Mixed Messages: Concerns as Early Elections are abandoned in Iraq

Talk of parliamentary elections in Iraq has as of yet revolved around one date: the 6th of June 2021. This date has been highlighted as a shining beacon in the continued turbulence and upheaval that has characterised much of recent politics in Iraq. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been at the forefront of those reiterating that elections would be held on the 6th of June, committing to his promise of early elections and a reformed electoral law in response to the demands of anti-government protests that have rocked the country since October 2019. Indeed, early elections would bring the prospect of reforms closer, reforms that are desperately needed to counteract political instability and allow the people of Iraq to reap the benefits of what will hopefully ensue; much needed economic and social stability.

However the “three Iraqi presidencies”, President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi have just met the The Independent High Electoral Commission in Iraq who have informed them that they cannot meet the 6th June date. Indeed they say they will not be ready until “after September”. Further meetings are now to be held in which the political parties will be represented in order to get everyone’s agreement to a date. The most probable date now seems to be 30 October 2021.

In reality, the majority of actors making up the political fabric of Iraq were concerned about, and even opposed to, the prospect of early elections, which was what made it highly unlikely that elections could go ahead as planned in June. The Kurdish political leadership were apprehensive about early elections; the prospect of swift elections is not perceived to favour established Kurdish parties. This is in part due to the tensions both within the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The failure of rapprochement between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is another factor that shows the unresolved internal issues Kurds are dealing with and that hindered political support for early elections. Nonetheless, Kurdish parties did come together to agree on the unsuitability of June elections. Mohammed Shakir, a member of Parliament from the KDP, said in December that there was “consensus among most political blocs to postpone elections until October 30, 2021”. Shakir highlighted the fact that Parliament does have the power to establish the date of the elections, and must agree to dissolve itself before the elections occur, possibly foreshadowing a tense standoff between demonstrators in Iraq’s streets demanding early elections and the parliamentarians intended to serve them.

Sunni political leadership were also anxious about the June elections in the face of their disunity and disarray. There are two great Sunni blocks: The first is backed by millionaire former Saddam loyalist, Khamis al-Khanjar. The second block is led by the parliament speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi. Currently there is jockeying for power between those loyal to the speaker of parliament Mohamed al-Halbousi and those supporting the Sunni front that has formed in the House of Representatives seeking to oust al-Halbousi, backed by Khamis al-Khanjar. Other Sunni power blocs that are being courted by these two big players are those nominally headed by Osama al-Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi respectively. Thus, al-Halbousi and much of the Sunni establishment have been pushing for delayed elections, with the fear that early elections would cause Sunni parties to lose votes in the face of the strong front of Muqtada al-Sadr’s loyalists.

Indeed, Muqtada al-Sadr and his loyalists appear to have been the only actors set to benefit from early elections. The substantial mobilisation of the Sadrist movement in the demonstrations over the past year, and the momentum they gained, combined with a new electoral law that would likely increase the number of seats they hold in parliament, make the Sadrist a force to be reckoned with, and feared, by other political groups that are not as organised. With the new electoral law distributing seats more widely in smaller districts, this is believed to advantage the Sadrists, who can mobilise their strong support in rural areas and poor, densely populated regions, in part through a strong network of offices run be devoted loyalists applying and distributing information and instructions from al-Sadr. Numerous members of parliament and politicians have voiced that they believe the Sadrist movement are the biggest winners of the new law. In fact, only a few days after the law passed, al-Sadr shifted from saying he would not participate in the elections to declaring not only that he would run, but also that he was planning to win the majority needed for the premiership. Alongside his supporters’ mobilisation in rallies, their clashes with anti-government protesters, and the increasing number of television appearances by Sadrist MPs promoting voting in the elections, it appears that the Sadrists are putting substantial effort into trying to win the election.

Despite being anticipated to do well in the elections, problems will arise for the Sadrists in taking the lead in forming a Cabinet. Without forming alliances with other political forces Sadrists will have trouble obtaining a parliamentary majority, and with many political parties uncomfortable handing over crucial positions in the Iraq government to Sadrists, this will be difficult.

Nonetheless, these Sadrist efforts have also left mainstream Shia political leadership such as Hashd al-Shabi worried about the outcome of the election. Indeed, the disunity between Shia groups also makes it unlikely that they will be able to stand strong against the Sadrists, in addition to low voter turnout for Shia parties stemming from younger voters losing confidence in the election process. This has led many groups to insist on later elections. In fact, a member of parliament of the State of Law Coalition alluded to widespread support of postponed elections, saying that “the general attitude of the political power is that [elections] will be in early 2022, when the current electoral cycle ends”. Some groups have also suggested that if early elections go ahead as planned, they could boycott them; In late November, the Nasr Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, claimed they were considering a “popular and political” boycott of early elections if “fraud and interference” occurs.

