Iraq remains turbulent. Geopolitical tensions and rivalries exacerbate the situation on the ground and both the US and Iran seem content with the status quo vis-à-vis Iraq. These external actors have displayed no concerted interest in helping Iraq or its people see any form of constructive change in government in the aftermath of the recent elections. There remain a myriad of obstructions to Iraq’s peace and stability, namely the many diverging political groups, a resurgent ISIL threat, and the aforementioned geopolitical tensions that are manifest in insidious form.
Hurdles and Opportunities
Iraq’s politics are still marred by events that crushed the Saddam Hussein administration nearly 19 years ago. The post-2003 political system has been authoritarian in nature, with corruption and poor public services, as well as the discernibly sectarian policies of many of the Prime Ministers that have held office in recent years. A series of protests calling for better governance and reform in 2019, known as the Tishreen movement, forced an election in October 2021. However, largely due to the country’s political divisions, an agreement as to who will comprise the new government remains elusive, as does any significant reform. As the sixth parliamentary elections since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, occurring at a time of significant public dissatisfaction, a vast number of Iraqis refused to vote. With only a 36 percent turnout recorded at the ballot boxes, the election may have only reinforced the political status quo.
That said, the elections did still bring some level of opportunity. The Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, performed best in the election, winning many seats off his rival Shia political power group, al-Fatah, who performed relatively poorly. Encouragingly, new leaders who emerged from the Tishreen uprisings also did better than expected. If these parties can consolidate themselves into a unified parliamentary bloc and survive until the next election in 4 years time, they may be able to gain enough sway in government to push through the required change and have a genuine impact on Iraq’s politics.
A Kurdish Question
Given the major fractures in Iraq’s parliament and the al-Fatah alliance’s rejection at the polls, there is a potential opening for the main Kurdish parties to play a more central role in the state. Sadr intends to exclude al-Fatah and deal with the leading Sunni and Kurdish alliances instead, attempting to form a majority government. If successful, the move could give more weight to the Kurdish parties but this heavily relies on the Kurds’ ability to stay unified in negotiations over their position in parliament. The internal rivalries within the Kurdish political camp have proven to be the main obstacle to their bargaining capacity. But if the main Kurdish parties—the KDP and PUK—can set aside their quarrels, they would be able to constructively engage in negotiations with Baghdad for the betterment of their cause and for the wellbeing of Iraq, beyond that. While the Kurdish factions have a total of 63 parliamentary seats against the 70 or so seats held by the Sunnis, the Kurds (if united) could have greater strength on the ground. They could redefine their role in Iraq from a largely marginalised position, to one of real influence.
The Kurds’ electoral success could strengthen their hand in brokering a settlement with Baghdad, with which there are long-standing disputes. These tensions include the budget allocation for the Kurds and the question of the disputed territories. Under the rule of the former Iraqi PM, Nouri al-Maliki, Baghdad ceased granting the Kurdish forces their portion of the national budget, an issue that has yet to be resolved. Additionally, a range of provinces mostly in the north-east of Iraq, namely: Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin, are contested in whole or in part. The Kurdish Peshmerga took control of a large swathe of these regions during the campaign against ISIL but lost them in the wake of the 2017 Kurdistan Region Independence Referendum. Nevertheless, October’s elections have strengthened the Kurds’ position, perhaps not enough to enable the Kurdish factions to regain some of these northern territories, but maybe sufficiently to allow them to retake some of the funds they view as owed to them.
The ISIL Threat
In spite of the supposed victory of the US-led campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the group remains a significant force. While predominantly vanquished from the territorial control it once held in the region, ISIL has displayed a troublesome—and lethal—capacity for resilience. The organisation now exists in small units of extremist fighters, posing an existential threat that must not be underestimated. Such a danger has become vividly apparent over the course of this month. Sleeper-cell ISIL forces assaulted an Iraqi military barracks in Diyala Province early on the 21st January, killing 11 Iraqi soldiers as they slept. As this brazen attack shows, ISIL still has a threatening ability to inflict damage within the most vulnerable regions of the Levant.
Tensions and Rivalries
The 2003 America-led coalition which deposed of Hussain created a vacuum in the Middle East which has allowed Iran to spread its influence across the region. While the US and its western allies are caught up in the race to end the so-called ‘forever wars’, geopolitical sectarianism fuels the vicious cycle of conflict between Sunni and Shia proxies and militias. The violent theological schism which has divided Islam for centuries thrives in today’s age of conflict in the Middle East, albeit based more on power than religious doctrine now.
This sectarian dilemma is immensely apparent in Iraq, pervading its politics, society, as well as the surrounding international and regional dimensions of its strife. Although the pro-Iranian political group—the Fatah Alliance—polled relatively badly in the election, the likelihood of a constructive transferal of power is low. Muqtada Al-Sadr is the top dog and still has the capacity to maintain a tight grip on the politics of Iraq. At the same time, the question of whether the Fatah’s loss will spark an escalation of violence looms large. In November, the caretaker Iraq PM, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a drone exploded at his Baghdad residence. The attack remains unclaimed but Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), was the only major political figure in Iraq to have his spokesperson applaud it rather than condemn it. He is closely allied to Iran and part of the Iraq government backed coalition of militia known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
In light of the kaleidoscopic range of issues outlined here, the international community and all parties invested in achieving a prosperous future for Iraq must encourage equitable institutional reform and a de-escalation of the wider geopolitical tensions. External strategic competition feeds the incendiary situation of present-day Iraq and those engaged in dialogue must support any available prospects for a peaceful resolution of Iraq’s current internal tensions.