Futuristic Readings No.10-2022
The future of the Formation of the New Government
In the Spiral of Iraqi Conflicts
Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish house conflicts; international & regional influences
– Researchers: Dr. Yousif Goran, Dr. Omed Rafiq Fatah, Dr. Abid Khalid Rasul,
Dr. Hardi Mahdi Mika
– Centre for Future Studies – Sulaimani – Iraqi Kurdistan Region
– April 2022
Section One: Intra-Shiite conflict and its impact on the future of the Iraqi stalemate
Section Two: A divided Kurdish home-front; an opportune moment for threats on the region
Section Three: Delayed conflicts on the Sunni front and the formation of the new Iraqi government
Section Four: International and regional influences in the formation of the new Iraqi government
More than six months have passed since the last Iraqi parliamentary elections (held on October 10, 2021). However, the Iraqi political forces have yet to elect a new president or form a new Iraqi government. Instead, they remain locked in the first stages of government formation. The events that have taken place in Iraq and the broader region over the last two years suggest that now, more than ever, the Iraqi parties and the internal Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni forces need to come together and form an understanding. Internal and external threats encircle Iraq. These threats include the potential for a resurgence of terrorism, the renewal of widespread protests in central and southern Iraqi cities, the withdrawal of coalition allies, intensifying regional and supra-regional conflicts and a more influential Turkish and Iranian role in Iraq’s sovereign and political affairs. In contrast to these current threats to the Iraqi political process, Iraq’s Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni political forces are locked in political conflicts with one another and internally within each group. These parties are more divided than ever and have prepared themselves for new attacks on one another. All the while, no political movements or coalitions in Iraq have succeeded in forming a new government without others.
Through four topics, issue number 10 of Futuristic Readings discusses the situation in Iraq through the scope of the internal conflicts within each of Iraq’s three primary communities; Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and their internal problems. The issue also discusses the influence of international forces and regional countries on the Government formation process in Iraq.
Intra-Shiite conflict and its impact on the future of the Iraqi stalemate
Following the elections on 10 October 2021 and the emergence of the Sadr Coalition as the largest Shiite party with 73 parliamentary seats, a fierce dispute erupted amongst Iraq’s Shiite forces, particularly between the Sadr Coalition on the one hand and the other Shiite forces on the other. The dispute progressed to the point where the Fattah Coalition formally appealed the election result, which was rejected by the Iraqi Supreme Court. Initially, the Saadrist emerged as the victors of the election as they emerged from the election, the result of which was widely accepted, as Iraq’s largest political block. However, when the new parliament took their seats, a three-way agreement between the Sadr Movement, the Sunni coalition (Azm and Taqadum) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (‘KDP’) on the new parliament speaker caused a rift among Iraq’s Shia forces. The rift led to the formation of two Shia fronts, the Coordination Framework Coalition led by Sadr and the three-party coalition that later became known as the National Liberation Coalition. However, after three attempts by the National Liberation coalition to hold a parliamentary session to elect Iraq’s new president and prime minister, on all three occasions, the coalition failed to reach the required parliamentary attendance to hold a valid legislative session. As a result they failed in their aim to select a new president, candidate for prime minister and form the new (majority) Iraqi government.
Here, it is important to discuss the factors that contributed to the deterioration of relations between Iraq’s different Shiia forces and the deadlock between them.
1.1. Balance levels of Representation and Administration
The distribution of government positions and administrative units in Iraq is based on sectarian, ethnic, party and regional quotas. This is particularly the case after the abolition of the provincial councils, which played both legislative and oversight roles within the administrative units. Currently, the only local representative body in terms of the provision of public services is the governor. Hence, competition for these posts provided for the deepening rift between rival Shiia forces, especially after the governorships of Najaf and Nasariya governorates were awarded to candidates from the Sadr Movement. This changed the political map, as, previously, most of the southern Iraqi provinces were previously held by the forces of the Da’wah Party, the Hikma Movement and Fatah.
