Iraq Struggles to Create a New Government

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

September 7, 2018

It has been more than three months since parliamentary elections in Iraq and the political factions have still found it impossible to coalesce around a single candidate. Earlier this week there were signs that a U.S.-supported political coalition representing a majority of the seats in parliament would emerge. However, disagreement about the distribution of key governmental and political posts and a concerted effort by pro-Iranian forces in Iraq seem to have, at least for the time being, rendered such a possibility moot. Meanwhile, the political impasse continues to worsen, as reports emerge that Iran may have provided some Iraqi groups with ballistic missiles.

The issue of Iraq’s continued political paralysis was the subject of a recent The National editorial, which underscored the urgency of forming a government that is not beholden to Iranian interests: “The need for a clear direction weighs heavily on a nation riven for years by sectarian divides, corruption and, most recently, protests over failing public services, particularly in Basra, where citizens cannot even access clean water. Until Iraq’s new leaders are sworn in, it can only hope to muddle through a crisis which threatens to envelop the country and provide fertile ground for its weak links to be exploited by those with malevolent intent…. Whatever the outcome, the fractures between the different blocs cannot be allowed to form into fissures deep enough to be exploited by Tehran to build on its own power base. The longer this drags on, the greater the vacuum of power [is] at risk of being manipulated. A definitive direction with strong leadership to protect Iraq’s sovereignty and people cannot come soon enough.”

In an article for Asharq Alawsat, Ghassan Charbel says that while it may appear that Baghdad’s political troubles are internal, in reality Iraq’s fate continues to be in the hands of other countries: “‘The formation of the government practically needs a compromise between Brett McGurk (U.S. presidential envoy for the international coalition against ISIS) and Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Quds Force). It is true that tensions between Tehran and Washington playing out on Iraqi territory are not new. But it’s also true that this time they are approaching a bone-crushing battle, in the wake of the crisis caused by the withdrawal of Donald Trump’s administration from the nuclear deal and the U.S. return to imposing painful sanctions on Iran.’… It is clear that the rules of the game are no longer in Iraqi hands. And that the political class lost the opportunity to save Iraq from external players despite resorting on many occasions to the ballot boxes. The logic of the state is still the weakest player in Iraq, and internal and external ambitions have made the violation of the Constitution a normal and acceptable practice.”

Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman agrees with Charbel’s assessment, adding that the creation of a coalition is vital for guaranteeing the future of the country: “Since May, the U.S. and Iran have both struggled to put their allies in the seat of power in Baghdad. Although Abadi and Sadr were not ideal candidates for US allies in Baghdad, the former having been close to Iran in the past and the latter, having fought the Americans, [they] were seen as the lesser of two bad choices in Washington as the Trump administration maneuvered to isolate Iran…. Iraq’s coalition building is important. First, it shows that the country is a democracy, whatever its faults. Second, it illustrates how the country is on the fault-line between the U.S. and Iran and how this competition is pulling the country in two directions. Third, it reveals how the Kurdish political leaders have sought to demand that their rights be respected in any coalition agreement.”

By citing recent reports of Iranian missiles in the hands of some Iraqi militias, Al Arabiya’s Mashari Althaydi presents a slightly different picture, pointing the finger mostly at Iran for trying to create sectarian divides in Iraq: “Iran looks at Iraq as an annex, a financial support, a reservoir of human resources and a stick it uses to disturb its neighbors. All this was embodied in the dangerous report, which Reuters published, about Iran transferring missiles to Iraq and training its gangs and militias on how to master the game of Iranian missiles, like it did in Yemen and Lebanon via its tools the Houthis and Hezbollah. The difference between Yemen and Lebanon on one hand and Iraq on another is that the Americans have the upper hand in Iraq…. Iraq is at a crossroads today. It will either be engulfed by Khomeini’s Iran or win for itself.”

According to Arab News’s Baria Alamuddin, the fact that Iran is arming extreme Iraqi factions with ballistic missiles points to a sinister strategy to turn Iraq into a vassal: “Exactly as happened with Hezbollah, Tehran’s ayatollahs hope to discreetly build up these arsenals, providing the capacity to strike Arab, Israeli or Western cities — just as hundreds of Iranian missiles have been fired into Saudi Arabia by Houthi proxies…. Militant encroachment into the economic and reconstruction sector, and social, theological and propagandistic activities are further steps toward the ‘Hezbollahization’ of Iraq….However, there is still time to prise Baghdad away from Tehran’s embrace…. Is the world ready for when veteran terrorists like Al-Khazali, Soleimani and Hassan Nasrallah stage a return to what they do best?”

Of course, Tehran and Baghdad have rejected such theories. For example, Tehran Times cites a statement by Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Mahjoub, according to whom: “all Iraqi state institutions adhere to Provision 7 of the Iraqi constitution. Reports about arming some Iraqi groups with ballistic missiles sent in from Iran are devoid of tangible evidence, the spokesman said. Iran has also rejected the report, saying it is aimed to hurt Iran’s ties with neighbors. ‘Such false and ridiculous news have no purpose other than affecting Iran’s foreign relations, especially with its neighbors,’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said on Saturday.”

Iraqi officials clearly feel stung by the allegations, as demonstrated by this exchange between a news reporter and Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, reported by Rudaw’s Dildar Harki: “at the end of the meeting, Abadi himself said, ‘It’s strange that none of you asked me anything about the reports of the production and deployment of Iranian missiles in Iraq,’ I seized the chance and said, ‘Are those reports true?’ ‘Absolutely not,’ Abadi quipped. ‘It’s all false and whoever is certain of that should tell us where and which location those factories are,’ ‘Besides, why should there be Iranian missile factories in Iraq?’ he said and ended the meeting.”

Of course, as already noted, Iran is not the only actor trying to shape Iraq’s future in order to secure its influence. In an article for Al Monitor, Omar al-Jaffal highlights the contrasting opinions regarding the “U.S.-led coalition’s announcement that its military forces will remain in Iraq indefinitely…. Some opposition voices against the U.S. presence in Iraq have seemed less harsh in recent months, though they say the extension must be approved by the Iraqi parliament. But members of some armed groups affiliated with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) — an umbrella military organization with ties to Iran — absolutely reject the U.S. presence in Iraq…. As the Shiite armed factions have reduced their threats to US forces deployed at military bases in Iraq, it seems no military clashes will erupt between the two sides anytime soon. Yet the factions still reject the U.S. presence, and their positions often fluctuate depending on relations between Tehran and Washington.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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