Iraq’s Difficult Political Transition Continues

  • 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


Iraq’s political instability continues as Iraqi politicians attempt to cobble together a governing coalition acceptable to all parties. After the two previous candidates failed to receive the necessary support from the various domestic and regional actors, the country’s president asked last week Mustafa al-Kadhimi to attempt to form a permanent government. As Iraq’s former director of the National Intelligence Services, Mr. Kadhimi is well aware of the challenges facing him amidst a political, economic, and health crisis. Judging from the initial response, the outlook looks positive as various political and sectarian leaders have signaled their support for the prime minister designate. However, given the volatility of the region and the delicate balance that Mr. Khadimi needs to strike to maintain support for his governing coalition, Iraq’s future is anything but certain.

One of the factors contributing to that uncertainty has been the ongoing tussle along Iraq’s border with Syria, where regional and strategic competitors continue to fight for influence. As Asharq Alawsat’s Ibrahim Hamidi recently observed, “With undeclared insistence that is spoiled only by ‘mysterious raids’, a hidden US-Iranian struggle to capture the Iraqi-Syrian borders is raging. A new player has joined the battle. Russia has plunged into this complex theater, expanding its military presence in the US sphere of influence and meddling with Al-Tanf base through the gate of Al-Rakban camp…. The Syrian-Iraqi border has turned into a complex front for regional-international conflict. The strategies of these countries depend on their ability to penetrate the local environment, which has transferred its allegiance over decades and years from one party to another.”

Such scenes have become commonplace since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime resulting in an unending cycle of instability since the 2003 US-led invasion. Writing for the Baghdad Post, Baria Alamuddin argues that instead of benefiting from its vast oil reserves, Iraq has been in an “economic and political freefall, made infinitely worse by Tehran’s determination to exploit its neighbor’s woes for its own benefit. With its own economy in a disastrous state, Iran has buried its fangs into Baghdad, as well as Beirut and Damascus, in a fatal and unrelenting death grip; determined to drag its neighbors down with it…. As citizens of one of the top five countries in the world in terms of oil reserves, Iraqis should be enjoying the wealth of their counterparts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Canada. Instead, Iraq is following the fatal path of Venezuela…. This isn’t just a passing crisis of confidence — public trust in these hollow and discredited governing systems has long since evaporated.”

Daily Sabah’s Othman Riyadh offers a similarly dire diagnosis, while cautioning that the overthrow of the country’s ‘ruling political elites’ in such uncertain times may very well exacerbate the problems, rather than solve them: “Iraqis believe the main cause of the collapse of the country’s political system and economic structure rests on the failure of the ruling political elites, who lack political legitimacy, and the absence of the national identity that frames the political behavior of all social, political and economic forces across the country…. Finally, it is true that the political system in Iraq has reached a dead end, but the greatest of dangers lie in the case of eliminating the political system and bringing it down completely. After all, guarantees cannot be made that the alternative system will be better, especially in the absence of a complete and objective view of what a positive future will look like.”

It is against this background that Mr. Kadhimi will step into the prime minister’s office. A very good illustration of the multifaceted challenges facing the prime minister designate is the otherwise optimistic assessment of Mr. Kadhimi’s candidacy by Rudaw’s Saad Khoury: “Signs of direct support from Tehran for Kadhimi’s government are worrying for Iraq’s staggering sovereignty movement. That said, if Kadhimi can adequately gather and harness the support of his country’s Shiite blocs while fending off Iranian influence, he stands a good chance at securing Iraq’s borders and pursuing full sovereignty for his country. As pro-sovereignty movements like the National Wisdom Council, Mosul’s Nujaifi Brothers, or the National Independent Iraqi Front gain support and organize under the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq, Kadhimi offers a rare opportunity to Iraqis. If he can work with these movements to bridge sectarian divides and free the country from Iran’s hold, he might just succeed in bringing Iraq together. He must not, however, allow Iran to continue to call the shots.”

One of the first tests of the new government will be the management of the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. Iran’s Press TV has unsurprisingly covered the issue at length, characterizing the US military presence as illegal in light of recent resolutions from Iraq’s parliament: “Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi has expressed his resolve to bring an end to any illegal presence of foreign boots on the ground in the Arab country, saying Baghdad will soon hold talks with Washington in this regard. Speaking to Baghdad Today news website on Wednesday, Kadhimi said that he was “serious” about ending any manifestation of the illegal presence of foreign forces in Iraq…. Iraq should not be used as a field to settle scores, he stressed, adding that he would pursue an open policy based on the principle of common interests in the foreign and Arab-Islamic spheres.”

Reports on Mr. Kadhimi’s statements regarding the US presence in Iraq were then immediately followed by public declarations by Iranian military commanders promising to push US forces out of the region, in response to, as this Tehran Times report notes, General Soleimani’s death: “‘The Iraqi government seeks to implement the approval regarding the expulsion of the United States’ forces, and the resistance front will follow the issue and realize it’, Bagheri said during a conference of commanders of police forces. Pointing to assassination of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani, the top commander said the Iranian armed forces gave a proper response and the Iraqi parliament approved a resolution to expel the U.S. forces, which is not a trivial matter…. Hassan Danaeefar, the former Iranian ambassador to Iraq, has said that the United States has no choice other than exiting its forces from Iraq.”

And yet, as Jerusalem Post’s Maya Carlin reminds us, to the degree that much of the anger in the Iraqi streets is aimed at Iran’s continuous meddling in the country, it remains to be seen whether Iran’s influence in Iraq and its ability to continue to exert it have already peaked: “In the past few weeks, frustrated and fed-up demonstrators have taken to the streets of Lebanon and Iraq to voice grievances against their governments. The perception of Iranian infiltration and influence certainly continues to impact this political shake-up in both regions…. In Iraq, anti-Iran sentiment has monopolized the demonstrations. Last week in Baghdad, protesters were pictured torching an Iranian flag…. As Tehran continues to dismiss these protests as inauthentic and foreign-led, demonstrators will only gain more momentum. While Iran grapples with the economic consequences of Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, it may not be able to survive the coupled onslaught of these protests.”

The Nation’s Aya Isandarani argues that it is perhaps for that reason that Iran is increasingly relying on Hezbollah to influence Iraq’s political future: “Shortly after Suleimani’s killings, Hezbollah’s representatives met with Iraqi militia leaders in a bid to unite their ranks. The end goal was to nominate a prime minister capable of putting together a cabinet agreeable to their Iranian patrons and at the same time capable of assuaging the concerns of Iraq’s youth, who had been protesting against institutional corruption, Tehran’s grip on the country and the rule of militias, since October…. Hezbollah seemed ideally positioned to guide Iraq’s fractious militias through what is essentially a contradictory process…. Contrary to its Iraqi counterparts, Hezbollah can count on its image for being “incorruptible”, an advantage in its dealings at home and abroad.”


  • 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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