One Million Man Moment

MICHAEL KNIGHTS — Iraq lacks credible national leadership, and that may be alright. 

Back in September 2015 we sat down with the Washington Institute’s Michael Knights to discuss Iraq’s rising social, political, and economic crises. Seven months later, after protests paralyzed central Baghdad and as prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr reasserts his power, it is time to follow up.


In February Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said he would replace nine ministers, according to an ambitious strategy to boost government efficiency announced in summer 2015. Since its inception, however, this plan has faced crippling opposition in Iraq’s Parliament. How has Abadi’s reform plan been manifest thus far — have continued parliamentary and judicial efforts to prevent its enactment or development doomed the Prime Minister’s aspirations to eventual failure?

Prime Minister Abadi enacted his government’s reform efforts guided by all the right ideas — almost every key actor in Iraq knows that the country must do the things he is suggesting. However, there are several key obstacles blocking progress. Some critics are asking whether this is the best time to be pursuing a technocratic, political consultancy-type reform agenda, given pressing security concerns in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In many ways, the effects of Abadi’s plan are akin to the results one might expect if he had hired McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group: he looked at the government’s functionality, and issued 100+ page reports on theoretical restructuring to achieve maximum efficiency. This sort of work is typically something to perform at a moment when the country is not in the midst of a dual security and economic crisis.

The reasons Abadi is pursuing such an ambitious strategy now are twofold. First, he believes that the Iraqi people do currently want more effective government, and maybe there is a groundswell of support for deep-rooted change within Baghdad. He has thus focused on reducing spending waste, appointing technocrats to key posts, and cracking down on corruption. Second, the Prime Minister is, by his nature, an administrative and economic reformer. He feels comfortable pursuing these types of reforms, rather than commanding military strategy or socio-political reconciliation. Do these plans ultimately sync with what is happening in Iraq at the moment? Such fine-grained tinkering with government structure in Iraq can seem out of touch with the ongoing war against ISIL, economic crisis, the need for sectarian reconciliation, the Baghdad-Erbil crisis — which is really a crisis about federalism and decentralization in the country writ large. In some ways, by pursuing his technocratic reform process, Abadi was always likely to face significant opposition and obstacles.

The government structure under which Iraq has operated for the last decade — based on ethno-sectarian quotas and a theoretically all-inclusive national unity framework — represents an implicit recognition of the deep fractures within Iraqi society; it may also represent an implicit recognition that Iraqi politics cannot exist as a “winner-takes-all” system right now. Under the current model, everyone takes part in governance, and shares the benefits of power. There are no real losers or subordinate elements. There have been only a few instances in the past five years when a senior political figure has declared the need for a more competitive framework — that nothing can be accomplished unless Iraq adopts a majoritarian system whereby one group of political blocs coalesce into a coalition, and the remainders form the loyal opposition. In this fashion, the larger bloc would staff the government and guides policy, while the smaller group would stay out of power. Interestingly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the first to describe such a system, at a point when he felt that he could break loose of the pan-Shia National Alliance to form a cross-sectarian faction comprising some Sunni and Kurdish elements. Similar ideas have subsequently emerged from various elements of the Shia bloc.

These discussions, although relatively muted, highlight the fact that there is more than one way to make a functional government in Iraq today. One way would be to dismantle the Iraqi cabinet, rebuilding it with non-partisan technocratic ministers. Another method might be to create a functional voting bloc majority in Parliament, whereby one group of parties clearly wins, and the others clearly lose. These two models will likely be at the heart of debate in Iraqi policymaking circles during the coming few years. They are the background for current debates regarding technocratic reshuffle and increased efficiency — and illustrate the various factors that have limited the Prime Minister’s ability to enact change more quickly.

On 18 March 2016, Moqtada al-Sadr launched a protest effort against corruption in Baghdad; on 27 March he advanced this endeavor by entering Baghdad’s Green Zone. Although Sadr’s influence ebbed after the 2011 US withdrawal, he now presents himself as the champion of the anti-corruption fight, drawing thousands of protesters. Why has the cleric transformed his role within Iraq’s national political matrix  in recent months — can his recent declarations bolster genuine anti-graft policymaking, or does it merely represent an attempt to out-maneuver rival Shiite factions? 

Sadr’s actions represent an attempt to exploit the weaknesses of the current government to better position the cleric for future political competition. Nearly all the Shia leaders in Baghdad recognize that Abadi would not try to solve the country’s political crisis — that he was not going to attempt reconciliation between Sunni or Shia. They know that he will never pursue any kind of transformational strategy. They also recognize that the Prime Minister will not succumb to any insurrection or vote of no confidence as a result of the Sadrist uprising. Instead, these leaders anticipate a few years of weak government at the end of Abadi’s administration as the Prime Minister pursues his narrow — if not worthwhile — reform agenda. Shia actors understand that for the next two or three years they will positioning for political advantage in the 2017 provincial elections and the 2018 national elections, which could be folded into one set of polls.

