Is the Iraqi Prime Minister facing a coup?

Sami Hamdi Iraq, Middle East/North Africa

Anyone following Iraq over the past two weeks must confess that it has been everything but boring. From the protests in which the cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has sought to transform his image into a people’s man, to MP’s emphatically voting to remove the Speaker of Parliament despite not having the required quorum.

So what is going on?

Put simply, the government is on the verge of collapse.

Today in, tomorrow out

Abadi’s reforms have faced obstacle after obstacle and his ostensible allies have failed to back him when it counts. After being backed by Ayatollah Sistani when announcing the reforms, the cleric quickly backtracked by calling on Abadi to seek the permission of Parliament, one of the very institutions in dire need of reform and viewed by many as the main stumbling block in tackling the deep seated corruption.

Abadi’s own party, despite openly supporting reforms have undermined him at every step. When Abadi announced that he would form a government of technocrats, his party, along with the others in Parliament cried foul play and demanded that technocrats be nominated from them as they could not simply be cast aside in the reform process. When the new list was drawn up of technocrats, these same parties who condemned the first list argued that the second was merely another Muhasasa government; a government split up based on sectarian lines.

Remove all premierships

Many within the various factions have argued that reform must begin by removing the three ‘premierships’; the President, the Prime Minister himself, and the Speaker of Parliament. However, this call has been severely undermined as a result of the ostensibly sectarian nature of its implementation. The only ‘premier’ to have been the subject of an attempted ousting is Selim al-Jebbouri, a Sunni, fuelling speculation of a Political-Shia led movement to restore the status quo prior to the US forcing former Iran-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out and bringing in current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Coup in disguise?

Moqtada al-Sadr’s presence as a leader amongst the protest movements leaves much to be asked. Despite his fierce opposition to Nouri al-Maliki, the de facto leader of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s party, Sadr has been known to cast aside personal feuds in favour of Iranian interests. In 2006, a feud between then Prime Minster Nouri-al-Maliki and his coalition ally, who was Sadr at the time, led to bloodshed and brought the then-government on the verge of collapse. Sadr at the time declared he would never enter into coalition with Maliki. Sadr was then ‘summoned’ to Tehran and returned to declare an incredible U-turn and saved Maliki’s government by renewing the coalition. The view of the overwhelming majority was that Iran had intervened to protect its interests by forcing Sadr to support Maliki.

Iran again orchestrated a new alliance between the parties in 2010, ensuring Maliki secured another term in office.

Furthermore, Sadr has been a consistent part of the political process since 2003, participating in government and is therefore an establishment figure.

Based on this, sources close to the International Interest have alluded to the possibility that Sadr is once again being used as a tool with which to boost Iran’s position in the country in light of US attempts to use the war on ISIS to curb Iranian influence. In essence, Sadr has infiltrated the protests and made them his own, putting Abadi into a corner and paving the way for the collapse of the US-backed Abadi government.

This view is fuelled even further by Sadr’s recent visit to Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, and rumours that Maliki himself has met with Sadr and Nasrallah, suggesting coordination between the parties in Iraq.

Legitimate grievances

Iraq has suffered from rampant corruption at all levels of government. With the collapse in oil prices, Iraq faces a severe financial crisis. The war on ISIS has also left many people displaced.

Many Iraqis have expressed frustration and a complete exasperation at the inability of the government to provide a genuine solution to problems including the provision of basic necessities such as electricity and water, as well as tackling the rampant corruption.

The protests therefore are based on genuine grievances and the initial outbreak carried Arab Spring-style potential. So much so, that Abadi’s swift declaration of widespread reforms found approval from all parties, including Nouri al-Maliki and Parliament. However, it remains to be seen whether Sadr’s presence at the head of the protests threatens to detract from these grievances and transforms the protests into simply another tool within the US-Iran war of influence over Iraq. The answer may well lie in whether Abadi survives, or in the event he does not, who succeeds him. Could it even be Sadr himself this time?

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…