1.2 The armed conflict of the national majority government
Although most Shiite political forces in the Coordination Framework Coalition maintain independent armed forces, which officially fall under the authority of the Hashd Al Shabi, the motivation of the conflict at this level is that the Sadr Movement wants to control the Iraqi state through their calls to reorganise these forces.The Coordination Framework Coalition’s primary concern is that this rhetoric is used to create accountability for the forces. Another factor behind this issue is the national majority government, which has increased these concerns due to it being a consensus constitution. Others interpret Sadr’s insistence on forming a national majority government as an attempt to marginalise others.
1.3 Paternal Authority
Due to his neutrality, age and devotion to religion, the Supreme Marja’ Ali Al-Sistani has refrained from giving any political opinions for a long time. As a result, this has created a political vacuum in the Shia community that has further fragmented the community. Several factors can change the game in the Shia community; the battle for religious and political charisma, political backgrounds, historical family heritage and social backgrounds in religious and political affairs, and popular support through populist discourse. Together, these factors would allow someone like Muqtada al-Sadr to be better placed than other political leaders to form the next government. However, he would also need the charisma of a religious Marja, or at least be given this nickname due to his rank in the Shia community. Muqtada al-Sadr has repeatedly claimed that the government he would create would be fatherly. However, the Coordination Framework Coalition describes him as only a political leader, not a religious Marja, as Muqtada al-Sadr has his own front and is not a neutral character. On the other hand, the historical conflict between the wings of the Islamic Da’wah Party has seen several splits at different stages. It has played a negative role in deepening the conflict, especially as the Sadr family considers itself the party’s owners. Therefore, the historical conflict between Sadr and Maliki is visible. The previous clashes between Maliki’s government and Sadr’s Mahdi Army forces may prolong the stalemate between the two movements because Sadr is on record that he does not want the Rule of Law faction to participate in the government.
The Divided Kurdish Home: The transition for opportunity to threat against the region
Given the political turmoil, instability and uncertainty of the region’s future, the Kurds may never have needed unity and togetherness to unite capabilities and counter the threats against them. However, the opposite is true on the ground. The Kurds are not unifying their discourse, forming a unified strategy, or reaching a consensus on the best means to confront the current threats and how to seize their current opportunities.
Currently, there are several significant issues facing the Kurdish home, and the prospects for their solution are uncertain, given the current positioning of Kurdish forces and the gap between them in their discourses. Some of these issues relate directly to the region, while others are the consequence of Iraqi, regional and international conflicts, the most important of which are:
2.1 The issue of the Kurdistan Regional of Iraq’s Elections
According to the 1992 Kurdistan Parliamentary Election Law, the current session of parliament will end in a few months, and new elections should be held in November this year. However, in recent months, the parties have not agreed on an amendment to the law, and the composition of the Election and Referendum Commission. This has stalled the legal and administrative preparations resulting in a divided Kurdish homefront creating new threats against the region. There is no doubt that these developments will impact Kurdish participation in the new Iraqi government.
2.2 The issue of the management of the Kurdistan Region’s natural resources
The issue of natural resource management is one of the primary areas of conflict between the Kurdistan Region Government and the Iraqi Federal Government. On the one hand, through its unilateral interpretation of the relevant articles of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government believes itself entitled to produce and export the oil within its territory. In contrast, through its interpretation of the same document, the Iraqi Federal Government insists on its exclusive authority in this area. Therefore, the differences here are between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Iraq, not between the Kurdish parties. As the main components of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party are agreed on oil production, export, and the sharing of its revenue between themselves. Oil production and exports have been based on agreement by both parties. Both parties also had a common stance on the administration of the region’s oil. However, this shared vision is not guaranteed to continue if the two parties, as the main Kurdish forces in Iraq, disagree on their method of participation in the new Iraqi government, especially after the Iraqi Federal Court ruled oil production and exports by the Kurdistan Region Government as unconstitutional. The new legal development requires the Kurdistan Regional Government to enter talks with the Iraqi Federal Government. However, to succeed, the Kurds need to present a stronger and more unified view of their right to manage the natural resources within their territory to the Iraqi Federal Government.
