Iraq needs a government to avoid a perfect storm
Over the past few decades, critical events in Iraq have invariably had much broader repercussions, with the country being a barometer for many of the major issues affecting the Gulf and the wider region. The present political stalemate, with a severe governance crisis and with regional and US-Iran tensions brewing in the background, has all the ingredients to become yet another of those defining events.
Late President Saddam Hussein represented regional despotism at its worst. His natural predisposition for violence and repression was greatly responsible for a brutal eight-year war with Iran. Now, the Iranian regime evokes memories of the conflict to justify some of its aggressive regional policies and antagonism toward the US and its regional allies. The genocide of the Kurds by Saddam’s army and the invasion of Kuwait led the international community to take action, but at that stage the US stopped short of moving into Baghdad to overthrow him.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, the removal of the Iraqi president became a centerpiece of the War on Terror. The deceitful construction of the case for invasion, the anarchy post-intervention, and epic failure of the US-led transitional authority to build an inclusive and democratic government had lasting effects. It dealt a major blow to the American capacity and willingness to project power and influence in the region; it destroyed what, despite all misgivings, was a pillar of the regional balance of power, handing Iran an opportunity to take advantage of the ensuing chaos; and it eventually led to the rise of Daesh, which is still a major regional and global security threat.
The disastrous tenure of Nuri Al-Maliki ended with the pro-Iran prime minister hopelessly watching Daesh take over major cities such as Mosul, as well as large chunks of territory. With a more inclusive approach toward the Sunnis, the departing Prime Minister Haider Abadi managed to precariously hold the country together.
As the ongoing protests in Basra against misgovernment, corruption and unemployment regularly remind Baghdad’s political establishment, Iraq now desperately needs a government, and one that can deliver.
The post-electoral stalemate involves two Shiite-dominated alliances, one nationalist and the other unfalteringly pro-Iranian. One camp is led by populist Shiite preacher Muqtada Al-Sadr in alliance with Abadi, the other is represented by the State of Law Coalition led by Al-Maliki and the Fatah Alliance of Hadi Al-Amiri. Both claim to have the necessary majority to form the next government. In its opening session on Sept. 4, Parliament failed to agree on the new speaker — a required step in the government formation process.
One of the most revealing aspects of Basra’s protest movement is the growing anger against Iran’s presence and negative influence in defining government priorities.
Neither offers much promise for a competent administration that can effectively address the pressing governance issues. However, the nationalist option is the only alternative to fragmentation and what would be a Pyrrhic victory for Iran’s transnational project. In this scenario, pro-autonomy groups among the Sunnis would probably accelerate their emancipation plans. Plus, Daesh is down but not out, with recent estimates pointing to the presence of 30,000 fighters between Iraqi and Syrian territory. A repeat of the sectarian practices of Al-Maliki’s premiership, in a government dominated by leaders of pro-Iranian militias, would only stoke tensions that would play into the hands of Daesh.
Then there is the danger that this could degenerate into intra-Shiite infighting and major tensions between Baghdad/Najaf and Tehran. One of the most revealing aspects of Basra’s protest movement, which was active well before the Arab uprisings, is the growing anger against Iran’s presence and negative influence in defining government priorities. Last week, protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Basra, shouting “we do not want a sectarian government.”
A recent report by Reuters, based on Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources, made the worrying revelation that Tehran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to some of its proxies in Iraq. If confirmed, this could be a game-changing development. As the report notes, it would, among other dangers, confer on these groups the ability to strike neighboring countries. This week, an attack with ballistic missiles by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Iranian Kurdish groups in northern Irbil governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan contributed to a rise in regional concerns about the matter. The caretaker government in Baghdad denounced the attack as a violation of its sovereignty.
The growing US-Iran tensions are also deeply worrying. This week, missile attacks on Basra airport, where the local US consulate is located, and at the Green Zone in Baghdad, which hosts the US Embassy, have been blamed by the US on militias backed by Tehran.
Since this summer’s protests in Basra, the marja, Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment, has been intervening more in the political crisis. According to statements from Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent religious leader, the next prime minister should be a technocrat rather than a familiar political face, and should not have previously occupied the post. This obviously applies to both Abadi and Al-Maliki. Recent reports also indicate that, among the various names put forward for prime minister, the pro-Iranian Al-Amiri has also been rejected.
Sidelining Abadi at this critical juncture — a decision that seems to be heavily influenced by the violent protests in Basra and the government’s inability to meet protesters’ demands — is a risky move. The crisis in Basra reflects long-standing governance problems. The governance record of the departing Abadi premiership may be poor, but its inevitable priority was to fight the Daesh insurgency. It is unrealistic to think that the institutional culture of Iraq’s governing bodies and the depth of Iraq’s challenges, such as corruption, lack of basic services and high unemployment, would be solved in a single government mandate.
• Manuel Almeida is a visiting fellow at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where his research focuses on social contract in the Arab state and its impact on governance and sustainable development. He is also partner at Firma, covering emerging markets and geopolitical risk.