Skip to main content

Haider al-Abadi's first challenge: forming a government

Nouri al-Maliki announced that he was backing down from his demand for a third term, thus recognizing the appointment of Haider al-Abadi, who will be facing major challenges as Iraq's new prime minister.

On the night of Aug. 14, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he was backing down from his demand for a third term and that he recognized the political settlement that led to Haider al-Abadi being charged with the formation of a government. With this announcement, Abadi was faced with a number of steps to arrange his government's papers, including the leadership of delicate balances, whether within his Islamic Dawa Party — at the level of the National Alliance that comprises a group of Shiite forces — or at the level of the Iraqi political blocs.

Maliki announced late Thursday night that he was dropping the lawsuit he had filed a few days earlier against President Fouad Massoum, on charges of violating the constitution for assigning Abadi to form a government.

Maliki's statement that he was stepping down came as a surprise to many. Sources from within the Islamic Dawa Party, which Maliki heads, told Al-Monitor, "A number of members of the [Dawa] Party's Leadership Committee, which comprises figures such as Abdel Halim al-Zuhairi, Ali Deeb, Hassan Sinead and others, met with Maliki the same day [Aug. 14] and informed him that it was necessary he take the decision to step down."

The sources told Al-Monitor, "The meeting was held on Thursday, one day before the expected Friday sermon from supreme Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani. Dawa Party leaders had received assurances that the sermon may include strongly-worded rhetoric against Maliki, putting him in a difficult position with the masses."

Sistani, who has repeatedly expressed his desire that Maliki not assume a third term, had responded earlier to a letter sent to him from the Dawa Party, thus translating this desire into an explicit call. Meanwhile, in Friday sermons given on Sistani's behalf by his representative in Karbala, the demands that Maliki step down escalated, although his name was not directly mentioned.

It should be noted that Maliki's speech announcing his departure did not in any way mention Sistani.

In reference to Maliki clinging to power, White House Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told journalists on Aug. 13, "[Maliki] needs to respect this process. This is what the Iraqis themselves have decided to do."

He said, "The White House will be very glad to see a new government in place with Prime Minister Abadi at the head of that government. What has happened in the course of the last several years is that Iraqis [have not been] working together across different sectarian and communal lines. [The] Sunni population had become disaffected. That led to a loss of confidence in certain parts of Iraq in the Iraqi security forces."

The danger of the crisis that followed Massoum commissioning Abadi with the formation of the government lied in Maliki's attempt to obtain an advisory opinion from the Federal Court, confirming his right to form a government as the leader of the largest bloc. This step presented Iraq with a difficult challenge, especially since it came in the wake of unprecedented local, regional and international support for Abadi, which would have a profound effect on the performance of the prime minister in the next stage.

Apart from the circumstances surrounding Maliki dropping his opposition to Abadi, the latter faces a challenge within the Dawa Party itself, after the recent split the party underwent.

According to the same Dawa Party sources, "There is a consensus of not granting Abadi chairmanship of the party in the coming stage, to prevent a repeat of Maliki's experience. The latter became head of the Dawa Party as soon as he assumed the premiership in 2006."

Yet, these sources informed Al-Monitor, "Maliki, for his part, will not be the party's leader in light of the split that occurred concerning him. There are efforts to appoint a new head, which opens the door for pivotal roles Abadi is expected to play in unifying his party, and then unifying the State of Law Coalition. Maliki formed the latter in 2009, so that he would have a parliamentary base [to be] a prime minister capable of imposing solutions via parliament."

The unification of the State of Law Coalition requires a balance in the distribution of government positions among the coalition's components, which include four primary wings: the Badr Organization, the Independent Bloc, the Dawa Party and figures linked to Maliki who are not affiliated with any specific party. This task is extremely difficult given the recent state of polarization and disputes within the bloc.

Furthermore, providing guarantees regarding the distribution of positions and ministries within the Shiite National Alliance — comprising the State of Law Coalition, the Sadrist Current and the Citizen's Bloc — is no less difficult of a task. The Citizen's Bloc and the Sadrist Current will seek to obtain the largest possible share of ministries and security and political roles.

Predictions on the distribution of positions point to granting the position of deputy speaker of parliament to Sheikh Hammam Hamoudi of the Citizen's Bloc, in addition to five ministries including the Interior Ministry. Meanwhile, the position of deputy prime minister will go to the Sadrist bloc, including five service ministries. It is expected that the State of Law Coalition will maintain the position of vice president of the republic and at least two ministries, while other ministries will be given to the Fadila and Islah blocs.

Leaving the National Alliance will open the door to another task that Abadi must solve, which is related to the ministries that the Sunnis and Kurds in government will obtain. In particular, there is a conflict over the position of foreign minister, which is expected to go to the Sunni bloc, in addition to the Ministry of Defense.

Iraqi political blocs rely on a points system for the distribution of positions and ministries, taking into account the weight of each parliamentary bloc coupled with the weight of the ministry or position, and its significance.

But a comprehensive agreement on the formation of the government is going to collide with different conditions that have been leaked by political blocs. Leaders in the Kurdistan Alliance bloc have leaked that they presented a list of conditions, most notably that the government be considered dissolved in the event that the Kurds withdrew from it. On the other hand, the Sunnis have presented another list of conditions, including the ratification of the amnesty law, opening the way to converting Sunni provinces into federal regions, and forming defense forces for these regions comprised of residents.

Reaching a settlement regarding all of these conditions will not be isolated from finding controls to manage the political process in Iraq that achieve reasonable limits of political consensus on mechanisms for the war on the Islamic State (IS).

Maliki has repeatedly linked his adherence to power to the fight on terrorism, and warned of security collapses that would follow his departure.

This subjects Abadi to sustained pressure about restoring the ability to control the security forces, which have long been described as directly linked to Maliki. This is in addition to carrying out a process of reform and restructuring in the heart of the security forces, in light of the ongoing war against IS.

Rebuilding the Iraqi-Iraqi agreement, and proceeding with large political, social, economic and legal settlements and reforms, are huge tasks the new government is expected to face. The local and international support that the government is receiving may be an incentive to move forward with these reforms.

More from Mushreq Abbas