2.3 The political process in Baghdad and its consequences on the Kurdish front
After the last Iraqi elections (2021), new issues such as the formation of the new Iraqi government, the appointment of a new president and the division and polarization within the Shiite community have, rather than becoming an opportunity, also created division and disputes within the Kurdish front; with the Kurdistan Democratic Party entering into the tripartite coalition of, Barzani, Sadr and Halbusi. Due to its reaction against the KDP’s move, the PUK’s insistence on the presidency and the PUK’s reservations on the tripartite front, it (with understanding and solidarity, not agreement) approached the Coordination Framework Coalition. What remains of the Kurdish front are the seats of the New Generation Movement and the Islamic Union of Kurdistan. However, in line with their calculations on the current political state, these Kurdish parties are orchestrating their positions with the Tishrins, bouncing between the Tripartite Coalition and the Coordination Framework Coalition.
On the position of the Kurds, what is clear is that in the 19-year history of the new Iraqi political process, they have never been so divided and without a unified Kurdish program. This is at a time when there has not been such an opportune moment for Kurdish gains in political, identity and nationalist issues. This opportunity has become a threat to the Kurdish front, threatening to create further fractures within it. Furthermore, it has placed the incomplete goals of the Kurdish experience to date.
The delayed conflicts within the Sunni Front and the formation of the new Iraqi government
In the early post-2021 parliamentary elections period, the state on the Sunni front was much calmer than was the case on the Kurdish and Shia fronts. There was far less conflict and disagreement on the Sunni front, particularly amongst its election winners. During this, the Sunni Front’s togetherness allowed them to take the post of the parliamentary speaker (their share of Iraq’s three leading positions) early. This was because early in the post-election period, the winning Sunni lists and coalitions had a shared understanding and togetherness on how they should participate in the new Iraqi government and divide the posts and privileges they were to receive in the Iraqi government between themselves. However, this agreement between the Sunnis did not last. There is now talk of the separation of most of the wing of “Azam” from the Sunni front, which threatens to take several seats with it.
Along with this news, the Sunni front saw the return of two previously wanted and tried opposition leaders (Issawi and Hatem) to the political scene. These individuals were well known and influential figures within the Sunni front. The possibility remains that they could stand as an alternative to the Halbusi-Khanjar alliance (in this scenario, the figure is pointed to Coordination Framework Coalition and Iran as their backers). This scenario threatens to split the Sunni Front; however, it is assumed that intervention from the UAE and Turkey would likely prevent such a division in the Sunni Front.
In general, the Sunni forces insist on reorganizing their role in Iraqi politics. They wish to break out of the traditional position they have been subject to since 2003, in which Shiite forces have always controlled most of the state in exchange for other communities’ superficial and marginal participation, especially the Sunni community’s.
Sunni forces have always held the position of parliamentary speaker, the third-highest post in Iraq under the 2005 constitution, and several ministerial and senior administrative positions in successive cabinets. However, they have regularly complained about Shiite dominance over the Iraqi government’s most sensitive posts over the last twenty years.
This complaint was not without reason. For example, all of Iraq’s independent institutions and bodies, such as the Integrity Commission, Media and Communications, the Central Bank, and Investment and Property Disputes, which are more critical than most ministries in the cabinet, have been under the leadership of Shiite figures. Furthermore, Shiite forces have monopolised most ministries and security agencies, except for the Ministry of Defense, which has traditionally been given to a Sunni figure who is appointed with the consent of Shiite forces.
