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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Shi'a in Iraq in conflict as reforms being introduced by Abadi threaten to create a schism within the community.

It was too good to be true.  The Americans were leaving, the Iraqi government was controlled by the Shi'a political parties, and the crisis involving the Islamic State was providing an opportunity for even more direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs.  For all practical purposes, it appeared as if the Iranians, supported by the majority Shi'a population, might be able to mold the new Iraq into a client state, under the guise of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).  But as we have seen played out time and time again in politics, success breeds jealousy and corruption.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with the all-important support of Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has decided that the time has come to enact sweeping political reforms and to reshuffle his cabinet.  In particular, Abadi is asking for Parliamentary approval to remove the positions of Deputy Prime Minister and Vice President.  Since the current Vice President is former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Abadi is, for all practical purposes, calling for a Civil War within the Iraqi Shi'a community, to determine if the future will be under his guidance, or under the leadership of Maliki.  The timing is not ideal, as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) are currently throwing everything but the kitchen sink at ISIS in Anbar Province, to attempt to dislodge the terrorists from Fallujah and Ramadi once and for all.  Iraqi allies in Washington DC and Europe are becoming more and more concerned everyday with the length of time it is taking to push ISIS back into the western deserts of Anbar.  If the military campaign fails, it will send warning signals all the way to Diyala Province and down to Basra, that the ISF and the PMUs have lost the battlefield, and that Baghdad is at serious risk.  Would Maliki handle the military situation better than Abadi has?  Would the Shi'a unite more effectively under one as opposed to the other?  Sistani, who has always wielded tremendous influence in the Iraqi Shi'a community, has thrown his entire weight behind Abadi, and still the situation seems unresolved.

Last month, we wrote a post regarding former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's not-so discrete efforts to discredit the Abadi government.  Maliki took every opportunity to paint Abadi as a Sunni puppet, and to criticize his handling of the war.  Obviously Maliki was aware of Abadi's legislative intentions, and was trying to pre-empt the Prime Minister.  The question on everyone's mind should be, who will the Iranians support? The answer is simple: the Iranians will support whoever will give them more influence over the governing of the country.  The fact that Iraq has, until recently, been governed by Sunni royalty followed by a Sunni despot, is not lost on Iran.  During the 1982-1988 Iran/Iraq war, Iran's revolutionary leaders regularly preached about the Holy War to free the oppressed Iraqi Shi'a population, and to this day, the Shi'a continue to constitute a majority.  Many of the most revered Shi'a Holy Sites are in Iraq, and Iran is being very pragmatic and careful vis-à-vis Iraq.  In reality, the Iranian Armed Forces could have eliminated the ISIS presence in Iraq in short order, but an outright military intervention of that magnitude would be condemned internationally and in the United Nations.  Instead, Iran is showing great patience, as its image and reputation internationally continues to be upgraded.  The as-yet unratified nuclear treaty with the United States will go a long way in that regard.  Iran wants its presence in Iraq to be viewed positively by the international community, therefore any heavy-footed actions are to be avoided.  The PMUs consist of Iraqi Shi'as, aided by Iranian military advisors; as opposed to Russia in Ukraine, there is no evidence of Iranian military hardware crossing over the border.  Its possible that the situation may become so dire that the United Nations and the international community welcome Iranian military intervention to save Iraq from ISIS.  I can only imagine....Iran, with a history of funding terrorist activity in the Levant, defeats the worst terrorist threat the world has yet faced.  The word "Irony" just doesn't cover it.

Back to the present and the current Iraqi government's determination to isolate and minimize the influence of Nouri al-Maliki.  There is no question that Abadi's efforts to combat ISIS and keep Iraq from splintering have been made more difficult by Maliki. Abadi's political reforms are not solely designed to cripple Maliki; these reforms are necessary to make governing less cumbersome and battle corruption.  As things are today, Iraq has a President, Fuad Masum, a Vice President, Nouri al-Maliki, a Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and three Deputy Prime Ministers.  Today, one of those Deputy Prime Ministers resigned, in what is widely believed to be part of Abadi's anti-corruption initiative.  The truth is, the Executive Branch of the Iraqi government needs to be streamlined.  It also needs an independent investigator-general in the worst way.  Even in the midst of the threat from ISIS, the Iraqi people are clamoring for an end to what has become endemic corruption in government and politics.  The real reason Abadi chose to enact these reforms at this time, is because he had no choice.  How long before the Iraqi people, who must pay a tax for this, and a bribe for that, finally get the red-ass and start stringing up these thieves from the nearest trees?

How much influence and debts-owed Nouri al-Maliki continues to possess will be determined within the next month or so.  Abadi sees the opportunity to create a united Shi'a political movement, to represent the majority population in an appropriate manner.  Maliki does have influence with the Sadr movement and certain militias.  I have always awarded tremendous authority to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and he has made it clear that he supports Abadi and his reforms.  Am I overestimating Sistani's power?  Does Maliki command the loyalty of enough movers and shakers in the Iraqi Shi'a community, to defeat the reform effort?  If so, Abadi will be forced to call for new elections, and then its anybody's guess what happens. 

With regards to Abadi's reforms, how with the Sunni respond?  They spend so much time lamenting their loss of power that they probably haven't really considered a responsive strategy.  With Anbar under siege, and ISIS establishing itself deeper into Diyala and Salah ad-Din Provinces, I can't imagine what the Sunni community must be going through.  This war was originally fought in the backyard of the Kurds, but since has made the contagion of Sunni communities in central Iraq its battlefield.  The Shi'a towns and villages of Hillah, Najaf, Kut, Samawah, Nasiriyah and Basra have yet to endure an ISIS occupation.  But the Sunnis have suffered terribly.  I'm sure the Sunni parliamentary representatives will represent the best interests of the Sunni community, with regards to political reform.  But the political fight that threatens to split the Shi'a community doesn't appear to involve them, at least not at the moment.  The military events next month will probably determine the fate of Anbar Province, and the political developments of the next month will give us an indication of what kind of government Iraq will have as it continues, in fits and spurts, to hold itself together and fight a war of survival.

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