Each figure knows that their competitors will be competing for power during this interregnum. Sadr has simply made one of the first and boldest moves on this front. He has evolved beyond his original plan for interacting with Abadi. At first, he worked alongside the Prime Minister as a force of stability. He and other pro-Abadi elements of the Dawa Party acted as a check on the emergent power of the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Iranian-backed elements of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). There was an immediate reaction against the threats posed by these competitors. For many years, Sadr had not enjoyed the same kind of legality or legitimacy as other Shia elements. Yet, given the current crisis in Iraq and proliferation of competing organizations, Sadr found that going mainstream boosted his power significantly. Fairly quickly, the Abadi cabinet began depending on him to act as the government’s popular base. The enthusiasm and power of liberal protesters in Baghdad waned after last summer, but Sadr demonstrated that he could mobilize a loyal and tireless support network — and that he could offset some of the power wielded by threateningly Shia militia elements associated with the PMU.

Today, Sadr has grown beyond this supporting role. Since the beginning of March, he seems to have genuinely decided to become much more involved in shaping Baghdad’s political debates, and act co-equally with the Prime Minister and executive branch. He wants to be a kingmaker. The way he has been treating Abadi and his government has gone way beyond any political theatrics, whereby the two work different angles toward a shared reform goal. Sadr has slipped out of his harness, and seized an opportunity to be an indispensable political actor. In response, establishment politicians have reformed around an anti-Sadr cause — similar to Shia strategy in 2008, when various blocs declared their intention to destroy the Sadrist threat.

The Shia leadership in Baghdad is terrified by the way Sadr’s movement can bring one million people into the streets of the capital without any violence, stampedes, or clashes with the security forces. In early March, both the three-star general in charge of Baghdad Operations Command — the largest operational command in Iraq with half of the country’s combat forces — and the three-star general in charge of the special forces division that guards Baghdad’s International Zone signaled submission to Sadr; the special forces division commander kissed the cleric’s hand. Their actions demonstrated that even senior security force leaders recognize that Sadr’s power has begun to rival that of the Prime Minister. Establishment fear over these developments will generate a reaction that will shape the trajectory of Iraqi politics in the coming months. Ironically, the last time Iraq’s political discourse experienced similar transformation was when the government acted to contain the challenge to Baghdad’s authority from the PMU — it seems that these PMU factions will have a second chance at political gain, as they will likely be called into the streets to contain Sadr’s influence.

Sadr declared that his protest’s primary mission is the formation of a cabinet of technocrats, replacing party-affiliated politicians who continue to promote nepotism and patronage. Although Abadi had outlined similar goals last year, Sadr’s recent escalation — giving Iraq’s leaders a week-long ultimatum to announce a new cabinet and paralyzing central Baghdad — puts the Prime Minister in a tenuous position vis-a-vis an already recalcitrant government. How will the Sadrist challenge impact Abadi’s national political standing and ability?

The Sadrists are not particularly concerned with the formation of a technocratic cabinet or anti-corruption measures. Although they have not been the worst in terms of corruption or patronage, the Sadrists have a whole range of corrupt practices within the Office of the Martyr Sadr and the Iraqi Ministry of Minerals. The recent protests were designed primarily to serve Sadr’s political purposes, rather than any vision of an altered Iraqi political future. Through their use of street action and very rough intimidation tactics, they undermine state authority. By claiming to represent the Iraqi people, and threatening the government to meet its reform milestones, the Sadrists are probably doing as much harm as good in terms of state stability.

Will these actions affect Abadi’s ability to function as an effective political actor? The Prime Minister’s pursuit of vital economic and administrative reforms is admirable. Nobody else will ever attempt to implement a similar administrative and economic reform strategy. Abadi has the attention to detail to guide a balanced budget, to bring international financial institutions into Iraq, to encourage private and non-oil sector growth, and to put the country back on a more even economic keel. But, he has never been effective dynamic political actor so Sadr can hardly take that role away from him. The Abadi government is self-limited to economic and administrative reform; when it comes to running the anti-ISIL campaign, Abadi is nominally in charge. Realistically, however, a combination of Ministry of Defense, Western coalition, and Iranian actors are pushing the war forward. Likewise, in terms of solving big political issues like political reconciliation, Arab-Kurdish relations, and intra-Shia alliance tension, Abadi is not trying to be a transformative political actor. He sees his job as administering the government.

