Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Persistent political infighting is risking Iraq’s hard-won gains

As key ministerial positions lie vacant for months, the nation's dysfunctional politics could leave the door open for an increasingly belligerent Iran

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in Baghdad. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in Baghdad. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters

Nine months after holding elections and three months after government formation, Iraq remains without ministers of defence, interior, education and justice. Vacancies in the ministries responsible for security and justice raise concerns about the stability of a country that has emerged from a bitter battle against ISIS and internal armed conflict. The absence of a strong minister of education is an indicator of how much the educational sector in Iraq has regressed. The vacuum at these four ministries casts a shadow over Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s efforts to lead. Even more importantly, keeping the ministries of defence and interior without clear leadership weakens any efforts to limit the role and influence of militias and armed groups.

The lack of appointments is due to political infighting and deal-making at the cost of having the best candidate for the job. At the heart of the disagreement is the insistence of the Al Binaa bloc, led by former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, on the appointment of Falih Al Fayyadh to the position of Minister of Interior. This is the same Falih Al Fayyadh who was the official head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd Al Shaabi, in the previous government. Mr Al Fayyadh’s appointment would mean a further step in solidifying the presence and influence of militias, mainly backed by Iran, in Iraq’s security apparatus.

While Al Binaa is insisting on Mr Al Fayyadh, the names floated for minister of defence have largely been ill-equipped to lead the ministry. Under the disastrous sectarian carving up of positions within Iraq, the ministry is meant to be led by a Sunni, yet the politicians being suggested have no political backing, let alone military standing. This is not for the lack of competent candidates. Figures such as Khalid Al Obeidi, who got more than 80,000 votes in the last elections, making him the second most popular figure, and the leader of the elite Golden Brigade, Abdel Wahab Al Saadi, who was instrumental in defeating ISIS and is hugely popular, are not even in the running. Competence and popularity in the security sector often work against candidates in Iraqi politics, as they can undercut armed groups in the shadow security apparatus.

The lack of agreement on the most suitable candidates for the ministries mentioned stems from the dysfunctional political system: infighting in elections is brought into loose coalition governments. This remains the Achilles heel of Iraqi politics – cabinets are formed by competing parties who do not have a sure political platform or strategic vision for the country. Members of the same government have a vested interest in undermining it. Without serious reform of the political system and a strict system of checks and balances, this vicious circle will continue.

One further destabilising issue that has yet to be resolved is that of the future of the Kurdistan region and its armed forces, the Peshmerga. On Sunday, British Defence Senior Adviser Lt Gen Sir John Lorimer was in the Kurdistan region attending a military parade for the Kurdish armed forces, with a renewed pledge from the UK to keep supporting them. However, co-ordination between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces has lagged behind and could be a source of confrontation without continued political efforts.

Yet, not all is bad. Security has improved in Baghdad and many of Iraq’s cities. According to the UN, 32 Iraqi civilians died as a result of conflict or terrorism in December 2018. That used to be a daily figure not too long ago. Major suicide bombings that would kill up to 200 people a day at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war are thankfully a much rarer occurrence. However, it is a thin veneer of stability. Organised crime, targeted killings and death threats continue to plague the country. Just last week, a well-regarded journalist for Al Hurra Iraq, Samer Ali Hussein, was killed after repeated death threats. This followed the killing of Emad Jabar, owner of the popular Laymounah restaurant, which has also been blamed on militias with a parliamentary presence.

Iraq is wrestling with internal political divisions against a backdrop of heightened US-Iran tensions. After US President Donald Trump’s visit to Iraq, where he did not meet a single Iraqi leader, Iran has been playing up divisions between Baghdad and Washington. Mr Trump’s visit to Al Asad Air Base without any Iraqi consultations has complicated matters for the government. Mr Al Maliki’s bloc has now demanded that Mr Abdel Mahdi address questions from parliament on the number of American troops in the country and how long they will remain there.

In an attempt to improve relations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he met with Iraq’s president, prime minister and speaker of parliament. Yet assurances of continued engagement are not enough, as American interest in maintaining Iraqi stability is questioned. Days after Mr Pompeo’s visit to Baghdad, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was in the Iraqi capital, with a political and economic delegation. Tehran is keen to maintain economic leverage in Iraq as American and international sanctions bite. Last November, Iraq was among a handful of countries given a 45-day waiver from the sanctions. Speaking in Abu Dhabi, US Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State Brian Hook said the US will not be issuing further waivers, which can further complicate matters for Baghdad, especially as Tehran expects its neighbour to take its side. Without an independent minister of interior, and internal disagreements escalating, Iraq will find it even more difficult to stand up to an antagonised Iran.

Updated: January 13, 2019 07:45 PM