On Monday, August 11, 2014, the newly chosen Iraqi President, Fouad Massoum, asked Haider al-Abadi to form a new government. Al-Abadi, a Shiite Muslim politician and senior member of the Dawa party – the same party to which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs – had previously been elected as Deputy Speaker of Parliament.
Up until now there have been no leaks about how the deal to nominate al-Abadi was done.
It is more than likely that the State of Law coalition, which was originally formed by al-Maliki, is now seeing internal divisions. Its members would be divided between those who support al-Abadi and those who support al-Maliki.
Some say that there was an internal coup at the last minute, with former Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who has good relations with senior members of al-Maliki’s own party, convincing these politicians to support al-Abadi.
Another theory holds that US diplomats convinced the Iranians – strong supporters of al-Maliki up until recently – that if al-Maliki stayed in power then the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State would breach Baghdad’s defences. The same theory says that as a result, in turn, Iran convinced religious authorities to support al-Abadi and abandon al-Maliki. Supporters of this scenario say that al-Jaafari was also working behind the scenes in this play.
Only a few hours after al-Abadi’s nomination became official, there was literally an outpouring of support for him. This seemed to mostly reflect the huge amount of antipathy toward al-Maliki as a person rather than anything to do with his sect; al-Abadi is also a Shiite Muslim, as well as being a member of the same political party.
Iran, the US and the European Union all welcomed al-Abadi’s nomination. The King of Saudi Arabia also congratulated al-Abadi, saying that he hoped this would herald “Iraq’s return to the Arab and Islamic world”.
A variety of noteworthy congratulations were made by Shiite Muslim political actors. The extremist Shiite militia known as the League of Righteous, which is supported by Iran and which also has a political wing now, said that directives by religious authorities should be respected and that there should be no military interference in the political process.
The leader of the Sadrist movement, a huge Shiite Muslim political and military group, also seemed pleased. “The nomination of al-Abadi is the base from which we will reach safety,” cleric Muqtada al-Sadr noted.
Even the Union of National Forces, an alliance of Sunni Muslim political parties, welcomed the move and said al-Abadi’s nomination “gave hope for change in the country”. The group said they would support al-Abadi and that they would begin negotiations with the Shiite Muslim political parties to form the new government.
In fact, it may well be that no other Prime Minister in Iraq has ever received this kind of welcome. And given the number of serious problems that await al-Abadi, he may well need all the support he can get.
The first problem he faces is the fact that al-Maliki has yet to cede power. Al-Maliki continues to talk about conspiracies against him, to say that the Federal Supreme Court has not done its job properly and that Iraq’s President Massoum has violated the Constitution.
Additionally al-Maliki’s followers have been demonstrating in the centre of Baghdad since Monday, calling for al-Maliki to stay in the job. However there are not more than several hundred of them.
So the first question for al-Abadi is whether al-Maliki could block his chances to be Prime Minister? The two have been in the same political party for more than 30 years even though al-Abadi has been living in Baghdad for years and al-Maliki comes from Karbala.
And should this problem be solved, what are the greatest challenges al-Abadi faces over the next four years?
The first, and most obvious challenge, that al-Abadi’s new government will face is the threat posed by the Sunni Muslim extremists from the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now simply known as the Islamic State, or IS. They are now present in many areas in Iraq where there is a Sunni Muslim majority – they control some places, like Mosul, by themselves; in others they are allied with Sunni Muslim militias and fighters who were opposed to al-Maliki’s government.
The Iraqi army, many of whose leaders are loyal to al-Maliki, is not making much progress in liberating these areas.
“Iraqi forces are not capable of confronting the IS group by themselves,” Shwan Taha, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence in the previous government, told NIQASH. “They need US support as well as efforts by politicians.”
So the new Prime Minister will need to convince his US allies that they should stand by his side. He also needs to evaluate the efficacy of the Iraqi army – after the armed forces fled the northern city of Mosul, abandoning their weapons and equipment to the approaching fighters from the IS group, the Iraqi army was roundly criticized. Many said that during al-Maliki’s time it had been a way of providing jobs and patronage to soldiers and leaders who were unskilled and unsuited for the job.
Another security problem involves the Shiite Muslim militias who have been deployed both as security in Iraq’s Shiite-majority centres as well as on the frontlines in the battle against Sunni Muslim extremists.
