Religious authorities give Iraqi government new lifeline

Farhad Alaaldin

 November 8, 2019

The demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and those in southern cities received a big boost Nov. 7 when the religious officials in charge of the two holy shrines of Abbasiya and Husseiniya in Karbala called upon their staff to march out of the shrines to show solidarity with protesters. They focused their demands on bringing the killers of demonstrators to justice, as well as changing the electoral law in order to restore people’s trust in the process. This march of support comes 40 days after the start of demonstrations Oct. 1 in Baghdad and southern cities, which have seen more than 308 people killed and over 14,000 injured, according to figures from the Human Rights Commission.

The Friday prayer sermon by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Karbala on Nov. 8 reinforced the message that the country’s top Shiite religious authority fully supports the demonstrations. At the same time, however, it also gave the authorities a lifeline when Sistani demanded the adoption of a road map with a clear timetable for reform without further “stonewalling and deferment” in combating corruption and moving away from political quotas as “the country is at grave risk.” This means the government needs to adopt a road map for solutions and be given enough time to implement it. However, there were no details provided on who would draw up the road map, what it would contain and who would supervise its implementation.

While the religious authority also asked that demonstrators who were killed be remembered and demanded that “perpetrators be brought to account,” such calls have fallen on deaf ears so far. Political parties dominated by the Popular Mobilization Units are categorically refusing any move toward disarming groups that fall outside government institutions, nor are they willing to accept any responsibility for the suppression of demonstrators or the use of deadly force. Likewise, nobody from the government has publicly admitted to the “extreme use of violence,” nor are the authorities prepared to even tolerate such a debate or discussion.

The process of reform has hit a deadlock with no solution on the horizon until now; the road map the Shiite authority is asking for is non-existent. Despite the fact that many political parties have submitted their own version of ideas for reform, they all lack support from the demonstrators because the political parties are reluctant to budge from their positions or let go of some of the privileges they have gained. Many of these parties believe the demonstrations are temporary and will end soon — some of them think it can be dealt with by force, they presume people will not have the stamina to keep up the pressure.

This type of thinking was vividly on display during a high-level meeting organized by Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Hikma movement, on Nov. 6, which was attended by the majority of political leaders. Insider sources familiar with the discussion told Al-Monitor that any talk of an early election or a change in government is not possible, as most of the major political parties such as the Fatah bloc, the Hikma movement, the State of Law coalition, all the Kurdish blocs and most of the Sunni blocs are not prepared to support such a demand, citing lack of clarity and difficulty in finding a replacement candidate for the prime minister.

Similarly, it is commonly said that any early election should be ruled out, simply because the parliament is designed in a way that the parliament must vote for its own dissolution. The majority of the parliamentarians are not prepared to let go of their posts because they can’t guarantee they will win in the next election, and many are not even certain that they can run again given protesters’ calls for new faces. According to the same sources, the change that these parties are prepared to accept would be alterations to the electoral law that would make it easier for smaller parties to gain seats in parliament. The current system is seen by many observers as unacceptable as it helps the big blocs remain in power and prevents smaller new parties from succeeding in the elections.

Further complicating the political scene, parties have started a constitutional amendment process. The Council of Representative formed a committee Nov. 3 of 18 members, all of them representatives of major political parties, to prepare a document for the amendments. As it is not yet clear why this committee was formed and how its work would fulfill the demands of demonstrators, many of the political groupings such as the Kurdish blocs are suspicious of the intentions behind making such move.

The authorities are working on minimizing demonstrators’ demands in order to fulfill them without suffering too many losses. Officials want to turn this page as soon as possible and move on with their lives and perhaps deal with other problems that might be on the horizon, namely the budget and the Kurdish issue that will accompany it. This attitude will have disastrous consequences for Iraq and its future.

The authorities in Baghdad must display clear signs of reform, implement the legitimate demands of demonstrators and give assurances to the Iraqi people and the international community that officials are serious about carrying out the promised reform that they have agreed on. As an example, the fight against corruption must continue and some of the so-called “big whales” must be brought to account and put behind bars to show the seriousness of the government’s intentions.

Efforts to provide jobs need to move beyond state employment in order to allow the private sector to take a role. An initiative to boost trade and industry is badly needed at this time, as well as improvement in public services and initiatives to clear the way for a proper dialogue between the people and the authorities. The need for a national dialogue is becoming urgent. Through this dialogue, which would be supported and praised by the international community, the authorities can establish a direct link with various communities and make them feel cared for and included.

Iraq is now under the focus of the whole world. Most major networks carry news of protests on their screens and report on human rights violations and abuses of power. Iraq can do without these headlines and the authorities need to do everything they can to move away from this negative portrayal of its image to a much more positive one by implementing reforms and bringing back stability to the country. 

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