Sunday, March 13, 2016

Iraq's Prime Minister Abadi Attempts to Reshuffle the Cabinet

By Patrick Martin with Emily Anagnostos

Key Take-Away: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle faces enormous pressure from competing blocs over the final composition of the cabinet. The State of Law Alliance (SLA) is attempting to preserve political party interests within the cabinet, a contradiction of PM Abadi’s and popular demonstrations’ demands for a full government overhaul. However, Muqtada al-Sadr, the charismatic leader of the Sadrist Trend, is demanding a comprehensive change in government, which would threaten political blocs’ access to sources of patronage by preventing party elements from controlling ministerial positions. Moreover, Sadr has threatened to withdraw confidence from PM Abadi if he does not pursue comprehensive reforms. PM Abadi thus has few options to achieve a cabinet reshuffle and preserve his position, as the SLA or the Sadrist Trend may seek to oust PM Abadi from his position if he does not acquiesce to their demands. PM Abadi’s removal would be detrimental to the stability of Iraq, as well as the U.S.’s ability to operate in Iraq in the fight against ISIS, as any candidate to replace him would most likely be more amenable to Iranian directives than PM Abadi. It is imperative that the U.S. support both PM Abadi and the Iraqi Security Forces in order to forestall any effort that would result in his departure from office.


Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced a cabinet reshuffle on February 9, 2016 with the stated intention of forming a government of technocrats. The announcement came after months of failed reform attempts since August 2015, including unsuccessful efforts to oust Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, PM Abadi’s primary political rival and the leader of the State of Law Alliance (SLA), and to overhaul the cabinet. PM Abadi’s reform process quickly lost momentum, and popular demonstrations in favor of reforms that thronged the streets of Iraq’s southern provinces in August 2015 diminished over time. By February 2016, the reforms had all but ground to a halt, and PM Abadi’s most powerful supporter, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ceased issuing weekly Friday sermons on political issues on February 5 out of frustration with the lack of progress towards reforming the Iraqi government.

February 9 – February 26: The Resurgence of Muqtada al-Sadr

PM Abadi likely announced the cabinet reshuffle on February 9 in order to rejuvenate popular support for a cabinet that was both more effective and more responsive to PM Abadi, as opposed to operating as a source of patronage for political blocs. However, PM Abadi lost what limited control he had over the reshuffle process early on, as political blocs proved predictably unwilling to lose control over their ministerial positions. Multiple parties thus attempted to hijack the process to both protect their own interests and to undermine their opponents within the cabinet.

One alarming development following PM Abadi’s announcement was the resurgence of Muqtada al-Sadr, who personally re-inserted himself into the Iraqi political scene. Previously, Sadr directed the Sadrist Trend remotely from Najaf; although he did maintain a public presence, much of his activity aimed at influencing the direction of Iraqi politics was directed through the Sadrist Trend’s primary political bloc, al-Ahrar. Following PM Abadi’s announcements, Sadr threw the down the gauntlet and demanded PM Abadi undertake comprehensive reforms. On February 13, Sadr had given PM Abadi an ultimatum: conduct comprehensive reform of the government within 45 days, or the Sadrist Trend would withdraw confidence from the government. In particular, he issued a series of proposals aimed at reducing the power of pro-Iranian elements, including both the reform of the judiciary, headed by Medhat al-Mahmoud, a powerful ally of Maliki, and the curbing “undisciplined” elements of the Popular Mobilization, a clear reference to the Iranian proxy militias that are some of Sadr’s strongest opponents.

Sadr personally returned to Iraqi politics by calling for a mass demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on February 26 in which he would make a rare public appearance to give a speech. Sadr’s timing for the speech, on a Friday amid the deliberations over the cabinet reshuffle, presented a clear attempt to capture the leadership of the Iraqi street and the popular demonstrations that since August 2015 have called for government reform and anti-corruption measures on a weekly basis. Sadr thus attempted to assume a role similar to Sistani’s prior to his suspension of political sermons on February 5. Although the Tahrir Square demonstration reportedly reached up to 100,000 participants, most reporting seemed to indicate that the demonstrations were largely composed of Sadr’s supporters, likely brought in from all across the country.

Above: Up to
100,000 supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr flocked to see him speak in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad on February 26, 2016.

Sadr likely sought to harness the popular demonstrations to forward his own vision of the cabinet reshuffle and use popular anger over poor government performance as leverage within negotiations over the final shape of the cabinet. The Sadrist Trend is dwarfed by his rival Maliki’s SLA bloc in government, possessing less than half of the seats that the SLA holds in the Council of Representatives (CoR) while holding only two ministerial positions to the SLA’s seven. Maliki expressed his discomfort over Sadr’s attempt to capture the power of the demonstrations by issuing a statement on March 5, denouncing the demonstrations’ infiltration by Baathists and calling them “chaotic.”

