Major flip in Iraqi government this week: could crisis be over?

Major flip in Iraqi government this week: could crisis be over?

Al-Sadr’s bid to stymie the political process has been foiled, for now. But the new prime minister comes with a new set of challenges. Robert E Wilhelm Fellow Steven Simon contributes analysis with Adam Weinstein, originally published here in Responsible Statecraft

October 17, 2022 | Responsible Statecraft | Steven Simon and Adam Weinstein
Steven Simon and Adam Weinstein
October 17, 2022
Responsible Statecraft

This week Iraq came one giant step closer to forming a government as the parliament elected Abdul Latif Rashid as president who then designated Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani as prime minister. 

This follows a year of political stalemate since last October’s election which saw a huge win for Moqtada al-Sadr’s coalition. One year later the tables have turned, with Sadr’s political adversaries ascendant. 

How did this happen?

To recap: Moqtada al-Sadr has moved in and out of Iraq politics since leading the Shi’a militia known as the Mahdi Army against the US occupation during the 2000s. He retained an impressive ability to mobilize his grassroots network and a formidable militia now rebranded as Saraya al-Salam, or “peace companies.’

In the run up to last year’s elections he formed a multi-ethnic and cross-sectarian coalition that included Sunni politician Mohammed al-Halbousi and his Taqqadum party and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This coalition won the majority of seats in the October 2021 parliamentary elections and praise from some in Washington who view Sadr as a wedge against Iranian influence.

In Iraq’s system, the parliament first elects a speaker of the house, followed by the president, who then designates a prime minister. This is followed by a cabinet selection by the prime minister designate, which then goes to the parliament for a vote. But this process was stymied by a decision by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court that removed the option of electing a president through a simple majority in a second parliamentary vote if the first vote failed to pass by a two-thirds majority which it did.

It is widely thought that the Supreme Court decision was due to pressure from Iran and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. This prevented Sadr’s coalition from forming a government because it could not muster a two-thirds majority.

Sadr responded to this impasse by ordering all 73 of his MPs to resign and staging and dispatching his followers to occupy the Parliament building. The protests eventually turned  violent. His hope, it seemed, was that the Sunni and Kurdish blocs of his coalition would also resign, effectively crippling parliamentary politics and making the formation of a government impossible without the intercession of Sadr on his own terms. Or he might have expected his ally, Halbousi, to hesitate before accepting the resignations.  

Either way, Sadr could play both the arsonist and the fireman. Instead, his coalition partners left him in the cold. The 73 parliamentary seats he rashly vacated reverted to his foe, the Coordination Framework, which consists of an array of Shi’a parties and militias.

In a rapid-fire sequence of steps on October 13, Rashid Latif named Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani as prime minister, setting the stage for the formation of a government. To all appearances, the crisis that gripped Iraq for the past year was over. The Sadrist challenge was turned aside conclusively. Barring any surprises, there will not be an election for another three years.  

Outmaneuvered and outgunned, Sadr will have no plausible path to power. Whether he retains any influence through the senior bureaucrats he has seeded throughout an array of ministries will depend on whether al-Sudani proceeds with a clean sweep of his appointees, as Sadr himself had promised to do regarding his own opponents.

Sadr’s response to the closed door process that awarded the presidency to Latif and premiership to al-Sudani was fierce. He labeled it a “militia government” and forbade his followers from dealing with it. The new leadership, now concerned with preserving its own legitimacy as broad-based, may look for some way to lure Sadr back into the game, but the path forward seems murky. Predictably, the new team moved to prohibit the outgoing prime minister, Mustafa al-Khadimi, from leaving the country as they prepared to scapegoat him for the endemic corruption that drove so many Iraqis to vote for Sadr. 

What does all this mean for the US-Iraq relations? 

For Washington, al-Sudani is one of the more reasonable potential candidates on offer from the Iran-aligned Coordination Framework. He is an experienced technocrat who previously served as minister of human rights and minister of labor and social affairs. He also has less bad blood than some other potential candidates. 

But how much sway the controversial Nouri al-Maliki will have on him remains to be seen. Al-Sudani is regarded as a creature of Maliki’s, despite Sudani’s previous break with the Dawa party. Some difficult political choices lie in front of al-Sudani who will shortly have access to federal funds that have ballooned over the past year thanks to rising energy prices. 

To manage discontent that erupted in violent demonstrations in 2019, he will likely use these swollen coffers to provide public sector jobs for the unemployed youth. Whether he will mobilize ministries and parliament to tackle the three big issues confronting Iraq — corruption and failure of economic reforms, climate change and keeping ISIS at bay — remains to be seen. 

He is, however, perceived as a weak leader. One issue that the United States will be tracking is how the regular army and counterterrorism service fare in the budgeting process compared to the Iran-aligned PMFs (Popular Mobilization Forces). He must also decide how to manage al-Sadr and his loyal base which, if excluded from the government entirely, may choose to wreak havoc. 

Baghdad was braced for widespread protests after Rashid’s election as president earlier this week, but so far none have occurred. It would be unwise to take this calm for granted as long as Sadr is stirring the pot.

It is also unclear how the Coordination Framework will react to a continued US military presence in the country. President Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 3, 2020 galvanized the Iran-backed militias under the PMF and led to public demands for US troops to leave. 

Behind the scenes, the PMF’s relationship with the United States is more complex and now that they find themselves in power, they may be hesitant to rock the boat. One indicator will be an effort by the new government to rein in US military operations in Iraq that appear to target PMF assets. 

Perhaps most worrisome is Nouri al-Maliki’s potential influence on the new prime minister. Washington blames Maliki for creating the conditions that incubated ISIS in Iraq; the fear is that this pattern of discriminatory governance could be replicated just as US training and equipment, improved Iraqi operational skills, and Sunni rejection of ISIS rule have brought this insurgent movement to heel.