Iraq is at a crossroads — with Al-Sudani fighting a lone battle

Iraq is at a crossroads — with Al-Sudani fighting a lone battle

Iraq is at a crossroads — with Al-Sudani fighting a lone battle
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Amid the ever-shifting sands and raging fires of a convulsing Arab region, Iraq stands at a challenging crossroads. Internal and external factors vie for dominance, obfuscating the complex nature of the nation’s path forward.
This complexity is particularly palpable in the tangled web created by the intersection of the political economy and security considerations, with regard to state-aligned militia groups. More than two decades after the US invasion, hopes of a stable, prosperous Iraqi state have been diminished by this intersection.
The heavy reliance of the country on oil revenues leaves it vulnerable to global market fluctuations and limits the options for economic diversification. This economic fragility, coupled with a bloated public sector and lack of job opportunities, creates fertile ground for recruitment by militia groups.
Moreover, the nebulous line between the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq is just one notable example of the overlap between the political and security spheres, and the continuing challenges created by state monopolization of violence.
In particular, the PMF’s shift from a largely anti-Daesh military entity to a political actor reflects the sophisticated adaptation of such groups to the unique political architecture in Iraq. These militias, some of which are aligned with Iran, operate within the framework of the PMF but also maintain a degree of independence.
The blurred lines between national loyalty, sectarian allegiances, and foreign influence within these groups further complicate Iraq’s internal security and its international relations.
Some elements are allegedly involved in planning attacks on international advisers, resulting in incidents such as the airstrikes in Kirkuk which led to the deaths of five members of the Iran-backed Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba militia.
This incident reveals the reality of how these state-aligned groups maneuver, sometimes exploiting the ambiguity of their status both as extensions of the state and as independent actors in order to escape any consequences, while the Iraqi state leadership remains at the mercy of their unpredictable actions.
Additionally, Iran’s pervasive influence in Iraq cannot be overlooked. The intertwining economic challenges and complex security landscape in the country embolden an increasingly assertive Tehran, which has markedly expanded its foothold by fostering alliances with Shiite militias, with profound implications for Iraq’s sovereignty and foreign policy orientation.
Despite losses in the 2021 elections, groups backed by Iran assert more influence in Baghdad now than ever. Militia politicians, along with judges groomed by Tehran and controlled by militias, represent an emerging vector through which Iran can further subvert Iraq’s military, judicial, and political systems.
The effects of this intrusion can also be seen in Iraq’s oil economy. It is effectively under the control of groups backed by Tehran, thereby impinging on the country’s economic sovereignty and diverting a critical resource to further the activities of such groups, while indirectly supporting foreign interests at the expense of Baghdad’s own priorities.
For example, the insistent “resistance” of these hybrid, state-aligned factions to the US hampers Iraq’s efforts to maintain a balanced foreign policy and complicates its relationship with Washington.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani faces the Herculean task of managing all these turbulent dynamics. He must attempt to reconcile the economic needs of the state, the military power of state-aligned organizations, and a fragile sovereignty — all while attempting to steer Iraq away from becoming a proxy theater for friction between Washington and Tehran.

Despite losses in the 2021 elections, groups backed by Iran assert more influence in Baghdad now than ever.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Al-Sudani’s tenure has been akin to attempting to perform a delicate balancing act in a whirlwind. His efforts to bolster the capacities of state security forces and curb the power of the militias are commendable, but hampered by the deeply entrenched state-aligned structures and regional interference.
The intensification of attacks against the military forces of the US-led international coalition and civilian personnel underscores the grand dilemma his administration faces: How to manage domestic peace while grappling with the self-interests of foreign powers.
Meanwhile, situations continue to change beyond Iraq’s borders. The war on Gaza and parallel escalations in the Red Sea have added a new layer to dramatic regional dynamics. Though outside Iraq’s immediate neighborhood, the ripples of instability caused by these events complicate Iraq’s situation and its regional diplomatic navigation.
The situation Iraq faces is emblematic of the political and geopolitical struggles within the wider Middle East, where domestic politics, regional power plays, and international geopolitics converge. Iraq is therefore trapped in the geopolitical crossfire, forcing Baghdad to navigate a geopolitical sphere in which alliances shift unpredictably and power balances sway precariously.
The intersection of politics, security, and economics in Iraq reflects this convoluted landscape, which is likely to take root over the coming years as a symptom of our increasingly disordered world. Al-Sudani must now navigate this complex and volatile landscape, which is riddled with internal discord, foreign intrusion, and lofty ambitions to transform Iraq into a regional nexus. To effectively govern under these circumstances, he needs to execute a three-pronged strategy.
Firstly, he must alleviate internal strife by promoting a consensus-driven approach that prioritizes common national interests over sectarian gains. By utilizing Iraq’s potential as a melting pot of ethnic and religious groups, he should foster an environment of inclusivity and mutual respect.
Secondly, Al-Sudani ought to attempt to mitigate foreign encroachment by asserting Iraq’s sovereignty. This involves maintaining a delicate balance between adherence to global norms and the prioritization of national interests — a deft diplomatic skill which, if executed correctly, could keep foreign influence at bay while preserving beneficial international relations.
Thirdly, he must work toward realizing Iraq’s aspirations to become a regional “bridge” by actively mediating and facilitating dialogue between opposing forces. The country’s unique geopolitical positioning could help to resolve regional disputes and promote stability.
The international community, in particular the US and the EU, can bolster Al-Sudani’s efforts by providing him with comprehensive support. A combination of strategic advice, targeted aid, and diplomatic backing could play a critical role. An emphasis on infrastructural and institutional development will help Iraq achieve long-term stability, which would contribute to fostering regional harmony in ever-more turbulent times.
Furthermore, diplomatic acknowledgment of Iraq’s role as a mediator could shine a global spotlight on the country’s peacemaking efforts, thereby complementing Al-Sudani’s efforts to position Iraq as an intermediary in a perennially fragmented part of the world.
Al-Sudani’s effective leadership in the face of these myriad challenges demonstrates his political acumen. It offers the international community an opportunity to complement his leadership by facilitating Baghdad’s overarching ambitions, while remaining cautious and careful not to inadvertently stifle his efforts through excessive intervention.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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