What’s next in Iraqi politics?


After months of delays, Iraq is finally moving forward with the formation of its new government. On September 15, the new Iraqi parliament selected Mohammed al-Halbousi to be speaker. While some Western analysts dismissed him as an Iranian choice, they miss the broader point that Iraqi party lists are increasingly religiously diverse. To suggest Halbousi, the Sunni Arab governor of the Anbar governorate is an Iranian proxy, is on its face ridiculous. The politics behind his selection were complex (and, frankly, rumors that parliamentarians received bribes in return for their votes continue to swirl) but the old narratives to describe the sectarian character of Iraqi politics simply no longer apply.

Iraq's new president al-Halbousi speaks with reporters in Basra, Iraq.

The new speaker of Iraq’s parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, speaks during a news conference in Basra, Iraq September 18, 2018. Reuters

A number of Kurdish figures continue to contest the presidency—the next major office which must be determined. Once again, the politics behind the selection are complex. Barham Salih, a favorite of many in the Washington foreign policy crowd, is one nominee for president. His path to the presidency, however, has damaged his reputation in Iraqi Kurdistan: In order to secure the support of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), he rejoined it and abandoned the reformist party he led in elections; Kurds complain he is hypocritical for joining the PUK after months of pointing out its corruption and questioning its election fraud and question for what, if anything, he now stands.  That said, Barham is charismatic, fluent in Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, and English, and has had long experience in Baghdad in a number of previous portfolios. His chief competitor, Fuad Hussein, is chief-of-staff to de facto Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. On the surface, he is a curious choice given his and Barzani’s efforts to secede from Iraq. Corruption has long swirled around Barzani’s office; Massoud and Fuad made no effort to differentiate between personal wealth, party holdings, and Kurdistan Regional Government property. But, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to which Fuad belongs has been antagonistic to Baghdad ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein (not always before that, though), it is better at the wheeling and dealing of government formation. Barzani has long had close ties to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and has previously given property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to most of the members of Maliki’s bloc.

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Once the president is chosen, the political blocs will turn to selecting a new prime minister. After riots in Basra over lack of government services and comments by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani calling for new blood in the leadership, it appears that Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s quest for a new term are over. Almost immediately, Iraqis floated a number of new candidates’ name: perennial candidate and former oil minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi; former finance minister Ali Allawi; intelligence chief Mustafa Kadhimy, and economic technocrat Mazin Al-Eshaiker, among many, many others. Ultimately, Iraqis will sort that out but it is worthwhile to consider Abadi’s legacy:

Abadi entered office when Iraq’s security situation was at its nadir. The Islamic State had steamrolled through Iraq’s Sunni heartland and ruled perhaps 30 percent of Iraqi territory through a reign of terror. Abadi not only spearheaded the counterassault, simultaneously rebuilding an Iraqi military which had fractured, but his stewardship of the economy was exemplary: He trimmed government spending and payroll and avoided populist solutions that would undermine investor confidence and Iraq’s recovery. He set a personal example as well: he cut his own salary and did not farm out prime positions to his family, as did his predecessors. His efforts to keep the Iraqi currency stable are also impressive, especially given the free fall experienced by national currencies in Iran, Syria, and Turkey. True, there is plenty of room for improvement—the lack of a modern banking sector is hurting Iraq—but Abadi has built a platform for further reform. The creation of a private pension plan is also crucial to spearhead entrepreneurship. Government services fell short in places like Basra but, then again, the nature of the Iraqi governance is that the prime minister does not fully control his cabinet, let alone provincial governance. Many Iraq watchers—myself included—could at times be frustrated with Abadi’s supposed indecisiveness but, in hindsight, he made decisions where and when it mattered.

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Where Abadi will really be missed is as a peacemaker: Iraqi politics have become decidedly less sectarian under his tenure.  Iraqi nationalism is on the rebound, repairing the deep fissures among sectarian and ethnic communities that existed under Abadi’s predecessors. None of this is a coincidence. Abadi is one of those rare figures like the late Jalal Talabani and perhaps Ahmad Chalabi who could talk to all communities, both inside and outside Iraq. He spearheaded rapprochement with Saudi Arabia which once seemed impossible, and ensured even the most nationalistic Kurds would be welcome back into the Iraqi fold. He recognized early the problems caused by Popular Mobilization Units operating outside government control and has rolled back their influence significantly. Most importantly, he has largely prevented Tehran and Washington from fighting a proxy war on his territory, despite the desire by some parties in both countries to do so.

Iraqis do not treat incumbents well. That’s not always a bad thing, given the tendency of Middle Eastern leaders to assume that term limits are optional and offices to be occupied for life. If the parliamentary horse-trading and religious establishment in Najaf ultimately push Abadi aside, one thing is clear: Iraqis will come to recognize just how skilled Abadi was at navigating Iraq through the political, military, and regional vortex.





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