February 26 – March 5: Sadr and the SLA at Odds

Sadr’s direct challenge to the SLA received the support of multiple parties, including the Sunni Etihad bloc, and appeared to be aimed at reducing the SLA’s dominance within government. Meanwhile, al-Ahrar Bloc, Kurdish parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Etihad all denounced the practice of proxy appointments – temporary appointments by PM Abadi of important positions until the CoR selected a new candidate – as the practice favors the SLA, the bloc of which PM Abadi is a member. Sadr also initially received the support of ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim when he visited the latter’s office on March 2. Hakim and Sadr were allies during the initial reform period in August 2015, and the two previously shared the objective of strengthening their own political parties at the expense of the SLA. 

Sadr’s attempts to dictate the process of selecting new ministers ran into the problem that his committee was at odds with the three-part committee set up by the SLA to evaluate current ministers and select new ones and reportedly run entirely by SLA members: PM Abadi, who is a member of the subsidiary Dawa Party; senior SLA member Ali al-Adeeb; and, most importantly, SLA leader Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr’s rival. Maliki’s presence as a leader of the SLA committee indicates that it is highly unlikely that the committee’s vision of a new cabinet will be fully representative and composed in a way that will satisfy minority blocs, as Maliki is a sectarian leader. The fact that the committee had three leaders, as opposed to PM Abadi alone, indicates that the SLA is driving the cabinet reshuffle process and is adamant about protecting and strengthening its presence in the cabinet. However, Sadr also formed his own independent committee to select new ministers on February 20, which Sadr subordinated to PM Abadi. Curiously, Sadr’s committee did not appear to be formed of Sadrist rank-and-file party members. Instead, the committee’s members appeared to be unusually diverse in their professional backgrounds, and may be more likely than the SLA committee to submit nominations for ministerial positions based on expertise rather than political connection. The different compositions of these separate committees – highly politicized on the side of the SLA and more technocratic on the side of Sadr – demonstrate the different approaches Maliki and Sadr have towards the cabinet reshuffle process, and the gulf that exists between their ultimate objectives.

March 5 – March 6: Negotiations over Cabinet Reshuffle Intensify

PM Abadi, CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi, and President Fuad Masoum met with leaders of major Kurdish, Sunni, Shi’a, and minority political blocs on March 5 to discuss the reform program. The meeting largely involved each of the leaders airing their complaints with the reform process, but it proved inconclusive as political bloc leaders could not agree on how to conduct the cabinet reshuffle. One day later, a far more intense meeting was held among the Shi’a National Alliance leadership and PM Abadi in Karbala, a predominantly Shi’a city with a major Shi’a shrine. There, PM Abadi met in a nondescript room in a hotel with National Alliance chairman Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim. Other participants included Khudair al-Khuzai, a Dawa Party member and former Vice President in Maliki’s government; senior SLA member Ali al-Alaq; Fadhila Secretary-General Hashem al-Hashemi; Education Minister and Mustaqilun Bloc leader Hussein al-Shahristani; and Badr Organization Deputy Secretary General Abdul-Karim al-Ansari. The three-hour meeting underscored the differences between the Shi’a parties; Sadr reportedly stormed out of the room in frustration, after which PM Abadi withdrew, concluding the meeting. Sadr’s made his anger more clear when he rejected the statement that the National Alliance released following the meeting, stating that it was unrepresentative and written when Sadr and Hakim were not present. He ordered al-Ahrar Bloc to suspend all participation in National Alliance meetings until further notice. Hakim, however, appeared to diverge from Sadr’s position, calling for a partial cabinet reshuffle as opposed to a complete overhaul.

Above: Leaders in the National Alliance meet in Karbala on March 6. From left: National Alliance Chairman and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, and Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

While the Shi’a parties were locked in argumentation within the meeting rooms of the National Alliance, Sunni and Kurdish parties, as well as the secular Wataniyya bloc, appear to have largely been sidelined. Kurdish and Sunni representatives have adamantly stressed the need for a new and representative government. Senior Etihad members insist that the government be representative, but they will not support a reshuffle if the reform process does not first address “previous agreements,” a reference to legislation that Etihad members view as a priority but have been consistently blocked by Shi’a parties in the CoR. Members of the Kurdish Gorran party, the largest opposition party within the CoR, as well as the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), insisted that members of the new cabinet come from the same political blocs. They also insisted that Kurdish representation within government rise from 13 percent to 20 percent, which would substantially increase the ability of the Kurdistan Alliance to influence decision-making in Baghdad as opposed to Iraq’s Shi’a political elite. Although their support will be necessary to pass the final cabinet, Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis appear to be on the outside looking in.