In Baghdad there are at least five militias on the ground and they represent a serious challenge to the new government’s authority. Most prominent among them is the more extremist League of Righteous militia, which has already gained a reputation for terrorizing the people of Baghdad and committing sectarian-motivated crimes in other areas, such as Anbar, Tikrit and in the northern and southern parts of Baghdad.
Everyone knows that al-Maliki plays a personal role with these militias, having provided them with weapons, money and power. Although as has also been pointed out – and particularly with regard to the League of Righteous – these militias are also influenced by Iran, who also provide them with funds and arms; and for the time being Iran is not on al-Maliki’s side.
The new government will also need to navigate a cautious path toward reconciling the various sectors of Parliament who have been antagonised by al-Maliki over the past few years.
The Iraqi Kurdish want their share of the national budget – al-Maliki suspended payments to them over oil disputes. The Iraqi Kurdish also want to negotiate the so-called disputed territories – that is, areas they say belong to them but which Baghdad also claims. The tricky part here is that, with the withdrawal of the Iraqi army and the attempted entry of the Islamic State group into some of these areas, the Iraqi Kurdish now control some of the places they always wanted, such as Kirkuk. It will be difficult to find a suitable solution to this as the Iraqi Kurdish are highly unlikely to want to give those areas back.
Most Sunni Muslims and Sunni Muslim-majority areas were alienated by al-Maliki over the eight years he was in power. He had threatened and imprisoned a number of leading Sunni Muslim politicians and some, such as former Anbar MP, Ahmad al-Alwani, are still in prison.
The fact that Iraq’s Sunni Muslims felt disenfranchised and oppressed by al-Maliki provided an opportunity that Sunni Muslim extremists were able to exploit. For example, when the IS group first took control of Mosul they were greeted as heroes for removing the mostly Shiite Muslim Iraqi army. The IS group were also supported by other Sunni Muslim militia groups, such as the Naqshbandi army, the military wing of Sadam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party.
NIQASH has learned that the leaders of some of those Sunni Muslim factions have already sent letters and messages to Shiite Muslim officials, offering them a chance for real dialogue after al-Maliki has been removed.
But the question is: Will al-Abadi and his new government support this dialogue? Because obviously these armed factions have their own conditions. They do not want the Iraqi army – which was more and more composed only of Shiite Muslims during al-Maliki’s regime – to be able to return to the Sunni-majority areas. In return, the Sunni Muslim fighters say they will expel the far more vicious, brutal and uncompromising IS group from Iraq.
There are also ongoing efforts to form regular troops in Sunni-majority centres that would act with independence, similar to that of the Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Of all the challenges, any new Iraqi government will have to face, possibly the most frightening and complex is economic.
The country has seen budget deficits rise by as much as a third, last year’s budget has not been approved and this year’s budget has not yet been tabled.
“In 2012 and 2013 Iraq had about US$18billion in its coffers in the Development Fund for Iraq [a fund created to save Iraq’s oil revenues] but this year there’s only about US$5billion, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund,” says local economist and researcher Mathhar Mohammed Saleh. “This is very dangerous. But nobody has really paid it much attention because everyone is busy with political conflicts and security problems.”
The Development Fund is supposed to bridge any budget deficits – but as the deficit gets bigger and the bridging funds get smaller, Iraq may well be facing a serious economic problem.
“Additionally the delay in approving the national budget gave the last government license to spend in an uncontrolled way,” says Iraqi Kurdish politician, Najiba Najib, who was on the previous government’s Finance Committee. “We don’t know how or where the government spent the money but we do know this conflict with the IS group is draining resources.”
Additionally, since 2010, al-Maliki has continually rejected any requests to submit annual accounts to Parliament. The excuse was that government ministries had not sufficiently developed their accounting departments or that there were technical issues. However for a long time it has been thought that these excuses were really just a cover for major corruption.
Iraq has consistently been ranked as one of the most corrupt states in the world by the international watchdog organization, Transparency International.
“The new Prime Minister is going to spend his four-year term searching for solutions to the problems created by al-Maliki,” says local political analyst, Khalid al-Ani. “Al-Maliki has made a lot of enemies and created many problems. His successor cannot possibly solve them all. He needs the cooperation of all political players as well as international support to find solutions.”