Baghdad’s Shiite-Sunni politics in shambles

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi has failed to abolish sectarian and party quotas for government positions. The threat of a shutdown now looms, while “Islamic State” continues to control large parts of the country.
Political spring cleaning is needed in Baghdad’s parliament. Over the weekend, demonstrators stormed parliament, destroying furniture and smashing windows. But the shattered politics are much more difficult to clean up.

For the third time, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi failed to end the sectarian and ethnic quota system and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Crowds tore down the concrete barriers that normally serve as a hermetic closure around the Green Zone in the center of the Iraqi capital. Vehicles carrying fleeing members of parliament were destroyed. Security forces did not intervene.

Anja Wehler-Schöck, head of the Jordanian regional office of Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) is dismayed at how the fortifications built to deter terrorists were simply overrun. “It is not an individual checkpoint that was stormed, but a series of checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers and tanks,” is how Wehler-Schöck described the Green Zone in an interview with DW. There, many embassies and the UN Mission are located next to parliament and the ministries. The FES head of office assumes that the soldiers simply surrendered to the mass rush. Had they fired shots, there would have been a bloodbath.

Selfies in parliament

Many of the Iraqi demonstrators acted as if the assault on parliament was a folk festival. They danced with banners in halls that are otherwise inaccessible. They took selfies and expressed outrage over the fact that politicians enjoy air conditioned offices while the rest of the country has access to electricity only a few hours per day.

The people’s anger had been elicited by the political and economic stagnation that has paralyzed the country for months. The terrorist organization “Islamic State” continues to control much of the country and also committed a new series of suicide attacks on the weekend. At the same time, the overall supply situation is getting worse. According to widespread perceptions, the political elite only care about their own privileges.

Competence instead of confession

The influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr had called for the demonstrations. For months, his supporters had been demonstrating for reforms. They have proposed that a professional government team replace the quota system in which Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites and Kurds jealously cling to the proportional quotas. There is a general demand for religious affiliation to give way to competence, but many parties and politicians are not interested.

Between 60-65 percent of Iraqis are Shiites, and Shia alliances dominate parliament. The current alliance of convenience, however, is becoming increasingly fragile. The Shiite Prime Minister Al-Abadi is no longer able to assert himself, even within his own ranks. Yet, he came into office two years ago with the aim of alleviating the deep mistrust between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the country.

“The Iraqi leader wants to reshuffle his cabinet but he has a weak base of power,” explained Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, the president of the Middle East Research Institute in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil. Only a handful of parliamentarians stand behind the prime minister. “His greatest rivals are now his fellow party members and former fellow campaigners,” says Ala’Aldeen. Al-Abadi is being blamed for the anarchy resulting from his hesitant, but on the other hand, populist policies.

The political elite have failed

According to Ala’Aldeen, the entire political class of the country has failed. And although the religious and populist Sadrist movement has been publicly campaigning for change, it mostly pursues its own agenda. “Its track record is not a bit better than the others’,” analyzes to Ala’Aldeen, a former minister of higher education in the regional government of Iraq’s Kurdish territory.

Shiite neighbor Iran exerts a great deal of influence over politics in Baghdad. But voices against Iran grew louder on the weekend. “It is noteworthy that many of the demonstrators in parliament were shouting ‘Iran out'”, says the researcher from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Iraq’s spiritual Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, has been keeping a low profile. “There is a difference between the Iranian and the Iraqi Shiite clergy: The Iraqi Shiite leader Al-Sistani does not see himself as a political leader,” says Wehler-Schöck. In Iran, however, the spiritual leader has the final say in politics.

In the meantime, protesters have left the government district, although it is still not clear how things will contine. Before fundamental reforms can be made or the cabinet reshuffled, a government majority is needed. Right now, there is not even a safe place where the members of parliament can meet. Ala’Aldeen believes that new elections are possible and says, “Otherwise, you will have to prepare for chaos and violence.”

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