Iraqi Parliament Backs Overhaul of Government

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Parliament unanimously passed measures on Tuesday that are meant to transform the country’s corrupt political system. Yet by eliminating several high-level positions and doing away with sectarian quotas in political appointments, the measures risk further alienating the country’s Sunni minority while the government is struggling to defeat the Sunni militants of the Islamic State.

The measures, put forward on Sunday by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are wide-ranging. They promise to save money and fight corruption by cutting expensive perks for officials. Most notably, they eliminate three deputy prime minister posts and three vice presidencies, including the one held by former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who was a rival of Mr. Abadi.

The passage of the measures was never really in doubt. They were backed by the country’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds great sway over the country’s Shiite majority. And a sense of public grievance at the current system has been swelling in the streets, culminating in widespread protests.

If they are carried out successfully, and in a way that brings Iraq’s fractious communities together rather than further apart, the measures may be a watershed for the country.

“This is a historical moment for Iraq, and a radical turn for Iraq’s political system,” said Nadhum al-Saadi, a Shiite member of Parliament.
The vote in Parliament was a rare show of unity in Iraq’s political class. But, though many Iraqis hope the measures will yield a wholesale reshaping of the dysfunctional political system that has been in place since the American invasion in 2003, there are dangers in them as well.

To start with, this is Iraq, where grievances are often settled in blood. Mr. Abadi seemed to acknowledge that he was taking a chance by eliminating jobs, salaries and perks, including the vast security details provided to many officials.

Addressing the Iraqi people on Tuesday, he said: “I promise to continue on the path of reform even if it costs me my life. I am leaning on God and the support of the people.”

Gyorgy Busztin, the acting United Nations representative in Iraq, praised Mr. Abadi in a statement on Tuesday, saying the measures could “strengthen national unity and accelerate reconciliation at a time all honest Iraqis need to combine their efforts in the fight against terror.”

A crucial question is how Sunnis in Iraq will react to seeing some of their top officials — including the Sunni vice president, Osama al-Nujaifi, and a Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq — removed from office. The posts were largely ceremonial, but they came with large budgets that allowed the officials to reward their constituencies with patronage jobs.

The elimination of sectarian and party quotas in filling high-level posts may also alienate Sunnis if, in practice, the new policies lead to further dominance by Shiites.

“I think that the decision of Abadi will lead to the anger of the Sunni community, because the Sunnis see the positions of deputy prime minister and vice president as their entitlement,” said Hadi Jalo Marie, who participated in the protests and is the head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a Baghdad advocacy group. “So I think that Sunnis will see that Abadi’s decision represents a continuation of the marginalization of the Sunni sect.”

In addition to Mr. Maliki, two other figures who have been prominent since Saddam Hussein was overthrown will now be out of government: Mr. Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi, a Shiite and former prime minister whose Sunni-dominated bloc won the most parliamentary seats in the 2010 national election. Both men have voiced broad support for Mr. Abadi’s proposals, while warning that eliminating their posts may be unconstitutional.

Mr. Allawi said on Monday that he would wait to see if the measures worked as intended, but not for long. “I will give three months to carry out the reforms,” he said. “Otherwise, we will call the Iraqi people to demonstrate, and we will call for new elections to overthrow the government and bring in new people to serve the society and to solve the corruption crisis in the country.”

Iraq’s Sunni leaders, including the speaker of Parliament, Salim al-Jubouri, have largely supported the measures, but it is an open question how ordinary Sunnis — many of whom live in territory controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh — will feel about them. The Islamic State was able to capture large stretches of territory last year in part by capitalizing on the grievances of Sunnis who felt marginalized under Mr. Maliki’s rule. Some analysts have said the group could exploit Mr. Abadi’s measures by arguing that they further disenfranchise Sunnis.

At the same time, the changes could “cut the Sunnis out of a major part of the patronage system,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a research group in Washington.

Even so, Mr. Mardini said, Sunni leaders appear to be betting that the measures will make Mr. Abadi better able to deliver on promises to the Sunni community, including overhauling the criminal justice system, releasing Sunni detainees and arming Sunni tribes to fight the Islamic State, a step the United States sees as necessary to defeat the militants.

Mr. Abadi has had a hard time making meaningful changes to address Sunni concerns because of opposition from within the Shiite political class. Mr. Maliki, especially, was widely believed to be working behind the scenes to undermine Mr. Abadi.

Mr. Mardini said the new measures were designed in part to “get Maliki more detached from the power structure in Iraq.”

Some analysts said the confluence of two factors — street protests over electricity shortages, which evolved into a broader rebuke of the government, and the approval of Ayatollah Sistani — yielded a rare opportunity to achieve change.

“The people’s call upon Abadi to implement radical reform, backed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s absolute support for the P.M., represents a carte blanche that has been granted to no other politician in Iraq’s modern history,” Luay al-Khatteeb, an Iraq analyst and fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote this week in a column published by The Huffington Post. “If Abadi succeeds in his mission impossible, he could go down in history as the Nelson Mandela of Iraq.”

In contrast to clerics in Iran, the region’s dominant Shiite power, Ayatollah Sistani has tended to stay distant from politics. But he has immense influence when he chooses to exercise it, and he has intervened at a few important moments, including early in the American occupation, when he told his followers it was their duty to vote in elections.

By intervening again now, he strengthened Mr. Abadi’s position as the prime minister came under increasing criticism from Shiite rivals, including Mr. Maliki and militia leaders like Hadi al-Ameri who enjoyed wide popularity.

Mr. Mardini said that another open question was how Iran would react. Iran has extensive influence in Iraq and did not initially back Mr. Abadi when he took office last year. “Iran does not want a powerful prime minister; Iran wants a prime minister dependent on them,” Mr. Mardini said. “Iran could try to empower other Shia figures to balance him out.”

That Mr. Maliki has publicly supported the measures reflects the fact that no Iraqi Shiite politician can publicly contradict Ayatollah Sistani. Mr. Maliki remains a powerful political figure and is not expected to disappear from the scene.

“Politics will go on, and he will continue to find ways to increase his influence in the run-up to the next election,” Mr. Mardini said.