This reasoning has often been used by those who did not wish the June elections to go ahead; the risk of fraud and interference. In early December, a representative from the Wataniya Alliance warned against holding elections that could not be protected against interference, calling for the end of “uncontrolled weapons” and “political sectarianism and quotas”. He also questioned the UN’s capacity to supervise the election in “areas under the control of militias” (in reality – in the NCF’s experience, the United Nations has never ever supervised elections in Iraq much beyond the Green Zone and even there, in regard to the count, its efforts have often been more nominal than substantive, their real skill being in supporting rather than monitoring the electoral process). The possibility of interference is incontestably real. Although security has improved in many parts of Iraq, both international and local interference and the possible implications on the holding of free and fair elections are big concerns for the upcoming elections.

A number of parties have also alluded to the Iraq Higher Election Committee’s (IHEC) issues in preparing for the elections as a justification for support for postponed elections. This is also not untrue; IHEC has had notorious difficulties in preparing for the elections. It was only in December that an electoral budget passed through parliament, and with still no formal electoral operational plan and timeline, preparations have been stalling. Several of the biggest challenges for IHEC remain including the introduction of biometric voting, interference, and ensuring voter security.

Biometric voting is amongst the most discussed topics of the elections. Indeed, biometric voting registration has as yet only been used in a handful of countries, and the logistical hurdles in collecting the biometric data of all voting-age citizens who wish to do so and distributing voter cards in Iraq’s tumultuous environment appear close to unsurmountable. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) noted that whilst IHEC operates 1,076 voter registration centres in the country, the weekly average of biometric voter registrations was only 7,200, with 44,000 cards distributed weekly; at that rate, only a further 2% of the 11.3 million voters who do not yet have biometric cards will have them distributed before June 2021. Fraud is also a big concern with biometric voting, including the use of electronic ballots and proxy voting, with fears of wide-scale buying of votes.

Voter security is also a central issue, although often overlooked. Whilst the security situation in a number of areas of Iraq has improved, it is important not to neglect the instability and potential for violence or voter intimidation that could occur during elections, and the repercussions that this would have on the progression of free and fair elections. Some of the areas of greatest concern at the moment are Anbar Province, Ninewa, Northern Baghdad, and more generally north western Iraq, where there is a high risk of militia groups intimidating voters. For example, in Ninewa, Kurdish voters registered in Mosul may fear for their lives when attempting to vote. Constituencies in northern Baghdad may also be at risk of intimidation from groups such as Heshd al-Shabi (or the Popular Mobilization Forces – PMF) attempting to keep Sunni voters from voting (as NCF observers noted was the case in the last election). Further, in most of these regions, international observers will not be able to monitor the election (historically the Next Century Foundation has been the only international group to attempt to monitor extensively in the interior). In these areas and in Iraq as a whole, it is therefore imperative for all parties and groups to allow free and fair elections to occur. Concrete dialogue on the practicalities of ensuring voter security should also be a priority.

Whilst these reasonings are indisputably valid and should take centre stage in the discussions surrounding the preparation for elections, they should not be used merely as cover for the alleged infeasibility of early elections. Elections will in most likelihood be delayed until October 30th, if not later, due to fierce lobbying of parties unwilling to allow the Sadrists to gain an electoral advantage, but it is important that the pertinent issues of biometric voting, voter security, and interference are actually addressed and not used merely as convenient excuses for delayed elections. Another minor but important issue is that the eleven member federal court that ratifies the election result only has nine members and the vacant seats must be filled if elections are to be held (and there are no nominations as yet and no consensus as to who those two judges should be). Early elections or not, the importance of these issues in ensuring that the citizens of Iraq can vote in free and fair elections cannot be overstated. They will lay the foundations of the legitimacy of the next governments of Iraq, and thus dictate its prospects of political stability for years to come.

Iraq: Passing the Electoral Budget is now Imperative

We are rapidly approaching the seven-month mark since Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi acceded to office, somewhat of an accomplishment after the two previous prime-minister-designates failed to form a government. During these seven months, he presided over a number of tentative advances, countered with the continued, oftentimes violent, pro-Sadrist rallies and anti-government protests unsettling many regions.

