October 26, 2022

IntelBrief: Iran-Backed Factions Take Control in Iraq

AP Photo/Anmar Khalil

Bottom Line Up Front

  • More than one year after national elections and amid a serious rift in the majority Shia community, Iraq’s major factions are forming a full-term government.
  • The new government will be dominated by leaders that, to varying degrees, support close relations with Iran and are skeptical of relations with Washington.
  • Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s failed efforts to assemble a governing majority or to force his opponents’ hands through large demonstrations, enabled his Shia opponents to take power.
  • Despite the resolution of the government formation process, many Iraqis are still restive and resentful that Iraq’s corrupt and ineffective system of governance will likely not be reformed.

As of late October, a new Iraqi government is expected to be confirmed by the elected, 329-seat National Assembly, more than one year after national elections, once factional negotiations over cabinet seat allocations are completed. During the year, the process of selecting a president and a prime minister, which has executive authority, was stalled over disagreements - which occasionally turned violent - within Iraq’s majority Shia community. The intra-Shia dispute centered on the demands of the powerful and popular Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, mainly that his victory in the 2021 election should translate into the formation of a “majority” reformist government. His desired government would exclude pro-Iranian Shia factions and would commit to dismantling the existing network of patronage and faction-based corruption that have prevented the effective delivery of services or the implementation of impartial justice. Sadr’s opponents are primarily Shias linked to Iranian leaders and Iranian security forces, and insist on preserving the existing governing networks in place to protect their factional sources of revenue and influence. Even though the Sadrists won a significant plurality of parliamentary seats in the 2021 election, the pro-Iran Shia groups - aligned in a coalition called the Coordination Framework - used threats of armed action and leverage over the judiciary and other power centers to block Sadr’s efforts to form a government. Sadr’s responses - to withdraw his faction from the parliament outright and to send his supporters into the streets in large demonstrations - failed to cow his adversaries and resulted in some clashes among pro- and anti-Sadr Shia groups.

Without viable options, Sadr acquiesced, and his Shia rivals assembled a majority in parliament to move forward to form a government. On October 13, the body selected a new President, Abdul Latif Rashid, a Kurd, with a large majority over his competitor, incumbent President Barham Salih. Under an informal agreement, Iraq’s president is to come from the Iraqi Kurdish community, which also controls a constitutionally autonomous government in largely Kurdish northern Iraq. Rashid immediately nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister, a Shia who is a close ally of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki has long been allied with Tehran, considered a long-time foe of al-Sadr, and resentful of the Sunni Arab minority for its role in Saddam Hussein’s rule (1979-2003). Although he owes his new position to Maliki, Sudani is somewhat more moderate than the former prime minister, having previously served as minister of human rights and minister of labor and social affairs. Sudani had hoped to achieve ratification of his cabinet during a parliamentary session on October 22. Still, the confirmation vote has been delayed as factions compete for their preferred seats in his new cabinet.

The new government will likely put several technocrats in key positions, but it is sure to include faction leaders and thereby disappoint Iraqis who are clamoring for reform, as well as frustrate officials in Washington who want to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq. Sudani’s government is unlikely to dismantle the existing allocation system that keeps faction leaders in control of individual ministries, state-owned enterprises, border crossings, and energy facilities. The failures of Iraqi governance were epitomized in the hot summers when Iraq repeatedly failed to produce enough electricity to keep home air conditioners running consistently. Coordination Framework leaders will almost certainly retain essential control of much of the justice sector that many Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arabs and Kurds, consider biased. A key question is whether the preservation of the existing political structure, which many Iraqis view as having achieved power illegitimately, will produce another broad-based uprising as occurred in October 2019. The unrest challenged authorities yet failed to produce significant reform; however, another uprising might provide Sadr the opportunity to push for new elections and, potentially, be able to assemble a reformist government.

The new government also represents a significant setback for U.S. foreign policy, which has not only sought to help Iraq’s government reform but also seeks to limit the influence of the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Prime Minister Sudani does not have a record of engaging in political violence, many of the Coordination Framework factions with power in the new government are militia leaders, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, that have been trained and armed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Qods Force (IRGC-QF). As do their mentors in Iran, these armed factions show no hesitation to use live ammunition against peaceful protesters, to try to assassinate rivals, to launch Iran-supplied rockets and drones against U.S forces deployed to Iraq, or to provide weaponry to Iran-backed factions elsewhere in the region. There is also substantial concern in Washington that Maliki will exercise a significant degree of influence over the new government, positioning him to engineer policies that repress and increase resentment of the Sunni Arab community. Similar policies during his tenure as prime minister (2006 - 2014) contributed to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large amounts of territory and necessitated the return of U.S forces to Iraq after a three-year absence. U.S. officials credit the presence of approximately 2,500 U.S military personnel still in Iraq with keeping ISIS at bay and contributing to Iraq’s stability after the defeat of ISIS in 2018. U.S. leaders are certain to counter any demands by the new government - demands that Iran has been pressing for - for U.S troops to leave Iraq entirely. U.S. officials will be watching closely for any signs that Iraq’s new government will produce renewed instability and increased Iranian influence in a country that Washington had, as recently as two years ago, assessed was well on its way to durable stability and emergence as a significant U.S. partner in the region.