March 7-10: Sadr and the SLA Release Information about Cabinet Reshuffle Preferences

Details of Sadr’s cabinet reshuffle committee results leaked on March 7. The committee did not complete its work by that time, as it struggled to identify independent candidates for foreign, interior, and defense ministerial positions. Selected candidates, however, appeared to be relatively independent of the Sadrist Trend. Several of the nominations are academics and topic experts, such as the committee’s nominations for the Water Resources Ministry and the Industry and Minerals Ministry, though one candidate has a history of being critical of Sadr’s primary rival, Nouri al-Maliki. Candidates with political party connections were also unusual in that they were not necessarily Sadrist; one of the committee’s candidates for the Justice Minister is an SLA CoR member. The lack of nominations for security positions is noteworthy, as a Sadrist committee would be expected to nominate a senior Sadrist official, such as current CoR Security and Defense Committee Chairman Hakim al-Zamili, to critical security positions. It may also indicate that Sadr has grown frustrated with his own al-Ahrar Bloc, from which he has publicly distanced himself, as he insisted during the February 26 demonstration that there was no political group that represented him. Sadr personally referred the two current ministers from al-Ahrar Bloc to the Integrity Commission for investigation on February 28 and detained former Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji on corruption charges on March 5. These may also be part of Sadr’s continued effort to assume Sistani’s previous role as a voice of the popular demonstrations and widespread frustration with corruption and poor government performance. Sadr may have calculated that pursuing a technocratic government and becoming the standard bearer of the anti-corruption movement are worth the cost of losing access to sources of patronage within the ministries.

In contrast to the Sadrist committee’s cabinet reshuffle proposals, the SLA-backed committee suggested that senior political party members continue to hold positions within the cabinet. SLA leader Jassim Muhammad Jaafar announced on March 9 that the SLA-backed committee had completed its list of proposed ministers for the reshuffle and that it would be submitted to the National Alliance for discussion and then implementation. Following that announcement, an unconfirmed source disclosed portions of the nominated list. The choices are dangerous to U.S.-Iraq relations. The nominees include a number of ministers historically close to Iran, whose installation in the cabinet would cripple the U.S.’s ability to operate with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Iraqi government. It could also lead to PM Abadi’s removal, as the anonymous source stated that there was an agreement in the SLA that PM Abadi should resign if his reform agenda fails. PM Abadi’s removal or the nomination of pro-Iranian elements to key positions could cripple the U.S.’s ability to operate with Iraqi forces and in Iraq itself via the installation of ministers historically close to Iran such as Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri or pro-Iranian members of the SLA.

The SLA committee also reportedly decided that the crucial position of Minister of Defense is slated to change, though there have been no indications as to who will replace current Defense Minister and senior Etihad member Khalid al-Obeidi. Of most importance is the future of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), which maintains the Federal Police units and is currently run by Badr Organization member Muhammad al-Ghabban. The Badr Organization is an Iranian-backed Shi’a militia that receives funding and direction from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and works closely with the Popular Mobilization.

The leaked SLA list suggests that Badr Organization Secretary General Hadi al-Amiri is a front-runner for Minister of Interior, though this datum remains unconfirmed. If true, then Amiri’s control over both the Badr Organization and the Ministry of Interior would make it nearly impossible for the U.S. to coordinate with the Federal Police and other Interior Ministry units. Under current Interior Minister Ghabban, Badr members have occupied top leadership positions in the Federal Police, often at the expense of Sunni interests and security. In the past year, the Interior Ministry has attempted to place Badr Organization members in police chief postings in several provinces, including Basra and Diyala, causing controversy among other Shi’a parties that had previously dominated in the province or among Sunni residents who felt that the Badr police chiefs would fail to protect them. Hadi al-Amiri maintains significant leverage over PM Abadi because of his prominent standing in the Popular Mobilization and Shi’a community in Iraq as well as his strong backing by Iran. Were PM Abadi to oust Badr Organization from the Interior Ministry, Iranian proxy militias would likely react in a hostile manner that could cost him his mandate. Amiri had previous been suggested as a candidate for the Minister of Interior in 2014 during the creation of the Abadi government, but the possibility was taken off the table likely due to U.S. objections. Amiri as Minister of Interior would consolidate Iranian control over the Federal Police and ensure that it is composed of and interoperable with the Popular Mobilization. This full capture of the ministry could make it extremely difficult for the U.S. to support Federal Police or other Interior Ministry operations without consequently supporting militia operations. Alternatively, it may give the Interior Ministry the capacity to reject American assistance.

