On 9 August, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a seven-point plan to overhaul Iraq’s political system with the stated aim of stamping out corruption and cutting government spending.

The announcement came after more than a month of protests in cities across the country including Basra, Najaf and Baghdad, where demonstrators gathered in their thousands calling for officials to be held accountable for the mismanagement of public services and acts of corruption.

The reforms included removing the three deputy prime ministers and three vice-president positions, cutting the budget for personal security for senior officials, reopening corruption cases, removing sectarian quotas within the government, and consolidating government ministries to increase efficiency and accountability.

Public support

Al-Abadi’s plans were unanimously approved by parliament on 11 August in a move that was well received by a general public hungry to see an end to the plundering of public resources that has been rampant since 2003.

In a show of support for the prime minister’s plans, crowds packed Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on 14 August carrying national flags and signs saying “We are all Al-Abadi”.

Yet despite the surge in optimism from the public, it remains to be seen whether the proposed reforms will help to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Deja vu

The reform plan is similar to programmes drawn up after new governments were formed in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Al-Badi’s proposals also echo those of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who promised to enforce new anti-corruption measures and increase the efficiency of the state bureaucracy in the wake of protests in 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring.

All these plans failed to achieve any significant reduction in corruption or improvements government efficiency.

This time around, analysts are worried by the lack of detail in Al-Abadi’s proposals. There are concerns about just how the reform plan will be implemented and fears that the dramatic overhaul may prove a pivotal point in an ongoing battle within Iraq’s Shia political classes, further destabilising the country over the long term.

Increasing divisions

On one side of the division is Al-Abadi himself. On the other side, the key figure is Al-Maliki who is sectary general of the Islamic Dawa Party, which Al-Abadi is part of.

Countries including the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States all accused Al-Maliki of adopting overtly sectarian policies during his leadership that have disenfranchised Iraq’s Sunni population, making them more sympathetic to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), which now controls large swathes of the country.

Al-Maliki’s divisive politics and his failure to recover ground lost to Isis led to his position as prime minister becoming untenable in September 2014, when a party revolt saw Al-Abadi replace him.

Still powerful

Although Al-Maliki is no longer prime minister, he remains an influential figure in Iraqi politics, drawing much of his power from his strong ties to Iran and local militias funded and armed by Tehran, and which look to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for guidance.

These militias include The League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq), the Badr Brigade, and the paramilitary group known as the Hezbollah Brigades.

Capitalising on protests

Both Al-Maliki and Al-Abadi tried to take advantage of mass protests over recent months to make political gains by harnessing public discontent.

Two days after the first demonstrations, the head of the League of the Righteous, Qais al-Khazali, spoke on Iraqi television proclaiming his support for the demonstrators and recommending that Iraq’s political system be changed from a parliamentary system to a presidential system.

This is a change some analysts believe would give Al-Maliki the opportunity to regain some of the power that he lost when he was removed as prime minister.

Eroding power

Three days before the second demonstration that took place on 7 August, supporters of the League of the Righteous in Baghdad were ordered to take part in the protests.

“A formal letter from the League’s head office was sent to all of our offices,” Karim al-Lami, one of the militia’s members based in the Sadr City neighbourhood in Baghdad, told the Berlin-based non-profit media organisation Niqash.

According to Al-Lami, the letter emphasised the importance of all members and employees participating, and said that members should not dress in a way that indicated that they were affiliated with the militia.

“They should only use anti-government and anti-parliament slogans and condemn the poor services,” Al-Lami said.

Al-Sistani counters

These efforts to use the public protests to undermine Al-Abadi and shore up Al-Maliki’s political influence were countered by the intervention of Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

On 7 August, Al-Sistani, who rarely gets involved in politics, spoke out, calling for Al-Badi to strike corrupt officials with an “iron fist”. Al-Abadi quickly responded, releasing a statement saying that he was committed to following Al-Sistani’s guidance. Some analysts say Al-Sistani’s statement was a calculated move to drum up support for Al-Abadi’s overhaul.

