The term of the government headed by current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, ends in just a few short months, when the next federal elections are slated to be held, in May 2018.
Many would say that al-Abadi has done a good job. When he took office, the country was not in a good way, with a fall in oil prices diminishing the national budget and a fight just starting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The Iraqi prime minister has moved to resolve those issues and many would say he has made considerable progress, particularly against the Islamic State group.
For most of his administration, al-Abadi has succeeded in remaining in the centre, particularly when it came to complex situations and opposing international allies like Iran and the US. But now he is going to be forced to make some decisive moves, some of which may prove unpopular. At the same time, the Iraqi leader is actually trying to stay popular with voters so he can stay in the job for another term.
Before he can contest elections though, he still has four major issues to deal with.
Two months have passed since the Iraqi Kurdish region held a referendum on independence, where locals voted on whether to secede from Iraq or not. The referendum, which all sides, including Baghdad, pressured the Kurdish not to hold, has resulted in the Kurds ceding territory to the Iraqi army and being pushed back to the early borders of their semi-autonomous region.
Now, while politicians from different Iraqi Kurdish quarters have expressed a willingness to negotiate with Baghdad, the Iraqi government doesn’t seem quite as keen to resolve the conflict. In fact, they seem to be trying to use the political crisis to make further gains.
Al-Abadi had made two conditions before dialogue could properly begin. The first was the annulment of the results of the referendum, in which Kurdish locals voted overwhelmingly for independence, and the second was the federal government’s insistence on being the administrators of Iraqi Kurdistan’s border crossings.
In terms of the first, the Kurdish have said that they agree with the ruling of Iraq’s highest court, that the referendum was unconstitutional. However, as critics of the Kurds point out, that does not equal an actual annulment.
In terms of the second condition, the Kurds continue to point out that the border crossings account for a large part of their regional revenue. They would be losing billions if the crossings into Iran and Turkey are handed to federal forces.
International pressure is now mounting on the Iraqi government not to push the Kurds too hard. At first, after the Kurdish referendum, international allies were on al-Abadi’s side, having all been critical of the referendum themselves. But more recently they have been calling on Baghdad to facilitate talks.
“A dialogue with the Kurdish region will start soon,” a senior government official told NIQASH on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk on the topic. “But it won’t be easy if the Kurds remain rigid. The first talks will address the military issues and the drawing of a map for the deployment of Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces.”
Other crucial issues, such as the oil industry, the Kurdish share of the federal budget, border crossings and how the controversial area of Kirkuk is to be administered, will all take a lot longer, the official told NIQASH.
After months of heated debate, the Iraqi parliament has finally been able to choose a new election commission, whose responsibility it will be to organise and oversee the coming elections. Provincial elections had been due to be held in April this year but could not be organized thanks to the ongoing security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group.
Now both provincial and federal elections will be held on the same day in May 2018. Al-Abadi recently repeated that elections should be held on time.
However Sunni Muslim political parties remain unenthusiastic about the idea, given the prevailing conditions in many of the Sunni-majority areas of Iraq. After all, this is where their popular base is. Many of the residents in these areas remain displaced due to security problems, destruction and lack of state services and infrastructure or the fear of arbitrary arrests by security forces on their streets.
“It just isn’t possible to organise elections in Sunni provinces while the militias are still deployed in them,” MP Liqaa al-Wardi from Anbar told NIQASH, referring to the Shiite Muslim militias who were instrumental in fighting the IS group but who have also been criticized for retaliatory crimes and revenge killings. “Millions of people are still living in displacement camps,” she adds. Wardi and others think that the date for elections should be pushed even further out.
Meanwhile al-Abadi’s opponents in parliament, which includes other Shiite Muslim politicians, say that the prime minister may decide to do this but that if he does, it will just be to keep himself in power another two years.
The Sunni Muslim politicians are most likely also concerned about the change in the balance of power. Militias of all kinds – including Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim, tribal or otherwise based on religion and ethnicity – want to take advantage of their new-found status as the heroes who fought the extremists and parlay that into political clout. They seek to present themselves as alternatives to the existing, mainstream parties.
Iraq’s new political parties law does not allow armed factions to participate in elections. But the militias are getting around this by registering themselves as political parties under different names – everybody knows who they represent though.
Just one day after the announcement that the Iraqi military had taken control of the border town of Rawa and pushed the IS group out, al-Abadi was ready to announce the next “war” in Iraq. This time it would be against corruption, he said.
But corruption could be a far trickier target than the IS group. Bribery, nepotism, blackmail, money laundering and embezzlement are part of everyday business life in Iraq and deeply entangled in the banking and government sectors.
And this is before al-Abadi even considers the financial trouble the country is in. At a Karbala press conference in early November, the prime minister said the war against the IS group has caused the country losses of more than US$100 billion.
The economic problem may well be the biggest of all. During the fighting, not much attention was paid to the country’s empty treasury and what was almost a hidden economic crisis. Nobody had been asking how the country was managing to pay for the war it was fighting.
However now that the IS group have been more or less driven out of the areas they controlled, some politicians are starting to bring the topic up.
Iraq’s debt has now reached US$120 billion, Iraqi MP Ahmed al-Haj Rashid, a member of the parliamentary finance committee, said recently. The fate of the country rests upon this matter, he said. Other politicians, like former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, have said the sum is even higher – US$133 billion by his estimate.
Last week, the Iraqi government sent a draft budget to parliament. But as might be expected there were all sorts of problems with it. The Iraqi Kurdish had their share of the federal budget reduced to 12 percent from 17. One MP suggested that there was a 20 percent deficit in the draft and rumours on social media said the salaries of civil servants would be reduced. The latter is a riot-inducing situation in a country where the majority of the workforce is paid by the government, one way or another. And last but not least Sunni Muslim MPs want assurances that there will be enough cash to pay for the reconstruction of areas damaged in the fight against the IS group, something that will be essential to get keep their voters happy.
What happens to the Shiite Muslim and other militias once the IS group has been defeated? The military will go back to their barracks and the police back to their stations but the militias don’t have a set role or base.
Al-Abadi’s government has come up with a number of different proposals in order to deal with a fighting force of over 100,000 men, who started off as volunteers defending their own communities but who have since become seasoned fighters.
The militias are far from homogenous. Quite likely it is the militias that are described by locals as the “loyal” faction that will cause the most problems. “Loyal” refers to the fact that these fighters’ express allegiance to Iran, more than they do to Iraq.
Al-Abadi had suggested that the militia members be free to join the police or army as they chose. Those who did not wish to do this would be offered financial compensation to help them resume their civilian lives.
The militias who are not “loyal” have said they are willing to dissolve themselves after the IS group is defeated. In fact, one of the militias associated more closely with leading Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, became part of the Iraqi army in July. However, those militias affiliated with Iran don’t like that idea.