By Shireen T. Hunter
In the wake of large-scale popular demonstrations in Iraq, demands for the resignation of its prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, have increased. Among the most vocal voices demanding his resignation has been the unpredictable cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Sadr, who has tried to model himself as the defender of Iraqi nationalism and the champion of a clean government, even claimed that none of the existing political parties should be allowed to take part in an early election. As protests are continuing, early elections and the departure of Adel Abdul Mahdi appear inevitable.
The question, however, is would another change of government in Iraq result in stability, peace, and prosperity. Not long ago, Iraqis believed that the government of Nouri al Maliki (2006- 2014) was responsible for all of Iraq’s ills. Yet his departure, and the arrival of Haider al Ebadi, did not change matters much. Adel Abdul Mahdi himself was a compromise choice for the post of premier and the result of the inconclusive nature of the May 2018 parliamentary elections. In that election, none of the major parties and/or coalitions gained an absolute majority, although the Sadrist coalition, Al Saiirun, obtained the most seats in the parliament. In a new election, too, unless there is massive manipulation of voting, the likelihood of a clear winner appearing is not strong. Therefore, the next premier, too, most probably would end up being a compromise figure. Another possibility is that someone like Sadr could emerge as national leader and essentially appoint someone as premier to implement his particular vision for Iraq.
In short, responsibility for Iraq’s recurring problems since the 2003 U.S. invasion cannot be attributed solely to the shortcomings of particular leaders. Rather, these problems are rooted in the Iraqi society’s divided nature and the impact of regional and international politics, especially Iran-Gulf Arab competition and the U.S.-Iran conflict. They are not caused by the personalities and views of its prime ministers.
Ethnic and sectarian divide and their manipulation
Although the center of ancient Mesopotamian empires and the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, Iraq is a young nation that was put together haphazardly in the aftermath of the First World War. Ethnically, it was made of Kurds and Arabs with a smaller minority of Turkuman centered in Kirkuk, plus religious minorities. The majority of Iraq’s Arab population are Shia. Yet, the post-Ottoman structure of Iraq perpetuated the domination of the Sunni elements. The Sunni elite discriminated against the Shia masses, although some rich Shias flourished. The height of anti-Shia policies was during the Ba’athist rule. Recurring Iraqi governments also implemented an Arab nationalist policy both domestically and internationally, ignoring the country’s diverse history and demography.
The 2003 U.S. invasion eliminated Saddam’s dictatorship, but it also unleashed long repressed ethnic and sectarian tensions. The Shia acquired a dominant position within Iraq’s new polity. But the Sunnis never really became reconciled to this change in their fortunes. Thus as early as 2005, they worked to undermine the new establishment by, among other things, refusing to take part in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Later, some elements within this community resorted to more violent methods. Groups such as al-Qaeda Iraq and later ISIS reflect this Sunni counterattack.
Fragmented nature of the Shia community and leadership
The Shia themselves and their political and religious leaders were also divided. Part of these divisions derives from their experiences in exile during the dark days of Saddam Hussein. For example, those Shias and their leaders who spent their exile in Iran have a more positive attitude towards Tehran. Others, who spent their exile elsewhere have been more weary of Iran and its potential influence. Moreover, those who stayed in Iraq during Saddam’s rule, like the Sadr family, felt that they deserved to play the decisive role in shaping post-Saddam Iraq’s future.
Iraq’s Shia clerical establishment has also always been divided by both ideological tendencies—especially between those preferring a quietist and non-political Shiism reflected in views of the late Ayatollah Abul Qasim Khoei and his descendants and the Ayatollah Sistani—and the younger clerics more influenced by the Iranian revolution. The former are highly suspicious of Tehran and even hostile to it. Then there are the rivalries among key clerical families such as the Sadrs , Hakims, and Khoeis. For example, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, clashes emerged between the supporters of Ayatollah Khoei and those of Muqtada Sadr.
It was inevitable that after the dismantling of a totalitarian state and the elimination of the old political elite intense competition for power among various groups and personalities would emerge. These rivalries and competitions have been a major source of instability in Iraq.
Regional competition and the Iran factor
The political change in Iraq was as unpalatable to the region’s Sunni Arab governments as to Iraq’s Sunni population. Key Sunni countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, saw the change in Iraq’s political leadership as a strategic and political gain for Iran. The former chief of Saudi Arabian intelligence, Prince Turki al Faisal, complained that the U.S. had offered Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. This statement was highly exaggerated. But clearly, with coming to power of Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, Iran’s influence in Iraq increased. However, during the early post-invasion years, Tehran’s influence was limited. It was only the Sunni Arabs’ rejection of Baghdad’s new government and their assistance to Sunni extremist groups operating in the country, including ISIS, that Iraq moved closer to Iran. In particular, Iran’s help to defeat ISIS had a positive impact on its position.
However, Iran’s influence has never been as significant as Western and Arab media has claimed and some Iranian officials have boasted of. On the contrary, Iran’s regional rivals have their own supporters within the Iraqi political elite. This regional competition has been a major cause of political volatility in Iraq. Some of Iran’s rivals have been suspected of encouraging popular clashes with some anti-Iran undertones. Iran, meanwhile, has used its supporters as a lever of influence. Without political stability and unrelenting intra-elite rivalries supported by external actors, economic development has stalled and corruption flourished.
The Iran factor has also brought Israel into the Iraqi politics. The attack by Israel on the Hashd al Shaabi, which is supported by Iran, indicates this involvement. The Syrian conflict has further muddied political waters, with Iraq, as the land link between Iran and Syria, having become entangled in efforts to contain and eventually eliminate Iran’s presence in Syria. Iraq also became entangled in broader Middle East issues, such as the Palestinian problem; Iran wants it to be part of the so-called resistance front, while Arabs and the U.S. want it to join the accommodationist front.
The U.S.-Iran Conflict
An even more important cause of instability has been the U.S.-Iran conflict and its impact on Iraq. At least the indirect support given to groups such as ISIS has been to use them as counterweight to Tehran. The U.S. has also wanted Iraqi governments to distance themselves from Tehran, which has often put them in a difficult position. Some experts have speculated that one reason for U.S. unhappiness with Adel Abdul Mahdi was his refusal to observe U.S. economic sanctions on Iran or to reduce his ties to Tehran. In short, a key cause of Iraq’s problems has been the U.S.-Iran dispute and the U.S. policy of pressuring Iran.
In summary, even if there is a change of government in Iraq and an overhaul of its political institutions, as some politicians have proposed, enduring stability would remain elusive without some of kind of regional compromise, a lessening of Arab-Iranian competition, and more important, some reduction in U.S.-Iran tensions.