Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi decided to end the bombing of cities where Islamic State (IS) fighters are holed up among the population, a campaign that was causing civilian casualties. The decision has been greeted with general approval, especially as it coincided with the start of extensive aerial bombing of IS sites by a US-led coalition. Abadi, however, has not been spared criticism about the decision, especially among those expected to block attempts at the political reforms outlined in his government program, which has received unprecedented internal, regional and international support.
Abadi has made a series of reforms since taking power in an effort to be inclusive and ensure the unity of the country. Among the measures thus far is the elimination of the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and replacement of a number of military leaders whose names have become associated with various crises and security collapses. Of course, Abadi’s government is only a few weeks old and needs more time to implement many of the reforms he promised. Nonetheless, these past few weeks have already exposed him to criticism, some of it from within his own State of Law coalition.
Some blamed Abadi’s decision to stop bombing Iraqi cities for the Saqlawiya incident, near Fallujah, where IS gunmen stormed Iraqi army barracks, killing and capturing a number of soldiers. Against the backdrop of this accusation and one that the Shiites are making more concessions than necessary to other political forces, calls for protests against Abadi began circulating on social media sites.
Ahmed al-Attiyah, a National Union of Forces parliamentarian, blamed former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a number of his bloc members for these calls. Muhammad Ali al-Masoudi, a National Alliance representative, described those advocating protests “corrupt [individuals] whose interests were harmed by the formation of Abadi’s government.” Maliki, however, was quick to disown the fledgling movement and called on his supporters not to participate in any demonstrations.
The controversy surrounding support for protests has itself been a hot topic on social media and reflects the need to revisit basic democratic concepts, including freedom of expression and the right to defend it peacefully. Those advocating protests did not succeed in mobilizing the street. Apparently Iraqis thought it unjustified to try to topple a government that was only a few weeks old. Also, their ultimate goals were unclear. Meanwhile, those opposing the protests made scathing accusations against their opponents, defeating the spirit of democracy and of tolerating differences.
Critics of the decision to halt the aerial bombing of cities have failed to produce any evidence that it advantaged IS. The bombing, which began June 10, did not prevent the IS' advance over large areas under shelling. Meanwhile, Fallujah residents said the bombings were inaccurate and mostly hit houses, hospitals, schools and locations far from IS concentrations.
Further, the decision to stop the bombing, during which Russian Sukhoi fighter jets were used, did not include areas of fighting and did not prevent the air force from protecting army barracks, like Saqlawiya, outside the cities. In fact, Abadi announced on Sept. 29 that Iraqi airstrikes against IS had increased by 20%. For the first time, IS locations south of Baghdad were hit, by the international coalition. A spokesman for the Iraqi army said that the attacks were effective.
Iraq's problem is more complicated than partisan bickering, which regardless will lead to more security defeats. The rare political consensus that produced Abadi’s government requires the various forces to abide by their promises. This means collectively focusing on the battle against IS first, before proceeding with mutual political attacks.