Al Sudani struggles to maintain Iraq’s political stability

9 May 2024


Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Al Sudani is now more than halfway through his term. While there have been some notable economic developments, such as the massive energy deal with TotalEnergies signed in July 2023, his main accomplishment may well be maintaining a fragile political settlement.

When he took office in late October 2022, it ended a year of tense political infighting following the 2021 election. The next national poll is expected in October 2025, but while the government itself may appear secure, Iraqi politics is as turbulent as ever.

The Council of Representatives has not had a permanent speaker since November, when Mohammed Al Halbousi was dismissed by the Federal Supreme Court and forced to step away from parliament. Mohsen Al Mandalawi was named acting speaker, but fierce debate continues over handing the job to anyone else on a more formal basis.

The latest figure to be proposed is Salem Al Issawi, who is backed by three Sunni blocs but opposed by the largest Sunni group, Al-Halbousi’s Taqaddum (Progress) party.

Under Iraq’s ‘muhasasa’ system of dividing the political spoils along religious and ethnic lines, the speaker’s job goes to a Sunni politician, while the federal presidency goes to a Kurd and the prime minister is Shia.

Al Sudani is now also facing a fresh challenge on the domestic front in the shape of a mooted return to the political scene by rival Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr, who announced his retirement from frontline politics in August 2022. Earlier that year, he had pulled all his MPs from parliament, effectively handing power to Al Sudani’s Coordination Framework.

Al Sadr now looks set to change course. On 10 April, he renamed his organisation from the Sadrist Movement to the National Shiite Movement and further statements since then point to a possible return to the electoral battlefield. Given his past ability to mobilise large numbers of followers, he could have a significant impact on the next election and events leading up to it.

“Al Sadr maintains strong support from parts of the street, but it may prove difficult for him to reassert himself after ceding control over powerful institutions to the Coordination Framework,” said Winthrop Rodgers, an independent analyst focused on Iraq. “However, his return will certainly complicate dynamics within Shia politics.”

His likely return will also test Iranian influence on Baghdad. Tehran has been able to exert huge influence over Iraqi politics through its allied Shia politicians and militia groups, but Al Sadr has been the most prominent Shia figure to resist such ties in recent years.

Al Sudani has, though, been reaching out to other neighbours, too. In April, he hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was making his first trip to the country since 2011. The visit resulted in more than 20 agreements and memoranda of understanding, including one covering the contentious issue of cross-border water resources, as well as security and trade. However, there was no sign of progress on re-opening an oil export pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey.

Trade route

Under Al Sudani, Baghdad and Ankara have also managed to get Abu Dhabi and Doha on board with the Development Road initiative, a $17bn plan to develop a 1,200km trade route from the Gulf through Iraq to Turkey and, from there, on to Europe. The UAE had previously thrown its weight behind the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor initiative, launched in New Delhi in September – but that plan involves using Israeli ports.

“In light of the Gaza war, a trade route through Israel is unlikely to be something that many Gulf rulers want to be too closely associated with at the moment,” said one regional analyst.

For the Iraqi trade route to build up real momentum, the security situation around the country will need to improve further. While the Islamic State has been largely defeated, other pro-Iran groups continue to be active, including several that have banded together as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI).

Many of that umbrella group’s recent actions have been directed against Israel, including a cruise missile attack on 2 May, which targeted Tel Aviv. Such actions hold the potential for Iraq to be drawn into any expansion of the Israel-Hamas conflict, perhaps as a proxy battleground between Iran and Israel.

Other apparent IRI attacks have been directed at local targets, such as a drone attack on the Khor Mor gas field in the Kurdistan region in late April, which killed four Yemeni workers and forced UAE-based operator Dana Gas to suspend operations for several days.

Kurdistan election in doubt

Kurdistan, meanwhile, has other all-but-intractable political problems. Most recently, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) insisted it will not participate in the regional parliamentary election planned for 10 June – two years after it should have been held.

That stance was prompted by a Federal Supreme Court ruling in February that ended the practice of reserving 11 seats for minority groups including Turkmen, Christians and Armenians after ruling that the quota was “unconstitutional”. The MPs holding those seats had generally voted in step with the KDP – something that led its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and others to file a court case arguing that the communities were no longer properly represented.

The KDP has emerged as the largest party from every election in the region over the past two decades and its pledge to sit out this election creates a thorny issue for Baghdad, which is now in charge of the process – after the Supreme Court also ruled in February that oversight of the elections should be handed over from the Kurdish authorities to the federal Independent High Electoral Commission.

“If the KDP does not participate in the election, the Kurdistan Regional Government will effectively cease to function as a cohesive political entity; if Baghdad gives into the KDP’s gamesmanship, it sets a bad precedent that a single party can prevent an election if it feels it will be disadvantaged,” said Rodgers.

No solution has been found as yet. Kurdistan region president Nechirvan Barzani was in Tehran on 6 May, where he held talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, among others. Trade and cross-border security issues were at the top of the agenda, but some reports suggested Barzani had also tried to persuade Tehran to put pressure on the PUK to agree to a delay to the June poll.

On 8 May, a further element of chaos was leant to the proceedings when the High Electoral Commission suspended preparation for the Kurdish election in response to a lawsuit filed by the KDP over the distribution of constituencies.

Together, the prospect of a major rival Shia bloc returning to Baghdad politics ahead of the 2025 Iraqi parliamentary election and the risk of the breakdown of the political process in Kurdistan threaten to disrupt the relative political calm that Al Sudani has worked to cultivate. Handling the shifting political landscape will require astuteness.

Image: مكتب اعلامي لرئيس الوزراء, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Dominic Dudley
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