet at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq October 24, 2018 Reuters

After five months of a serious political impasse and painstaking negotiations to form a new government, many Iraqis would have been content to be governed by a government that had some regard for what they really want – to stop the progressive deterioration of their nation.

Instead, Iraqis last week got as their new ministers people who are widely seen as nothing more than hirelings employed by the ruling parties and political elites that continue to demonstrate their arrogance and contempt in the face of people’s mounting discontent.

Iraq’s new parliament convened on 24 October to confirm Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s new government in office, a last step to end the political stalemate that emerged from the inconclusive 12 May general elections.

However, after a chaotic session that extended beyond midnight, the legislature failed to vote on key appointments, including the ministers of defence, justice and the interior, underscoring the discord plaguing Iraqi politics.

The session started with a quorum of 220 lawmakers, leaving more than 100 seats empty in the 329-seat body. Those who remained after the row over the ministers voted to confirm 14 of Abdul-Mahdi’s 22 cabinet nominees.

It was not clear what triggered the controversy, but Abdul-Mahdi seemed to have violated under-the-table deals reached by the parliament’s main blocs and political leaders to distribute the cabinet seats.

Abdul-Mahdi was a compromise candidate for the premiership, and the political jockeying involved in appointing him included political and financial horse-trading laying the foundations for a future fight over who will be in the new government.

Lawmakers who opposed some of the candidates complained that they were not given enough time to review the nominees, named only hours before the vote. Some MPs objected that some of the nominees for the cabinet had links to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Others claimed that some of the nominees had criminal records, including for graft and connections with either Sunni terrorist groups or Iran-backed Shia militias.

Among those who were rejected were Falih Al-Fayadh, head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) nominee for the interior portfolio, and Faisal Al-Jarba, nominated as the defence minister in the new cabinet.

Lawmakers accused Al-Fayadh of being close to Iran-backed militias and Al-Jarba of being a former crony of Saddam.

Abdul-Mahdi’s proposed communications minister was also accused of being a Saddam stalwart in a document leaked during the session. His nominee for the culture portfolio, a Shia militia leader, was perceived as being a threat to the country’s culture.

Abdul-Mahdi made a political blunder when he failed to make good on his promise to launch a government Website allowing ordinary Iraqis to apply for ministerial jobs online.

His office said later that more than 30,000 Iraqis had submitted their CVs through the governmental portal, but none was chosen for any ministerial job.

In his four years as prime minister, Abdul-Mahdi will likely face many big-ticket decisions, including fighting chronic corruption in the government and providing basic services that have been largely eclipsed over the past 15 years because of mismanagement and graft.

Protests over the lack of services such as power and drinking water rumbled through the southern city of Basra throughout the summer and led to clashes with the security forces and dozens of casualties and arrests.

Among the plethora of challenges faced by Abdul-Mahdi is the rising power of the Shia militias, which many Iraqis blame for mounting lawlessness, violence and crime.

The Shia militias have seen a rapid rise in power since June 2014 after the government established the PMF to support the security forces to battle a large-scale insurgency by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

The PMF, which evolved as a loose assortment of militias, rose up in response to the IS drive through the country. While the PMF itself remains loosely under government control, some of the most powerful and influential militias operating across the country are really calling the shots.

The country’s next government also faces tough economic decisions after the failure of post-Saddam governments in Iraq to jump-start economic reforms, eliminate inefficiency and dismantle corrupt patronage networks that stifle development.

One of Abdul-Mahdi’s toughest challenges will be to end the ruinous policy of having people depend on the state as the sole jobs provider and to solve the country’s high unemployment by encouraging investment in the private sector.

Among other key challenges that Abdul-Mahdi must face is grappling with the balance between the US and Iran, two rivals which have been vying for influence in Iraq since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam in 2003.

The nature of Iraq’s political makeup and its geopolitical position dictate that Abdul-Mahdi should work to contain the US and Iranian influence in the country while balancing these against Iraq’s own interests.

Another main challenge that Abdul-Mahdi will face as Iraq prepares for the future after the war with IS is maintaining stability and bringing about the reconstruction of areas wrecked by the war against the militants.

Meanwhile, Abdul-Mahdi still has a list of disputes with the country’s Kurdistan Region in the wake of the 2017 referendum on independence.

Resolving these disputes will be key to stabilising Iraq in the future and ensuring workable relations with the autonomous region.

Abdul-Mahdi made a number of promises in his manifesto for the 2018-2022 term. He pledged to make necessary changes in the government and to end poverty and unemployment and provide security, water and electricity for all Iraqis during his term.

However, whether he will be able to deliver on such promises remains to be seen.

Indeed, there are doubts that Abdul-Mahdi will be able to keep his promises. One main constraint is that he is not backed by any parliamentary bloc of his own, with most of his cabinet ministers being imposed on him by the main political groups.

Many Iraqis have mocked Abdul-Mahdi’s acknowledgement that his government’s manifesto was based on a draft programme that former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi had prepared for his own government should he have won another term.

Abdul-Mahdi also presented the 2019 state budget drafted by Al-Abadi’s government to the parliament without any cabinet discussion and named the former prime minister right hand man for the same post as cabinet chief of staff.

For these Iraqis, relying on a programme, budget and officials associated with another failed government is a bad commencement for a new one.

Unlike the praise which the Western powers, Iraq’s neighbours and the United Nations expressed at the appointment of Al-Abadi as Iraq’s prime minister in 2014, Abdul-Mahdi’s appointment has been met with scepticism.

In a statement read by his spokesperson Heather Nauert, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to work closely wit hAbdul-Mahdi, but he underlined that US support for the new government was “to help his government deliver stability, security and prosperity for all Iraqis.”

UN Representative in Iraq Serg Kubis underscored that Abdul-Mahdi’s government should work “in full respect of” Iraq’s constitution “that guarantees the rights and equality of all Iraqi citizens” and provides for “a stable and prosperous future” for Iraq.

With its strategic location, vast natural wealth and educated and enterprising population, Iraq is poised to re-emerge as a regional and global player.

Yet, it has missed many chances to rebuild after the US-led invasion in 2003, which gave it the deserved title of “the land of missed opportunities.”

Maybe it is too early to judge Abdul-Mahdi, and the next few weeks and months will give better insight into his policy vision and performance.

But with a government half full of cronies and political novices, one could argue that his starting point does not augur well for Iraq’s future.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Has Iraq missed its chance? 

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