Iraq PM’s reforms hindered by divisions amid IS threats
Battle against Islamic State at stake
BAGHDAD: Facing resistance from within his own party, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is struggling to sustain support for a political shakeup he says is critical to efforts to counter Islamic State militants. In an attempt to regain momentum after parliament last week blocked his government from passing important reforms without its approval, Abadi reached out over the weekend to Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim establishment, which has previously backed his anti-corruption push.
But he returned from meetings with senior clerics in the sacred Shiite city of Najaf without securing fresh support, raising the prospect of further isolation as he seeks to head off the threat of a no confidence vote by disgruntled lawmakers. In Najaf, Abadi notably did not meet with Iraq’s top Shiite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Sistani and the other clerics have backed Abadi but seem to have become impatient with the slow pace of reform. “It’s as though he is walking through a minefield,” said Baghdadbased political analyst Ahmed Younis, citing pressures from parliament, the public, and Shiite religious authorities. “He is now obligated to work in a way that pleases all sides.”
History suggests he should proceed with caution. Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri Al-Maliki, was also perceived as a leader who did not consult before taking decisions. He was pushed out last summer after alienating his own party and fellow Shiites, as well as American allies and regional power Iran, which has wide sway in Iraq. Iraq’s power brokers, including the Shiite religious establishment, supported Abadi as the new prime minister after concluding he was a consensus builder who had a chance of healing political and sectarian divisions.
The biggest challenge for Abadi is reforming Iraq’s notoriously corrupt military — which has largely collapsed in the face of Islamic State advances-and streamlining a government seen as inept. Emboldened by popular protests in Baghdad and other cities and a call for action by Sistani, Abadi unilaterally launched a reform campaign in August. He moved to dismantle Iraq’s patronage system and root out incompetence and corruption undermining the major OPEC oil exporter’s battle against Islamic State militants who have seized nearly a third of the country’s territory. Those measures soon got bogged down by legal challenges and opposition from entrenched interests. Frustrated by inaction, protesters demanding an end to corruption and better water and electricity services began to call Abadi weak and ineffective. Sistani has also expressed displeasure with delays in enacting reforms, calling on Abadi to take bolder action in the face of resistance. Though the reclusive octogenarian rarely hosts politicians, a meeting in Najaf would have shored up Abadi against the increasingly popular Iranian-backed Shiite militias and politicians like Maliki, who have sought to maintain privileges targeted by the reforms.
Their aims are causing a split among Iraq’s Shiite leaders, further fragmenting a country struggling to contain Islamic State, the biggest security threat since a US-led invasion toppled autocrat Saddam Hussein in 2003. “It was a setback,” Sami Askari, a lawmaker from the ruling State of Law coalition, said of the Najaf trip. “I’m sure Abadi came back unhappy, because if he had been able to see Sistani it would balance all the movement of the parliament.” A spokesman for Abadi said no such meeting was ever requested, but a source close to the prime minister described the fact that he did not meet Sistani as “negative”.
With his once indisputable mandate from the protesters and Sistani faded, Abadi may no longer be in a position to challenge those who oppose his reform drive. The toughest demands could come from within his own State of Law coalition, which led last week’s vote asserting parliament’s authority after it demanded wider consultation from Abadi. While the lawmakers’ resistance is focused on the reforms, it stems from larger disagreements between two camps inside State of Law headed, respectively, by Abadi and Maliki.
Maliki’s supporters, who are allied with Iran, regard Abadi as too close to the United States, which arms and trains Iraqi forces and is leading an air campaign against Islamic State. Maliki himself is popular with the Iranian-backed militias, seen as a bulwark against the Sunni insurgents. “Abadi sometimes feels that this is a threat to his authority and he tried hard to weaken Maliki,” said Askari. Abadi has failed to enforce one of his main reforms which would have removed Maliki and the two other vice presidents from their positions. Instead Maliki is holding on, setting himself on a collision course with Abadi. “The more (Abadi) pressures Maliki, the more he will lose the support of the State of Law,”said Askari.
