It's time for Iraqi politicians to finally deliver

After years of false dawns and excuses, it's time for Iraqi politicians to finally deliver
6 min read
07 Nov, 2018
Comment: The time has come for Iraq's politicians to prove they can overcome foreign meddling, sectarianism and corruption, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
Parliament disagreed on 8 of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's 22 cabinet picks [AFP]
More than 15 years have gone by since the highly contentious invasion of Iraq. 

After the war, many had hoped to usher a new chapter, based on ethno-sectarian inclusion, democracy and prosperity, that could serve as a beacon of light for the greater Middle East. But the country quickly became bogged down by sectarian bloodshed, animosity, ubiquitous political wrangling and marginalisation.

During this period, Iraq has witnessed many false dawns and a range of excuses for the lack of stability, nation-building or improvement in standards of living. These have included the need to eradicate the imprint of Saddam Hussein and Baathism, navigating the rocky transition to Iraq's new democratic path, the US withdrawal in Iraq, foreign meddling, and most recently, the costly and deadly fight against the Islamic State (IS).

In the meantime, Iraq continually tops the charts as one of the most corrupt states in the world.

As new Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi works overtime to finalise a cabinet that can appease Iraq's fractured political divide and the many parties vying for power and influence, it is time for Iraqi politicians to take a long look at themselves, take accountability and finally deliver, instead of continuing to seek out excuses for Iraq's failures.

Iraq's recent parliamentary vote and historically low voter turnout sent a clear message from the public, one of fatigue and frustration with years of broken promises, sectarian policies and dwindling standards of living.

Ironically, while Iraq sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and is the second largest OPEC producer, many places such as Basra have seen basic services and the standard of living decline, culminating in mass protests in recent years.

While the battle against IS took centre stage from 2014, a factor often overlooked is the sectarian policies and the continuous disenfranchisement of the Sunni population that helped fuel their eventual rise.

The lack of a true opposition voice in Iraqi politics adds to the challenge of delivering meaningful change on the ground

A number of Sunni insurgent groups, while not ideologically aligned with IS, joined in a marriage of convenience fuelled by their anger towards Baghdad and perceived Shia monopolisation of power.

Over the years, Iraq has lost out on numerous opportunities to heal rifts with disenchanted Sunnis. After driving out al-Qaeda in the Sunni heartlands with the Sunni Sahwa Awakening forces at the peak of the insurgency in 2008, Baghdad was too slow to capitalise, and even feared long-term empowerment of the Sunni tribal forces.

Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, failed to build on the newfound stability in Iraq at the time. Instead, the increasing show of force in dealing with insurgent groups, Sunni protestors, Sunni political rivals, and the Kurds, while monopolising power, only served to increase the polarisation of the state.

                              Watch: Iraq's parliament approves 14 new cabinet ministers

Sunni frustration was compounded when Maliki was re-elected as Prime Minister in 2010, even though the more secular figure of Iyad Allawi and his National Movement of Iraq list, backed by some key Sunni groups, won the most seats.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad have been at loggerheads since 2003 over the status of disputed territories, oil exploration and revenue sharing, and distribution of the national budget.

The same security challenges remain even with the defeat of IS

Today, none of these issues has been resolved. The increased animosity - with Kurds accusing Baghdad of treating them like second class citizens, rather than partners - led in part to Kurdistan's independence referendum and the deadly violence that ensued between both sides.

Fast forward to 2018. and Iraq's new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi has to traverse the same challenges that have haunted Iraq since 2003.

While 14 of his 22 cabinet ministers were accepted, there was disagreement on 8 key ministries. His nominations also underlined the difficulty in building a truly technocrat government that the likes of influential Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon List demand.

The dozens of political parties will not relinquish their grip on key ministries that many have used to further their political agendas. In addition, the interests of individual parties have opened the door to US and Iran influencing government formation.

As long as the sect-based representation and governorship based on narrow party interests continues in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians will spend more time squabbling in political chambers to further their own goals, than delivering real results on the streets.

The lack of a true opposition voice in Iraqi politics adds to challenge of delivering meaningful change on the ground, and there is a general sentiment that corrupt parties cannot fight corruption.

Al-Sadr and Sairoon have emerged as a credible force who can enact change, if not through parliament, then certainly on the streets, as mass protests have shown in recent years. However, their seats alone cannot lead to government formation, so comes the need to entice different parties with divergent agendas and goals into a workable solution.

The protracted government formation and jockeying for power only distracts from the significant task at hand - appeasing growing public anger and major the rebuilding required in Mosul and elsewhere.

More ominously, many of the same security challenges remain, even with the defeat of IS. Iraq still lacks a national non-sectarian leaning army, and the reliance on Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) poses long-term risks for Iraq.

Who will provide security in Sunni heartlands? Can Baghdad accept empowering of Sunni forces much in the same way as the PMF, and more importantly, who is ultimately in command of these forces?

Corrupt parties cannot fight corruption

In the past, US or Iranian pressure led to political breakthroughs, but it was often at the expense of brushing key political disagreements under the political rug. Even today, debate rages over interpretation and amendments to the constitution and local versus central power.

The US and other western powers were a long-term target of Iraqi blame for their troubles. However, if Iraqis cannot get their act together for greater national progress after so many years, then no magic wand of US, Iran or other powers will resolve their problems.

Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi once said he would not want to be Iraq's next prime minister, as the country's toxic political culture would make it impossible to govern.

Now he has the tough task of proving himself wrong, or risk a term where Iraq follows a familiar path to that of the past, and fails its long suffering people once more.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.