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