The relative closeness that emerged among the Sunnis after the October 2021 elections was unexpected before the polls. In the pre-election period, several forces were competing for the Sunni votes. The most important of these were the Taqadum Coalition led by former Speaker Mohammed Halbusi, the Azam Coalition led by Khamis Khanjari Bazrgan, the People’s Coalition is Our Identity led by Ahmad Mohammed Jabbari, the People’s Party led by Ahmad Abdullah Jabbari, the National Project – led by Jamal al-Zari, and the Mutahidun list – led by Osama al-Nujaifi, former speaker of the Iraqi parliament. There were alose several other independent Sunni lists and personalities competing. However, the election results ranked these parties and their influence within the Sunni community. The Taqadum coalition became the main Sunni force by winning 37 seats, Azam Coalition came second with 14 seats, the People’s Coalition won 1 seat, and the Mutahidun list won no seats.
There was a fierce rivalry between Taqadum and Azam during the elections, leading to criticism and concern among many Sunnis. These Sunnis argued that it would be more advantageous for the community had they contested the elections on a single list. Sunni public opinion feared that competing on separate lists would split the Sunni vote and advantage the Shiaa and Kurdish communities. However, after the elections, the two coalitions of Halbusi and Khanjar, backed by several regional powers, came together to participate in the “national majority government” proposed by Muqtada Al Sadr. Sadr offered to include the biggest parties within Iraq’s communities in his government. As a result, Taqadum and Azam entered into a coalition with Sadr. This allowed Halbusi to secure the position of parliamentary speaker again on 9/1/2022 and Khanjar to gain the promise of appointment to either vice president or deputy prime minister in the new Iraqi government.
Further to this, he also later became the leader of the Siyada coalition, which included forces from Taqadum, Azm and several other Sunni forces, controlling approximately 70 seats in the House of Representatives. However, today, this Sunni coalition faces a severe threat because Musana Samarai’s Azam coalition may be seeking to withdraw their 10 to 13 seats from the Siyada Coalition to join the Coordination Framework Coalition.
Therefore, the post-election rapprochement within the Sunni front was, as expected, only a tactical move by a few personalities for personal gain. It was not to end the fundamental conflicts between them, although it temporarily halted these conflicts. This is because these conflicts are personal and waged to secure the leadership of Iraq’s Sunni community. They are not for the unification of the Sunni community around several goals that can save them from devastation after the war against ISIS, determine the fate of the missing, return the Sunni refugees to their homeland or challenge the dominance of the Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Sunni territories.
Moreover, the temporary rapprochement between the Sunni forces and the delay or continuation of their conflicts is not divorced from the reality of the latest round of international influence that has emerged in the Middle East and the International community. Therefore, under this regional and global backdrop and the continuation of the current disagreements between the Shiites and Kurds, Sunni influence in deciding the election of the next Iraqi president and determining the person to head the new Iraqi government is likely to be dependent on the intensity of the delayed conflict between the Sunni forces. A conflict that is expected to erupt again after the collapse of the Halbusi-Khanjar tactical rapprochement.
International and regional influences on the formation of the new Iraqi government
Since the overthrow of Saddam’s dictatorial regime by allied forces, the appointment of Iraq’s civilian ruler, Paul Bremer, and governance of Iraq directly by the US and its allies for a year, the Iraqi state’s establishment, institutionalisation and administration have fallen under regional and international influence. However, Iran and the United States have been the two leading players in the Iraqi political arena. Despite the changes in their roles and the emergence of other regional and international players, the balance between the US and Iran remains important.
Although following the US military withdrawal in 2009, the country’s political role in Iraq declined, the war against the Islamic State dragged the United States back to the region. During the Trump presidency (2017-2021), the US supported the governments of Adel Abdul Mahdi and Kazemi and openly applied pressure on Iran. Following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the US attempted to remove forces and parties close to Iran from power in Iraq. To achieve this, the US supported the Octoberists’ demands and pushed for early Iraqi elections in which an anti-Iranian government could form.