“The intervention was dramatic,” says Jordan Perry, an Iraq analyst for the risk consultancy Maplecroft. “Usually, Al-Sistani is a figure that stays out of politics, but I think he was wary of Al-Maliki and associated political actors potentially undermining Al-Abadi through the protests. It seems likely that he saw it as a necessary step to ensure political stability.”

Overhaul assault

Since publicly declaring his commitment to Al-Sistani, Al-Badi has used the outpouring of popular support for his plans as an opportunity to erode Al-Maliki’s influence.

As one of three vice-presidents of Iraq, Al-Maliki suffered a loss of power when the positions were abolished by Al-Abadi, along with several other senior political positions, on 11 August.

As well losing influence, Al-Maliki also could face prosecution over the fall of the city of Mosul to Isis in June last year.

Al-Maliki is one of 36 senior officials that should face trial for their role in the fall of Iraq’s second city, according to a report approved by the country’s parliament on 16 August.

 “I think it is pretty clear that both the parliamentary report and Al-Abadi’s reform plans are both efforts to sideline former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki,” says Perry. “It is very clear that the cracks are widening between the factions within Iraq’s Shia Islamist political class.”

Although Al-Maliki was initially publicly supportive of Al-Abadi’s reform drive and the removal of the vice-prime ministerial positions, he has since called the move unconstitutional.

He has spoken out against the parliamentary report calling for his trial, saying that the findings of the panel tasked with producing the report had “no value” and that the panel was “neither objective nor impartial”.

Next step

Although Al-Maliki has been outmanoeuvred during recent weeks, Al-Abadi may struggle to maintain the upper hand over his political rival.

To win favour with the general public, Al-Abadi has made promises about fighting corruption that will be difficult to keep in a country where it is so ingrained.

Analysts warn that figures from across Iraq’s political spectrum benefit from illicit funds, and if Al-Abadi follows through on his rhetoric about stamping out corrupt officials he is likely to see a significant backlash.

“It is likely that there will be a significant push against these reforms from those who stand to lose power and influence,” says Kawa Hassan, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre and the director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the East West Institute.

The backlash could see powerful political figures rallying around Al-Maliki as a way of trying to preserve their privileges and illicit sources of income, something that would be disastrous for the country’s political stability.

Al-Maliki is also likely to benefit from continued support from Iran that will include funding as well as arms for the militias he has aligned himself with.

Reform weaknesses

Al-Abadi may also find his plans for reform dogged by technicalities that he has so far failed to fully address.

The removal of the three vice-president positions is not compatible with the country’s constitution, according to Zaid al-Ali, a lawyer who specialises in comparative constitutional law and was a legal adviser to the UN in Iraq from 2005 to 2010.

“The plan will be challenged legally and politically and has put the entire constitutional system of government in doubt, all for changes that will not make much difference in practice,” Al-Ali wrote in a 14 August blog post responding to Al-Abadi’s plan.

Al-Ali believes that ignoring the constitution and going ahead with the reforms will set a dangerous precedent, opening the door to an even more lawless environment where any sitting prime minister can change the constitution at will.

Street pressure

While the Iraqi public is desperate to see Al-Abadi mount a serious attempt to eradicate corruption and increase stability, the challenges that need to be overcome are significant.

The fracturing of Iraq’s political elite means there is no unified platform within the Shia political elite, which is likely to complicate reconciliation between the country’s various sectarian groups.

At the same time, Iraq’s dire economic situation will severely limit Al-Abadi’s ability to improve public services and reduce public discontent. The collapse in oil prices combined with the war against Isis means Baghdad is expected to run a deficit of 18.4s per cent of GDP in 2015.

The only ray of hope, according to some analysts, is that Iraq’s protest movement may be able to maintain pressure on the government, keeping the anti-corruption drive in the spotlight and holding the government to account.

“The political and economic environment is hostile, but Al-Abadi’s plan could lead to a new dynamic in Iraqi politics,” says Hassan.

“A move away from the corrupt plundering that has been seen since 2003 is possible, but there needs to be continuous pressure from civil society and religious leaders.”

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