Iraq is on the Verge, Again
Since I posted this story, former NPR Baghdad correspondent Anne Garrels passed away after a battle with cancer. We were supposed to work together in April 2010 on an episode of the radio program I worked for before I joined NPR. Anne was going to travel to Iraq and I was going to edit her reporting. She ended up with a last-minute conflict and I had to go on the trip that I write about in the subscriber section of this post. Anne was a force and a ferocious journalist who did some of the most important reporting of anyone covering Iraq after the 2003 invasion. My condolences to her friends and family.
Last week, Iraq stepped to the brink of political collapse and potential descent into sectarian conflict. It’s the latest turn in the ongoing struggle to form a new government after Iraq’s parliamentary election in October 2021. That’s right, the country is approaching a year since the last election and has yet to agree on a new government.
This is largely a result of the fragile political system that was implemented after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and it continues to be tinkered with as it has been fraught since it was established. Unfortunately, the tweaks made over the years to try to make the elections more transparent, representative, and “fair” have not solved the problem of post-election government formation, which has grown more complicated and contentious with each election.
The current crisis springs from the October 2021 election (which was an early election forced by protesters fed up with corruption) results that gave anti-foreign-intervention Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s party the most seats of any party, but not a majority. Hence, parties have been jockeying to form a governing coalition.
The process in a nutshell is that the new parliament convenes and elects a speaker and deputies, and then elects a president of the republic. The president then tasks the leader of the largest block to form a government. That said, there is still disagreement over whether the “largest block” refers to an individual party or a coalition, a loophole that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki exploited adeptly to become prime minister when his party did not win the most seats in the 2010 election.
To date, the parliament has not agreed on a new president, and efforts to negotiate a coalition behind a proposed prime minister have also failed. A caretaker government remains in place, which amounts to little more than life support.
Sadr — who is the figurehead of a movement but holds no formal position and is not a candidate to be prime minister — has employed brinksmanship tactics to form a government. In June, he called on the 73 elected members from his movement to resign their seats, hoping that would move parliament to come crawling back. Instead, the body called his bluff and replaced his members.
That led to violent demonstrations, including the storming of the parliament in July. Then, on Aug. 29, Sadr “withdrew” from politics in protest over the ongoing fight to form a government. That triggered another takeover of parliament and a day of serious violence that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
In response, Sadr called for his supporters to stand down, which deescalated the situation, but did not solve the crisis.
Currently, the Shia parties in Iraq are largely Sadrists or aligned under the “Coordination Framework,” which is described as a mechanism for anti-Sadr parties and militias to coordinate, as the name says. Sadr and his supporters oppose both Iranian and American influence in Iraq (remember, Sadr was the leader of one of the most powerful and deadly anti-U.S. militias during the 2003-2011 war).
Most of the groups in the Coordination Framework range from Iran-friendly to Iranian proxies.
Neither of the major Shia factions has been able to gain an outright majority in elections, and that turns into protracted political struggles to reach a compromise, or in the current case, turns into episodes of violence.
Now there is talk, but no agreement, of holding another round of elections. However, without significant reforms to the electoral and government formation processes, there is little reason to think new elections would lead to any better or clearer outcome.
Barbara Leaf, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, is visiting Iraq and stated to Iraqi media that “the political situation in Iraq is on the verge of collapse.” She added that the recent violence "is a wake-up call for political leaders if they do not move towards dialogue and solution."
Last week, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel made a similarly non-confrontational or committal statement:
We’re aware of the reports of increasing violence and potential casualties, and we condemn the use of violence above all. Now is the time for dialogue, and we urge all those involved to remain calm and pursue peaceful avenues of redress. The right to peaceful public protest is a fundamental element of all democracies, but demonstrators should also respect the property and institutions of the Iraqi Government which belong to and serve the Iraqi people.
Beyond calling for restraint and dialogue, there is little the United States can do to resolve the political crisis — hence the lukewarm public remarks. The political system the United States created after overthrowing Saddam Hussein and disbanding his government and military has been fragile and unable to contain the presence of numerous militias that operate outside of and heavily influence the political parties and processes. The Iraqi state maintains a majority but not a monopoly on violence in the country.
Imagine for a second if someone toppled the U.S. government and fired leadership and the military and then tried to stand up a new system that required the disparate political factions in the country to come to consensus. How well do you think that would play out?
The United States’ system of government and politics has just enough legitimacy, resiliency, and flexibility to contain the increasingly contentious and hostile dynamics in the country. So far, the United States is bending but not breaking. But it’s getting way too close to the latter for comfort.
In Iraq, the fragile political system simply cannot overcome the deep divides, some of which are reinforced by armed militias, many with Iranian backing.
There are very serious near-term implications for the United States.
Worst case, should the Iraqi state crumble, it will allow Iran more freedom of maneuver in the country and the region. It could result in U.S. troops having to bug out of Iraq. That would also mean pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, which would upend the delicate (and unsustainable) status quo there, leading to violence that would benefit ISIS more than any other actor in eastern Syria. You can bet ISIS is looking for any opportunity to pour gas on the fire and further destabilize the country.
The stakes are high for Iraq, the region, and the United States. Given that the two largest factions in the country oppose U.S. presence and influence in Iraq, there is little the United States can do (at least overtly) to move the country toward stability. The Kurds, who are the strongest U.S. ally in the country, and some Sunni and Shia parties want continued U.S. military presence and economic support, but they don’t have the numbers and power to resolve the current crisis.
Unfortunately, the way forward right now comes down to whether cooler heads can prevail and reason things out (that could also be said about many of America’s challenges at the moment). Each iteration of government formation in Iraq has grown more contested and protracted, and it just might be that early elections are the only way to turn down the heat, kick the can, and hope there is a more decisive outcome the next time around.
Hope and quiet arm twisting, there’s your Iraq foreign policy for the moment.
Now, for paid subscribers, the following is more cutting-room floor material from my upcoming book, Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home.
Previously, I published a deleted excerpt from my 2010 embed in Kirkuk. The following is the rest of the chapter from that 2010 trip. After the embed, I traveled back to Baghdad to spend a week reporting on the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary election. Conditions were far calmer then than today, and I was in Iraq just weeks after the vote, so the eight-month political battle to form a new government was in its infancy. So, that might have been the most “normal” feeling week I spent in Baghdad during my travels there between 2008 and 2012.