One of these advances include a controversial election law passing in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s parliament, ratified by President Barham Salih on the 3rd of November 2020. This election law would shift Iraq’s electoral process with the aim of allowing more independents to run; whilst at one time Iraq was a singular electoral constituency, Iraq’s 18 provinces will now be divided into 83 constituencies using the Single Non-Transferable Vote electoral system. Previously, Iraqi political parties could run on unified lists (which had allowed parties to sweep all the seats in a province), now parties will be prevented from running on unified lists, meaning that voters will vote for individual candidates. Moreover, each constituency will have between 3 to 5 parliamentary seats, one of which will be reserved for female parliamentarians, making up 25% of the parliament in total, as per Iraq’s constitution.

Although push for the drafting of the electoral law came from the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the street demanding Iraq give citizens a greater voice, feedback on the electoral law has been mixed. Whilst in theory the new electoral law provides a greater platform for independents to run, therefore lessening the influence of political parties deemed by many as corrupt, a number of legal experts, intellectuals, and protesters claimed the law would not work as intended.

Indeed, once representatives are elected, they will have to form political parties to choose a prime minister. Analysts such as Mr. Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, suggest that parties will send candidates across Iraq to run as individuals, supporting them financially and otherwise, but that they will regroup when elections are over. Nonetheless, legislators, and in particular the Saairun coalition, made up mostly of Sadrists (followers of Muqtada al-Sadr), supported the new electoral law. Many argue that the law will benefit the Sadrists.

Another advance included Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s announcement in July that the next parliamentary elections would be pushed forwards a year to the 6th June 2021, ceding to demands from protesters. Nonetheless, protesters continue to take to the streets, now more than a year since the beginning of the protests, as many continue to face economic hardship, only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic causing international oil prices to drop, and the connected energy, health, and public service crisis. This is backed by a collective anger at the endemic corruption and nepotism plaguing the country. In the backdrop, attacks by fighters loyal to the Islamic State have stepped up in recent months, especially in the provinces of northern Kirkuk, Saladin, and eastern Diyala.

Despite the electoral law being passed in the Council of Representatives, a major roadblock continued to obstruct the advancement of elections, the passing of the electoral budget. Indeed, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has yet to receive the funds needed from the government to organise the elections, despite IHEC having prepared and submitted their budget as part of the government’s overall 2020-2021 budget process Parliamentarians appear to be stalling the process, in fear of the new electoral law giving an overwhelming benefit to the Sadrists. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has been encouraging parliamentarians to pass the budget, and claimed the electoral budget was at the top of the agenda, however, he does not appear to be having the cooperation he needs in this regard.

The work of IHEC has been hampered by this lack of funding. Much remains to be finalised, including biometric voter registration, an audit of electoral IT and result management systems, political party registration, and election security. However, without visibility in terms of a budget, IHEC’s preparation for the upcoming elections are impeded. It is imperative that Iraq’s parliamentarians work together and demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process by passing the budget so IHEC can finally begin finalising the preparations for the upcoming elections.

Understanding Iraq’s Militia

Iraq’s militia groups have been around for many years. However, their presence and indeed, their power, has recently become more evident, which in turn has been a severe setback for Iraq’s democracy. The most powerful militia groups have successfully been able to infiltrate parliament, preventing a good governance of the country. They have been able to silence any of their critics through the formation of pressure groups, as well as posing as a threat to the ongoing anti-government protests. Their network of influence in Iraq must be curbed if a true state of democracy is to be seen in the country.

After the fall of Daesh in Iraq, the militia groups were able to capitalise on the absence of stability in Iraq, filling the vacuum that Daesh left behind. They have now become a threat from within, a roadblock to Iraq’s democratic future.

Militia organisations are by no means unique to Iraq. They exist on a global scale and often arise in times of crises; they often fight on behalf of or as part of a state’s government. In Iraq, the origins of some of these militia groups can be traced back to 1933, during the rule of King Faisal I. During the time of Saddam Hussein, Arab and Kurdish militia groups were created to combat local forces outside of his control. By contrast, State-backed militia included the Ja’ish al-Shabi, or People’s Army, a paramilitary organisation composed of civilian volunteers to protect the Ba’ath government against internal opposition. The 2003 fall of Saddam spawned an insurgency conducted by militia groups, which lasted until 2011, when the American forces were officially ‘withdrawn’ from Iraq.

Once Daesh took over Mosul in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a ‘fatwa’ calling for Iraqis to volunteer and join forces in the fight against Daesh. Collectively the groups involved were known as The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, comprising of roughly forty of Iraq’s militia groups (given official recognition as a force by the Iraq government on 15 June 2014). The PMF comprise “a spectrum of actors”; predominantly Shiite, but also Sunni, Christian and Turkmen. Because of the PMF’s role in defeating Daesh in Iraq, they were officially incorporated as an independent unit into Iraq’s security services in 2016.

