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Is this Iraq’s last and best chance to reform itself?

A greater long-term problem, festering for years, has come to a boil in front of the world’s eyes

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

While the US obsesses about the evil that is ISIS, a greater long-term problem, festering for years, has come to a boil in front of the world’s eyes: the obvious collapse of the Iraqi state. This is of far greater strategic consequence than whether and when ISIS can be dislodged from Mosul. For without a functioning Iraq, radicalism is bound to re-emerge, just as ISIS is merely the latest iteration of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), having risen from the ashes, nurtured by Iraqi political dysfunction.

Furious with the Iraqi parliament for having three times rejected the political reforms of the well-meaning but weak government of Haider al-Abadi, 5,000 followers of Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad, housing the government quarter of the city. Chanting “the cowards run away,” they were unhindered by both the Iraqi army and security services ostensibly guarding the city.

The reason for their immediate ire was that the parliament had failed to commence voting on ministerial changes designed to finally make the Iraqi government fit for purpose, providing basic public services, creating jobs, and, most importantly, rooting out the political corruption amongst the rotten-to-the-core political class. Transparency International lists Iraq as presently the 8th most corrupt government, in a world full of them.

The political quota system introduced by Washington following the 2003 invasion is the root of all evil here. Well-meaningly designed to make sure that all of Iraq’s major ethno-religious communities were represented in the central government, for over a decade the leading Iraqi political parties and their militias have divided ministries between themselves, treating them as their personal fiefs. They have used the ministries as a form of patronage, inflating the government payroll from a fat 1 million public employees under Saddam Hussein, to an absolutely unsustainable 7 million today.

The Iraqi state, artificially created by the British in the 1920s, has never been able to command the legitimacy of its various far-flung constituencies

Dr. John C. Hulsman

This has spawned truly Olympian levels of corruption, as large unfinished projects and ghost workers have destroyed the state’s finances, and together with the marked global decline in energy prices, have landed Baghdad with a whopping budget deficit of fully 25 percent of the GDP. The global oil price decline on its own has slashed the Iraqi government’s revenues by up to a crippling 70 percent. Though Iraqi oil is now being pumped in record amounts, the shortfall cannot be easily made up, as the Iraqi state is economically grinding to a halt.

Reform program

To combat this cancer growing on the Iraqi body politic, Prime Minister Abadi has proposed a reform programme whereby neutral technocrats will take over for the corrupt, party-affiliated ministers. As this is obviously a measure that would severely weaken their power base, it is unsurprising that the political parties in the parliament have proven so reluctant to endorse the popular measures.

Of course the underlying problem in Iraq – the political lack of legitimacy of the Iraqi state itself – cannot be so easily legislated away. It is certainly true that the quota system is as the root of the present political crisis, but it was instituted only because the state itself lacked core supporters; as people in the country think of themselves as Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds first (and not Iraqis), it made some political sense to see that their basic loyalties were provided for in Iraqi national politics. This is the snake in the garden, as the Iraqi state, artificially created by the British in the 1920s, has never been able to command the legitimacy of its various far-flung constituencies.

The Shiite firebrand leader Moqtada al-Sadr, politically morphing into a champion of good governance and a key ally of Abadi, finally could bear the shenanigans of the Iraqi parliament no longer. Last month he threatened that his supporters would storm the Green zone. While it is unlikely he ordered them into the capital over the past few days, certainly the dramatic increase in the rhetorical temperature over the reforms has brought the crisis to a boil.

Abadi has found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to deal toughly with what amounts to his central political ally. A state of emergency was briefly declared in Baghdad, while the Prime Minister ordered the authorities to arrest and prosecute the Sadrist protestors who had invaded the Green Zone.

While no arrests seem to have been actually made, Sadr got the hint. The demonstrators began leaving at his behest, still demanding all the while the formation of a new cabinet composed of technocrats and fundamental governmental reform. Nobody thinks this is anything but an interlude, the calm before the storm as to whether Abadi’s reform agenda succeeds or his premiership is doomed to failure.

What has changed is that with the Sadrist protests, domestic violence in the pursuit of politics is now part of the Iraqi political discourse. The creaking, unloved, Iraqi state seems incapable of renewing itself, and tempers across the political spectrum are becoming ever more frayed. If the Iraqi state fails in this last, best chance to reform itself, its collapse will signal that in Syria and Iraq, the heart of the Arab world, a political black hole will take the place of sane governance into the medium term. And that would amount to a geopolitical tragedy, indeed.
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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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