There appears to have been initial US optimism as they quickly pushed to form a government after the October 2021 elections. In doing so, the US government immediately congratulated the success of the election process and expressed their support for the emergence of a “Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish” front to form the next government. However, US and western optimism soon came to a halt as the two main parties in the Kurdish region (the PUK and KDP) entered a fierce and unexpected rivalry over KDP’s demands for the Iraqi presidency. Furthermore, Shi’ite forces lined up against Muqtada al-Sadr and halted the presidential prime ministerial vote in parliament.
However, the Vienna nuclear talks between the United States and Iran and the Ukraine-Russia war have impacted US and Western policy in Iraq. With their occupation with the war in Ukraine and the restructuring of European security, Washington and Brussels are less willing to confront Iran in the region and Iraq. This could reduce US support for forming an Iraqi government away from Iranian and its supporters’ influence in Iraq.
Although the October 2021 elections in Iraq were initially interpreted as a significant defeat of the pro-Iranian forces, six months on from the elections, the anti-Iranian forces are still far from achieving their objectives.
Although the October 2021 elections in Iraq were initially interpreted as a significant defeat of the pro-Iranian forces, six months on from the elections, the anti-Iranian forces are still far from achieving their objectives. Since 2003, Shiite political leaders have had strong ties with Iran; however, differences between the Marjas and political conflict within the Shiite front have prompted some Iraqi Shiite leaders to seek other regional alliances. This phenomenon became particularly prevalent following the 2021 polls.
Despite US pressure to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq, especially after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi government formation continues to be difficult without the consent of Iran and its friends in Iraq. A significant proportion of Iraqi Shiites still view Iran as close. They even consider it a religious and political Marja. As a result, they have formed an active political front (Coordination Framework Coalition) with the support of Tehran. Furthermore, the continued war between Ukraine and Russia has strengthened Iran’s hegemony in Syria and Iraq. Iran has been particularly strengthened due to the global oil and gas market needing Iran’s capabilities after the Gulf countries opposed US demands to compensate for Russia’s shortage of oil and gas. Therefore, Western efforts to exclude Russia from energy markets have strengthened Iran’s position on the regional and global political and energy maps. In short, the formation of the government in Baghdad is likely to be delayed until the two main parties (Iran and the United States) establish their post-Ukraine war interests. This will establish whether or not the two parties can agree.
Turkey has not previously played a significant role in the Iraqi political process and has exercised limited influence in the country through Qatar and some Sunnis and Kurds grouping. However, the recent rapprochement between Turkey, the UAE and many Gulf countries has increased Turkey’s influence in creating a separate Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish front in the country.
Turkey’s influence in efforts to form the next Iraqi government appeared in two main areas: first, Turkey gathered the two prominent Sunni leaders (Halbousi and Khanjar) in Ankara and brought them to an agreement. In the agreement, the two men agreed that Halbousi would take the role of Iraqi parliamentary speaker. In contrast, Khanjar would either take the post of Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister or Iraqi vice President. Second, with the help of the UAE, it helped to bring together Sadr, the Sunni and the KDP to form a coalition to try to establish an Iraqi government devoid of all other parties.
Much of the coalition that Turkey, supported by the UAE, established remains intact. However, for several reasons, the coalition has not been able to take the necessary steps forward to form the next Iraqi government.
Most Shiites, including those close to Turkey, are concerned about Turkey’s role in the Kurdistan oil and gas issue. As for the Sunnis, Turkey’s closest friend Osama al-Nujaifi lost the election, while Khamis al-Khanjar only controls 13 seats. Therefore, the primary representative of the Sunni community is Halbusi, who won 34 seats. Halbousi is a close friend of the UAE; thus, Turkey’s influence among the Iraqi Sunni community is dependent on its bilateral relations with the UAE.
The UAE is now playing a more significant role in Iraqi politics thanks to support from Iraq’s Sunnis, especially Halbusi, and the UAE’s coordination with Ankara and some Shiite and Kurdish political parties.
