Iraq’s new PM’s work won’t be easy

Iraq’s new PM’s work won’t be easy

The newly installed Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has inherited a country wracked by a complex civil war. Al-Abadi, a Shiite Islamist, must convince Sunnis to abandon their revolt while simultaneously responding to the threat posed by extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). To keep his government in power, al-Abadi needs to assure Iraq’s Sunnis that he will be able to reverse the legacy of his divisive and sectarian predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

Sunni political factions have several interconnected demands: amnesty for tens of thousands of Sunnis imprisoned— in many cases without judicial review — by al-Maliki’s regime in the name of fighting terrorism; greater power in the new government, especially by securing one of the “sovereign ministries” (defense, interior, foreign affairs, oil, and finance); and a more significant role in the Iraqi security forces, which Maliki cleansed of many senior Sunni officers. While some Shiite factions are willing to give Sunnis these demands, others are adamantly opposed.

Even if al-Abadi is eventually able to meet all Sunni demands, he will consistently face sectarian violence and rifts beyond his control. Iraq is at the center of several regional proxy battles: Iran is heavily involved in shaping Iraqi policy, while ISIL represents spillover from the Syrian civil war next door. The militant group is also a byproduct of the Gulf Arab states that support Sunni jihadists in both Syria and Iraq.

In 2010, al-Maliki ultimately secured a second term after Iran strong-armed two fellow Shiite leaders, the clerics Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, into supporting him. The two clerics control about 63 seats in the new Parliament. To remain in power, al-Abadi will also need to appease these two clerics and several other Shiite parties largely beholden to Iran, including the League of the Righteous, a militia led by Qais al-Khazali.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has emerged as a kingmaker in the political process. Al-Sistani represents the dominant theological school in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, which rejects the Iranian model of rule by clergy. The Najafi clerics believe their role is to be spiritual leaders and not to participate directly in politics. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, al-Sistani seized a more direct political role on several occasions, especially in 2004 when he insisted on early elections and a constitutional referendum.

But al-Sistani had never stepped into the political process as forcefully as he has since the fall of Mosul to ISIL militants in early June. Al-Sistani issued a call to arms urging all able-bodied Iraqi men to join the security forces against ISIL, and he also played a leading role in persuading Iraq’s political elite to replace al-Maliki as prime minister. Al-Sistani’s actions could shift the historic debate regarding the role of Shiite clerics. Ironically, in order to preserve the “quietist” position of the Najafi clerics, al-Sistani has become more deeply involved in politics.

Since 2003, al-Sistani has competed with more radical clerics, especially al-Sadr, for leadership over the Shiite community in Iraq. This struggle reflects a parallel battle between Iranian and Iraqi clerics for dominance over the larger Shiite realm. The rise of ISIL, which views Shiites as apostates, threatens the interests of all Iraqi Shiite factions and of the Iranian regime.

Iran is the regional player that has benefited the most from America’s gamble in Iraq. The United States ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shiite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history. As U.S. troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over all of Iraq’s major Shiite factions.

Tehran wants to ensure that Iraq never again poses an existential threat to Iranian interests, as Saddam did when he invaded Iran in 1980, instigating the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that devastated both countries. Saddam was supported by most Arab states and Western powers. Iran will do whatever is necessary to keep a friendly, Shiite-led government in power in Baghdad.

Through a combination of funding, training for militias and political support, Iran will continue to back all the major Shiite groups in Iraq. Al-Maliki did not start out as beholden to Iran, but as he struggled to remain in power, he became more dependent on Tehran.

Even if al-Abadi personally feels closer to the West, he needs Iranian support to keep his new government in power. Iran has many levers to maintain its influence over the political process in Iraq — and it will not hesitate to use them.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday