Circumstances in the wake of the fall of Mosul to the forces of the Islamic State (IS) on June 9, were decisive in the emergence of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government. This is amply reflected in the new Iraqi government’s composition, its leaders and political factions, as well as its political orientations. Were it not for the fall of Mosul, it is likely that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have been able to remain in his post for a third term, despite the growing opposition to his rule. For almost a decade, the “Carrot and Stick” style of governance used by Maliki with opponents and supporters alike, and his mobilization of Iraq’s Shia via an exclusivist sectarian discourse, enabled him to balance the many powers and interests that came to converge around his person. Mosul’s fall may well have hastened his departure, and there is widespread consensus that the exclusivist policies that came to symbolize his turbulent eight year tenure, particularly his second term, are what brought Iraq to its present crisis.
President Barack Obama expressed this clearly in the days following the fall of Mosul, when he observed that sectarian differences had created a fragile situation in Iraq, noting that in the absence of political efforts military action would be futile. “Without achieving internal stability in Iraq” said Obama,” there will be no lasting impact to any support.” For the US administration, the departure of al-Maliki, along with the formation of a more representative and inclusive Iraqi government that addresses Sunni grievances and integrates Sunnis into the ruling establishment, stood as a prerequisite to the fight against the Islamic State. Political reform needed to precede military confrontation, so as to rebuild Arab Sunnis’ confidence in Iraq’s political institutions.
A Road Map to Prevent Breakdown
Given the above, the chief task of Abadi’s government is broader and more far-reaching than tackling the complex accumulated structural problems that have plagued the Iraqi state since 2003, namely: the failure to provide basic services; the rampant corruption; an overweening leader, a rentier-state economy that sanctifies the subordination of society to the state; a log-jammed democratic transition with stalled political institutions; a sagging public sector, not to mention the lack of a legislative framework governing state structure that guarantees the basic rights of citizenship.
Above all, the task of Abadi’s new government now consists of securing and maintaining Iraqi national unity. The fall of Mosul constituted a powerful symbol of the breakdown of the state, and the disintegration of a nation long deprived of uniting policies. The new government is expected to enshrine the notion that a political system must provide for the effective participation of all, rather than for opportunistic sectarian competition that poses an existential threat to the state.
The Abadi government now faces two critical challenges. The first is to launch long-term reform to deal with the political crisis that has developed after the 2003 US invasion, which brought Iraq’s political system, with its allocations of quotas of power, to the brink of collapse. Iraq never became the “nation-state” envisioned, nor did it provide equitable participation in state institutions for all Iraqi constituents. Imbalances in the political system gave rise to extremist forces within each constituency, enabling them to move along social and political fault lines to occupy large swathes of political space.
Speaking to parliament on September 8, on the occasion of the vote of confidence on his government, Abadi announced the key planks of his reform agenda, as stipulated in a political document that was agreed upon by all political blocs in parliament. Yet, drawn from the same Shiite and Sunni parties that have dominated the political scene in the eleven years following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the political line-up announced by the new Prime Minister might not be up to the tasks of political reform. The Sunni representative factions in particular seem to have serious problem with their own communities.
Reform is not simply a matter of government formation, nor is it a matter of just redefining and rehabilitating the existing Sunni elite, or of launching a transitional phase for the construction of an alternative Sunni elite. First and foremost, reform entails a restructuring of the political system through re-formulation of the relationship between components of the community, political institutions and forces, and the relationship of these with both the center and the regions and provinces, thus defining modalities of partnership in the management of security and military institutions, and in the management of wealth.
The second challenge for the Abadi government is to confront the Islamic State – in policy and in practice. The reform agenda is a start, and can play a role in dismantling the IS support cells that resigned themselves to the fact that the Islamic State provided the only means of crushing an overweening central government. Undoubtedly, the Islamic State emerged in an atmosphere of increasing resentment that accompanied the formation of the second al-Maliki government in 2010, thus any response to the Islamic State must essentially address, absorb and drain this resentment.
This concern has dominated all of the international arrangements undertaken to confront IS, and especially those of the Americans. Noticeably, the schedule for confronting IS was clearly dependent on the announcement of Iraq’s new government, as evident with the timing of the Paris Conference on Iraq, and President Obama’s speech on how he plans to deal with IS. The Americans exerted enormous pressure for a speedy announcement of the new government, and its presentation to the cabinet for a vote of confidence, before taking any action to strike the Islamic State.
The announcement of the formation of a National Guard, included in Abadi’s plan of action, came about in a similar fashion. The proposal to shift from national to local security provision – that is, to limit the army’s role in protecting the borders, and rely instead on locally recruited National Guard forces to protect the provinces – was first proposed following the invasion of Mosul. In theory, the National Guard will be composed of fighters hailing from the concerned province, under the supervision of the local government, although it will remain part of the official security establishment. In this sense, it differs from the al-Sahwa militia forces created by the Americans in 2007. The National Guard will, however, be tasked with implementation of the last part of the plan to confront the Islamic State – namely, recovery of IS-controlled territory, and maintaining control over it. This means that these forces will be periodically and transitionally subject to American rehabilitation and training, if not American supervision, notwithstanding repeated American declarations that they will not deploy ground forces.
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This paper was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version of this Report, which appeared online on September 28, 2014, please click here.