Nobody is really at the helm when it comes to national politics, but that is fine. The Abadi administration knows that it cannot serve in such a role. Abadi is not Maliki, who schemed and plotted his way through office; he is not Ahmed Chalabi, who could cut deals with anyone and everyone at the same time. The Sadrists are not going to hamstring the government, since it is already politically hamstrung. How does this situation get resolved? Most Shia and other bloc leaders think the current situation is a sustainable political arrangement whereby the government takes a battering over failure to reform but muddles through. Sadr will likely pull back from the brink of political violence if it threatens, as he has already done by withdrawing his protesters from the International Zone. Nevertheless, his is a young movement, and prone to miscalculation.

Popular unrest over political and governmental deficiencies is closely linked to a sense of rising economic emergency in Baghdad, and its impact on Iraq’s young, poor, and unemployed populations. Yet it appears that the most prominent protest voices are Shiite (like Sadr’s), despite the pan-Iraqi nature of the current crisis. Has the problem of sectarian-focused representation and leadership among protesters impacted their ability to secure meaningful responses from policymakers in Baghdad — or is the problem mainly a Shiite one, promulgated by rival political figures within a common sectarian bloc?

Baghdad is a predominantly Shia city. The masses that can be bussed in to support protests like Sadr’s come from the Shia south. In some ways, the movement’s sectarian nature comes down o basic arithmetic: which faction can marshal the most people. The lack of credible cross-sectarian or Sunni leadership in Iraq worsens this situation. Only the Shia National Alliance bloc leaders have the power and legitimacy to influence governance.

The protests last summer, primarily in June 2015, were driven largely by a genuine sense of concern over electricity, the first round of financial emergency, and Abadi’s failure to implement anti-corruption promises. Are the current protests merely a continuation or an aftershock of last year’s unrest? Iraq’s economy is not great, but it is also not horrendously bad like in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where civil servants have not received pay for months. The 2015 protests had a genuine, cross-sectarian, liberal, young ethos. Today’s unrest is different. Simply put, it is the result of Sadr mobilizing his power base through demagoguery. Genuine unrest will likely be manifest at the provincial level over a looming electricity crisis.

Iraq’s post-2003 development was defined largely by overambitious and impractical plans for petroleum development that failed to foster broad development and growth of Iraqi infrastructure. There has been little effective investment in education and health reform, for example, leaving young Iraqis without a sense of ownership over their future or country. Have legacies of abandonment created a disconnect between political leaders and the population it purports to represent, and are such sentiments present in the current unrest? 

To answer this question, it is useful to note a general point about generational change in Iraq. This year the international community will commemorate the 25th anniversary of Desert Storm. The majority of Iraqi citizens cannot remember the Baath regime, or have the dimmest memories of it. They have never been directly affected by Saddam; most of the Sunnis in Iraq today are completely blameless for the Baath regime’s actions. This new generation is not necessarily focused on the sins of the Baath or Saddam. Rather it remembers the tumult through which it came of age. Iraq is now entering the first wave of elections in which the largest part of the electorate comprises people who are more focused on what today’s government can realistically deliver.

The PMU was a very interesting phenomenon within this broader trend. It gave a new generation of Iraqis an equally contemporary foundational experience — both for Sunni and Shia — against the ISIL backdrop. In some respects, recent politico-military developments may have opened a door for eventual reconciliation between sects. For example, numerous young families from all sects have grown up together. Over the last two years, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis have been forced into Shia or Kurdish areas: the children attend school alongside their new neighbors; the men have established businesses in host regions. Shockingly, there have been practically no security incidents in these refugee and mixed regions. Displaced Sunni families have been hosted and welcomed by the Shia and the Kurds, without any coercion from Baghdad. On the battlefront, Sunni communities have fought alongside PMU forces to liberate themselves.

An entirely new population of voters — those who grew up in very different conditions from their parents — will twist Iraqi politics in unpredictable ways. Some political bloc leaders have recognized the implications of this transformation, and pushed for a shift toward majoritarian government rather than sect-based alliances. When Sadr brought his one million people to Baghdad, he had no problem adorning them with Iraqi — not Shia — flags; when he wore his white gown of martyrdom for press conferences, he had an Iraqi flag stitched into the breast. Ultimately, while this generational shift — and its effects — do not necessarily speak to infrastructure development, health sector improvement, or industry reform, they do give cause for optimism that Baghdad might be able to overcome its political divisions one day. The political blocs that have prevented any meaningful reform since 2003 may be slowly undermined from ground-level. Sadr’s protests evince this kind of change.


MICHAEL KNIGHTS is a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and the Gulf Arab states.

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