Abadi’s re­form plan could tear Iraq apart

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE -

In the ab­stract, it’s a nice idea for Iraq to stop di­vid­ing the spoils of gov­ern­ment of­fice among its de­nom­i­na­tional and eth­nic fac­tions. But that struc­ture, with all its ob­vi­ous flaws and faults, was built into the DNA of the Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion for a rea­son: to help quell Sunni Arab fears that the Shi­ite ma­jor­ity, in col­lu­sion with the Kur­dish mi­nor­ity, would dom­i­nate the Sun­nis in per­pe­tu­ity and refuse to share oil rev­enue.

It must be good news that Iraq’s par­lia­ment passed Prime Min­is­ter Haidar AlAbadi’s anti-cor­rup­tion re­forms this week -- right? As with most things in Iraq, the an­swer isn’t as sim­ple as it ap­pears on the sur­face.

In the ab­stract, it’s a nice idea for Iraq to stop di­vid­ing the spoils of gov­ern­ment of­fice among its de­nom­i­na­tional and eth­nic fac­tions. But that struc­ture, with all its ob­vi­ous flaws and faults, was built into the DNA of the Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion for a rea­son: to help quell Sunni Arab fears that the Shi­ite ma­jor­ity, in col­lu­sion with the Kur­dish mi­nor­ity, would dom­i­nate the Sun­nis in per­pe­tu­ity and refuse to share oil rev­enue.

The cen­tre­piece of the re­form elim­i­nates the of­fices of vice pres­i­dents and three deputy prime min­is­ters. None of these posts were pre­cisely as en­vi­sioned in the orig­i­nal Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion. That doc­u­ment (I con­sulted on an ear­lier ver­sion) cre­ated a largely sym­bolic “pres­i­dency coun­cil” con­sist­ing of a fig­ure­head pres­i­dent and two fig­ure­head vice pres­i­dents. The idea was to make sure that there would be at least one Sunni Arab, one Kurd and one Shi­ite close to the sym­bolic head of state. In prac­tice, three vice pres­i­dents were in of­fice un­til Tues­day, all of whom are now out of a job. They in­cluded one Sunni Arab, Usama al-Nu­jaifi; one Shi­ite, Ayad Allawi, whose party mostly rep­re­sents Sun­nis; and one Shi­ite, Nouri alMa­liki, who was the pow­er­ful for­mer prime min­is­ter ousted to make room for Abadi and still com­pet­i­tive with him. (The sym­bolic pres­i­dent, Fuad Ma­soum, is a Kurd, and he’ll stay in of­fice).

Mean­while Kur­dis­tan has taken ad­van­tage of the rise of Is­lamic State and the weak­en­ing of the Iraqi state to ex­pand its ter­ri­tory in con­tra­ven­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion. The im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment here has been the Kur­dish takeover of Kirkuk: It is (or was) an eth­ni­cally mixed city whose char­ac­ter and con­trol were ex­plic­itly re­served by the con­sti­tu­tion be­cause the Kurds wanted it and Iraq’s be­lea­guered Turk­men mi­nor­ity feared it would lose its po­si­tion there. To­day, Kirkuk has be­come Kur­dish, and it’s to­tally un­re­al­is­tic to think that will ever change.

The prob­lem is that there’s no plan to sub­sti­tute some new guar­an­tor of na­tional co­he­sion or at least some­thing less than civil war. With Sunni Arabs largely out of the po­lit­i­cal pic­ture in Bagh­dad, and the Kurds sat­is­fied for the mo­ment with their de facto au­ton­omy and grad­ual ex­pan­sion, there’s no one to tell the Shi­ite ma­jor­ity that it bet­ter find some way to bring the coun­try to­gether again.

To­day, with much of Sunni Arab Iraq un­der con­trol of Is­lamic State, Sun­nis have a much re­duced say in Bagh­dad pol­i­tics. Un­der these new cir­cum­stances, protesters, for the most part Shi­ite, have been ob­ject­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s old way of do­ing busi­ness. The lead­ing Shi­ite re­li­gious fig­ure in the coun­try, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Al Sis­tani, re­viewed and en­dorsed Abadi’s plan be­fore it was pub­licly an­nounced. Abadi told the public the re­forms were inspired by the Shi­ite re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment.

The up­shot is that the re­form plan shows the Shi­ites' will­ing­ness to aban­don the tech­nique used to try to guar­an­tee Sun­nis some stake in the coun­try’s fu­ture. For the mo­ment, at least, there is no in­di­ca­tion of what will sub­sti­tute for it.

But if Abadi is think­ing that he doesn’t need to give Iraqi Sun­nis any in­cen­tive to take part in a uni­fied Iraq, he’s mak­ing a big mis­take. Is­lamic State won’t be sat­is­fied in the long run with a desert en­clave. It’ll even­tu­ally make a play for Bagh­dad, with its sig­nif­i­cant Sunni pop­u­la­tion. If Bagh­dad’s Sun­nis see no fu­ture in a Shi­ite Iraq, they’ll side with Is­lamic State when that day comes. That could turn Bagh­dad into Beirut circa 1975.

Abadi’s re­forms should there­fore be met with a warn­ing: Make sure you have some strat­egy for keep­ing the coun­try to­gether. Pa­tron­age has more or less failed. But it may have been bet­ter than noth­ing.

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