Iraq: New cabinet, old faces!

Published November 22nd, 2022 - 06:26 GMT
Mohammed Shia al Sudani
Mohammed Shia al Sudani (AFP File Photo)

Mohammed Shia al Sudani’s appointment as the PM is unlikely to solve the country’s political impasse as he is part of the same system that is responsible for creating the mess.

With news of a sudden breakthrough in Iraq’s entrenched political scene making headlines late last month – and signs that the end of the latest government paralysis may be over – it would appear that the status quo has, once again, won out in the battle of wills over who decides the country’s future trajectory.

Kurdish politician Abdul Latif Rashid was appointed as president last month after more than a year of political gridlock. Almost immediately after, Rashid appointed Shia politician Mohammed Shia al Sudani to the post of prime minister and charged him with forming a new government.

While this has been feted as welcome news, it could come with a host of difficulties as the underlying and deep-seated political problems of the country that have led it to crisis after crisis have not been addressed. If the past is anything to go by, Sudani’s success in forming a new government may be the end of one political crisis and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Sadr’s victory now a defeat

Although cleric and politician Muqtada al Sadr had the highest proportion of the dismally low turnout that saw only two out of five Iraqis vote in last year’s general election, he has effectively sidelined himself and his bloc, leaving his rivals to form a government without him.

Sadr has also made it abundantly clear that his movement will not be joining the new government, with one of his deputies saying that Prime Minister al Sudani is “clearly subordinate to the militias” – a clear reference to Sudani’s alleged links to pro-Iran Shia militant groups and politicians.

While Sadr is known for his mercurial tendencies and could very well change his mind, it should also be noted that he has had command and overall authority over several Iraqi militias backed by Iran, the most infamous of which was the Mahdi Army, known for its death squads that allegedly perpetrated sectarian cleansing campaigns against Iraq’s Sunni community.

However, Sadr’s path from electoral victory to political defeat was arguably one of his own making – with a little help from his rivals. Jubilant from his victory of having garnered 73 seats, Sadr immediately went into forging an alliance with the Sunni Taqaddum Party led by Mohammed al Habousi, as well as the leading KDP led by former President Massoud Barzani of Kurdish Regional Government.

Fearing that Sadr meant to carve them out of the political process that has enriched and empowered them since 2003, the remaining Shia parties, represented by the Coordination Framework, resisted Sadr’s plans. While they failed to prevent the reappointment of Halbousi as Speaker in January, they were successful in boycotting parliament and preventing the appointment of any of the KDP’s presidential candidates. 

Sadr was not able to show strategic patience and, rather than leaning on his parliamentary majority, he ordered his MPs to resign their seats in the summer. However, he did so without agreement with his key allies, simply expecting them to follow suit. When they did not do so, he had handed over a plurality of parliamentary seats to the Coordination Framework, forcing his allies to consider new partnerships, and edging his opponents ever closer to a two-thirds consensus that has now led to a new, Sadr-free government.

Sudani era is no different

Whatever he does, Sudani’s history suggests that his era will be more of the same in terms of the continuation of the status quo. There are also few indications that he will tackle the socio-political malaise that has led Iraq into crisis after crisis.

Sudani is the leader of the Furatain Party, an offshoot of the Dawa Party that has been so influential in post-2003 Iraq since the fall of the Baathists. He will immediately face challenges to his democratic legitimacy as his party initially only won one seat during the 2021 elections, before gaining a further two after Sadr’s deputies abandoned their posts last summer.

This would mean that Sudani is very much a status quo candidate who was appointed by status quo elites, and not by the popular will of the Iraqi people. Unlike Sadr, he cannot even rely on an effective grassroots machinery to lend himself further legitimacy, and this will inevitably impact his prospects.

For most of his life, Sudani has also been a member of the Dawa Party, and only left to prevent the fallout of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s numerous scandals from damaging his political prospects. Ideologically, he shares many of the same viewpoints as Maliki, infamous for being Iraq’s most sectarian prime minister and who was blamed for the rise of Daesh terror group.

Sudani also served for years under Maliki’s leadership, taking on the role of minister for human rights between 2010 and 2014, at a time when international human rights organisations had repeatedly slammed Iraq for its appalling human rights record.

With his failure to rein in human rights abuses, Sudani was then given a new portfolio of managing Iraq’s labour and social affairs, a ministerial post he held until 2018. During that time, he again failed to get a grip on Iraq’s spiralling unemployment and social upheaval.

While some may point to his resignation from the Dawa Party as a sign he is not like his former boss, the reality is that he had immediately signed up to Maliki’s agenda and joined the Coordination Framework in the immediate aftermath of the 2021 elections. This bloc not only included Maliki, but a who’s who of pro-Iran politicians who have led Iraq to the brink of failure repeatedly since 2003.

Sudani is therefore part and parcel of the system that many Iraqis have called to reform or replace, and who are now also boycotting to deprive it of the legitimacy it so desperately seeks. It is highly unlikely that Sudani’s appointment will resolve the root causes behind popular anger repeatedly flaring up over the past 19 years.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is an award-winning academic and writer, with a specialism in Middle Eastern strategic and security affairs.


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