According to the SLA committee, of the current 22 ministers, only five would remain involved in some capacity, according to the SLA committee. Current Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari (KDP) will replace current Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari (National Reform Trend) while current Oil Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi (ISCI) will take Zebari’s place as Finance Minister. Unconfirmed sources also stated that ISCI was hesitant to support PM Abadi’s agenda, but was convinced when PM Abadi offered to keep Abdul-Mahdi in the cabinet along with preserving two ministerial positions for ISCI. Education Minister Muhammad Iqbal (Iraqiyya), Labor and Social Affairs Minister Muhammad Shia’a al-Sudani (Dawa Party), and Planning Salman al-Jumaili (Mutahidun) would also retain their positions.

The leaked document also suggests that the SLA agreed that PM Abadi will resign his position in the event that the reshuffle does not succeed. This possible course of action is even more dangerous to U.S. interests and operations in Iraq as the installation of Hadi al-Amiri as Interior Minister. PM Abadi previously offered to resign from his position on February 16 as part of the cabinet reshuffle, and the reiteration of this proposal continues to risk future relations between the U.S. and Iraqi government. PM Abadi has maintained an open relationship with the U.S. and the Coalition despite significant political pressures from Shi’a political blocs, including his own, and the Popular Mobilization. Should PM Abadi be forced from his position, the SLA, which holds the majority in the CoR, would attempt to select a new prime minister more aligned with Iranian interests than supportive of the U.S. role in the anti-ISIS fight. Moreover, a pro-Iran prime minister could additionally seek support from other countries with divergent interests from the U.S., such as Russia. This possible change in the prime minister’s office in the midst of major ongoing military operations in Ramadi and Mosul could undermine the potential success of those operations and drive out the U.S. from the country. A new prime minister would be more likely to invite increased Russian and Iranian support in the fight against ISIS, as well as be far more willing to deploy Iraqi Shi’a militias in forward operations, a course of action that would increase sectarian tensions during operations in predominantly Sunni areas.

March 11 – Courses of Action

The end result of the cabinet reshuffle could have severe consequences for Iraq’s stability. PM Abadi faces no good courses of action. It is likely that he does not possess political strength to form an independent commission to screen nominations for ministerial positions, as outlined in a document release on March 11, due to the importance of political blocs in holding ministries for patronage. But even if PM Abadi manages to collate a list of candidates for the ministries, he will face extreme resistance. If PM Abadi attempts to appease everyone with half-measures without appeasing anyone’s interests, the SLA or Sadr could push for him to resign. If he attempts to install a fully technocratic government, as Sadr has been advocating for, then political blocs, including the SLA as well as Sunni and Kurdish blocs, will resist in order to protect their interests. Senior SLA member Ali al-Adeeb admitted as much on March 12, when he complained that the Badr Organization, Mustaqilun Bloc, and Dawa Party – all components of the SLA – were more concerned with protecting their positions within the cabinet than pursuing real reforms, but hoped that public pressure could change their positions. If PM Abadi submits a cabinet reshuffle platform that replaces current ministers with political bloc appointees, there is a possibility that Sadr will refuse to accept the outcome. This is particularly dangerous as Sadr could, as a final attempt to acquire leverage over the government, do something rash. Sadr called for a mass sit-in in front of the entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad until the end of the 45-day deadline on March 29, which is just over two weeks away, in order to pressure the government to fight corruption. More Sadrist protests could spark violence or could even attempt to enter the Green Zone, a daunting prospect considering the historical lack of discipline of Sadrist followers. The consequences of a security breach or violence in or near the Green Zone could be dramatic and suck PM Abadi further into the SLA’s orbit.

The cabinet reshuffle may also compromise the U.S.’s ability to operate freely in Iraq. If the cabinet reshuffle fails, and the SLA forces PM Abadi to resign, then the government could collapse, leaving questions about how the U.S. will continue to operate in the country. Furthermore, it could pave the way for a premier who is far more amenable to Iranian directives than PM Abadi to assume the position. Even if merely temporary, such a replacement would restrict the U.S.’s freedom of operations in the country. PM Abadi’s sole advantage remains the lack of a consensus candidate among the Shi’a parties to replace him at the moment, but even this may change. National Alliance chairman and current Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a pro-Iranian former Prime Minister himself, could be a candidate, particularly as he was reportedly running the National Alliance meetings during the cabinet reshuffle process, even with the reigning prime minister present. It is imperative for the U.S. to exert what diplomatic pressures it can to ensure that the new government forms smoothly with PM Abadi at its helm, as the alternative would gravely jeopardize U.S. interests.