Within the heterogenous umbrella of the PMF, the Badr Organisation (Brigade), Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Peace Companies (also known as the Peace Brigades, and formerly known as the Mahdi Army) have fought as counterinsurgents. Three of the leaders of these militia in 2014 also made up those within the overall chain of command of the PMF; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah (later assassinated by America); Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq; and Hadi al-Amiri, the chief of the Badr Organisation. These four militia groups are currently the largest players on the militia field in Iraq, and understanding their background and motives is important when looking at the way forward for democracy in Iraq.

Although the PMF was formally accountable to the Prime Minister in Iraq, the real commander was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and his assassination in January 2020 brought uncertainty to the future of the PMF. Many have called for the dismantling of the unit, due to the fractious relationships within the group itself since the assassination, and due to the division it has caused in Iraq. As aforementioned, there are a range of militia groups within the PMF, and many have remained loyal to each of their factions rather than the State. Indeed, many of the calls for the abolition of the PMF have come from the US, whose forces have endured many attacks over the past few months at the hands of the PMF and other allegedly pro-Iran militia. However, the dismantling of the PMF is much easier said than done, with groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah remaining armed and well-funded, and the PMF having a great impact on politics in Iraq.

The Badr Organisation (also known as the Badr Brigade) is one of Iraq’s most powerful “pro-Iran” Shiite militia groups, headed by Chief Commander, Hadi al-Amiri. The group was originally formed in 1982 by Iraqi exiles to fight against Saddam Hussein, and at that time, was supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Badr Organisation is now an official political party in Iraq and leads the second largest political bloc in the Iraq parliament. The group is incredibly powerful, with control of the Interior Ministry and an influence across all of Iraq’s politics. The Badr Organisation still benefits from the support of Tehran, and has an estimated 50,000 fighters in its ranks.

Perhaps the most prominent militia currently, Kata’ib Hezbollah, was formed in 2006, by military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This militia group is closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is another one of the most prominent Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. As aforementioned, their former founder and military commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was assassinated in a US airstrike in January 2020, alongside Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani. Currently, the group is being led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi.

Kata’ib Hezbollah have been involved in many recent attacks against US forces. They have become the Iranian proxy fighting the US within Iraq, as their group ideological belief includes an aspiration to defend Iran’s interests against their ‘enemies’. The organisation has also been accused of several grave crimes, such as the killing of 24 protestors in December 2019 and the capture and torture of many more, in demonstrations against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. More recently, Kata’ib Hezbollah were behind the July 6th assassination of Hisham al Hishimi, who was critical of the militia group. Hisham al Hishimi had also pledged his support for the current Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who had sent Iraq’s forces to raid Kata’ib Hezbollah bases in June 2020; his killing may have been to send a message to al-Kadhimi. 

The Peace Brigades are a revival of the former Mahdi Army, which was formed and led by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2003 and disbanded in 2008. In 2014, the group reformed to create the Peace Brigades. The Mahdi Army were part of the Shiite uprising against US forces in Iraq, until Muqtada al-Sadr called for a ceasefire and the disbandment of the group. Muqtada al-Sadr is an incredibly influential figure in Iraq; for many, he is seen as a symbol of resistance to foreign occupation. Most recently, al-Sadr criticised attacks on foreign missions in Iraq, and called on the perpetrators to cease these attacks. Despite his ties with Iran, he was against Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s politics. This position seemed to change after the assassination of Soleimani in January. His position has also shifted in response to the anti-government protests; what he once supported and provided aid to, he condemned. His erratic U-turns are not unknown, however, after his recent changes in position, he may be losing his influence in Iraq.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is another prominent “pro-Iran” Shiite militia group, who have claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on US and Coalition forces in Iraq. They were formed by Qais al-Khazali in 2006. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has been described as another violent Iran proxy in Iraq and estimates in 2014 stated the militia group was receiving up to $2 million USD per month from Tehran. The militia group has been accused of many heinous crimes in Iraq, including abductions, forced disappearances and the torture of Sunni Iraqis. In December 2019, the group was thought to have murdered nine protestors during the anti-government protests. Alongside Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is an incredibly strong and well-armed group, and one that still has a tight grip on Iraq.

The pressure on Mustafa al-Kadhimi to tackle these militia forces is mounting. Not only does the continued presence of strong, armed militia pose a serious threat to next year’s early elections, currently still planned for June 2021 (but likely to be postponed), attacks by militia groups also may lead to the closure of the US Embassy in Baghdad. There are a plethora of issues that these actions could exacerbate, such as the current economic and political crises facing Iraq. Furthermore, the continued prevalence of “pro-Iran” militia groups in Iraq also means the continuation of the profound influence that Iran has over Iraq’s security and politics. Kata’ib Hezbollah, along with other militia groups, stated last week that the attacks against US forces would stop, but only if the Iraq government will present a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

The Iraq government has now pledged to the US forces that they will take further measures against the militia organisations, however, it is still unclear what these acts will entail; direct confrontation with the militia groups may well result in further death and instability in Iraq. In such a volatile environment, the road to peace and free democracy in Iraq is not a simple one. It requires good governance, action, and a true balance of interests.

