High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Baghdad – Part 2

Worryingly, Iraqi politicians are today far more powerful than the people’s will.

This essay is the second in a two-part series examining Iraqi political discourse, competition, and potential for reform. Read the first installment here. Last week’s piece explored the reasons why Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi failed to implement his ambitious 2015 reform agenda, as well as the growing desire among Iraq’s 33.4 million people to transform their country’s political system. This week, we dive deeper into the interpersonal rivalries, powerbrokers, communal competitions, and debates that are preventing successful reform in Baghdad.

Iraq's Council of Representatives.
Iraq’s Council of Representatives.

On 27 October, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani of “implementing Israeli and US policies in the region,” declaring that Israel has “an overwhelming dominance” over Iraqi Kurdistan. In Baghdad – where conspiracy theories and accusations of foreign meddling are common – such rhetoric may seem unremarkable. However, when considered within the Iraqi governance context, the purpose of Maliki’s statement as a political foil becomes clearer.

Since his ouster in 2014, after Mosul fell to ISIS, Maliki has sought to systematically undermine Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government. This competition handicaps Iraqi political development. As noted in part one of this examination, “Dysfunction among legislators points to a deeper rot at the core of the country’s political system” – a dissolution process fueled by inter-personal rivalries between key actors.

Over the past few years, the country’s population has repeatedly demanded governmental reform aimed at reducing corruption, excess, and patronage politics in Baghdad. These sentiments, however, have not precipitated significant change. Why have these demands, amplified by popular outrage, thus far failed to affect significant change? Maliki’s most recent claims open a window onto the web of competition that strangles reform efforts.

Who pulls the strings of government in Baghdad? How do various actors shape Iraq’s political future? Have Baghdad powerbrokers co-opted popular frustration, and to what end? How do rivalries between key powerbrokers like Maliki, Abadi, and Barzani – and the constituencies they represent – shape Iraqi politics? To confront the systemic challenges facing Iraq’s government, it is crucial to first enumerate the forces shaping Iraqi political and social futures.

Pulling the Strings on Iraq’s Web of Competition

Since becoming Prime Minister in August 2014, Abadi has faced stiff opposition from factions within his parliamentary bloc, the State of Law Coalition (SLC), which Maliki leads. This so-called “Reform Front,” comprising 100 members of parliament, mostly from the SLC, recently managed to remove the Minister of Defense, Khaled al-Obeidi (August 25), and the Minister of Finance, Hoshyar Zebari (September 21). Both ministers were brought in for questioning by Maliki’s faction, and subsequently were unseated by no-confidence votes. While ostensibly conducted under the auspices of Abadi’s anti-corruption campaign, the Reform Front’s actions have widely been condemned as blatantly political acts designed to deprive Abadi of key allies.

Zebari’s ouster, in particular, exemplified the seemingly intractable rivalries within Parliament and Baghdad’s ruling circles. The former Finance Minister – a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which holds power in Iraqi Kurdistan – had come under intense scrutiny for misusing public funds, allegations he has strongly denied, and for which only circumstantial evidence has been presented. He thus sought to characterize his removal from office as the result of Maliki’s influence, declaring that “Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, in collusion with the State of Law Coalition, dismissed me [as part of a] scheme implemented by Maliki, out of motives of hatred and revenge, to thwart the current government.”

Following Parliament’s vote against Zebari, KDP leader Barzani visited Abadi in Baghdad, a visit subsequently characterized as a display of support for the current government against internal threats. The International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann explains that “[Abadi] does enjoy important backing of the Marja’eyah (the Shia religious leadership in Karbala and Najaf) and the Americans and Western Europe. The [KDP] thus puts its weight behind him, with the understanding that they will need Baghdad’s support in the fight for [Mosul].”

Zebari’s ouster, in particular, exemplified the seemingly intractable rivalries within Parliament and Baghdad’s ruling circles.

