Iraqi leader wins backing for reforms but walks a dangerous line

Demonstrators rally in Baghdad on Sunday in support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s anti-corruption initiative. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

By Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim August 11 at 1:41 PM

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s parliament voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to back a package of measures aimed at stamping out corruption and government overspending, opening the way for the biggest overhaul of the country’s political system since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Just one of the 297 lawmakers who attended the vote objected to the plan, which was proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the wake of large protests against graft and a lack of services.

The near-unanimous backing of his reform agenda bolsters Abadi, who has been struggling to assert control since taking office last year. His plan calls for initiating a corruption probe, ending a sectarian-based quota system for top government positions and scrapping the posts of three vice presidents and three deputy prime ministers.

When Abadi took office in September, Iraq was rife with corruption and struggling with a security crisis as Islamic State militants seized around a third of the country’s territory. In pursuing his reform program, he is navigating a perilous path in a society where graft is ingrained and powerful political players stand to lose from changes to the status quo.

The premier acknowledged the danger Tuesday in a statement in which he vowed to continue down the road of reform even “if it costs me my life.”

The axing of the offices of Iraq’s three vice presidents has drawn particular attention, with some critics arguing that such a move is unconstitutional. It would leave former prime minister and Abadi rival Nouri al-Maliki without a political position, which in turn removes his immunity from prosecution.

Politicians said that although few are speaking out publicly against the move, significant opposition behind the scenes is likely.

“We are expecting there to be assassination attempts, attempted coups,” said Serwan Sereni, a Kurdish legislator. “It’s not easy for Iraq to make these changes.”

Ali al-Alaq, a senior politician with Abadi’s Dawa party, cited a “new reality” and spirit of cooperation from Iraq’s fractious political blocs.

Abadi drafted the reform package as soon as Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, gave his support to the demonstrations, Alaq said, ramping up pressure on the government to act.

“It wasn’t panic, but a realization of the urgent need to correct the political process,” the legislator said. “The prime minister had always demanded reform but faced opposition from political blocs, but now that the people and the clerics are behind him, it’s an opportunity to act.”Alaq acknowledged, however, that moving forward would not be easy.

“This is the nature of human beings. They don’t give up easily when their interests are harmed,” he said.(Alak is also the current Gov of the CBI – very strange comments by him – to be sure…)

Still, the atmosphere in parliament was celebratory on Tuesday. Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, welcomed the reform effort, describing it on Twitter as a “sweeping initiative” to improve government services and combat corruption in Iraq.

“Now Abadi will have full authority to change the political process,” said Alia Nassif, a legislator from the governing State of Law bloc. “We have voted on the reforms, but the question is whether there will be enough will to implement this.”

In addition to Abadi’s plan, parliament suggested further reforms, including firing lawmakers who attend less than a third of the sessions and limiting prime ministers to two four-year terms — which would bar Maliki from returning to office.

“All the people want this — the doctors, the engineers, the farmers,” Speaker Salim al-Jubouri said in a speech to lawmakers before Tuesday’s vote. “Thanks to each protester who went out onto the streets.”

Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand reforms, braving temperatures in excess of 120 degrees.

After the vote, Jubouri’s spokesman, Imad al-Khafaji, described it as a “historic moment” for the country. “We now should make an effort to create the Iraq that Iraqis have been dreaming of since 2003,” he said. Khafaji said that if individuals object to the reforms, they can make a case in the courts.