Mending Iraq: Abadi's revolt for reform

August 21, 2015 11:01

This article by author Yassin K. Fawaz, was originally posted on August 20, 2015 in The Hill, a non-partisan American political newspaper published in Washington, D.C. covering Congress, White House and federal campaigns activities

Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi did his people, and himself, a solid on August 9. Faced by protests against government corruption Abadi pledged a series of reforms. One of them, the elimination of several senior governmental posts, might even lead to the sacking of the premier's predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki. That could only be a good thing. Despite being a serial failure as prime minister – the emergence of the Islamic State group is Maliki's enduring legacy – he parachuted out of the premiership into the comfort of a vice-presidency. Such reward for failure reeks of a crony state. Sacking Maliki would be a solid start to Abadi's plans. Under Maliki corruption became entrenched. Competent officials were often sacked and compliant placemen appointed. Abadi inherited a house of straw. He has rightly chosen to set fire to much of it but that decision came only because Iraqis, toiling in record temperatures with no electricity to power air conditioning, took a stand. While the populace boiled government workers and ministers sat in palaces kept cool 24 hours a day because they siphon off power. Such is Iraq's corrupt state.

Searching for answers I spoke with Stuart W. Bowen Jr., a friend of President George W. Bush who was appointed in 2004 as a special inspector general to investigate corruption and waste in Iraq.

“The Iraqi people expected Abadi to be firm in fighting corruption. He has failed to meet this expectation since his appointment a year ago. Part of that failure stems from continuing in office most of the leadership from Maliki’s corrupt era.” Bowen said.

For Abadi the public discontent is likely a welcome if somewhat perverse distraction. Almost one year into the job of prime minister he manages a country in perpetual crisis. He hasn't always seemed comfortable. When he sat down next to Barack Obama at a G7 meeting in June a videoclip betrayed the American's president's frustration. He may not have deliberately ignored Abadi but the footage – which, embarrassingly, went viral – while unfortunate, is understandable. For America, Iraq is the problem that will not go away. Obama remains a lifeline, if not a saviour. No one country, except possibly Iraq itself, can end its torment.

Despite Abadi's initiative there are worrying signs that 12 years on from the U.S.-led invasion the same mistaken priorities of a weak government – and the superpower that created it – are being allowed to dominate again. Rule of law in Iraq has long been tainted by the corrupt mechanisms of the government and the lack of both transparency and formal legalized procedures. Bowen suggests: “He [Abadi] must reform the central bank, which is still a nest of corruption. He also must bring new leadership to the Commissions of Integrity and reform the court system. Effective rule of law depends on these actions.”
Such fundamental changes are necessary to fully implement “reform” in its full scope. If Abadi’s suggestions end up being imaginary ideas – he will lose all credibility.

When he visited Washington in April, Abadi asked for weapons. Iraq's army has since collapsed, again, with the Sunni bastion of Ramadi falling to the Islamic State in a disturbingly similar fashion as Mosul last June. The occurrence – and the timescale that IS has now managed to hold ground – should send a chill through the civilized world. Despite its taking back of Tikrit just weeks earlier, which was meant to spearhead a decisive push to take back Mosul, Iraq looks no more stable than it did more than a year ago.
Abadi was right when he said weapons are needed but Ramadi showed once again that Iraqi forces seem just as likely to run away as to use whatever arms are at its disposal. An estimated 2,300 armoured cars supplied as American military aid were seized by IS when Iraqi forces melted last summer.

Arms alone will not make Abadi's government stronger. What Iraq needs is an international strategy that can help its premier end the political splits among its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations. He has made some positive steps to reverse the blatant sectarianism of Maliki, but despite his apparent reliance on Iranian military advisers and Shiite militias backed by Iran, Abadi could do one thing that might build some confidence: he could go to Riyadh.

Doing so would send a signal of Iraq's independence and hold Iran to account over its promise that, rather than interfering for its own advantage, it seeks a united government in Baghdad. The Iraqi Army is feeble. While IS is a twisted collaboration of Iraqi Sunnis and foreigners -- its twisted methods cannot conceal that it is united in its aim of an Islamic caliphate. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has no focused mission because it has no national unity given the corruption that lives within it – phantom soldiers are paid salaries but don't train, let alone fight. Such corruption, and bad generals appointed by Maliki, feed its failure.

Were Abadi to go to Riyadh it could send a first signal that the region's Sunni superpower and its largest Shia Arab counterpart could be friends; against a common enemy if nothing else. Combined with an international conference on combating IS that features all the participants, including Iran could create conditions for a real international effort, rather than the loose coalition of the present. Without a political strategy for reconciliation and a formal commitment to reconciliation in Iraq there is little cause to be optimistic of removing IS from the battlefield. Such a new push could not be more needed: the summer months have seen a depressing move away from concerted fighting to near acceptance of IS's ability to hold cities. The enslavement of women and killing of men should fill western governments with dread.
Abadi really needs to gradually repair Iraq’s cracked foundation to resist this enemy that was born from its own parasites. Fighting corruption and looking to develop regional alliances are key factors in the complex route to mend a broken Iraq. Abadi's approach isn't bulletproof buts it's definitely a good start.

Fawaz is chief executive of the Raddington Group, a DC-based risk management firm. He is experienced in counterterrorism and intelligence, and frequently has provided strategic advice to Middle Eastern leaders

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