In spite of mass protests led by al-Sadr, al-Abadi’s reform drive is unlikely to succeed

Since 2003 Iraq has witnessed many false dawns and against a tide of sectarianism and corruption has failed to significantly improve the lives of the people.

The job of reconciling the Kurds, Sunni and Shiites and the dozens of sectarian groups and militias under the Sunni and Shiite camps is difficult enough without a crisis that saw Islamic State (IS) take large swathes of Iraq whilst knocking on the door of Baghdad. To make matters worse, the dramatic fall in oil prices has severely dented Iraq’s already brittle economy.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was enlisted with the thankless job of patching up the Iraqi divide, defeating IS and tackling years of corruption.

He is tasked with appeasing many factions, keeping the U.S. on their side without undermining the strong reliance on Iran and fighting IS when his best card are powerful Shiite militia forces that are largely out of his control.

The fact that IS have become stubbornly entrenched in Iraq is a blow to Iraqi nationalism. The collapse of the Iraqi army, supposedly the national guardians, was hardly the right reassurance for weary streets.

In the midst of economic troubles, the fight against IS and social anger, protests last summer led to announcement of a reform package by al-Abadi. Although reforms were backed by Iraq’s highest Shi’ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they lacked weight, were deemed inefficient and Abadi’s efforts to instill greater change was largely rejected.

After all, small reform programs are not going to make amends for years of neglect and abuse and al-Abadi is hardly going to appease all the influential groups and militias that dominate the socio-political landscape.

On top of this, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an old foe of the U.S. and a thorn in the side of successive governments due to his immense local support, is increasingly returning to the socio-political stage.

In recent months al-Sadr has been vocal in pushing for sweeping reforms and made a list of demands that have largely not been met. This culminated in massive protests last week against a “struggle with death, fear, hunger joblessness and occupation”.

He has 34 seats in parliament and has threatened to withdraw from the political process if his demands such as a cabinet reshuffle are not met.

Al-Sadr continues to enjoy strong grassroots support from the working classes and although his party alone cannot change the course in Baghdad, his voice has great ramifications on the political circles in Baghdad.

Al-Sadr even threated to storm the gates of the green-zone, but this was more rhetorical and symbolic as he lacks the support to stage a coup, and Iran, U.S. and other powerful Shiite factions will hardly stand idle.

Al-Sadr is reasserting himself on the political stage and wants to be portrayed as the choirmaster of reform and reconciliation.

What is important is that al-Sadr is shying away from sectarianism and playing on the nationalist card. He has struck a more reconciliatory tone with the Sunnis and vowed that the demonstration is also a voice of the oppressed Sunni.

Even his militia was rebranded Saraya al-Salam or Peace Brigades after the fall of Mosul to IS and the militia’s key hand in fighting IS.

Al-Sistani and al-Sadr have pushed for change and al-Abadi has tried his best to oblige, but against so many obstacles and factions to please this is unlikely to bear real fruit.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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