The vote against Zebari highlighted intra-Kurdish cleavages that have increasingly been manifest at the national level. Traditionally, Kurdish representatives in the Iraqi Parliament voted as a united bloc, despite (sometimes serious) disputes between parties within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This time, however, the KDP’s primary opposition – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran – voted against Zebari, deciding the outcome.

In northern Iraq, gridlock between these parties has paralyzed the KRG Parliament for over a year after the KDP refused to allow its Gorran-affiliated Speaker of Parliament from entering the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil. By voting against Zebari the PUK and Gorran sought to weaken the KDP’s position in Baghdad. Maliki capitalized on these rivalries by drawing the Kurdish opposition to his faction within SLC. By splitting the Kurdish position regarding Zebari, Maliki at once removed a key Abadi ally, discredited the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and took advantage of Kurdish divisions – a move that weakened Iraqi Kurds’ overall influence in Baghdad.

Maliki has worked hard to push Iraqi Kurds apart. In July, he visited Sulaimaniya, a city where the PUK and Gorran hold influence, to congratulate the two parties on their alliance against the KDP in Erbil. When Barzani visited Baghdad, he purposefully did not meet with Maliki. Within this context, the former Prime Minister’s comment regarding Israeli influence in KDP-ruled Iraqi Kurdistan further discredited Barzani in the eyes of Iraqi policymakers, many of whom suspect the Kurds’ separatist intentions. More importantly, however, the accusation undermined the nascent Abadi-KDP alliance, strengthened during the lead-up to joint Iraqi Army and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga operations against ISIS in Mosul.

In Baghdad, Maliki’s maneuvers handicap Abadi’s government. The Prime Minister has fought back, but with limited success. In August 2015, he eliminated the position of vice president under the auspices of streamlining government — thus removing Maliki, who occupied the post, as well as the two other officeholders, Osama al-Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi. Following this announcement, Maliki sharpened his criticism against Abadi, and declared repeatedly that he would “not be opposed” to returning as prime minister. On 11 October 2016, the Iraqi Federal Court annulled the August 2015 decision to cancel the vice presidential post, on grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Foreign Patronage

Baghdad’s political morass has been further complicated by regional and international actors, chiefly Iran and the United States, as well as the powerful Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) inside Iraq. Abadi has long been a strong advocate of working closely with Washington, partly as a means of reducing Iraq’s military reliance on Iran – a stance that earned him few friends in Tehran. The Iranian government refused to accept Abadi’s government until Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority, declared Maliki unfit to govern.

Abadi’s position vis-à-vis Iran has weakened his position in Baghdad, as Tehran puts its weight behind Maliki’s faction. The former prime minister’s influence is bolstered by the nearly 70,000-strong Iranian-backed factions within the PMF. The majority of militia factions without formal ties to Tehran — including Liwa’ Ansar al-Marja’iya, the Abbas Battle Group, Liwa’ Ali al-Akbar, the Imam Ali Troop and the Kadhimin Battle Group – have been starved of funding and equipment in relation to Iranian-supported groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah or the Badr Organization. For example, in July deputy PMU chairman Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis had stopped distributing government salaries to armed Shiite factions not connected to Iran.

These pro-Iran elements within the PMF have, in recent months, reportedly tried to seize control of the overall militia movement. In June, Badr head Hadi al-Ameri and other militia leaders met with Maliki, where they praised the former prime minister’s leadership. Ameri declared that “The decision to form the Popular Mobilization Units was Maliki’s. He has strongly supported them since the beginning.” His statement angered Shia clerics in Najaf, as it ignored the fact that Sistani had asked Iraqis to take up arms in self-defense on 13 June, before Maliki acted. Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr expressed this outrage in simpler terms: “Maliki’s alleged [PMF], if they exist, do not represent me or Iraq.”

