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Reform Plan Could Tear Iraq Apart

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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It must be good news that Iraq’s parliament passed Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s anti-corruption reforms this week -- right? As with most things in Iraq, the answer isn’t as simple as it appears on the surface.

In the abstract, it’s a nice idea for Iraq to stop dividing the spoils of government office among its denominational and ethnic factions. But that structure, with all its obvious flaws and faults, was built into the DNA of the Iraqi constitution for a reason: to help quell Sunni Arab fears that the Shiite majority, in collusion with the Kurdish minority, would dominate the Sunnis in perpetuity and refuse to share oil revenue.

Today, with much of Sunni Arab Iraq under control of Islamic State, Sunnis have a much reduced say in Baghdad politics. Under these new circumstances, protesters, for the most part Shiite, have been objecting to the government’s old way of doing business. The leading Shiite religious figure in the country, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, reviewed and endorsed Abadi’s plan before it was publicly announced. Abadi told the public the reforms were inspired by the Shiite religious establishment.

The upshot is that the reform plan shows the Shiites' willingness to abandon the technique used to try to guarantee Sunnis some stake in the country’s future. For the moment, at least, there is no indication of what will substitute for it.

The centerpiece of the reform eliminates the offices of vice presidents and three deputy prime ministers. None of these posts were precisely as envisioned in the original Iraqi constitution. That document (I consulted on an earlier version) created a largely symbolic “presidency council” consisting of a figurehead president and two figurehead vice presidents. The idea was to make sure that there would be at least one Sunni Arab, one Kurd and one Shiite close to the symbolic head of state. In practice, three vice presidents were in office until Tuesday, all of whom are now out of a job. They included one Sunni Arab, Usama al-Nujaifi; one Shiite, Ayad Allawi, whose party mostly represents Sunnis; and one Shiite, Nouri al-Maliki, who was the powerful former prime minister ousted to make room for Abadi and still competitive with him. (The symbolic president, Fuad Masum, is a Kurd, and he’ll stay in office).

The three deputy prime ministers weren’t mentioned in the constitution at all. But, again, the structure was designed to produce inclusiveness. One of them, Saleh al-Mutlaq, is one of the most important Sunni politicians in the country, a one-time Baathist originally from Fallujah who strove to represent Sunni Arab interests in the cabinet.

To be fair to Abadi, there’s a strong argument that it’s wise for Iraq to eliminate these offices, together with the expensive security protection and many perquisites enjoyed by those who held them. Sectarian politics tend to perpetuate sectarian divisions.

To make matters worse, the positions haven’t successfully fulfilled their function of helping to hold the country together. After the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2007 and lost leverage over the Baghdad government, the Iraqi government reneged on promises made to Sunnis as part of the effort to end the Sunni insurgency. Disillusionment with Baghdad is one reason at least some Iraqi Sunnis are participating in Islamic State or at least tolerating its rule in the Sunni-majority parts of the country.

Meanwhile Iraqi Kurdistan has taken advantage of the rise of Islamic State and the weakening of the Iraqi state to expand its territory in contravention of the constitution. The important development here has been the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk: It is (or was) an ethnically mixed city whose character and control were explicitly reserved by the constitution because the Kurds wanted it and Iraq’s beleaguered Turkmen minority feared it would lose its position there. Today, Kirkuk has become Kurdish, and it’s totally unrealistic to think that will ever change.

The point is that the existing constitutional and governmental structures designed to produce power-sharing have largely failed. Getting rid of them therefore seems superficially plausible.

The problem is that there’s no plan to substitute some new guarantor of national cohesion or at least something less than civil war. With Sunni Arabs largely out of the political picture in Baghdad, and the Kurds satisfied for the moment with their de facto autonomy and gradual expansion, there’s no one to tell the Shiite majority that it better find some way to bring the country together again.

One possibility is that, at this point, the Shiites just don’t care. The area controlled by Islamic State doesn’t have significant oil reserves. For the moment, the militant group isn’t immediately threatening Baghdad. From the Shiite perspective, the status quo perhaps doesn’t look so bad. A Shiite statelet in the rump of the former Iraq would include Baghdad as well as the Persian Gulf refineries and ports.

But if Abadi is thinking that he doesn’t need to give Iraqi Sunnis any incentive to take part in a unified Iraq, he’s making a big mistake. Islamic State won’t be satisfied in the long run with a desert enclave. It’ll eventually make a play for Baghdad, with its significant Sunni population. If Baghdad’s Sunnis see no future in a Shiite Iraq, they’ll side with Islamic State when that day comes. That could turn Baghdad into Beirut circa 1975.

Abadi’s reforms should therefore be met with a warning: Make sure you have some strategy for keeping the country together. Patronage has more or less failed. But it may have been better than nothing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at