Iraq’s long and winding road to stability

Iraq’s long and winding road to stability

It can be difficult to recall, in chronological order, the social and political developments in Iraq since the government’s success in pushing back Daesh, quelling Kurdish secession and consolidating its security and military forces.

Iraq’s recent parliamentary election was comprehensively won by the popular cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who immediately met Prime Minister Haider Abadi to form a government after years of war, internal turmoil, insurgency and calls for Kurdish independence as well as mounting foreign influence.

Post-election optimism conceals the extremely shaky foundations of Iraq’s transition from wartime insurgency and turmoil to a peaceful, hopefully democratic, state.

There is much work to be done, but for the Iraqi government to earn legitimacy, authority and the necessary influence to effect and enact post-war laws and policies, several key issues must be resolved immediately.

Six months before the election, Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum in which 93 percent favored independence from Iraq. But the Iraqi government quickly imposed restrictions on Kurdistan, seizing border posts and territories.

It was evident that the dream of an independent Kurdistan would meet great resistance from Baghdad and an international refusal to allow anything that could lead to a divided Iraq. Eventually, the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments met and resolved the crisis by having the Kurdistan government annul the referendum’s results.

For now, Iraq’s territorial integrity was secure. The only remaining stumbling block was Daesh.

The elections had originally been set for September 2017 but had to be delayed for six months while the government waged an intense campaign to regain territory lost to Daesh and liberate settlements, towns, cities and infrastructure.

Despite a few skirmishes and attacks launched by remnants of the routed Daesh forces, the elections were successfully held on May 12 without attacks on voting locations or efforts to derail the process.

As the Trump administration mounts pressure on Iran, it is likely that Tehran will seek to extend its influence in Iraq as a proxy in its confrontation with the US and threaten the already volatile situation in the country and the region as a whole.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Al-Sadr’s Saairun Alliance won the largest number of seats, 54, while Abadi’s Victory Coalition gained 42. The following month, Al-Sadr’s party signed an agreement with Eyad Allawi’s National Coalition, which had won 21 seats, to form a coalition and seek more partners to constitute the parliamentary majority necessary to form a government.

Eventually, Al-Sadr and Abadi will join in what they call a “cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic alliance.”

In effect, the central figures that have emerged in Iraq’s first foray into post-war democracy reflect the divisions in this embattled country. Experts and pundits may have hailed the Iraqi government’s defeating Daesh and rooting out any last remnants, but many have cautioned that sectarianism in Iraq simply will not vanish.

The campaign against a common enemy held the country together. Now, with Daesh largely defeated and the threat of Kurdish secession thwarted, will the alliances, coalitions, mutual interests and few leftover uniting influences be sufficient to govern Iraq effectively? That’s not to mention Iran’s deep, expanding influence.

This question is difficult to answer. As work begins to deliver on election promises, it is unlikely that those uneasy truces and desperate alliances will hold.

Al-Sadr’s alliance was initially composed of the Shiite Islamist Sadrist Integrity Party, Iraqi Communist Party, Youth Movement for Change Party, Party of Progress & Reform, Iraqi Republican Group and State of Justice Party.

They campaigned on economic reform, anti-poverty issues, fostering Iraqi nationalism, anti-corruption, social justice, anti-sectarianism and combating foreign influence. In Western terms, the Saairun Alliance is a left-leaning political party, but it incorporates right-wing ideologies.

Abadi’s Victory Alliance, a splinter from disgraced former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s Dawa party, campaigned on a centrist platform. Also notable is Abadi’s distaste for corruption and sectarianism in favor of pragmatism and moderation.

No faction has yet gathered the 165 seats required to form a government. Meanwhile, Abadi leads a caretaker government.

For the average Iraqi, maneuvering by politicians does not deliver much-needed relief and hope after years of economic despair leading to widespread demonstrations demanding economic reforms. These protests reflect the growing exasperation and despair that Iraqis face daily.

Oil prices are favorable, holding at or near $70 per barrel, but poor infrastructure, disrupted electricity, poverty, unemployment, and prolonged political gridlock mean the situation will only grow more difficult — and so will the urgency of addressing Iraq’s social, economic and political troubles.

As the Trump administration mounts pressure on Iran, it is likely that Tehran will seek to extend its influence in Iraq as a proxy in its confrontation with the US and threaten the already volatile situation in the country and the region as a whole.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.

Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell



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