Is the US Embassy shutting down in Iraq?

Tensions are rising in Iraq this week, due to the Trump administration threat to close the US embassy. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed that this action was being considered due to the threat of attack on both US troops and the embassy from Iran-backed militias. Recent weeks have seen an increase in rocket launches near and at the embassy. Pompeo warned Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi that if the Iraq government did not take more action against these forces and crackdown on the powerful militias then the embassy would close.

Iraq Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, said this week that closing the US Embassy in Iraq would be “disastrous”. He claimed that the departure of the US embassy may prompt other embassy withdrawals from Iraq.

The US has already ordered a partial evacuation of the embassy, and several reports have claimed that diplomats have been told to prepare to withdraw completely. For now, it is a waiting game to see what actions the Iraq government will take, but it is expected that these actions will be announced imminently, due to an apparent ten-day timeframe that the US administration gave to Iraq’s leaders almost one week ago.

At this point in time, it is unclear whether the intention behind the threat to close the US embassy in Iraq is to place pressure on the Iraq government to strengthen their action against the militias, or whether it is part of a grand plan to begin lessening post-war US presence in Iraq. The US had already planned to cut its military footprint by half in Iraq in September.

With just weeks to go until the US Presidential elections, this action opens up the possibility of military action between the US and the Iran-backed militia groups.

Iraq’s Democracy: The ‘Upcoming’ 2021 Elections

It is almost a year since mass anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, demanding a dismantling of Iraq’s political system, a system which has been marred by corruption and dogged with instability for years. These protests are ongoing, although demonstrations have lessened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The protests have resulted in the unfortunate deaths of approximately 700 of the protestors as well as over 20,000 injured, to date.

In November 2019, Iraq’s former Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned as a result of the ongoing protests. The Next Century Foundation welcomed Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power in May 2020. On 31st July 2020, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi called for early elections on 6th June 2021, as opposed to the existing due date of May 2022. Al-Kadhimi stated that “everything will be done to protect and ensure the success of these polls” and the United Nations praised the idea of early elections, arguing that they would “promote greater stability and democracy” in Iraq, something that has arguably been in short supply in Iraq’s most recent parliamentary elections.

Early elections were one of the demands called for by Iraq’s protestors, as well as the creation of a government of technocrats. However, the demonstrations were not the only driving force behind al-Kadhimi’s decision to call for early elections. Iraq has been plagued with a dire economic crisis as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in international oil prices collapsing. Iraq’s economy draws ninety percent of its budget from oil revenues and the pandemic has increased the fragility of both Iraq’s economy and government. Alongside this, Iraq is facing energy, health and public service crises and the need for a functional and efficient Iraq government is becoming ever more imperative. Indeed, al-Kadhimi is also facing severe opposition from pro-Iran militia groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah. These groups hold a strong presence on the streets. Over the years, they have entrenched themselves within the state.

The early elections have seemingly garnered support in almost all of the political blocs. Mohammed al-Halbousi, Speaker of Parliament, has even claimed to advocate elections earlier than the June 2021 date, but this is unlikely to happen. The most notable endorsement has come from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has backed al-Kadhimi’s plans and urged the government to follow through with early elections, stating that the snap elections are “not an end in and of itself, but a means of leading Iraq out of its current conundrum that is caused by political, economic, health, and services shortcomings”. These are the most powerful remarks al-Sistani has made on Iraq’s governance since 2003 and with them, al-Kadhimi has received the backing of the highest religious authority in Iraq. Since al-Sistani’s speech on 13 September 2020, the militia have been silent on the matter. This does not negate al-Kadhimi’s need to control the militia, indeed, it puts further pressure on him to attempt to control these groups.

Despite general support for snap elections, the Electoral Law, Independent High Electoral Commission and Iraqi Federal Supreme Court are themselves a “trilateral threat” to the June 2021 elections.

On 24 December 2019, prior to the announcement of early elections, a new draft electoral law was voted in. This electoral law was passed in response to pressure from the anti-government protests, with Shiite parliamentary blocs adopting the draft to the satisfaction of protestors and to the disquiet of the Kurdish blocs and some Sunni powers. The draft electoral law proposes a shift from proportional representation within governorates (the method that has been in place since 2005) to individual candidacy in smaller electoral constituencies. Votes will be counted electronically. The Kurdish blocs believe this method would deprive them of votes in mixed areas where the Kurds constitute a minority and the Sunni powers have voiced concern about electronic counting and the fear that this could be rigged.

