The technical government

Economist Abdul-Mahdi will have to piece together a country that up to now has been governed (badly) by its Shiite majority

A demonstration against the government in Basra, in southern Iraq. Although the region boasts 80% of the nation’s oil reserves, it is lacking in essential services, and water and electricity are supplied in fits and starts. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani/Contrast
A demonstration against the government in Basra, in southern Iraq. Although the region boasts 80% of the nation’s oil reserves, it is lacking in essential services, and water and electricity are supplied in fits and starts. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani/Contrast

There's a new development which could also be viewed as a weakness in the government which, five months after the parliamentary elections held last May, has taken over in Iraq.

The government led by 76 year old economist Adil Abdul-Mahdi is the first technocratic rather than political goverment in a country which since the constitutional reform of 2005 has always seen Shiite administrations rise to power in Baghdad amid fierce sectarian tension. So it's a break from the past, but this government is intrinsically fragile, as it lacks a strong parliamentary base, and has to face many serious challenges. First among them, the difficult economic situation of the Iraqi people and the fight against rampant corruption within the wheels of the state's administration, identified as the main priorities by an electorate that is increasingly turning away from traditional political involvement.

Abdul-Mahdi was appointed prime minister as a result of an agreement between the three political factions that had won out in the recent elections: Saairun, founded by the national populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; Fatah, mainly comprised of pro-Iranian Shiite militias – part of the Popular Mobilization Forces - headed by Hadi al-Amiri; and Nasr, led by the outgoing prime minister Haider al-Abadi. The inbuilt weakness of Abdul-Mahdi's government was apparent when the prime minister had a hard time getting his administration to take its first steps, such as the appointment of the Ministers of the Interior and Defence, soon vetoed by the various political forces. However, Abdul-Mahdi's cross party image – although he's a Shiite and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council he stands as an independent figure in relation to the parties – may help to reduce the sectarianism that has been Iraq's downfall for years. And strengthen the ties between Baghdad and the country's outer provinces.

One of the most instable areas is the one around Kirkuk, to the north of the Capital: its almost 15 billion barrels of oil and its location on the Shiite corridor that runs from Tehran as far as Damascus and Beirut make it a crossroads where many interests and tensions are pooled. The Kurds, which are a majority in Kirkuk, at first defended it from Isis, then tried to take control away from Baghdad with the ill-fated independence referendum in 2017. Now it's controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), mainly Iranian backed Shiite militias, and the regular Iraqi army, but sectarian violence, in an area which also numbers Sunni Arabs and Turkmen in its midst, is never too far away.

Another hot spot is the Diyala governorship, located in the north-east of the country, which also features a problematic coexistence between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and has suffered a wave of terrorist attacks in 2017 and 2018.

Any attempt to stem the violence between the ethnic and religious groups, fuelled for years by sectarian policies, hinges on the provinces with a traditionally Sunni majority. This is where the actions of the Shiite Da'wa party, which headed the last three governments, and particularly while Nuri al-Maliki was prime minister, have constantly widened the rift with the Sunnis by quashing their political aspirations and using a biased judicial system against them. And this is where the new Iraqi government is called upon to deliver an inclusive message, capable of triggering a true process of national reconciliation.

The minority Muslim community in Iraq (34.5% of the population is Sunni, while 62.5% is Shiite) is itself fragmented like never before. In recent months it has been involved in clashes with Shiite militias and is currently without any form of central authority capable of organising some kind of united response. The increased instability in provinces with a Sunni majority such as Anbar, Ninive and Salah al-Din, which between 2015 and 2017 were under the domination of  Islamic State, can also lead to a greater risk of radicalisation.  

And it is the very same Islamic State, which as a territorial entity has been wiped out, which nevertheless continues to pose a threat, albeit much less than before, in its new guise as a force promoting insurgency.

According to a United Nations report published in August, Isis still has 30,000 acolytes equally spread out over Iraq and Syria. And to avoid further terrorist infiltrations, at the beginning of November Baghdad sent two brigades of its regular army to man the Syrian border, each comprised of 3,000 men, to which a further 20,000 PMF fighters were also added.

In such a context, the pro-Iranian militias, funded by Tehran and which played a crucial role in the war against the Caliphate, seem fated to exercise an increasing influence on internal Iraqi dynamics for two essential reasons. The first is a military one: the regular forces under Baghdad's control are unable to guarantee the country's security. The second reason is of a political nature: on the strength of the successful operations against Islamic State a number of Shiite militias have formed the Fatah coalition, which came second in the May elections. Before and particularly after the vote, these various factions were criticized by vast swathes of the population for supposed abuses and violations, but Abdul-Mahdi has already announced that they will continue to operate and will in fact be given "additional resources" because "they are essential to Iraq" in its fight against terrorism.

The fight against the jihadi insurgency, much like the curbing of sectarian divisions, is one of the primary goals the new government has set itself. Nevertheless, the challenge on which Abdul-Mahdi's political survival depends is another one. The vote clearly indicated that the most pressing issue is the separation between the country's institutions and a population that regularly fill the streets to protest against the lack of services and employment. One emblematic event in this regard are the revolts that have overrun Bassora, a city in the south were water and electricity are supplied sporadically despite the region boasting 80% of the country's oil reserves.

So the government must improve energy distribution in the south of the country, but elsewhere as well, take steps to upgrade an obsolete electricity grid, but most of all it must step in to oversee the distribution of the benefits generated by the oil and gas sector, the revenues of which tend to be swallowed up by a political and administrative apparatus that is rife with corruption and therefore don't reach those who live in the areas that boast such plentiful resources. Iraq is ranked 169th out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index published on annual basis by Transparency International and among the citizens, and particularly the new generations which represent 60% of the population, the feeling of dismay regarding politics exceeds any sectarian barriers, as is proven by the vote abstention levels reached in May in the provinces with Shiite majorities.

The rift that courses through Iraq runs deep, and is more about the juxtaposition between the people and the elite than the clashes between Shiites and Sunnis. The populist al-Sadr put his finger on this change in social attitude better than anyone else and built up his anti-establishment movement by latching onto a disgruntlement that the Abdul-Mahdi government is now called upon to alleviate.

The trickiest problem the prime minister has to face is the short circuit that has led to his mandate: he must dismantle a system that is mired by inefficiency and corruption despite having been elected by that very same system.

In such a fragmented parliament as the one in Baghdad, Abdul-Mahdi can't avoid compromise. While al-Sadr, who has backed the appointment of the economist but has been very careful not include any of his people in important positions, will be pulling the strings off stage without putting himself in the firing line. And will promptly disavow Abdul-Mahdi if his efforts turn sour.

@sergio_colombo

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