- - Sunday, July 31, 2016

BAGHDAD — As Iraq’s prime minister struggles to meet his goal of retaking Mosul from the Islamic State group by the end of this year, he also is racing to prevent a power struggle with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A victorious war leader, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is striving to unite the country’s quarreling factions and take the wind out of Mr. al-Sadr’s protest movement that has brought tens of thousands onto the streets in defiance of government calls for a halt on demonstrations that distract from the fight against the Islamic State.

But some doubt he will achieve it, saying Mr. al-Abadi will preside over an ever-weakening government.

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“I expect Abadi to serve out this term as there is no way the other factions will reach an agreement on any alternative individual,” said Kirk Sowell, an Amman-based analyst at Utica Risk Services, an open-source strategic intelligence firm. “I do not assume the government will return to genuine functionality, either before or after the next election.”

For now, most of the focus of the Iraqi government is on defeating the Islamic State. In the past year, Iraqi forces have retaken Fallujah and other cities conquered by the terrorist group two years ago, kicking the Islamic State jihadis out of almost half the territory they once held in Iraq. But the organization retains the capacity to cause violence.

Islamic State bombers repeatedly have struck Baghdad over the past few months.

On July 3, 300 people were killed in one of the deadliest attacks in the capital since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The attacks on the capital have fueled discontent with Mr. al-Abadi’s government over the disintegrating security situation.

At the same time, there are also deep concerns over corruption and cronyism, combined with mounting economic hardship.

Millions of public-sector workers face unemployment as the collapse of oil prices almost two years ago has left monthly oil income $1.3 billion short of the $5 billion the government needs to meet budget needs.

“Services and living conditions have not improved, and I do not think it will get better soon,” said Riyadh Mohammed, a former Justice Ministry spokesman. “Iraq is facing a stifling financial crisis, and corruption is eating up Iraq’s already little resources due to the collapse in oil prices.”

That has left an opening for Mr. al-Sadr, observers say. The cleric formerly backed Mr. al-Abadi — a Shiite Muslim appointed in September 2014 promising to fight corruption and reform government.

But recently, the 42-year-old Mr. al-Sadr has demanded that Mr. al-Abadi resign, a stance increasingly supported by more Iraqis.

Al-Sadr want to make change,” said Sajjad Al Mosawi, a loyalist to the cleric in Baghdad. “Corrupt politicians are fighting back. But we’ll keep up the pressure until change comes. We will follow al-Sadr to the end.”

Although the mass demonstrations over the past six months have been largely peaceful, more recently al-Sadr followers have twice stormed the Iraqi parliament deep in the heavily protected Green Zone. They also have attacked offices of rival political parties.

The intensified protests have raised fears that Mr. al-Sadr could trigger an uprising against the government, as he did after 2003 when his forces fought U.S. troops and made much of southern Iraq ungovernable.

In a show of strength apparently designed to deter any al-Sadr adventurism, the government organized a military parade on the eve one of the cleric’s demonstrations that included 15,000 troops marching though Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

That didn’t dampen Mr. al-Sadr’s fiery rhetoric. He has warned that the nearly 500 extra U.S. troops deploying to help the push on Mosul “are a target for us,” meaning his forces.

Despite the bluster, many believe Mr. al-Sadr will back away from provoking an all-out confrontation with the government or risk triggering civil strife that could allow the Islamic State to regroup.

“If Muqtada tries an ill-advised repeat of the chaos that he caused earlier this summer, I think he’ll find a very strong reaction from the Shia religious and political establishment,” said Michael Knights, an analyst on Iraqi security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Shiite leader faces pressure from other Shiite groups and, crucially, Iran to avoid moves that could further destabilize Iraq, analysts say.

He also risks losing backing from moderate Iraqis who joined his demonstrations to demand reform and cleaner government.

Bringing Mr. al-Sadr back into the fold of mainstream politics could be the ultimate test for Mr. al-Abadi’s reputation as a canny builder of political compromise. However, even if the cleric backs off and the military continues its successes against the Islamic State, few see any immediate end to Iraq’s political disarray.

At the same time, some are worried that divisions within the coalition against the Islamic State could deepen once the group is driven out of Mosul — expected before the end of the year — giving the militants a chance to coalesce.

Regardless, many Iraqis believe their leader has missed his chance.

Al-Abadi is a very weak prime minister,” said Ali al Samarie, 42-year-old soldier who believes the rise of the Islamic State was a perfect opportunity for Mr. al-Abadi to consolidate power in Bagdad, reinvigorate the military and push through economic reforms.

“He hasn’t fixed any problems,” Mr. al Samarie said. “He had the best opportunity of any leader in the history of Iraq, but he didn’t exploit it. He wasted it.”

Robert Tollast reported from London. Gilgamesh Nabeel contributed to this report from Istanbul.

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