The Office of the Speaker of Parliament has not to sent this draft electoral law to the President for ratification, due to continuing debates within the Iraqi Parliament on certain components of the law, such as the actual constituency boundaries. The absence of this action casts doubts on whether the new electoral law will even be in place in time for the early elections, which perpetuates the same lack of true democratic freedom for Iraq’s citizens that manifested itself within the last election. Many of the political blocs now agree that they passed the draft law because of the pressure from protestors.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party appears to be the only political bloc still voicing opposition to the timing of the early elections on the basis that the electoral law is not yet confirmed. They have accused al-Kadhimi of only calling the elections to please the protestors and to gain their support, rather than enacting them as a solution to the real issues facing Iraq. However, if no new electoral law is passed in time for the snap elections, then the 2021 elections will hold no significant weight. 

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) presents its own issues. On 15 December 2019, the Law of the IHEC was adopted, which approved the formation of the Board of Commissioners from among a draw of independent judges. However, debates about reform are continuing, and protestors have lobbied for only retired judges to sit on the Commission as opposed to serving judges. This is to ensure that no influence from political parties infiltrates through to the IHEC. The uncertainty surrounding the make-up of the offices of the IHEC hinders preparations for the early elections, casting another shadow on the hope for fair and independent elections in June 2021.

The Next Century Foundation has submitted a written statement to the 45th Session of the UN Human Rights Council to urge the elected representatives of the Republic of Iraq to take all necessary action to follow the guidance of the IHEC prior to the upcoming elections, and to cooperate closely with the IHEC on all matters related to the elections. The UN expressed their support for early elections after meeting with the IHEC in early September and has confirmed they will be overseeing the elections in order to ensure the elections are run in a free, transparent and fair way. It remains critical that the composition of the IHEC is confirmed soon.

Early elections would bring some promise and hope for a future Iraq government that is not ridden with political fragmentation, as well as an opportunity for Iraq’s citizens to express their own self-determination and free will through a democratic vote. However, the likelihood of free, equal and fair elections taking place on 6 June 2021 is minimal, largely due to the issues with the electoral law and the IHEC. Over the years, the faith that Iraq’s citizens once had in living in democracy has been eroded, with voter turnout of only 40% in the 2018 elections. The 2021 elections could be Iraq’s final chance to demonstrate its commitment to democracy.

Healing the Nations – Book Now!

The Next Century Foundation’s 
Healing the Nations
Summer Conference


The Next Century Foundation is holding a ten-day online conference over the end of July and the first week of August.

Events will be taking place covering all of the Foundation’s key nations and areas.


To book, contact ncfmepp@aol.com with details of which sessions you are planning to attend.
Sessions will run in the mode of the NCF’s successful weekly meetings, mixing input from knowledgeable speakers and key players with both breakout room and round table discussions.

This conference provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and beyond, and gain on-the-ground insights simply unavailable in mainstream reporting.

We would be honoured if you would join us in confronting the key issues in these countries and working towards peace and positive change through constructive discussions – just have as we have for the last three decades.

Conference Sessions
(London BST)

Thursday 30 July 
11.20 am US/UK 
3 pm Lebanon

Friday 31 July
3 pm Palestine 

Saturday 1 August
3 pm Libya

Sunday 2 August
3 pm China

Monday 3 August
11.30 am Afghanistan 
3 pm Iran 

Tuesday 4 August
11.30 am Iraq
3 pm Syria 

Wednesday 5 August
11.30 am Kashmir 
3 pm Yemen

Thursday 6 August
11.30 am Israel 
3 pm Sudan

Friday 7 August
3 pm Bahrain

Saturday 8 August
3 pm Conclusions

Image: Sunrise in San’a, Yemen taken by yeowatzup / CC BY

Reflections on Iraq

Iraq needs a Premier

Since the failure of Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi to form a government things in Iraq have been going nowhere. Technically the President has a 15 day window, a breathing space in which to find a new premier. The name currently being touted is that of Iraq’s Intelligence Chief, Dr Mustafa Al-Kazemi – but is anyone willing to take on this poisoned chalice? To hear the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General’s podcast on the subject click here.

This is the most dangerous time in Iraq’s history since 2003. Some suggest that the risk is that there might be a Shiite – Shiite civil war (presumably between forces led by Hadi al Amri and forces led by Muqtada Sadr) and that the aftermath of that might lead to a dictatorship. It seems there is no interest in making Iraq a better place, no pressure or incentive whatsoever to work toward better managing (reducing) divisions that could erupt into violence. Some say that Baghdad has become a place of competing warlords.

