No Signs of Improvement

  • Written by:

Renad Mansour
El-Erian Fellow, Carnegie Middle East Center
In Iraq, the fight to rid the country of the Islamic State (referred to colloquially in Arabic as Daesh) is taking longer than officials and analysts expected. For instance, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, recently stated that the campaign to eject Daesh from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will not be achieved in 2016.

This inability to combat the Salafi-jihadist group, which is detested more than supported in most parts of the country, highlights the malfunctioning state of Iraq’s government. Haider al-Abadi, who emerged as Iraqi prime minister in an effort to address the conditions that facilitated the re-emergence of Daesh in 2014, has been unable to bring about real change – despite his so-called reforms package. He faces several challenges.

The biggest impediment to Abadi’s program comes from inside; members of his own Dawa Party are working to undermine his premiership. The most notable rival is his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who initially established the country’s largest paramilitary group, known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic). Today, Maliki continues to enjoy both political and military influence outside of state institutions. More critically, the former prime minister is actively creating a narrative of a weak and incompetent Abadi. Joining him are senior PMU leaders, including Badr Corps leader Hadi al-Ameri and PMU committee leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who are both antagonistic towards Abadi.

Power and influence are not associated with the Iraq’s state institutions. The parliament, which is meant to voice the concerns of Iraq’s citizens, has minimal power. The judiciary is a political instrument used by some elites to eliminate opposition. Maliki, for instance, has become notorious for influencing judges to convict Sunni leaders, such as former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, who was recently convicted of corruption charges and sentenced (in absentia) to seven years in prison. The so-called independent commissions, including the integrity commission or the Independent High Electoral Commission, are also at the behest of certain elites.

The PMU represents another impediment that questions Baghdad’s real power. In 2013, while a member of parliament, Abadi expressed his dismay over the emergence of militias. In the initial days of his premiership, he was wary of using militias and preferred using state institutions, namely the Ministry of Defence (MOD), for security affairs. However, the MOD faces several challenges, particularly following its collapse in Mosul. Most Iraqis view the state security forces as corrupt—stemming from stories such as the “ghost soldiers” case when some 50,000 nonexistent names were found on the MOD payroll—and ineffective. Today, most Shia would prefer to fight for the PMU, most Kurds would prefer to fight for the Peshmerga, and most Sunnis are wary of the post-2003 Iraqi army. As such, the MOD is finding it difficult to recruit members. A MOD training program launched in 2014 sought 24 thousand recruits but only managed to attract some nine thousand. The PMU, on the other hand, has an overabundance of recruits. Some 80 percent of Shia men aged 18-30 have enlisted as reservists. As one PMU administrator claimed, “we have more than we need”. Consequently, Abadi has now officially recognized the PMU as an integral and legitimate wing of Iraq’s security apparatus. The Peshmerga, too, are considered a legal National Army under the 2005 Constitution. Today in Iraq, paramilitaries are legitimized actors and, strikingly, more popular than the state army.

At the political level, too, there is a crisis of representation. Many Iraqis feel as if their voice is not represented in the central government. Throughout the country, protest movements have emerged to relay grievances. In the south, Shia protesters have mobilized to protest against their own Shia leadership, and in the north, Kurdish protestors are doing the same against their leaders in Erbil. This mobilization, however, presents an important opportunity to move past identity politics and sectarianism.

Although not mobilized in a protest movement at the moment, Iraq’s Sunni population are also part of this crisis of representation. Many in Iraq’s Sunni communities are facing security threats, linked to the war against Daesh, and have been forced to leave their homes. Nonetheless, they too feel as if the central government does not represent their interests.

As long as this crisis of representation exists in Iraq, it is hard to see a post-Daesh environment. The U.S. and its allies would do well to better understand the nuanced problems that plague the country. This includes identifying legitimate actors for engagement, rather than blind support. After all, it was Vice President Joe Biden who went around Iraq trying to convince various political actors that although Maliki had lost the 2010 national parliamentary election, he should still remain in power for the sake of “stability.” One wonders if Biden regrets this decision, given that Maliki’s second term as prime minister ultimately ended with the emergence of Daesh and the many crises that Iraq faces today.