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Is real change coming to Iraq? | The World Weekly

In the span of the one year, Iraq has undergone major changes. Iraqi forces with Western backing pushed Islamic State (IS) out of its major strongholds, leading Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare victory over the militant group in December. A Kurdish independence referendum in September deepened a crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region. Amidst talk of further change, Iraq will hold national elections in less than two months, the first time since IS lost control over Mosul and other urban centres.   

The defeat of IS - remnants are still active near the Syrian-Iraqi border and parts of northern Iraq - has reportedly renewed a sense of national identity amongst large parts of the population. Slogans like ‘Iraq is one’ were prominently displayed on Iraqi television during military operations against IS. 

“There is a tangible new sense of Iraqi nationalism (among Arab Iraqis at least), a sentiment that has been bolstered by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s adroit management of the post-conflict environment,” wrote Middle East analyst Raad Alkadiri. Change under Prime Minister al-Abadi, Mr. Alkadiri argued, “is breeding hope that Iraqi politics is entering a period of real transition as national elections approach”.  

Change is indeed afoot in the demographically mixed province of Diyala, where 359 candidates from 36 parties are competing for 14 parliamentary seats. Kurdish parties, which have in the past run as one entity, will now compete against each other, while Sunni Muslim parties will run together for the first time in 10 years, reported Niqash, a trilingual website on Iraqi affairs.

Earlier this week, the Sadrist movement, led by powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Iraq’s Communist party formed an alliance for the upcoming elections, a move which a Sadrist leader called the first alliance of its kind in Iraq. Communists will get seats in Parliament due to the alliance, says Iraqi journalist Methaq al-Fayyadh. 

“There are some changes happening,” says Harith al-Qarawee, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, citing that most of the electoral competition will take place within each community, rather than between communities. “That is a good thing,” Dr. al-Qarawee told TWW, who nevertheless cautioned that this was not necessarily a “path to end sectarianism”. 

After the US-led invasion in 2003, governance in Iraq was transformed into an ethno-sectarian system which remains in place until this day. This power-sharing system, in which Shia Arabs traditionally hold the position of prime minister, Sunni Arabs that of parliamentary speaker and Kurds of president, has been blamed for the deepening divisions which have caused much of the bloodshed characterising post-2003 Iraq.

With almost two months to go before polls open on May 12, predicting an election winner in Iraq’s complex system of shifting alliances is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, many see it as likely that Prime Minister al-Abadi will serve another term. Having faced low expectations on taking office, Mr. al-Abadi presided over the military victories against IS and took a hard line against Kurdish separatism last year, which has won him praise in various quarters interested in preserving Iraq’s unity.

Many see it as likely that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, seen here in Bartella on March 14, will serve another term.

“The electoral scene is too fragmented... to present a serious alternative to al-Abadi,” says Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. “The prime minister is likely to perform well given the security and diplomatic gains made in his tenure and the increasing stabilisation of life in Iraq.”

Corruption and the economy

Despite the success against IS, Iraq is facing various challenges. An ongoing dispute over the 2018 budget serves as a reminder of Iraq’s dire economic situation and that relations between the country’s different communities remain far from harmonious. As TWW went to press, Iraqi President Fuad Masum had not yet approved the budget recently passed by Parliament, citing “legal and constitutional violations”, according to Reuters. The vote was boycotted by Kurdish MPs angered by proposals to decrease the share of money allocated to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from 17% to less than 13%.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also voiced concerns over the $88 billion budget’s diminished allocation to the KRG and stipulations to increase operational expenses and introduce tax cuts. Adherence to IMF standards would allow Baghdad access to $5.34 billion in international loans. 

“The main challenge Iraq is facing today is the economic crisis, which has resulted from the plummeting of oil prices” and the subsequent decline of governmental resources, says Dr. al-Qarawee. 

All this comes after the fight against IS militants destroyed many towns and cities. Large parts of Mosul’s historic centre, for example, lie in ruins after months-long battles against IS. A reconstruction conference hosted in Kuwait generated pledges of $30 billion, most of it in the form of investment and credit facilities.  

 Large parts of Mosul have been destroyed in the battle against IS. Here, the ruins of the al-Nuri mosque are seen on August 10, 2017.

However, “Iraq is a country that could easily generate revenue,” points out Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, a British think-tank. The problem, he told TWW, becomes: “how do you efficiently use that money and make sure that it trickles down to the people?”

Part of the problem is a massive public sector (estimated at around five million employees) and a weak private sector, adds Dr. al-Qarawee. “Huge resources are wasted on paying salaries,” he says, partly because the big political parties use the appointments as a tool of patronage to win over segments of society. “This is by itself an act of corruption, even though it was converted in a formally legal way.”

Patronage is expected to play a key role in the upcoming election. This can come in various forms. “In my last visit to Baghdad,” recalls Dr. al-Qarawee, “I heard about parties that are buying voter cards perhaps with the intention of committing electoral fraud.” In the last election, an MP was seen on camera offering land deeds to farmers in the south, which he threatened to withdraw if they did not vote for his party. 

Iraq ranks near the bottom in Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, coming 169th out of 180 countries.  

Foreign influence 

Many Western and Gulf capitals are concerned about the influence Iran wields in Iraq. “Iran is the most influential foreign actor in Iraq,” says Dr. Mansour. Having built alliances and propped up proxy forces, Tehran was the first foreign player to act when IS militants seized around one third of Iraqi territory in the summer of 2014. Several powerful militias backed by Iran have now become part of the official security infrastructure. 

Before and after the upcoming elections, Tehran will try to use the PMU to shape the alliances needed to form a government, says Dr. al-Qarawee. While Prime Minister al-Abadi is seen as popular, he is widely expected to need a coalition of allies to stay in office. “Nobody has any doubt that Iran will be a key player after the elections, but it is not the only player,” the Atlantic Council scholar says. 

The US and Saudi Arabia are also trying to shape the outcome. Riyadh and Baghdad have recently taken historic steps to improve relations, reopening the border between the two countries after almost three decades and resuming flights. Saudi Arabia, the Economist noted earlier this month, wants to gain influence “by reviving the country’s Arab identity, and setting Iraqis against Persian Iran”. Tehran, Dr. al-Qarawee explains, is concerned about the Iraqi prime minister’s stance towards Saudi Arabia.   

“It is important not to overstate Iran’s influence,” says Dr. Mansour.

A sense of disillusionment 

The election campaign is in full swing in Iraq, but many cite a sense of disillusionment among the general public. 

One of the biggest challenges, says Dr. Mansour, is that “everyone is competing for the same idea, only on the surface of course”. This means a platform to fight corruption, to provide services and jobs and a pledge to uphold the constitution, while stressing the defeat of IS. 

This comes at a time when most of the leadership of the political parties has stayed the same, and criticism of the elite, as Dr. al-Qarawee points out, is common.  

“The elections are unlikely to lead to radical changes in the short term,” concludes Dr. Haddad. “The hope,” he adds, “is that a strong electoral performance gives al-Abadi enough of a mandate and enough support to enable him to consolidate recent gains and move Iraq forward.” Various foreign actors, including the US and Iran are likely to support that. Moving forward could also entail renegotiating with the IMF.

Amidst talk of change, however, Iraq might face a status-quo election in May.

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