Iraq’s New Government Faces Uphill Battle

  • 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

October 15, 2018

After more than five months of political deadlock, the Iraqi parliament has elected two veteran politicians to lead the country: Barham Salih as president and Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister. Their election and appointment open the way to the creation of a new government, which will have to make economic development one of its first priorities. That task, however, is made harder by the ongoing regional instability and the competition between the United States and Iran, which in many ways has forestalled Iraq’s attempts to rebuild its economy and build bridges across sectarian divides.

The National’s editorial team expresses hope that with the election of the new president and nomination of the new prime minister, the political and security situation in Iraq may have finally taken a turn for the better: “Mr. Salih’s emphatic victory over his Kurdish rival, Fuad Hussein, indicates overwhelming parliamentary support for the former’s trademark unity politics. There are hopes, therefore, that sectarian divisions, which have bedeviled Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein, might be starting to disintegrate – and pragmatic coalitions emerging…. On a deeper level, both Mr. Salih and Mr. Abdul Mahdi are political veterans, enmeshed in Iraqi politics since 2003, when the former was part of the US-backed interim government. But the people of Iraq need quick solutions to the country’s many problems.”

Al Jazeera’s Ibrahim Al-Marashi is more guarded in his optimism, considering the nature of the challenges lying ahead, including a deeply divided political arena and the urgent need for immediate and deep economic reforms: “Abdul Mahdi is largely seen as Iraq’s “compromise candidate”, approved by the two rival Shia blocs in parliament. His main challenge ahead would be to manage the competing interests of these camps, while also addressing the demands of the Kurdish parties and Arab Sunni forces. Most importantly, he will have to face a disgruntled Iraqi public which is increasingly demonstrating its rejection of establishment politics…. If he’s able to allocate more posts to technocrats and empower them to press forward with reforms, Abdul Mahdi might also be able to resolve some of Iraq’s most pressing socioeconomic problems that are currently inciting the population in Basra.”

Writing for Khaleej Times, Arnab Neil Sengupta tackles a similar question, adding that while the selection of two well-known and generally well-respected politicians bodes well for the country, Iraq will also need the support of the international community: “Iraq is off to a new beginning with two seasoned politicians at the helm. But the odds are stacked so overwhelmingly against them, unless Iraq’s friends keep their side of an implicit bargain, it will not be able to bury the past and move on. Further deterioration in Iraq’s security and economic situations, if not checked, would bode ill not only for the country’s future but for regional peace prospects as well. The international community will have to match its words with actions if vested interests try to block Iraq’s emerging leadership from doing whatever it takes to dispel the gloom and steady the ship of state.”

Aside from the economy, many commentators have also expressed their concerns about the ability of Iraq’s new government to balance the competing influences of the United States, its allies and Iran. For example, in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed makes the argument for steering away from the Iranian orbit: “The American-Iranian dispute, despite its risks and disadvantages, represents a great and unique opportunity for the new Iraqi leadership to sail with the country far away from Iranian ambitions. Everyone is waiting to hear the new policy from the new leaders in Baghdad and for them to clearly and seriously state that Iraq is for the Iraqis and that the country will not be part of the conflict and will not be a passage for the Revolutionary Guards or a smuggling market.”

Others, like Ghassan Charbel writing in Asharq al-Awsat, point to the worsening relations between the United States and Iran, as well as to an increasingly volatile security situation in the region, to suggest that under such circumstances Iraqi politicians should focus on rebuilding the country rather than becoming entangled in a regional conflict: “The re-concentration of Iraqi institutions under the umbrella of the Constitution is a necessary first step to put an end to external intrusions into the Iraqi body. It makes no sense for Iraq to remain an arena for Iranian-American confrontation on its soil. This step is even more important given that relations between Washington and Tehran are heading for a new hot season, especially after oil sanctions become effective in the first week of November. Allowing the continuation of the policy of moving pawns on the Iraqi territory threatens to cause major damage to Iraq’s security and economy.”

Meanwhile, the Iranian daily Press TV highlighted recent comments made by the newly appointed Iraqi president, Barham Saleh, who, according to a recent report “has stressed the enhancement of relations with Iran, in his first remarks about the Islamic Republic since taking office as the president of the Republic of Iraq. President Saleh met with Iran’s Ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Masjedi at the seat of the Iraqi presidency, the al-Salam Palace, in the capital on Sunday night. During that meeting, Saleh pointed to the commonalities and the long-running relationship between the two nations and called for the deepening of bilateral ties…. The Iraqi president said the betterment of relations among the countries in the region would serve both Iraq and other regional states.”

And yet, despite such high-stakes games being played between Iran and the United States, Daily Sabah’s Bashdar Ismaee agrees with many others in the region that the ongoing protests in Basra and elsewhere have underlined the necessity for “the Iraqi politicians to come to fore, take true responsibility and finally deliver. There have been too many false dawns, broken promises, weak and corrupt governments, dogged by policies of sectarianism. Ultimately, the only side that loses is the general population. As the protesters’ anger has shown, the public has become indifferent to government formation or political affiliations. These count for little when one is unemployed, has poor electricity supply, contaminated water and lacks other basic services. The failure of Baghdad and the provinces to provide these basic services matters far more to Iraqis than sectarian or regional concerns.”

  • 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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