A New Pick for Iraqi Prime Minister Could Spark Conflict

A New Pick for Iraqi Prime Minister Could Spark Conflict
Mohammed Shia al-Sudani speaks during a statement at the special session on Iraq of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 1, 2014 (AP photo by Salvatore Di Nolfi).
After more than nine months of deadlock following parliamentary elections last year, Iraq appears to be on the verge of forming a government. The Coordination Framework, a parliamentary bloc that includes Iran-backed Shiite militias, has nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as its candidate for prime minister. The nomination of al-Sudani by the Shiite bloc could thread the needle, as analyst Hamzeh Haddad writes, by producing an Iraqi government stable enough to make tough but necessary policy decisions, but not so polarizing as to spark a renewed round of civil conflict between rival Shiite camps. But others fear al-Sudani’s nomination could open up a power struggle among rival Shiite factions—one that could effectively shut down the Iraqi government, or even lead to violence. And the nomination clearly signals that Iraqi politics has moved into a new stage, with the Shiite coalition demonstrating a willingness to go for broke in its attempt to seize power, despite performing poorly in the parliamentary vote.

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Here's a quick primer as we prepare for the hottest part of the Iraqi summer, both literally and figuratively: How did we get here? After winning the October elections, the Sadrist Movement—the country’s single largest Shiite bloc, led by populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—formed a coalition with the top Sunni and Kurdish factions, but their parliamentary bloc wasn’t quite large enough to cross the two-thirds threshold needed to overcome minority party objections and choose a president, approve their candidate for prime minister and finally form a government. In a surprise move, Sadr ordered his 73 members of parliament to resign in June, meaning that his Shiite rivals in the Coordination Framework—led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who Sadr despises—suddenly controlled a decisive majority in parliament. There was a degree of uncertainty among Iraqi politicians about the likelihood that Maliki’s coalition would nominate a candidate for prime minister, a move that would potentially escalate his feud with Sadr. Who is Sudani? Sudani is an experienced Iraqi politician with a history in the Dawa Party. He joined Maliki’s State of Law party when Maliki rose to power, and has retained close ties with provincial networks in the south as well as with Maliki’s political organization. Unlike the ineffectual hard-liner Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who served as prime minister from 2018 to 2020, Sudani has a power base among the Shiite factions. Sudani was governor of Maysan province in Iraq’s south, after which he served as minister of human rights and then minister of labor and social affairs. After Sadr pulled his bloc out of parliament, several names were floated for a Shiite bloc nominee, but Sudani was deemed to be the only suitable choice, as the other contenders either carried too much baggage or, in the case of the Popular Mobilization Forces’ Falih al-Fayyadh, are currently slapped with U.S. sanctions. What should we expect to happen next? It is likely that Sadr will try to scuttle the nomination, keeping government formation in limbo until a new round of elections is called. He is also expected to try to orchestrate mass demonstrations against the Coordination Framework and any government it eventually forms. He has in the past been able to summon large crowds and could do so again, even though he now commands considerably less direct influence over potential demonstrators than he did in the past, as Renad Mansour and Benedict Robin-D’Cruz argue. More worryingly, Iraq could experience an uptick in armed violence among the competing Shiite factions. Maliki was heard on leaked recordings predicting war, sounding almost excited about the prospect. In 2008, the former prime minister famously precipitated a civil conflict with Sadr that he might have lost if U.S. military forces hadn’t swooped in to rescue him. Now, 14 years later, Maliki is attempting to come back to power, either directly or indirectly via his one-time acolyte Sudani, and he appears to be reverting to the same playbook that served him so poorly during his stint as prime minister. Does the U.S. have a role to play? Iraqi public opinion is turning even more strongly against interventions by foreign powers, as evinced by the strong outcry last week when Turkish air strikes killed at least eight civilians in Iraq’s Kurdish region. But many Iraqi factions continue to rely heavily on foreign support. Iran and the United States are the two most influential foreign actors in Iraq. While neither can outright veto a nomination for Iraq’s prime minister, all Iraqi premiers have secured the acquiescence of both Washington and Tehran as a prerequisite to rising to power in Baghdad. The current political impasse offers the United States the opportunity to articulate a vision for its engagement with Iraq that is rooted in policy as opposed to the personality-driven relationship Baghdad and Washington have typically maintained. The U.S. generally supports current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose goals broadly align with Washington’s, even though he lacks the ability or means to convert his goals into real policy outcomes. Washington has been seen as a patron of the various Iraqi figures it deems as friendly faces, in the mistaken belief that it can only promote democracy and good governance through individual leaders rather than through institutions. Yet tangible policy outcomes for Iraq and its neighbors have remained consistently sparse throughout the wild swings in Baghdad’s relationship with Washington, from the warm partnership Maliki enjoyed early in his tenure with former President George W. Bush, to the anti-U.S. rhetoric of his late period, to the pro-U.S. stance Haidar al-Abadi generally adopted, to the hostility of Abdel Mahdi, and back again to Kadhimi’s current pro-U.S. disposition. The U.S. should instead embrace long-term policy goals that transcend any individual premiership, such as strengthening Iraq’s institutions, unifying its security services, reducing foreign interference, curbing ISIS and other terrorist groups, and growing into a role as a regional interlocutor between Iran, Saudi Arabia and their allies.

Rights Roundup

The situation of the imprisoned human rights activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah appears to be getting worse. Abd El-Fattah is one of the most galvanizing leaders of Egypt’s political opposition, and has been repeatedly detained on trumped-up charges. He was sentenced in December to another five years on fabricated charges of terrorism and “spreading false news.” Abd El-Fattah has been on a hunger strike since April, and his family has waged an international campaign for his release, even securing him U.K. citizenship and deploying pressure from the highest ranks of the U.K. government—so far, to little effect. This week, Abd El-Fattah’s family reported that they were unable to visit the activist in prison, and were told by prison officials that Alaa had refused the visit, which would mark a first. They worry that his health has declined dramatically and that he is being subjected to another escalation in mistreatment by prison officials.

****** Tunisians voted in a referendum Monday that effectively enshrined the dictatorship put in place exactly a year ago, when President Kais Saied disbanded parliament and implemented one-man rule. The outcome of the referendum was considered to be a foregone conclusion, but analysts are less certain on how Saied will use his newly formalized power in its aftermath.

What I’m Reading

Jaber Baker writes a gripping, painful memoir of his years in prison under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in “How I Survived a Syrian Gulag,” at New Lines magazine.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international policy program at The Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions,” and four edited volumes about politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book about the Iraq war’s global impact. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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