Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.
From the Governing Council Ambassador L Paul Bremer appointed in July 2003 to the sitting Iraqi Prime Minister, Dr. Haider Al-Abadi, no Iraqi chief executive was appointed according to the real will of the electorate, nor did anyone govern meaningfully according to the Iraqi Constitution or uphold the rule of law. Prime ministers were appointed in a dual process of consociation: at one level, there had to be an intra-Shia consociation followed by an inter-ethnic, inter-sectarian consociation to appease the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, and the accepted nominee has to earn the trust of the Americans. The intra-Shia process itself involved a foreign element, the approval of Iran, and the inter-sectarian process involved the input and demands of the Sunni states of the region. The American interference has been the most arbitrary for two reasons: first, the Americans had no particular preference of their own, but they were more interested in the candidate that pleased the greatest possible number of the disputants, and the second reason is that the American decision has been so chaotic that even a small-time note taker in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad claimed to have a role in picking the Iraqi prime minister at one time.
This lawless process has caused the Iraqi Shia a lot of pain, loss of rights, and lately, great loss of lives. The silver lining for them, however, is that this trend is not going to last. The loss of Mosul was a game changer not only for Iraq’s ethno-sectarian conditions, but for the once undisputed position of post-2003 Shia leadership. In this article, I will note a few of these changes and their impact on future political arrangements in Iraq.
The fall of Mosul in the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) created a great change in the basis of legitimacy within the Shia community. Before we go further into this argument, let us remember that the current parliament and government in Iraq is the result of an election that pre-dated the sacking of Mosul by ISIL. As such, they do not represent the current map of Iraqi political loyalties. In the era following the ISIL crisis, legitimacy in the Shia community shifted from the classical parties and their tired classical sectarian claims to the groups that took up arms and went to the frontlines to deny ISIL the opportunity to finish their genocidal campaign in Iraq. There is no comparison, in Shia minds, between the political leaders who are fighting and those who are still practicing their political, administrative, and financial corruption like nothing happened in Iraq in the last eighteen months. More than one of the once used to be respected Shia leaders were given an earful statement in the streets of Baghdad from ordinary Iraqis who used to cheer their presence. By contrast, leaders of the Popular Mobilization Units (Al-Hashd AL-Sha’bi) can hardly make their way inside Shia cities because of the supporting crowds. Will this be a game changer in the next elections? Of course it will.
The second change is the position of the highest Shia religious authority (Marjaiyya), represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. After supporting Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s appointment, G. A. Sistani watched in deep disappointment as the Prime Minister continued for a full year the same corrupt practices of previous governments, and with the help of the same corrupt politicians. This led to another game changer in Shia politics: the Shia population that tolerated massive corruption committed in their name by their elected leaders finally took the streets of Baghdad and other Shia provinces to call for change and true reform. The last fig leaf fell and Shia political parties lost their long-held claim of legitimacy as the representatives of Iraq’s majority. This blow was coupled with a call from G. A. Sistani, through his representative in Karbala, instructing the Prime Minister to “strike corruption with an iron fist.” Months have passed without any sign that Prime Minister Al-Abadi is interested in, or capable of implementing any meaningful political and financial reform. Every measure reform he announced turned into a charade and a scandal, either because it is unconstitutional, or cosmetic. This failure cost him the loss of support of the Shia and the religious authority. His last visit to Najaf, the holiest Shia city, he was denied a meeting with G. A. Sistani, which is a clear sign that he is no longer trusted by the Marjaiyya. To put this in perspective, it must be noted that a Prime Minister must slip to the lowest levels of corruption and incompetence to be treated in this fashion by G. A. Sistani, who is well-known for his wisdom, patience, and tolerance.
The continued onslaught against the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) from the Sunni Arab countries – most of them responsible for ideological and/or financial support of terrorism – and from many voices in the international media and research organizations, not to mention the pro-terrorist Iraqi voices, will make the Shia population raise their level of support for the PMUs and appreciate their role as the credible Iraqi force that helped save the country from collapse when no one else could. If the PMUs form a party, then it will have at least one member, a national hero, from every Shia family. This is a level of credibility no other Iraqi party can claim now or ever.
Some PMUs already have their political parties in place. Their rise will undoubtedly bring about another kind of political upheaval in Iraq and a major intra-Shia struggle will take place, between them and the classical Shia leadership. They will also bring a package of political loyalties and alliances, both internal and external, but this is all irrelevant to the debate outside Iraq. The Iraqi Shia voter will not pay much attention to the international preferences for Iraqi leadership, but will remember who took up arms and defended him against the most existential threat in modern times, and who failed to do so. Unless there will be no vocal or tacit interference from the Marjaiyya, the upcoming of the election is already decided. As things stand now, there is no logical reason for the Marjaiyya to oppose it’s own creation, the PMUs.
As other political leaders in Iraq, namely Kurdish leaders and the radical side of Sunni leadership, continue to overplay their hands and use blackmail and obstruction as political tools, there will not be room for feeble Shia politicians like those who dominate the political scene now. Therefore, the future of Shia politics will not have a place for the likes of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who confuse betraying the trust of their constituents with legitimate compromise. The same goes for the political parties. The main Shia religious parties have exhausted their reservoir of legitimacy and respect after a decade of being associated with gross financial and political corruption and sheer incompetence. While the Ba’th Party claimed the reputation of being the worst regime that ruled over the Shia in the past century, the current rule Shia parties in the post-2003 era has managed to become a very close second. Other than electoral corruption, none of the conditions that helped them creep to political power in the past elections will be present in the future.
Will the rise of a strong, popular Shia leader cause more confrontation with other Iraqi groups? It probably will. But its consequences will not be as bad as the consequences of having puppet leaders whose indecisiveness continued to deny Iraq every opportunity for stability and prosperity. Iraq will not be able to survive another irresolute prime minister like Haider Al-Abadi and a corrupt, incompetent council of ministers like the present one. This is not a statement of preference, it is a faithful reading of the Iraqi conditions.