Wall Street Journal: Iraqi Premier’s Rule Again Questioned Haider al-Abadi has backtracked on his most ambitious reform pledges

BAGHDAD—In a few hours last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reversed a year of mounting criticism and became the resolute leader many Iraqis and his Western allies were demanding.
Yet after stunning Iraqis by announcing a plan to tackle corruption and streamline government, he has backtracked on his most ambitious reform pledges under pressure from Shiite Muslim hard-liners backed by Iran, Western and Iraqi officials said.
Little more than a month after Mr. Abadi unveiled his reforms, the government is more mired than ever in a tug of war for influence between the U.S. and Iran, its main foreign patrons. Many Iraqis are growing more frustrated with the prime minister’s declarations, which they see as vacillating between resolve to overhaul the deadlocked political system and appeasement of opponents.
Instead of a political master stroke that would reinvigorate his premiership, Mr. Abadi’s reform initiative has put an even more glaring spotlight on his weaknesses and placed the country in a more precarious position than at any time since he took power in September 2014, the officials said.
Fearing a public backlash, few members of Iraq’s political establishment will say aloud they oppose Mr. Abadi’s efforts. But “all parties are unhappy with his decisions: the Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds,” a senior Iraqi official said.
Mr. Abadi’s associates say a drastic response was required for a dire situation: gains by the Sunni extremist group Islamic State, plummeting oil prices and street protests demanding better public services. But some of the officials said the move to take on the political system’s long-running problems was ill-timed.
“There is a fear the so-called reform program will divert the agenda from Iraq’s real problems: national reconciliation, the deep financial crisis, the war on Islamic State,” said a Western diplomat in the capital Baghdad.
Because Mr. Abadi has raised expectations for change, Iraqi and Western officials warn that if he backs down in his push for more reform, political rivals could exploit his perceived weakness and trigger a power struggle for control of the government, or worse, on Iraqi’s streets.
An even more fractious Iraqi government would further complicate efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to contain Islamic State. The militant group took advantage of the chaotic political transition from Nouri al-Maliki to Mr. Abadi a year ago to advance on Baghdad and Erbil, the northern Kurdish-controlled capital.
Until he announced his reform plan on Aug. 9, Mr. Abadi was widely seen as a well-intentioned prime minister who had tried unsuccessfully during his first year in office to mend ties among rival sects and ethnic groups.
He seemed paralyzed by their competing demands and hamstrung by Shiite hard-liners inside and outside his Dawa political party. Few officials thought he was capable of bold moves, according to interviews with a dozen Iraqi officials from across the political spectrum.
Yet he took the country by surprise by introducing a plan to overhaul how Iraq has been governed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
His proposals for attacking corruption and changing the informal sect-based quota system that is used to form the government shocked the political establishment, which had no prior knowledge of the initiative. Most ordinary Iraqis urged him on.
Crucially, Mr. Abadi had the support of the top Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq.Yet the hope that the soft-spoken, 63-year-old former engineer would be a consensus-builder and reduce polarization in politics hasn’t been realized.
Mr. Abadi’s office didn’t make the prime minister available for an interview. Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman, said the Iraqi leader is carrying out the steps he announced and understands the daunting task he faces.
“This is a golden opportunity. Change everything,” Emad Alsharaa told Mr. Abadi at a meeting with Iraqi youth on Aug. 13, amid widespread protests over power shortages and graft. “If you are afraid of your partners, remember the street is behind you,” Mr. Alsharaa, an activist, recalled telling the prime minister.
When he became premier a year ago, Mr. Abadi was seen by many Iraqis and U.S. officials as a pragmatic, Western-educated ally who could help the U.S. moderate Iran’s influence in Baghdad, while also navigating the U.S.-led international campaign against Islamic State.
After six months of debate, parliament earlier this month postponed a vote on legislation that would bring Sunnis, a minority in Iraq, into the government and the security forces. Shiite parties pushed back against the law, which also aims to centralize the power of the Shiite militias.
“The prime minister means it when he says he’s going to get this done, even if it costs him his life,” Mr. Hadithi said.
Some Iraqi and U.S. officials describe the parliamentary deadlock as Mr. Abadi’s main failing. Sunnis still distrust the Shiite-led government. Other minorities are under attack by Islamic State and feel inadequately defended. Shiites are more divided.
On the battlefield, Iraq’s internationally-backed offensive against Islamic State has stalled. Renowned Shiite fighters and government forces have made little headway taking back control of Ramadi, the capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
In the battle for the northern oil-refining hub of Beiji, Shiite fighters are being killed at an unprecedented rate. Most commanders no longer mention planning for a move north on Mosul, the largest Iraqi city controlled by Islamic State.
“I think it was clear right from the beginning that striking the balance between Iran and the U.S. was the main challenge for his premiership,” said Rafid Jbouri, Mr. Abadi’s former spokesman.
As an official in the Dawa party, Mr. Abadi seemed perfectly poised to redirect Dawa away from Mr. Maliki and other hard-line supporters of Iran. Mr. Maliki, the party’s leader, has worked to undermine Mr. Abadi’s premiership, critics said.
In the street protests over power shortages that flared in the summer, Mr. Abadi saw an opportunity to overhaul the government and reduce Mr. Maliki’s sway, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Bolstered by the support of the protesters and Mr. Sistani, the prime minister removed 11 people from his cabinet within days of his announcement and eliminated three deputy prime minister posts. He has sent into retirement or reshuffled the positions of hundreds of civil servants.
In early August, as protesters swarmed Baghdad’s streets, Mr. Abadi canceled meetings with cabinet members and ignored calls from the parliament speaker for 48 hours.
He conferred with only a small group of friends and advisers, including two telephone calls to the office of Mr. Sistani, the grand ayatollah, said several Shiite leaders with knowledge of the communication. Even American officials in Baghdad with whom he usually consults were kept in the dark on his plans.
Later, amid criticism that he had acted like Iraq’s authoritarian leaders of the past, Mr. Abadi defended his secret consultations, saying they were the only way to avoid the paralysis of too many conflicting opinions and opposition.
But Iraqis who supported those steps accuse Mr. Abadi of relenting to pressure from Tehran and abandoning a key tenet of his reform plan: to sideline Mr. Maliki and other rivals seen as obstructionist. Three vice presidents, whose largely ceremonial posts were eliminated by Mr. Abadi in his early August announcement are still in their jobs. Mr. Maliki and Ayad Allawi say the move to cut their positions was unconstitutional.
There are other signs of backtracking, Iraqi officials said. Mr. Abadi told a recent meeting of Shiite officials he didn’t intend to introduce any new reform measures, an explanation apparently intended to allay concerns he is acting unilaterally, officials briefed on the meeting said.
In his audience at the meeting was Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Qods Force, the officials said. The powerful Iranian general has advised Shiite militias on military strategy but has never taken a high profile in Iraq’s domestic politics. Iranian officials are unhappy with the way Mr. Abadi announced his reform measures and sought to implement them, Iraqi and Western officials said.
On Iraq’s streets, protesters said they are disheartened by what some describe as the “old” Mr. Abadi: a weak leader unable to rise above his rivals. Even worse, they said, he is quickly losing the trust of allies who increasingly question his ability to deliver.
“He needs to break from his party. He has the support of the people,” veteran journalist Ahmad Abdulhussain said at a recent Baghdad rally.
“But it isn’t forever.