Nevertheless, Tehran has corroborated Ameri’s claims, and reportedly proposed appointing Maliki to head the PMF. On 29 June, the Iranian Fars News Agency published a photograph of Maliki welcoming Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, for iftar. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini consistently praises Maliki’s role in Iraqi politics (something he never does for Abadi), and some sources indicate that Iran is pushing for Maliki to return as prime minister after the 2018 elections.

Abadi will have a difficult time countering these forces. In August, the Independent Electoral Commission banned the PMF from participating in the 2017 provincial or 2018 national elections, and confirmed the Prime Minister’s authority over their deployment. Yet this decision will not prevent armed groups from participating in government formation through the political parties with which they are already affiliated. Many of these organizations also refuse to acknowledge Abadi’s leadership, declaring instead that they answer only to their faction’s commander.

While the Prime Minister has attempted to strengthen western military cooperation and rebuild the Iraqi Army, Iran-aligned factions seek to bolster Shia militia networks and, as Iraq watcher Kirk Sowell noted, “[tie] Baghdad to the Iran-Damascus-Moscow axis.” In a 20 October 2015 letter from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, nominally the PMF’s deputy commander but in fact its real commander, he stated: “time and time again” he had told the prime minister that the PMF deserved the infrastructure, pay, and status of the army and other security services. This note, which was leaked to the Iraqi press, presented a direct challenge to the Prime Minister’s authority and policy direction and jeopardized efforts to consolidate security forces.

Rules of the Game in Baghdad

Today’s political dysfunction is borne from the fractious political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion. The root of poor governance in Iraq lies in the formalization (or, according to some analysts, creation) of ethno-sectarian divisions in Baghdad’s governing structure.

When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) formed in April 2003, its leadership believed that ethno-sectarian quotas were the only way to ensure each of Iraq’s key constituencies were represented in Baghdad. It set up the 25 member Iraqi Governing Council with 13 seats for Shiites, 5 for Kurds, 5 for Sunnis, and one each for Assyrians, Turkmen, and women. Today, the rules of the political game in Baghdad are defined by the ethno-sectarian dynamic codified after 2003.

The root of poor governance in Iraq lies in the formalization…of ethno-sectarian divisions in Baghdad’s governing structure.

Within this system, political figures have co-opted communal sentiment to serve narrow interests. Figures like Maliki derive legitimacy as leaders within distinct sectarian communities, and discredit opponents by appealing to a sense of victimhood rather than national identity. Historically, sect was not the sole or even primary foundation for identity in Iraqi society. The quota system established by the US, as well as actions taken by Iraqi politicians during the Saddam-era, consolidated the role of sectarianism in politics – as Maliki’s machinations illustrate. As Iraq analyst Harith al-Qarawee notes, “These groups reinvented their identities against the other.”

For example, the former prime minister has managed to alienate members of all sects. Shia parties strongly opposed Maliki’s consolidation of power in 2010. In January 2013, Sunni communities widely protested his rule – securing support from Sadr, a Shia.

Ultimately, the rot in Baghdad is due to much more than simply Maliki’s malign influence. The political system encourages competition and shifting alliances rather than cooperation, as politicians vie to assert authority within discrete communities and sects. To understand the complex challenges facing any reform-minded government like Abadi’s, it is crucial to first outline the relationships and networks that undermine the Prime Minister’s authority.

Iraqis are angry at a bloated government unable and unwilling to represent their interests as Iraqis. Abadi has thus far failed to capitalize on this frustration to out-maneuver Baghdad’s political operators. Yet his shortcomings highlight how difficult and complex Iraq’s networks of competition have become. Spoilers across the government drive the country’s political culture, even as its people face rising economic and security crises. The highest-stakes struggle for Iraq will take place not on the battlefield but inside the capital’s Green Zone, where policymakers must choose fractious deadlock or cooperation. Worryingly, these politicians are today far more powerful than the people’s will. The ability of the Baghdad establishment to reform their own practices will determine Iraq’s future trajectory.