Iraqi leaders on the hot seat

A heat wave pushes Iraqis to demand the kind of honest government that can keep the power on and air conditioners running. Such demands are key to building an Iraqi identity and ending incursions by Islamic State and Iran.

People shout slogans during a demonstration to show support for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, August, 9. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi won the support of his cabinet on Sunday to eliminate a layer of senior government positions, part of a push to reduce corruption and save money in the face of mounting unrest. After weeks of protests demanding better government and a call by leading Shi'ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for tougher action, Abadi proposed cancelling Iraq's multiple vice president and deputy prime minister positions, currently shared out along sectarian lines.

One reason people prefer honesty in government is that it keeps the air conditioners humming. In Iraq, where temperatures this summer have reached 122 degrees F (50 C), widespread protests have erupted over inadequate supplies of electricity. Iraqis of all sects and tribes have come together to demand an end to corrupt mismanagement. Many protesters claimed corruption to be a worse enemy than the terrorists of Islamic State.

The protests sparked the country’s highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to call on government to “meet the citizens’ legitimate needs and demands.” On Aug. 7, he asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to be “daring and braver” in making reforms. “The people ... will assist him in achieving that,” Mr. Sistani said through a spokesman.

Two days later, the prime minister did indeed act with daring bravery. He announced investigations into official corruption and an end to handing out government jobs based on religious or party affiliation. Government workers are to be selected for their professional virtues.

Some reforms still need to be passed by Parliament but the chain of events – a heat wave, protests, a religious request, and a scramble for honest government – could mark a turning point for Iraq. The country is ripe for bottom-up revolution. The regime in Baghdad controls only a third of the country as it battles Islamic State (IS) militants. The Sunni minority remains distrustful of a Shiite-dominated government. And Iran’s heavy hand in the fight against IS has threatened the national identity. 

The rare comments from Sistani, a revered figure in both Iraq and Iran, could prove decisive. He represents a brand of Islam different from the kind of top-down theocracy practiced in Iran and by IS. He prefers religious leaders stay out of government and instead simply guide individuals in their faith.

Sistani wants a unified Iraq, which has a long history of harmony between Sunnis, Shiites, and ethnic Kurds. “We are proud of the social fabric in our society,” he says. Although a Shiite scholar, he regularly reaches out to his Sunni counterparts. 

Reinforcing an Iraqi identity will be key to bolstering the Army’s effectiveness in rolling back IS and its notions of politicized faith. It is also necessary to counter the model in Iran of a supreme religious figure who arbitrarily defines the limits of individual and minority rights. 

But first many Iraqis want the lights to stay on and their air conditioners to work. No matter what their faith, they seek honest leaders who serve the public interest.  

For want of a cool breeze, they have lit a fire under their leaders.

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