Abadi's moment arrives, as Iraq stares into sectarian abyss

Abadi's moment arrives, as Iraq stares into sectarian abyss
Comment: The Iraqi prime minister must please local elites while simultaneously overcoming imminent economic crisis through significant reforms, writes James Denselow.
5 min read
31 Aug, 2015
Iraqis are mobilising against sectarianism and corruption, despite Abadi's reform plan [Getty]
A new conflict alert from the International Crisis Group warned this week that Iraq was on the "edge of yet more serious conflict". This is worrying news for a country already in a bad place.

Not only is its second city currently occupied by the Islamic State group, but continued strife has seen more than 3.2 million Iraqis internally displaced since the beginning of 2014.

On Thursday, two senior Iraqi army commanders were among five people killed in a suicide car bombing near the city of Ramadi. Meanwhile, the crumbling of state infrastructure has been accentuated by the heatwave which has sparked wider public anger at government corruption.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shia cleric who still holds influence over tens of thousands of Iraqis, has called on his followers to join Friday protests in Baghdad. Against this backdrop, things are made even more difficult by an economic crisis threatening to engulf the country.

Analysts have warned that the Iraqi currency could weaken as much as 20 percent over the next year.

Clearly things appear to be building up to some form of tipping point as to the country's future - while elsewhere in the world the debate over its past rumbles on

Cometh the moment, cometh the man

Prime Minister Abadi came out of nowhere just over a year ago to assume the role of prime minister of the beleaguered country.
     Will [Abadi] prove himself a statesman or simply a politician? A maker of history or one of its footnotes?

It's one of the toughest jobs on the planet - with not only the everyday risks of assassination, but also the possibility that you could find yourself under legal scrutiny for what you do if you ever lose power - as former Prime Minister Maliki has experienced recently.

A dysfunctional political system, crumbling infrastructure, unresolved questions as to the future of Kurdish autonomy and federalism, not to mention the continued battle with IS, all pose serious questions for Prime Minister Abadi at this critical time.

Will he prove himself a statesman or simply a politician? A maker of history or one of its footnotes?

In response to this long list of challenges, Abadi has gone on the front foot. Earlier this month, in response to long standing complaints as to Iraq's political "big tent" system that is characterised by inertia and widespread corruption, Abadi decided to tackle things head on by cutting his cabinet by a third and dissolving four ministries, including human rights and women's affairs.

But Abadi risks upsetting the unofficial sectarian balance - a sort of Lebanon-lite - whereby without everyone being in the tent unpatronised actors may respond with violence to undermine its foundations.

The heat of protests in Iraq forces government reforms - read Zana K Gul's commentary here

Perhaps the prime minister has taken the gamble that guaranteed inertia is worse than the uncertainties surrounding trying to mix things up a little. The corruption you know being worse than the unknown potential that could follow these changes, for example.

Abadi has diluted his own powers of patronage but is likely conscious that, with Grand Ayatollah Sistani backing the fight against corruption, he has the wider "Iraqi Street" on his side.

There are also more ministers who can potentially be made cannon fodder if problems persist. Iraq's parliamentary speaker threatened the electricity minister last Tuesday with a vote of no confidence if he did not appear within four days to be quizzed over the country's persistent power crisis.

In addition to attempting to streamline Iraq's political system Abadi has upped the counter-offensive against the IS group. Despite the embarrassment over the fall of Ramadi and the continued inability to liberate Mosul, Abadi was upbeat about the fight for Baiji.
     It would be a mistake to examine the challenges ahead purely through the lens of Abadi's charisma, coherence and cojones

Last Monday, he explained that "the Baiji battle is a challenge to the heart of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS] and the fundamental existence of Daesh. Victory in this battle is critical to ending Daesh's presence in Iraq".

However, it would be a mistake to examine the challenges ahead purely through the lens of the charisma, coherence and cojones of Abadi's actions.

Whether or not Iraq is able to weather the multiple storm fronts it currently faces will tell us a lot as to whether a functioning state does or could exist in the near future.

Iraq is not the only country in the region facing existential questions around the ability of the state to pursue functions which are difficult but elementary - such as keeping civilians safe from harm - or even those which are comparatively simple - such as collecting the rubbish (or not), as the case is in Lebanon.

Decades of authoritarian rule, stringent sanctions and wars, both civil and regional, have blasted away against the foundations of post-independence Iraq - leading to a present day where very real questions are being asked as to the future of the country as a functioning unitary entity.

Abadi is riding a lion that may either triumph over adversity, turn around and bite him - or perhaps, most likely, collapse and die with exhaustion.

Whatever the scenario, the current crossroads means we may not have to wait long to see what happens next.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.