The Iraq Report: New faces, same problems as prime minister appointed

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7 min read
17 October, 2022
Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is part and parcel of the system that many Iraqis have called to reform or replace, with his appointment unlikely to resolve the root causes behind popular anger repeatedly flaring up over the past 19 years.

With news of a sudden breakthrough in Iraq’s entrenched political scene making headlines late last week – and signs that the end of the latest government paralysis may be over – it would appear that the status quo has, once again, won out in the battle of wills over who decides Iraq’s future trajectory.

Kurdish politician Abdul Latif Rashid was appointed as president last Thursday after more than a year of political gridlock. Almost immediately thereafter, Rashid appointed the Shia Islamist politician Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to the post of prime minister and charged him with forming a new government.

While this has been feted as welcome news, it could come with a host of difficulties as the underlying and deep-seated political problems of the country that have led it into crisis after crisis have not been addressed.

If Sudani is successful in forming a new government, we could be witnessing the end of one political crisis and the beginnings of an entirely new one.

"The status quo has, once again, won out in the battle of wills over who decides Iraq's future trajectory"

Sadr's victory now a defeat

Although hardline Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had the highest proportion of the dismally low turnout that saw only two-out-five Iraqis vote in last year’s general election, Sadr has effectively sidelined himself and his bloc, leaving his rivals to form a government without him.

Sadr has also made it abundantly clear that his movement will not be joining the new government, with one of his deputies saying that Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is “clearly subordinate to the militias” – a clear reference to Sudani’s links to pro-Iran Shia militant groups and politicians.

While Sadr is known for his mercurial tendencies and could very well change his mind, it should also be noted that Sadr himself has had command and overall authority over several Iraqi Shia militias backed by Iran, the most infamous of which was the Mahdi Army, known for its death squads that perpetrated sectarian cleansing campaigns against Iraq’s Sunni community.

However, Sadr’s path from electoral victory to political defeat was arguably one of his own making – with a little help from his rivals.

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Jubilant from his victory of having garnered 73 seats, Sadr immediately went into forging an alliance with the Sunni Taqaddum Party led by the then incumbent parliamentary speaker, Mohammed al-Habousi, as well as the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by former Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

Fearing Sadr meant to carve them out of the political process that has enriched and empowered them since 2003, the remaining Shia Islamist parties, represented by the Coordination Framework (CF), resisted Sadr’s plans.

While they failed to prevent the reappointment of Halbousi as speaker in January, they were successful in boycotting parliament and preventing the appointment of any of the KDP’s presidential candidates.

This was achieved through a combination of threats against Sadr’s allies, sit-ins, and even legal challenges to the Federal Supreme Court – Iraq’s highest judicial body. This included a ruling that banned the KDP’s main presidential candidate, former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, from being a candidate for the presidency until he answers corruption charges dating back to 2016.

The Iraq Report: New faces, same problems as PM appointed
Sadr effectively sidelined himself and his bloc, leaving his rivals to form a government without him. [Getty]

The court also ruled that a two-thirds quorum of parliament would be required to elect a president, decisively stopping Sadr’s “majority government” plans dead in its tracks.

Sadr was not able to show strategic patience and, rather than leaning on his parliamentary majority, he ordered his MPs to resign their seats in the summer. However, he did so without agreement with his key allies, simply expecting them to follow suit.

When they did not do so, he had handed over a plurality of parliamentary seats to the Coordination Framework, forcing his allies to consider new partnerships, and edging his opponents ever closer to a two-thirds consensus.

"Sadr's path from electoral victory to political defeat was arguably one of his own making – with a little help from his rivals"

The Coordination Framework was successful in pressuring Sadr’s allies to move out of his orbit, and the cleric’s own behaviour alienated them further, allowing for the creation of an environment where Abdul Latif Rashid would be considered a compromise between the Kurdish factions, with the KDP in particular not keen on yet another term for Barham Salih.

With his allies having abandoned his sinking ship, Sadr’s supporters engaged in sit-ins and small-scale violent clashes against their rivals, leading to some exclaiming that Iraq could soon witness a Shia-on-Shia civil war.

However, and with Iran’s ever-present influence on these factions, as well as admonishments from Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his abandonment by his movement’s spiritual guide, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri who ordered Sadrists to pledge fealty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that scenario remains a distant possibility and is unlikely to materialise.

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The Sudani era is no different

With Rashid now firmly ensconced as Iraq’s latest president and having appointed Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister, all eyes are on what the Shia Islamist politician will do and, more importantly, which of his allies will be rewarded with which influential – and wealthy – ministerial portfolios.

However, whoever he appoints, Sudani’s history suggests that his era will be more of the same in terms of the continuation of the status quo. There are also few indications that he will tackle the socio-political malaise that has led Iraq into crisis after crisis.

Sudani is the leader of the Furutain Party, a Shia Islamist offshoot of the Dawa Party that has been so influential in post-2003 Iraq since the fall of the Baathists.

He will immediately face challenges to his democratic legitimacy as his party initially only won one seat during the 2021 elections, before gaining a further two after Sadr’s deputies abandoned their posts last summer.

The Iraq Report: New faces, same problems as PM appointed
Sudani's history suggests that his era will be more of the same in terms of the continuation of the status quo. [Getty]

This would mean that Sudani is very much a status quo candidate who was appointed by status quo elites, and not by the popular will of the Iraqi people. Unlike Sadr, he cannot even rely on an effective grassroots machinery to lend himself further legitimacy, and this will inevitably impact his prospects.

For most of his life, Sudani has also been a member of the Dawa Party, and only left to prevent the fallout of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s numerous scandals from damaging his political prospects. Ideologically, he shares many of the same viewpoints as Maliki, infamous for being Iraq’s most sectarian prime minister and who was blamed for the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Sudani also served for years under Maliki’s leadership, taking on the role of minister for human rights between 2010 and 2014 at a time when international human rights organisations had repeatedly slammed Iraq for its appalling human rights record, including for sectarian persecution of Sunnis and sexual exploitation of women.

With his failure to rein in human rights abuses, Sudani was then given a new portfolio of managing Iraq’s labour and social affairs, a ministerial post he held until 2018. During that time, he again failed to get a grip on Iraq’s spiralling unemployment and social upheaval.

"It is very likely that Sudani's appointment will end this latest political crisis, only to herald the birth of yet another one in the coming months and years"

While some may point to his resignation from the Dawa Party as a sign he is not like his former boss Maliki, the reality is that he had immediately signed up to Maliki’s agenda and joined the Coordination Framework in the immediate aftermath of the 2021 elections.

This bloc not only included Maliki, but a who’s-who of pro-Iran Shia politicians who have led Iraq to the brink of failure repeatedly since 2003.

Sudani is therefore part and parcel of the system that many Iraqis have called to reform or replace, and who are now also boycotting to deprive it of the legitimacy it so desperately seeks. It is highly unlikely that Sudani’s appointment will resolve the root causes behind popular anger repeatedly flaring up over the past 19 years.

Considering the above, it is very likely that Sudani’s appointment will end this latest political crisis, only to herald the birth of yet another one in the coming months and years.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @DrTalAbdulrazaq

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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