The UAE has pursued a new policy in the region after opening up to Israel and Turkey. This policy was reflected in its stance towards the Russian-Ukrainian war, where it chose to remain neutral and not to join the United States. The UAE appears to have played a key role in forming the tripartite front (Sadr, Halbusi, KDP) by inviting them all to the UAE for talks. The awarding of the Iraqi parliamentary speaker position to Halbusi, a close friend of the UAE, appears to demonstrate the UAE’s success in influencing Iraqi politics.
However, the continued differences between Iran and the UAE, Iran-US rapprochement on the Iranian nuclear dossier, among other issues, threatens to limit and decline the UAE’s role in determining the fate of governance in Iraq.
- After the October 2022 elections, initial results indicated that a Sadr-Halbousi-KDP coalition would form a majority in the next parliament and, as a result, would take control of Iraq’s three leading offices. However, more than six months after the elections, other than appointing a speaker, they have failed to elect a president, a prime minister, and form the next Iraqi government.
- Since 2004, every government in Iraq has been formed through an internal Kurdish-Shiite-Sunni compromise. Within these governments, the Kurds and Shiites have presented a united front. However, the Sadr Movement is now seeking a majority government rather than one of sectarian compromise. While they have successfully onboarded Halbusi and the KDA, they have been unsuccessful in marginalizing other Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni forces.
- Shite politics witnessed a new political phenomenon, the Octoberists, a revolutionary group that was able to secure seats in parliament. However, the Octoberists could not mount a significant challenge to the classical Shia religious forces. Therefore, the demands of the Octoberists for early elections did not make it onto the political agenda for the new Iraqi government.
- The Sadr, Halbusi and KDP coalition attempt to form a majority government and the emergence of open conflict between the KDP and the PUK over the Kurdish candidate for the Iraqi presidency, which the PUK has traditionally held, has caused a rift within the Kurdish front similar to that seen on the Shia and Sunni fronts. This has harmed the Kurdish position in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region.
- Initially, due to regional and internal causes, the Sunnis appeared united and, through this unity, were able to secure the post of parliamentary speaker following the Iraqi elections. However, today the Sunni front has become fractured and part of the Sunni movement, Azam, splintering and joining the opposition. Therefore, it is unclear how the Sunni forces will participate in the new Iraqi government.
- The intra-Shi’ite conflict is currently the main obstacle to the formation of the Iraqi government. Sadr’s attempts to distance other Shia leaders, such as Maliki, who leads the second-largest Shia party after Sadr, from the political process have disrupted the government formation process and led to it exceeding constitutional deadlines. If the two sides continue to disagree, the disruption caused by the non-formation of the government in Iraq may continue. Furthermore, this may eventually lead to the consideration of other options such as dissolving parliament, pressuring the Iraqi Federal Court to intervene, or widespread protests. These eventualities will likely lead to instability in Iraq as democracy in the country has yet to develop a culture of opposition politics, with most political conflicts being an all or nothing game.
However, no matter how great Shia conflicts become, experience has demonstrated that, be it through external mediation or internal agreements, community interests have always been a prevailing catalyst for a political resolution. However, currently, the absence of these elements makes it difficult to see a political way forward. The Reason is that following Iraq’s liberation in 2003, the Supreme Shia Marja’ in Iraq had always taken a position on political events. However, to date, the lack of an official statement from the Supreme Marja’i on government formation has created a political vacuum. Furthermore, constitutional deadlines have motivated the election winners to rush to form a government to continue the political process. Further still, the Iraqi streets are much less influential today as the largely fruitless October demonstrations led to distrust and hopelessness among the Iraqi public. Power is wielded through weapons in Iraq, so none of the forces that took part in the Iraqi elections will quickly give up government.
- The Iranians, as before, will likely be able to play a role in bringing the Shiites closer together, which will lead to the formation of a government sooner. However, this possibility is dependent on other factors, such as the easing of tensions between Tehran and Washington, their efforts to convince their local allies to reach consensus, and their efforts to bring the two opposing Shia leaders, Sadr and Maliki, closer together to form a consensus government that is representative of all the influential parties.
Futuristic Readings No.10-2022