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Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Shi'a militias line up in opposition to reforms in Iraq, threaten to disperse demonstrators in Basra with bullets.

Link: Voice Of America considers the impact of reforms in Iraq.

In the last few days, a line in the sand has been drawn in Iraq, between those who support anti-corruption initiatives and government reform, and those who are in opposition.  A number of Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have come out in opposition to the reforms being introduced by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.  Former Iraqi Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, who exerts a fair amount of influence with the militias, was schedule to lose his job, as the elimination of the position of Vice President was one of the more prominent features of Abadi's reform package.  The reforms are designed to tackle redundancy in various Iraqi Ministries, which would negatively impact Maliki's political party and his overall position of authority.  Abadi did not invent the issue of reform; in the past few months, the Iraqi people have begun to mobilize and demonstrate in every large city, calling for an end to government corruption and the passage of legitimate, effective reform.  The media in Iraq has had a field day highlighting the countless instances of corruption within the Maliki Administration.  Probably the most prolific and often-discussed example was the creation of a 55,000-strong "ghost army" within the Iraqi Armed Forces.  Maliki's government began paying the salaries of 55,000 soldiers who didn't in fact exist.  The money was graft and was spread around to various military officers in an effort to bolster Maliki's support within the military.  Maliki didn't invent corruption in Iraq; much of the waste and bribery that occurred during his administration was just a repeat of business-as-usual during the days of the Ba'ath Party.  Maliki insisted that anyone who was appointed to a useful position in the government must by loyal to him and his political party.  This rule crippled some Iraqi Ministries, as persons with no experience or knowledge about their particular job, found themselves in charge.

Maliki eventually was replaced by Abadi, who seems determined to succeed in his effort to clean up the government and isolate Maliki altogether.  Abadi appeared to have caught some head-wind, with the support of the Council of Representatives in Parliament, and the backing of the huge crowds of demonstrators that continued to choke the downtown areas of Baghdad and Basra. Both Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis were in approval of his reform efforts.  The Abadi Administration made efforts to explain the importance of proceeding with caution with regards to the Ramadi Offensive, because it was also necessary to locate and destroy all the booby-traps and bombs that ISIS had left to greet the returning civilians.  The people seemed to accept the need for patience, even as ISIS continued his campaign of SVBIEDS and VBIEDS in all the provinces surrounding the capital.  Abadi can even count the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'a population, as an ally.  Maliki seemed to be unstoppable, although behind the scenes, we all were whispering about the level of Maliki's influence with Iran and the militias.  During his administration, the relationship was at times strained, at least with certain groups, including the Badr Organization and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, which had trouble trusting Maliki because of his ties to the United Kingdom and the United States.  In the last few days, though, it has become apparent that the militias have come out united in support of Maliki and opposed to Abadi's reform agenda.  Although the militia movement does not have the opportunity to impact the reform issue at the ballot box, they have no problem intimidating people from the end of a machine gun.

One of Abadi's targets in the reform campaign was the Iraqi judiciary.  Historically rife with bribery and the target of countless complaints, , Abadi saw an opportunity to appease the masses and also push along the reform agenda.  Medhat al-Mahmud, the head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council and the first and current Chief Justice of Iraq, is an ally of Maliki, probably only because he wants to keep Abadi from cleaning out Iraq's Judicial Council, so to speak.  Mahmud has been quite fortunate over the past decade, presiding over the creation of the Iraqi Judiciary, then finding himself as its first Chief Justice.  This position has given him tremendous influence and made him a rich man.  Under Mahmud's watch, the Judiciary was subject to no other authority, although the Constitution calls for oversight by Parliament.  Abadi's reforms have made Medhat al-Mahmud and the Shi'a militias strange bedfellows, as the expression goes.  Interestingly enough, the head of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, met with Iraqi President Fuad Masum on August 25, and asked Masum not to finalize the Iraqi Parliament Council of Representative's decision to eliminate Maliki's Vice Presidential post.  We don't often speak of Fuad Masum because his job is usually ceremonial, but every avenue is being used to thwart the reform movement.  There has been no indication that Masum would give in to the request of Khazali, but the issue has yet to be resolved.

Now that the players are in place, the real struggle over the future of reform will begin.  The anti-reform side does not have numbers in its favor, so it will resort to other means to sabotage the reform agenda.  Already, the militias have announced in Basra that any protests or demonstrations were illegal and would be met with an aggressive response from the militias.  Business as usual for those guys, I assume.  We can expect the militias to use whatever is necessary to intimidate the opposition and scuttle the reform agenda.  This development could impact the military situation, as the militias have been vital to the efforts in Anbar Province.

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