Source The Washington Institute

by Bilal Wahab

PolicyWatch 3666
November, 2022

The hostile and corrupt forces arrayed behind him might ease their anti-American activities just to reassert their power at home, so Washington should make the new government’s honeymoon a short one—and work around it if necessary to help the Iraqi people.


Media – On paper, Sudani’s government was formed as a consensus entity that reaches across ethnosectarian lines. In practice, however, it is dominated by Shia parties who waited until after they engineered a ruling plurality in parliament before inviting Sunni and Kurdish parties to participate. Their platform includes a long to-do list of seemingly beneficial policy initiatives, but with no accountability measures attached to failure. Rather, the new government seems tailor-made to advance anti-democratic trends, ignoring the will of the millions of Iraqis who rose up in 2019 against a system based on divvying state resources and power among sectarian patronage networks.

In essence, the Shia have won the ethnosectarian war. Their internal divisions are what halted government formation for the past year, with Sadr winning the election but eventually succumbing to Iran-backed rivals. After failing at the ballot box, these rivals banded together with deadly effectiveness under the so-called Coordination Framework. Kurdish and Sunni groups were rendered inconsequential through a slew of military, legal, and political maneuvers, not to mention their internal divisions. The few elected moderates have now been coopted or sidelined.

Moreover, like his two predecessors, Prime Minister Sudani lacks a parliamentary constituency of his own. No surprise, then, that the Coordination Framework imposed the majority of his cabinet appointments. This furthers a long-developing Iraqi trend whereby powerful political players step back from the spotlight and accountability of directly heading the government in favor of ruling through bureaucrats. For instance, the Kurdish and Sunni ministers selected for the new cabinet hold little political sway in their respective communities; the only high-profile Sunni figure to retain a prominent political position is parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. Indeed, Shia leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Ameri, Qais al-Khazali, and Faleh al-Fayyad prefer puppet mastery—much like Sadr has done over the years.

overtures to them on oil rights and the Sinjar territorial dispute.

The new government may be less predatory economically as well, if only to stymie its two gravest threats: public anger and Sadr. Sudani could invest in public services and jobs, especially in the predominantly Shia provinces in the south. Thanks to high oil prices and a coordinated effort to prevent the previous government from passing a budget, around $85 billion is lying in Iraq’s coffers waiting to be spent. No wonder, then, that Sudani has made passing a budget one of his top priorities. The resultant cash injection could buy the new government some quiet and, perhaps, goodwill, while also resurrecting Abdulmahdi’s plans to deepen ties with China. Ultimately, a flurry of government contracts would be a boon for the powerful forces behind Sudani.

One potential wildcard is the question of early elections, which remains unsettled. The new government has promised to hold them, but not before amending the election law. Accordingly, the Coordination Framework will do whatever it can to shape this legislative campaign effort in a manner that hurts Sadr, who lost his ability to counter such machinations after withdrawing his members from parliament. Coupled with a budgetary war chest and an empowered PMF, these efforts may enable the government to limit early elections to the local/provincial level or avoid them altogether.

In short, time is not on Sadr’s side. Despite his potential as a formidable opposition figure, his strong public support is shrinking, and his former Kurdish and Sunni partners are disillusioned with him. His dilemma is a thorny one: if he speaks up now, he may give his rivals unity of purpose against him; if he waits for the new government’s luster to fade, he might be too late.

leverage, however—they know they would not have had the luxury to wage a yearlong political battle without the United States actively preventing the emergence of another Islamic State insurgency. Indeed, Sudani will not be doing Washington a “favor” by allowing U.S. military advisors to stay in Iraq—it’s the other way around. America’s engagement, convening power, and sheltering of Iraqi financial assets still provide the foundation for the international legitimacy that the new government craves. And to complement these carrots, the Biden administration should remind Baghdad that it has an arsenal of sticks to punish continued corruption, money laundering, and human rights abuses.

At the same time, Washington should explore avenues to benefit the Iraqi people regardless of whether their government reins in its predatory impulses. This would entail improving U.S. economic and civil society programs that support Iraq’s private sector, youth population, and climate efforts. Creative thinking may be needed on some of these initiatives. For example, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is run by the U.S.-designated terrorist group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, making educational exchanges a thorny issue. One option is to establish university-to-university links and general scholarship programs that develop this sector without involving the ministry. More broadly, the White House will have to make its overarching policy goals on Iraq clear lest government departments pursue disjointed objectives.

Bilal Wahab is the Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute.


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