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On Saturday, protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament in reaction to lawmakers’ failure to convene and vote on a second batch of new ministers. The vote was intended to complete a partial cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had initiated the previous week as part of broader reform plan to replace sectarian party quotas with independent technocrats in top government positions.
It was a sharp escalation of a political crisis that has rocked Iraq for almost nine months now. Although the immediate threat to the government abated with the protesters leaving the compound, the situation is still unpredictable, and Baghdad seems unable to walk itself away from the brink. The United States will thus be critical in brokering a settlement between the prime minister and the parliamentary blocs who oppose him. And, for the first time, it will have to open a direct conversation with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader who once fought U.S. troops during the Iraq War and is now the de facto leader of the protests.
Last weekend’s days of rage came on the heels of a trip to Iraq by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who urged politicians to unify in the face of crisis and reaffirm support for Abadi’s reform plans. His pleas fell on deaf ears, though, a stark reminder of the apparently intractable divides between Iraqi political parties.
Iraq’s lawmakers have been dragging their feet for months now. Following largely non-partisan anti-corruption rallies last summer, top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani voiced his support for reform. But Sistani, who keeps politics at a distance, went silent in February after virtually all Iraq’s political parties, save elements loyal to Sadr, blocked Abadi’s path to implementing reforms. Their move was not particularly surprising; in Iraq’s post-2003 consensus-based system, it is the political parties, not the premier, that nominate ministers, their deputies, and other senior officials. The system lacks accountability and is ripe for corruption. Abadi has long declared his intention to nominate a non-partisan cabinet.
The push for change could have died when Sistani backed off, but Sadr stepped into the void and appointed himself the standard-bearer of the reform movement. Sadr, whose core constituency is poorer Shias, tried to appeal on a national level and to reach beyond sectarian divides. This is something he first attempted to do back in 2012, when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki antagonized Sunnis, Kurds, and even fellow Shias with his drive to consolidate power. At the time, Sadr publicly defended the rights of marginalized Sunni Arabs and attacked the exclusionary policies of fellow Shia Maliki. This time around, Sadr pushed the parliament to appoint a non-partisan and technocratic cabinet, and he threatened to uproot the government if it failed to heed his calls.
Sadr has not tried to hide the fact, meanwhile, that his rivalry with Maliki for leadership of the Shias, who in turn dominate the government, is a major factor behind his activism. Sadr has sometimes framed the struggle as one between reformists and those dreaming of a third term, a clear reference to Maliki, who was forced out of power in favor of Abadi following the Islamic State (ISIS) offensive in the summer of 2014. At the time, Maliki was blamed for having aggravated Sunni communities through his targeting of their political leaders and outright favoritism of Shia—more precisely, Shias who belonged to his own party. Tellingly, protesters who stormed the parliament over the weekend held neatly printed banners calling Maliki “scum, leader of pickpockets.”
Sadr is trying to undermine other competition for Shia leadership as well. Over the weekend, pro-Sadr protesters who had gathered at the Great Celebrations Square inside the International Zone chanted anti-Iran slogans. It was a clear jab at those among Sadr’s Shia rivals who are closest to Iran, including the powerful militias of Badr Corps and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the leaders of which are allied with Maliki and have been working to translate their battle contributions against ISIS into political gains at Abadi’s and Sadr’s expense.
It is clear that Sadr wants to use Abadi’s reform to weaken his rivals and emerge as guardian of the government and undisputed kingmaker. And that leaves Abadi caught between those who want reform and those who can’t abide by it. And he might eventually lose out. Former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his party participated in the recent sit-in and called instead for Abadi’s removal. Some demanded that Allawi be put in charge of a so-called salvation government.
In other words, Sadr is a smart bully who adopted a good cause for a mix of undetermined parts of good and selfish reasons. He ratcheted up pressure on rivals, but there was no bloodshed. In multiple statements, Sadr asserted the peaceful nature of the protests. And indeed, the storming of the International Zone and parliament building left few injuries besides the egos of some members of parliament who got beaten up while attempting to flee. This did not become, as many in Iraq undoubtedly feared, a repeat of the 1958 bloody overthrow of the monarchy. But the danger remains. Sadr played a game of chicken with his rivals and they flinched—members of parliament and party leaders fled the parliament compound in panic. He will press forward.
And there is a high risk of escalation if the military or militias belonging to the rivals of Sadr, which are already mobilizing toward Baghdad and the International Zone, opt for violence to avoid looking helpless again when Sadr orders a repeat of Saturday’s demonstration. (One is already planned for the International Zone later this week.)
Iraqi political leaders can thus opt to continue to stymie reform, hoping that the people will tolerate more of the same ineffective governance, sectarian politics, and corruption that they have seen for years now. Or they can let the prime minister pick his cabinet free of the parties, which might bring better governance but could further undo the country’s fragile balance of power.
Both options are fraught, but the latter appeals more to the people in a time of severe financial hardship caused by falling oil revenue and the war with ISIS. The crisis has exposed the hypocrisy of political actors who have long shifted the blame to one another or to Maliki. Sadr’s support is rising, and it will likely continue to do so at the parties’ expense—with whatever consequences that brings.
There is still a chance to help Iraqis walk back from the brink. Sadr has declared that he will spend the next two months as a hermit, which is probably a hint that he is planning to bide his time and come back stronger than ever. He will undoubtedly continue to stage-manage protests through instructions carried out by his aides. The United States should act immediately to do several things.
First, Washington can initiate direct talks with Sadr. Like it or not, he is a key variable in Iraq’s political equation and is no longer leader of a fringe movement. He may be a force for both good and bad, but he is a force. For U.S. diplomacy to work, Washington will have to get a better handle on what he is trying to do and what outcomes he is willing to accept. Direct engagement could, in turn, change Sadr’s perceptions about the United States’ own goals and interests in Iraq.
The United States should also work with Iran to soften Maliki’s resistance to allowing Abadi to form and run his cabinet and to thin the ranks of the obstructionist camp. Although Iran and its allies do not wish to surrender too much power to Abadi and Sadr, they can surely see the danger of Shia infighting and the potential collapse of the post-2003 political order that gave Shias a leadership role in Iraq for the first time in the country’s history.
Finally, the United States should pressure the Kurds to cooperate with Abadi. So far, they have insisted that the cabinet remain partisan, perhaps out of distrust or hope that continued infighting will give them an opportunity to exit Iraq for good. However, the Kurds can benefit from working with Abadi. They could use cooperation on reform to press for the resolution of some key disputes over oil and revenue. This would buy the Kurds the time and resources necessary to meet the institutional, financial, and political prerequisites for pursuing independence down the road. For its part, the United States could use as leverage the fact that any U.S. aid to the Kurds comes from the larger pool of U.S. aid to Baghdad. That aid will come into question if Abadi’s government collapses. Likewise, deliveries of U.S. weapons to the Kurdish Regional Government might stall, since those also go through Baghdad first.
The walls of Iraq’s International Zone cannot be un-breached. If violence erupts in the coming days, the future of Iraq would be thrown into the unknown, which would benefit ISIS. As government forces and Shia militias focus on the power struggle in Baghdad, ISIS may be able to regroup and recover from recent battle losses. It would be a grave mistake to allow Iraq’s hard-earned gains against ISIS to go to waste—and it would be a crime to let the country fall apart over what is ultimately a squabble between power-hungry men.