Abadi Signals Iraq Cabinet Overhaul as Cleric Steps Up Pressureby and
Politicians failed to unite behind plan to save nation: Abadi
Sistani abandons weekly messages as challenge to government
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi signaled an overhaul of his cabinet, days after Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric expressed disapproval at the slow place of change in the country.
Lawmakers and their political groups have failed to unite and provide leadership, Abadi said in a televised speech Tuesday night in Baghdad. “To lead the country to safety, I call for a major cabinet reshuffle to include technocratic and academic ministers, and I call on parliament and the political blocs to cooperate with us in this dangerous phase,” he said.
More than 12 years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, the finances of OPEC’s No. 2 producer are being drained by the oil-price plunge and the cost of fighting Islamic State, while political bickering has delayed efforts to tackle graft and sectarian divisions. Shortages of power and drinking water have fueled protests, while the nation’s semi-autonomous Kurdish minority has in recent weeks stepped up calls for full independence.
Two weeks ago, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani said Iraqis deserved more than what politicians had provided. Then on Friday, he said he’d end his weekly political messages. The announcement, widely interpreted as a withdrawal of support for Abadi, may instead be a way of keeping the government on its toes, said Sajad Jiyad, an analyst at the Baghdad-based Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform.
“I don’t think Ayatollah Sistani made this move lightly. He’s a man with deep strategic thinking and he made this move because the situation warranted it,” Jiyad said. “The desired effect is to challenge Abadi’s government to be better.”
Revered by Shiites both in Iraq and abroad, Sistani also commands the respect of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds, clout he’s used since the 2003 invasion to broker cease-fires, break political deadlock and call for moderation, calm and unity. His public role in Iraqi politics increased after the fall of Mosul to Islamic State in the summer of 2014.
A leading member of Abadi’s government, Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, said on his Facebook page that Sistani’s intervention should trigger deep introspection. “Either we are able to overcome this crisis and take the right path toward a solution or we leave it to those who are better than us,” he said.
It was an endorsement from Sistani amid street demonstrations last summer that defused political challenges to Abadi and allowed him to unveil steps to ease political patronage and corruption. The cleric’s continued public backing kept opponents at bay, including men like former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who controls about 93 seats in parliament.
Abadi will now have to deal with open hostility from powerful political groups, including some from within his own ruling coalition, according to Wathiq al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based political analyst.
“Voices that oppose Abadi will increase,” he said. “Those who were afraid of the religious authority will reveal their real faces. This situation is dangerous.”
Abadi didn’t indicate the timing of any cabinet changes or which posts would be affected.
He has had some successes in the war with Islamic State, which has been pushed out of the cities of Ramadi and Tikrit. Yet the extremist group still controls Mosul and the conflict has destroyed economic infrastructure, and disrupted trade and investment.
A member of the quietest school of Shiite Islam that advocates clerics staying on the sidelines of power, Sistani’s announcement doesn’t mean he’s abandoning his political role, Jiyad said.
“The private channels” to the premier, the government and the political parties remain open, he said. “The stability of the country is his ultimate aim and he will utilize whatever means for that.”