Can Iraq’s Prime Minister Al-Abadi hold on?

Can Iraq’s Prime Minister Al-Abadi hold on?

Division within Iraq’s ruling Dawa Party threatens to jeopardize the position of the Prime Minister. The United States’ key ally in Iraq is struggling to find a balance that ensures his political survival.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to implement popular reforms have spurred increasingly evident divisions within the Islamic Dawa Party between Iraqi nationalists and pro-Iranian elements. The party has dominated Iraq’s political scene since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The Islamic Dawa Party of Iraq was founded in the 1950s as an opposition party to the trend of left-wing nationalism that was common in the region. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Dawa Movement primarily acted as a Shia resistance organization and received extensive backing from revolutionary Iran to combat the secular authoritarianism of the Baath Party in Iraq.

Low oil prices, economic woes, and widespread corruption have led to widespread discontent and a series of large-scale protests over the last year. The PM’s reforms have partially begun to chip away at the corruption that reaches the highest levels of Iraq’s government, but have failed to cross the finish line.

These reforms antagonized pro-Iranian figures, namely the vice president and former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Abadi still remains highly popular with the majority of Iraq’s protestors. He is deemed as accessible and is known to appear in the streets to take selfies with young bystanders.

Religion and politics

Little attention has been focused on the inter-Shia rivalry in Iraq or the region. Historically, there are doctrinal differences between the Shia religious establishments in the Iraqi city of Najaf vs Iran’s Qom.

Iraq’s Shia religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, is an essential champion for the embattled PM. Al-Sistani has a direct line to the Prime Minister and has supported efforts to ease sectarian divide in the country. Al-Sistani’s call to arms to counter the Islamic State (IS) may have undermined the very unity efforts he has been supporting. It is a troubling sign that overreliance on the Iranian-backed militias could lead to danger in the wake of an IS defeat in Iraq.

Abadi is already shoring up support for his own Shia faction. He rejected the U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s proposal to deploy a larger U.S. military task force to combat IS and urged greater cooperation between the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iraqi military.

Abadi has taken a tough stance with neighboring powers in the region. He has spoken adamantly against Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq and is now building a case in the UN Security Council. Powerless to act against regional powers, Abadi uses international pragmatism to foster Western support and bluster to appeal to Iraqi nationalism at home. He denounced Iraq’s exclusion from the new Islamic Alliance formed by Saudi Arabia and made up of Sunni Arab countries to fight IS as a “paper alliance.”

It is unclear how far this can placate the Shia anti-Western hardliners. He recently met with the senior Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who voiced support for Iraq’s embattled PM. Sadr has deep ties with Iran’s Qom establishment and, as one of the few Shia leaders who stayed in Iraq during the years of Saddam’s rule, is popular within the poor Shia community. The Sadrist Movement supports disbanding of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the integration of Shia militias into the national army.

On the other hand, the Badr Brigades – a Shia militia – is a central part of the Popular Mobilization Forces and its leader, Hadi Al-Amiri, has close ties to the Iranian leadership. Al-Amiri is highly critical of the Prime Minister and will continue to use his resources to counteract his authority. The Badr Organization has powerful influence in Iraq’s military and has even commanded units of the national army on the front lines against IS.

Old and new friends

Another factor is Russia, which has developed a close relationship with the Iraqi government over the course of the conflict. Iraq, once a Soviet client state, is a prize for Putin’s intention to expand Russia’s role in the region. It is unlikely that Putin would want to see Iraq’s leader toppled due to interparty disputes. Russia is likely to do everything it can to keep key personalities in place in order to promote stability and shore up its own growing influence.

Iraq is also turning towards China to lessen reliance on the U.S. In October, the Iraqi military showcased the new CH-4B combat drone that was purchased from China. Abadi traveled to China in late December with a delegation of officials representing economic and military interests to strengthen ties with Beijing. He managed to secure five deals on energy and telecommunications infrastructure as part of the Chinese government’s “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative, an effort to recreate the ancient Silk Road.

What is uncertain is the future role for Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds. Abadi has sought to retain ties with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The Iraqi parliament allocated 17% of the national budget to the KRG, despite Maliki’s efforts to prevent this.

The U.S., for its part, struggles to strike the right balance of support for Abadi. The recapture of the city of Ramadi could earn political capital for the PM, but incidents like the accidental bombing of Iraqi military forces near Fallujah serves the interests of Iran’s proxies in the country. A two-track battle to drive IS out of the country in 2016 will be waged by pro-U.S. and pro-Iran political and military forces within Iraq.

However, domestic politics in the U.S. may be moving against Abadi’s favor. The House recently passed a military spending bill that circumvents Baghdad and directly arm the Kurds. Sunni politicians from the Iraqiya coalition have increased their influence in Washington and are pushing for similar armament deals for Iraq’s Sunnis. Abadi continues to play a significant but delicate balance in the coming winter months as the battles for both Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party simultaneously unfold.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris