Iraq’s New Government

Yesterday, the Iraqi parliament approved a new government headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. While John Kerry calls the swearing-in a “major milestone”, Juan Cole advises us not to get our hopes up:

Although al-Abadi is a more congenial and less paranoid figure than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, he derives from the same fundamentalist Shiite political party, the “Islamic Call” or “Islamic Mission” (al-Dawa al-Islamiya), founded around 1958 with the aim of creating a Shiite state. The Dawa Party did very well in securing cabinet appointments. The cabinet lacks a Minister of the Interior (akin to the US FBI or Homeland Security director) and a Defense Minister, because the parties could not agree on the names that had been put forward. Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Iran-backed Badr Corps militia, had been bruited as an Interior Minister, but apparently calmer heads prevailed (or perhaps there was severe American pressure). The Badr Corps in the past has been accused of involvement in torture, and it is despised by many of the Sunni Arabs.

Given the revolt of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs this summer, that anyone even considered al-Ameri for such a sensitive position is astonishing. During the first Ibrahim Jaafari government, the Badr Corps was accused of abuse and the extra-judicial jailings of Sunni Arab rebels. If the Iraqi elite were smart they’d put a Sunni Arab in as head of the Department of Defense.

But Jill Carroll asserts that no amount of representation in a failed political system will assuage the fears of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority. Only autonomy, she argues, will solve the problem that enabled the rise of ISIS:

Sunni trust in the political process and central government is broken beyond repair. Sunnis do not see the Shiite-led government as a political opponent they disagree with. They see it as an existential threat. The local Iraqi players who aid the Islamic State — Sunni tribesman and former Saddam Hussein regime military elements — need to be enticed to turn against the organization. Getting them to “buy back in” will require a powerful incentive, and what this Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad currently has to offer is not enough.

It is time for a bold solution. Baghdad should offer the Sunni tribes some sort of political autonomy, or perhaps even independence in the territory the Islamic State has carved out, on the condition that they ruthlessly eject the jihadists. This new Iraqi Sunni political entity could be a new country, a semi-autonomous regional government like Kurdistan, or a federation of tribal powers under a loose national framework like the United Arab Emirates.

On the other hand, Michael Rubin blames a lack of Sunni leadership for Iraq’s governance problems:

The real problem facing Iraq—and the reason why no amount of military reform or imposed political quotas will succeed—is that the Arab Sunni community is leaderless. Like them or hate them, the Shi‘ite community has established political parties like Da’wa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and, if political infighting grows too great, the clerical hierarchy will use their offices to kick the Shi‘ite politicians into gear. The Kurdistan Regional Government is far from democratic, but its parties are well established: Kurds may resent their political leadership, but they do not doubt it.

The Iraqi Sunni Arab community has no real leadership. There is no religious structure among Iraqi Sunni Arabs (or Sunnis in general) that approximates what exists in Najaf. Those assisting the U.S. military and diplomats new to the Iraq issue often talk about the importance of tribes, but there is hardly a tribe in Iraq whose leadership is uncontested. Former President Saddam Hussein—and, indeed, almost every leader before him–promoted rivals to tribal sheikhs in order to better control the tribes. The result is often a mess. Make a Dulaim minister of defense? Don’t count on assuaging the Dulaim because chances are few will recognize the individual as legitimate, or will criticize him as coming from the wrong sub-clan.

Recent thoughts on the governance of Iraq here.