Iraq is a failed state. It’s a conundrum. Partitioning is one proposition but that is unlikely to ever happen. Too many see it as breaking the country apart.

Whomever is premier is held hostage to the political parties. Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi’s ideas about a quasi independent government to satisfy the demands of the demonstrators might have worked from a man more willing to at least listen to advice.

Iraq needs a transformation of governance, not just a change of government that amounts to no more than changing one’s clothes.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi had to go whether or not Ayatollah Sistani called for him to go. He presided over the corrupt system that the protesters wanted gone, with good reason.

But a new beginning is needed.

And now nobody really wants the job of Premier. Indeed with oil at $25 a barrel because of the ongoing oil price race to the bottom between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the job of premier of Iraq has become a true poisoned chalice. Iraq needs $70 a barrel to balance the budget.

However the real conundrum is that the corruption will not end with a simple change of government.

What the protesters have been calling for, with widespread support among virtually all ethnic and religious communities, is the transformation of governance, not a mere change in government.

Life goes on and as long as national revenue is shared with the governorates and KRG, life will be managed to some extent at the provincial and regional levels.

Iraq has become the 4th highest of 96 oil-producing countries. After 17 years, the national government can very well deliver oil but it hasn’t even delivered clean water to the people of Basra.


Iraq’s premier designate struggles to get approval for his cabinet

Iraq’s Premier designate, Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi, is struggling to gain approval for his cabinet. He claims to be struggling to keep his team independent to satisfy the demands of the demonstrators. Both the Kurds and some of the Sunnis stand against him. And now he has also managed to lose the support of some key Shiites. Initially he gave parliament a Monday deadline to assemble and approve his team. This was first extended to Thursday and has now been extended to Saturday. One close friend of the NCF comments:

How can progress be made in an environment where the real political power is outside the government, not inside, especially when that’s the way folks with real political power like it and want it to remain? They are the chairmen of the board who have power over the company executives they appoint.

Independents like Adil Abdulmahdi cannot do the job expected by the general public. What real power would Kurds have in Baghdad if they do not demand an appropriate share of what is likely to happen – no systemic change, just a change of clothes.

Adil Abdulmahdi had no backing/militia/group support. Sistani who is outside the government called for him to resign and the next day he does. Barham Salih has no real political power, even the few cogs in the government machinery he can turn are dependent on the cogs that are turned by those outside government. The Iraqi parliament is impotent, just another set of cogs in a machine run by outsiders.

Iraq is a failed state. No one I’ve chatted with can see a way out, especially with Iran in real control and having no interest in Iraq becoming the stable and prosperous country it could and should become, and especially with the US trying to squeeze the last drop of toothpaste out of the Iranian tube. Only the Kurds and Sunnis can begin to act independently of that strong dominating force.

What do we have to add to our armchair prognostications other than time – Trump losing the November election, the US conditionally lifting the Trump sanctions on Iran, the US with European backing engaging Iraq politically, diplomatically, and effectively, which at this time I am incapable of imagining.

Last evening, I watched a documentary on Netflix “Sergio” based on Samantha Power’s book that I read about 10 years ago. The situation in Iraq requires a Sergio who can work with ruthless folks to resolve a severely intractable situation. But even a Sergio could be incapable of cutting through such a conundrum. Iraq is where Sergio was killed. The UN is more impotent than ever, look at Syria!

For the NCF Secretary General’s position on this issue see this podcast:




So who Created ISIS?

William Morris, the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, addressed lecturers at Takrit University in Northern Iraq as a precursor to discussions the subject of which was, at Takrit University’s behest, the role of Iran and America respectively in Iraq. This podcast was made in the aftermath of that meeting and reflects salient points from that discussion. Podcast from NCF Secretary General William Morris on this link

The following observation and associated note for clarification is relevant and comes from our senior member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry:

Following the drone assassination of two top military commanders – one Iranian and the other Iraqi, an Iranian military strike against US military forces in Iraq, and the Iraqi Parliament passing a non-binding resolution for withdrawal of US forces, the US-led coalition and Iraqi military have since resumed joint operations against ISIS. In addition, the US is negotiating to install defensive Patriot missiles in Iraq. Further, the US is urging a review of the SFA.

To clarify:

In 2008, the US and Iraq entered into two binding agreements.

  • One, the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), covered the overall political, economic, and security relationship.
  • The other, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), required all US combat forces to withdraw from major populated areas by end-June 2009 and for all US forces to withdraw from Iraq by end-December 2011.

