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Sadrists’ short-lived occupation of Baghdad’s Green Zone last weekend may succeed in temporarily jump-starting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s halting reform process, but it is unlikely to engender lasting change without U.S. support. The Obama administration has been loath to expand its intervention in Iraq beyond a heavily circumscribed military role, but it is becoming increasingly clear that long-term stability in Iraq cannot be achieved without significant political reform—and that such reform won’t be possible for Iraq to achieve on its own.
For Washington, Muqtada al-Sadr’s attempts to leverage popular discontent to force political change in Baghdad have been a frustrating distraction from the mission to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). During his trip to Riyadh last month, U.S. President Barak Obama warned that “now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering” in Iraq. It could be argued, however, that the turmoil in Baghdad presents an opportunity to right a political system whose dysfunction is a leading cause of the ongoing violence and instability in Iraq.
Iraq’s political system has utterly failed to deliver basic services to its citizens, despite raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues in the last 13 years. Now, Iraq is overwhelmed by a financial crisis sparked by plummeting oil prices, the costs of the war against ISIS, and the toll of providing for 3.4 million internally displaced people. What little investment had once filtered through the cracks to pay for improving infrastructure and service delivery has dried up.
Although commentators generally separate the broader public discontent behind the protests against political ineptitude in Baghdad from the Sunni-specific grievances that have helped fuel the ISIS rampage, the distinctions are not so clear-cut.
In fact, Sunni anger about discrimination is exacerbated by the corrupt and dysfunctional Iraqi administrative apparatus. For example, the arbitrary imprisonment of young men is one of the Sunni community’s key grievances. For Sunnis, such jailings feel like collective punishment. But it is just as likely that incompetence and corruption are at play. Sunni men are often swept up into a prison system where they can released in return for bribes, or left to languish without proper processing or access to judicial recourse. Professionalizing the Iraqi bureaucracy is an important part of addressing Sunnis’ mistrust and fear of the central government.
Beyond the defeat of ISIS, stability in Iraq will not be achieved unless there is a strong, legitimate government that can take the lead in disarming the 80,000 militia men who helped the formal Iraqi army fight the radical group. Although many of these militia men may voluntarily disarm once the ISIS threat has receded, some of the more extreme and organized groups who are backed by the Iranian state, including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, are likely to represent a continued danger. At some stage, the Iraqi state will have to confront these groups if its wishes reassert its control over the use of violence in the country. But the government will not be in a position to take on these armed groups if wide swathes of the Iraqi population have no confidence in it.
The long-term viability of the Iraqi state is also going to be dependent on its ability to implement a serious economic reform plan designed to adapt to a new era of low oil prices. Iraq is currently only raising half the amount in oil revenues that it spends on salaries and pensions each month, and the Standby agreement that Baghdad is negotiating with the IMF is like to be poured into paying salaries rather than in investing in stimulating growth of non-oil revenues. The Iraqi government is currently so unstable that it cannot start slashing wages or cutting public sector jobs without risking being overthrown. Only a government with strong popular backing and legitimacy would be in a position pursue the reforms needed to place the state on a firm economic footing.
Abadi knows all this, and he has tried countless times to push reforms through an intransigent parliament, but he does not have the political capital to build the alliances he needs to be successful. The United States has no appetite for weaving its way back into Baghdad’s messy political drama, but there is no choice here. As Iran well knows, the only way to get things done in Baghdad is to be heavily engaged with individual politicians and to help the prime minister with the wheeling and dealing needed to bring about change. And when it comes to negotiating political alliance, the United States has plenty of leverage at play in Iraq today that it should not be afraid to use.
As much as the United States has every right to be skeptical about Sadr’s motives in pushing this political crisis forward, his actions have also presented Washington with an opportunity. Sadr’s supporters, along with many others across Iraq, both Sunni and Shia, are pressing for an end to a system that allows political parties to stuff ministries with ineffective party appointees. They hope that by appointing independent, technocratic ministers to the cabinet, they can begin the process of clearing out and professionalizing the ministries. It is a long shot, and if it is to have any chance of being successful Abadi will need help. As much as the United States would prefer a clear-cut military solution to the rise of ISIS, there is simply no path to long-term stability that doesn’t involve political engagement.