US, Iran keep Iraqi PM in place as he challenges ruling elite

REUTERS
Baghdad
Published 07.04.2016 01:05

The United States and Iran have formed an unlikely tacit alliance behind Iraq's prime minister as he challenges the ruling elite with plans for a non-political cabinet to fight corruption undermining the OPEC nation's economic and political stability. Local calls for Haider al-Abadi's removal, including one by his predecessor as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, had been growing as he pursued a reshuffle aimed at addressing graft, which became a major issue after oil prices collapsed in 2014 and strained the government's finances as it launched a costly campaign against DAESH. However, the two old adversaries, Washington and Tehran, put pressure on their respective allies in Iraq not to unseat Abadi as he seeks to fill the council of ministers with technocrats, according to politicians, diplomats and analysts. Sources familiar with the matter said U.S. and Iranian efforts helped stave off an attempt last week to unseat Abadi by Maliki, the head of the Shiite Dawa party who controls nearly a third of the seats in parliament. Maliki denied the attempt. Abadi presented parliament on Thursday with a list of 14 names, many of them academics, to free the ministries from the grip of a political class that has used the system of ethnic and sectarian quotas instituted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to amass wealth and influence through corruption.

The move, which threatens to weaken patronage networks that sustain the elite's wealth and influence, shocked the political establishment that has ruled Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein, including Abadi's own Dawa party, the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Kurdish alliance. After voting Abadi into office two years ago, these parties want a say in how the government is formed. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani had already made clear before Abadi's cabinet announcement that no attempt should be made to unseat him, so as to keep up momentum in the war on DAESH, sources with knowledge of the matter said. Despite sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, Iraqis face unemployment, power cuts and poor public services, fueling resentment against a ruling class accused of squandering revenues earned over a decade of high oil prices. The country ranks 161 out of 168 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Aside from the United States and Iran, Abadi has also drawn on powerful sources of domestic support. The nation's top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave him cover last summer to make reforms following street protests demanding better public services. Though frustrated with the premier's failure to take decisive action, Sistani's backing has not wavered, according to politicians and analysts. The Americans, the Iranians and Sistani all had the same view: "Abadi stays in power and puts new ministers in," said Sajad Jiyad, an analyst who advises the premier.

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