State of Law members dismiss speculation that Abadi has begun courting outside parties to form a new coalition to support his reforms. They warn such a move would require major concessions and expose him to attacks from his own base. But lawmakers say Abadi may still need broader support to ensure his proposals pass through parliament smoothly and to prevent the possibility of a vote of no confidence, which lawmakers have not ruled out. Backing from Shiite clerics Abadi met over the weekend, who are largely opposed to Maliki, could prove critical in any future confrontation, but this seems unlikely under present circumstances. Meanwhile, backing from other Shiite groups, such as the Sadrists or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, would enable Abadi to block a coup from within his own electoral alliance, said the source close to the prime minister. “It’s just to make sure that he’s got members in parliament that would block any move down the road to withdraw confidence,” the source said. “A smattering of support from the Kurds or from a Sunni party means you’re making sure they won’t reach the 60 percent they need. It’s a preemptive motion.”— Reuters Gulf air strikes on Islamic State down due to Yemen DUBAI: Air strikes by Gulf Arab members of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria have diminished since they launched an air war against Yemeni rebels in March, a US general said yesterday. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have carried out air strikes against IS in Syria but the three Gulf Cooperation Council members are also involved in an air and ground campaign in Yemen in support of exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. “There is a mix of GCC that is participating in Yemen as well as in the operations in Iraq and Syria,” said US Air Forces Central Command chief Lieutenant General Charles Q Brown. “Less so since March because they’ve been occupied with the Yemen operation,” he told reporters at the Dubai Airshow. Washington has been leading mainly Western allies in carrying out air strikes against IS in Iraq since August last year.
US man sentenced for anti-gay slurs
SEATTLE: A Washington state man who yelled anti-gay slurs and threatened to stab three men in a Seattle neighborhood with a sizable gay community has been sentenced to 30 months in prison, the Justice Department said on Monday. Troy Deacon Burns, a 38-year-old from Bremerton, Washington, pleaded guilty on Aug 5, admitting in a plea deal that he attacked three gay men who were walking in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the department said. During the plea hearing, Burns said he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the assault and claimed that he did not remember his actions, the department said. An attorney for Burns could not immediately be reached for comment. He was charged in August under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr, Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Justice Department said. Burns, holding a knife raised over his head in a stabbing position, approached the men just after midnight and yelled homophobic slurs. The men ran, but Burns caught up to one and again used a gay slur and threatened to stab him. As the second man helped the first away, their friend found Seattle police officers, who arrested Burns, the department said.
Knife attacks, unrest returns to Jerusalem
JERUSALEM: Alleged Palestinian assailants carried out two knife attacks in Jerusalem yesterday, police said, as a wave of unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories returned to the city after a lull. In one incident, a Palestinian carried out a knife attack at the Damascus Gate, the main entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, and was “neutralized”, police said. In the other, two knife-wielding Palestinian boys aged 12 to 13 attacked a security guard in a settler neighborhood of annexed east Jerusalem, with one shot and wounded and the other arrested, police said. The security guard was wounded and treated at the scene, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. The attack took place as the guard was on duty on a tram line. After the first suspect was shot, “passengers on the tram rushed to the second terrorist and overcame him,” Samri said. While other knife and car-ramming assaults have continued in the occupied West Bank amid a weeks-long surge of violence, Tuesday’s attacks were the first in Jerusalem in more than a week.
2 Indians wounded in Saudi region shooting
RIYADH: Two Indians and a Saudi policeman were wounded by gunfire in the east of the kingdom as authorities hunted suspects linked to unrest by minority Shiites, the interior ministry said yesterday. A police traffic patrol “came under heavy fire from a farming area” in the Shiite-populated Qatif district on Monday evening, the ministry’s spokesman said. The Indians were passers-by, he said. An Indian embassy official confirmed that two nationals were wounded and are in stable condition. “We are following it up,” he said. The ministry spokesman did not identify the perpetrators but warned the public not to provide assistance to people on a list of 23 wanted suspects issued in 2011 after Shiite unrest. Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, who complain of marginalization in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, began protests that year in Eastern Province, where most of them live. Many suspects on the wanted list have already been detained or killed in shootouts.
GAZA: School children cross a street in the town of Khan Yunis in the Gaza strip, flooded by heavy rain. — AFP