Al-Sudani’s clear-eyed vision of ‘Iraq First’

Al-Sudani’s clear-eyed vision of ‘Iraq First’

Al-Sudani’s clear-eyed vision of ‘Iraq First’
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In a region convulsing with geopolitical tremors, and a country hobbled by internal strife, Iraq under the stewardship of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani stands at a pivotal juncture as it attempts to reconstruct not only its cities and institutions but the very fabric of its national identity.
As he prepares for an anticipated visit to the White House, Al-Sudani’s ambitions are encapsulated in his “Iraq First” vision, a doctrine that aims to reclaim Iraqi sovereignty and assertiveness against the backdrop of escalating external pressures and intense domestic divisions.
Such a daring pursuit is reflective of enduring Iraqi hopes and attempts to regain stability, and to resume stalled progress in a nation hungry for change.
The question must still be asked, however, of whether Iraq’s current trajectory, the prime minister’s efforts to steer the country through the tumult he inherited, and even the outcomes of his future visit to Washington, will finally realize the ambitions that have eluded Baghdad for more than two decades.
For now, the jury is still out, given the multifaceted challenges Iraq faces, including foreign incursions, proxy wars, and deep-seated political divisions that undermine state authority and erode its functionality.
Meanwhile, Al-Sudani’s tenure, while marked by some progress in terms of stabilization and development, illustrates the difficulties of trying to govern a nation with only a semblance of sovereignty.
Nonetheless, this has not dissuaded Baghdad from embarking on a marked shift away from the role of a helpless “leper” trapped between an opaque US posture and an aggressive Iran, toward a more assertive and strategic diplomacy.
Iraq’s relationship with the US, historically marked by complex maneuvers influenced by tensions between Washington and Tehran, is undergoing a transformation under Al-Sudani. Far from being a playground for opportunistic politics, Iraq under his leadership is seeking to anchor its foreign policy within a strategic vision that prioritizes national interests and sovereignty. This approach reflects a mature understanding of Iraq’s pivotal role in the region and its potential to act as a bridge in US-Iran dynamics, rather than a battleground for their confrontations.
At home, the political landscape in Iraq remains fraught with pressures from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions, which presents a formidable challenge for any leader. Domestically, Iraqi sovereignty is eroded by the fragmentation of its political landscape and the influence of armed militias. The sectarian and ethnic divisions, exacerbated by the political quota system introduced post-2003, have hindered the development of a cohesive national identity and a unified state vision.
Armed groups, particularly those aligned with Iran, operate with impunity, challenging the authority of the state and its security forces. Al-Sudani’s efforts to improve governance and development are constantly undermined by these factions, which prioritize their own agendas over national interests.
Yet Al-Sudani's engagements during, for example, talks about the withdrawal of US forces exemplify his commitment to placing Iraqi interests front and center, in contrast to the usual capitulation. Despite reports of potential repercussions from Washington, the prime minister’s steadfastness in projecting Baghdad’s voice and opinions underscores his dedication to Iraq First while navigating such dialogue.
The outcomes of such talks, good or bad, will have enormous ramifications for the nation’s politics, economy, foreign policy and security dynamics, necessitating that they be handled with a vision of unity and progress for Iraq, rather than allowing short-term political gains to erode an enduring legacy of reform.

Despite the inevitable distractions of electoral politics, Al-Sudani remains focused on transcending factional disputes. 

Hafed Al-Ghwell

With the clock ticking for the next parliamentary elections, expected in late 2025, the need for tangible achievements has never been more urgent for Al-Sudani’s government. Despite the inevitable distractions of electoral politics and the constraints imposed by ever-shifting political alignments, he remains focused on transcending factional disputes.
It would be a grave mistake to underestimate Al-Sudani’s influence in Baghdad because of the intensifying factionalization, given that such divisions serve to highlight the profound weaknesses in the sociopolitical fabric that require an Iraq First vision capable of challenging entrenched political paradigms.
Such frictions will not derail Al-Sudani’s initiatives. They have become the cauldron within which the mettle of the Iraq First commitment continues to be tested — and proven, much like the efforts to implement a comprehensive government program.
Through meaningful reforms and development, Al-Sudani has sought to restore faith in the Iraqi state and reverse the deleterious socioeconomic conditions suffocating an Iraqi public that had practically lost its voice and faith in the state.
Given more time, and ample support, Iraq First will evolve into a multipronged assault on the country's external and internal maladies. Beyond its borders, Iraq must still assert its neutrality and seek to balance its relations with major powers and regional heavyweights.
Intensification of diplomatic efforts, for instance, will discourage neighboring countries from violating Iraqi sovereignty, sending a clear message that the nation will not allow itself to be a battleground for foreign interests.
Recently, for example, Turkish military incursions in pursuit of Kurdish militants, and Iranian missile strikes in response to perceived threats, have demonstrated blatant disregard for Iraqi sovereignty. Such actions not only violate Iraq’s territorial integrity but also highlight the government’s inability to protect its borders and citizens from foreign aggression.
The situation is further complicated by the presence of US forces and ongoing tensions with Iran, which views Iraq as a battlefield for its proxy conflicts. This necessitates a stronger, more cohesive foreign policy and the development of a capable, sovereign defense force.
Domestically, the government must persist with comprehensive state-building efforts that prioritize the reform of political and security institutions. This includes moving beyond the sectarian quota system to promote a meritocracy and national unity.
Strengthening the rule of law and ensuring the state reclaims its monopoly on the use of force are among the critical steps required to reassert control of a domestic landscape in disarray. Moreover, political reforms should include the decentralization of power, thereby addressing the grievances of marginalized communities and integrating them into the political process to help restore the public's lost faith in Baghdad.
As Al-Sudani prepares for his visit to the White House, the stakes are high and the challenges are many. Yet his leadership so far suggests he is ready to confront these challenges head-on with a clear-eyed vision of Iraq First.
The visit to Washington not only represents an opportunity for Iraq to reassert itself on the international stage, it also offers a moment to reflect on the progress that has been made in the country, and the remainder of the journey that lies ahead.
With steady hands at the helm to help navigate mounting external pressures and deepening internal divisions, Al-Sudani’s efforts to reclaim Iraqi sovereignty and steer the nation toward a brighter future deserve recognition and support.

  • 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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