Iraq paralysed as rival blocs jostle for power

Despite constitutional requirement to form cabinet 90 days after polls, new government nowhere in sight

Damascus: Internal Iraqi Shiite community dynamics are shifting fast, as two major blocs lay claim both to parliament and to the premiership. One is led by incumbent Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi and it includes prominent warlord-turned-statesman Moqtada Al Sadr. This bloc boasts a combined 188 seats out of 329 in the Iraqi parliament. The other is headed by Hadi Al Ameri, the Iran-backed head of the Popular Mobilisation Units, and ex-prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, with a claimed total of 145 seats.


At daggers-end, the two blocs obstructed the election of a parliament speaker and premier on Monday, raising the matter to the Federal Supreme Court. Both are claiming that they are entitled to the premiership, since they control the most inclusive and largest blocs in parliament. Iraq’s constitution says a cabinet needs to be formed within 90 days of the opening of the parliament. Eight years ago, it took 11 months to form a government after the 2010 elections — something that might be repeated, for similar reasons, this time.

Former friends of Iran

To an outsider, the two blocs look increasingly similar. Both are led by prominent Shiite statesmen, who were all members in the Dawah Party — a Shiite Islamic movement prominent in Iraq since the 1960s, which produced all post-Saddam Hussain premiers of Iraq. During their long exiles under Saddam, all these Shiite statesmen either studied in Iran or were guests of the Iranian government.

Iran’s funding has been severely slashed in recent years, however, due to shifting Iranian priorities after outbreak of the Syrian conflict. Iranian cheque books were suddenly reserved only for Hezbollah and their allies in Damascus, prompting many of these Iraqi leaders to reconsider their relationship with Tehran.

Because of the cutbacks, Al Abadi and Al Sadr started searching elsewhere for allies, heading to the Arab Gulf, where they mended fences with Saudi Arabia and were both received by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

During last May’s parliamentary elections, Al Sadr campaigned on the issue of wanting to see his country liberated from Iranian and American influence, while earlier this summer, Al Abadi said he would abide by US sanctions on Iran, instructing the Central Bank of Iraq to bloc money transfers to Tehran. Al Ameri and Al Maliki, however, remained firmly in the orbit of the Iranian regime.

Al Sadr factor

Al Sadr’s Sairoon coalition currently has the biggest bloc in parliament, a total of 54 seats, which is 112 seats short of holding a majority. He reigns among the poor in the slums of Baghdad, where he has been providing medical services, schooling, and patronage, for over a decade. He won the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis by launching a famed uprising against US troops after their 2003 invasion of Iraq, then settled for a political role, helping prop Al Maliki as prime minister back in 2006. More recently he has taken an aggressive stance against his former ally, accusing him of corruption and of mismanagement, due to the rise of Daesh during his years in power.

More than three months since the May elections, all prime ministerial hopefuls have been courting the 44-year-old cleric, despite reservations over his criticism of Iran and calls on President Bashar Al Assad to step down. On the other hand, this has won him allies like Osama Al Nujaifi, former head of parliament, whose 4 seats in parliament were annexed to Al Sadr’s coalition.

Defection of Faleh Al Fayyad

Al Sadr refuses to work with Al Maliki, cuddling up to Al Abadi, who is seen as a current favourite both of the US and the GCC. In response, a Shiite heavyweight, Faleh Al Fayyad, defected from Al Abadi’s Nasr Coalition, joining Al Maliki early this September.

His defection has resulted in a split within the Nasr Coalition, and the departure of what Renad Mansour of Chatham House describes as “right-wing Islamists, who returned to Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition.” Speaking to Gulf News, Mansour said over the past four years, Al Abadi failed to fulfil two of his mandates: Bringing all armed groups under his wing and fighting corruption. This puts limits as to how far the US will push for him, especially seeing that he is not well-rooted within parliament. He leads a coalition that Mansour describes as “loose”, meaning it was bound from the start to face serious challenges, forcing him to team up with stronger people like Sadr.

Al Abadi responded by dismissing Al Fayyad from all his government posts, including head of National Security and head of the Popular Mobilisation Units. Fayyad, 62, is accused of wanting to start a full-time political career, which contradicts with the Iraqi Constitution that says the National Security Office ought to remain “neutral and independent.” Al Abadi’s argument is not very convincing, claim many Iraqis, given that Al Fayyad is already a full-fledged politician who heads a political party called Ataa, established back in 2017.

He is not new to politics, as he was previously a member of Dawah, just like both Al Abadi and Al Maliki. During the parliament elections last May, Al Abadi’s Nasr list won 42 out of 329 seats in the Iraqi Chamber — far from enough to secure a majority. Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition got 25 seats, which if combined with the 48 of Al Fayyad’s ally Al Ameri and the 54 of Al Sadr, reach a total of 73. Their only setback is that they have only one principle regional backer, Iran, whereas Al Abadi is supported by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Al Maliki cannot return to the premiership, due to a veto by mainstream Sunni political parties who accuse him of punishing the entire community during his years in power (2006-2014) and pursing staunch de-Baathification policies that targeted clerics, notables, and former officers. It was under his reign that Shiite death squads roamed the streets of Baghdad, striking indiscriminately against prominent Sunnis, and it was to due to his mismanagement and incompetence that Daesh rose to overrun entire cities and towns in 2014. Al Sadr has no personal ambition of becoming premier.

Iran backing

Iran is yet to comment on Al Fayyad’s political ambitions. After studying electrical engineering at Mosul University, Al Fayyad worked with the Iran-backed Iraqi underground and was arrested by Saddam’s regime in December 1980, accused of being on Iranian payroll. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent five years behind bars at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. He rose to prominence after the downfall of Saddam in 2003, becoming head of the Popular Mobilisation Units, an all-Shiite militia that was set up to fight Daesh in Mosul and Tikrit.

Al Fayyad is banking fully on Iranian support for his political career, seeing wide cracks in Iran’s relationship with Al Abadi. He is poised to play an important role in the upcoming period, either as premier, or as a leading Shiite opposition figure to Al Abadi, if he is restored to office for another four-year term. Mansour added: “He is someone that both Al Maliki and Al Ameri are interested in making prime minister because they know he would be loyal to their interests.”

The internal bickering comes in the backdrop of non-stop anti-government demonstrations in major Shiite cities like Najaf, Karbala and Basra, over lack of clean drinking water and major power shortages throughout the exceptionally hot summer.

Speaking to Gulf News, prominent Iraqi analyst Safaa Khalaf noted that the present fissure is no longer sectarian, as it was over the past 10-years, where under Iranian pressure, Shiites stood rank and file in one camp, despite all their difference, against the Sunnis. “After reduction of the security threat, Iraqis realised that their country was in near-collapse, which resulted in high criticism of the present regime and low voter turnout last May. The Shiite axis split and so did the Dawah Party.”

The real surprise was when all Shiite parties failed to obtain a majority in the Shiite Street, he said. “The Iraqi government requires a miracle to see the light so long as Iran refuses to see Iraq depart from its orbit, with a cabinet that is pro-American and pro-Gulf.” If Al Abadi returns to power, “this means that the security situation will explode and his government will fall within months, with the possibility of a confrontation between the Popular Mobilisation Units and the government.” If Al Ameri and Al Fayyed form a government, “Iraq will become a frontline [state] for US sanctions and Baghdad will become an enemy for the Americans, who will see a need to topple its government, through street demonstrations.” Saudi Arabia will withdraw financial support and so will the other Gulf states. A third option, he concluded might be the appointment of a “weak and unknown prime minister” — one that both camps can easily manipulate.

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