These binding agreements were decided and signed during the White House administration of President George W. Bush. They were publicly endorsed by both Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani and US President George W. Bush in December 2008 in Baghdad.

Thus, contrary to misinformation, President Obana DID NOT decide to withdraw US forces from Iraq. In 2014, in reaction to the ISIS onslaught, however, upon the invitation of the Iraqi government, President Obama DID decide to send US combat forces back into Iraq.

President Obama used the 2001 Authority for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda and other associate militant groups that was passed by the US Congress on 14 September 2001 and signed into law by President George W. Bush on 18 September 2001.


Former US presidential envoy speaks candidly about Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, a senior national security adviser to three presidents, left the Trump Administration after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Our Senior NCF member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry, shared this fascinating insight from Andrew Dyer of the San Diego Union Tribune datelined Jan. 23. It is of particular interest because the NCF is partnering with Takrit University’s Department of Peace Studies and for our first guest lecture, this Thursday, they have asked us to talk to students on the involvement of the USA and Iran in Iraq. For the original text see this link:

SAN DIEGO — A former national security advisor under three presidents, including President Donald Trump, described the administration’s current Middle East policy as “aimless” and flawed during a recent talk at San Diego State University.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December 2018 as special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat ISIS, described his experiences in the region, from when he first arrived as an adviser to the early Iraq provisional government, set up under then-President George W. Bush, until he left shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned and Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

McGurk said during his talk that Trump’s decisions in the Middle East over the last three years — such as pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, pulling U.S. forces out of Syria and assassinating Iran’s top general — were indicative of a poorly thought-out strategy.

“I just don’t think the Trump Administration has thought this through,” he said.
McGurk said that withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal has resulted in a series of consequences that effectively leaves the U.S. in a “strategic trap” with Iran.

“(The Iran deal) was an arms control deal — it wasn’t designed to change the Middle East,” McGurk said. “It was designed to put this horrible problem at least on the back burner (so) we can deal with other things in other ways, and that makes strategic sense.”

Trump criticized the international deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for certain limits on the country’s nuclear program, during his 2016 campaign. In May 2018, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal and reimposed sanctions on the country.

In 2019 Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which had been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, began targeting U.S. facilities in the country. In December, the U.S. struck back at some of those militias in Iraq and Syria with airstrikes.

In retaliation, militia supporters broke into and set fire to part of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, leading to Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a January drone strike.
Days later, Iran launched missiles at two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops and, during the strikes, also shot down a Ukrainian airliner after it took off in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard.

Trump then announced new sanctions on Iran. Sanctions aren’t the solution, McGurk said.

“(The Trump Administration) thinks sanctions will fundamentally change Iran’s behavior, but there’s no evidence of that at all,” McGurk said.
“It makes their behavior worse. Everything is going the wrong way.”

Another consequence of the Soleimani strike — which occurred at the Baghdad airport — was a vote in Iraq’s parliament to kick the U.S. out of the country.

While McGurk said he felt a sense of justice in Soleimani’s death, “elementary errors” by the Pentagon in the immediate aftermath — such as the drafting of a letter announcing the U.S. would comply with the country’s parliament and withdraw entirely from Iraq — did not paint the U.S. in the best light in the region and among our allies, he said.

“It makes people think we don’t know what we’re doing,” McGurk said.

The talk at SDSU, which was hosted by the nonpartisan nonprofit San Diego Diplomacy Council and the university’s Fowler School of Business, attracted more than 120 people. McGurk took questions from attendees about a broad array of U.S. policies in the Middle East — especially on the fight against ISIS.

McGurk addressed the controversial decision by Obama not to order air strikes in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was credibly accused of using chemical weapons in 2013. Obama was on record as saying the use of such weapons was a “red line” Assad could not cross.

McGurk said he didn’t think U.S. airstrikes would have been effective in that instance. He cited strikes ordered by Trump in response to more chemical weapons use by Syria in 2018.

“I am skeptical of the view that had Obama enforced the red line, that that would have been the end of Assad,” McGurk said. “Trump has done two series of air strikes against the Assad regime after the use of chemical weapons, and it made no strategic difference in the conflict at all.”

After his talk, McGurk spoke with the Union-Tribune about why it’s important for the U.S. to maintain a presence in Iraq and Syria, because of potential Russian involvement there.

“We built a force of 60,000 Syrians, and it gave us some leverage against Russia, and President Trump gave it up overnight,” he said.
“I thought that was a big disaster. But if we can’t stay in Iraq, then we also can’t stay in that chunk of Syria we’re still in…. The vacuum will be filled by ISIS and by Iranian-backed militias. And the great power that will come in to fill our space is Russia. So we need to stay. “

McGurk currently serves as the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University.