As the fight against Daesh continues to grab international headlines, behind the scenes Iraqi politics is gearing up for a reset. With provincial and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, there are signs that a significant rotation of elites may unfold in Baghdad.
At the strategic level, the Iraqi state has to contend with three major threats: a lingering low-level insurgency in Sunni-majority areas; plans to hold a Kurdish independence referendum later this month; and escalating US-Iran tensions in the region.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the political establishment is in flux, with the most important development centred on the intensifying fragmentation of Shia political parties. Whilst Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi appears to be in buoyant mood as the Iraqi armed and security forces continue to roll back Daesh across north-western Iraq, his position is potentially under threat.
While much depends on the outcome of the 2018 parliamentary elections, it is ultimately the dynamics flowing from US-Iran rivalry in Iraq which will determine the state of affairs at the commanding heights of the country’s politics. In order to regain the political initiative from Washington, Iran may move decisively against Abadi by throwing its weight behind his predecessor, Nouri Al-Maliki.
A pyrrhic victory
On the face of it, Iraq appears to be on the verge of ejecting Daesh from the country. With a recent victory in Tal Afar, the Iraqi army and federal police force are now poised to confront the militants in their final stronghold centred on the string of towns and villages along the River Euphrates valley.
However, according to all credible accounts this is a hollow victory, as the conditions that set the stage for the emergence of Daesh in the first place have not even begun to be addressed. Iraq is wracked by sectarianism, corruption and Kurdish irredentism, and the political establishment in Baghdad is independent in name only in so far as it is ultimately beholden to American and Iranian patrons.
Whilst the Western media is keen to trumpet the recent victories of Iraq’s US-trained and supplied armed forces, they are reluctant to report on the deeper truth of this apparent success. The three-year fight against Daesh has come at a huge price, namely the sweeping advance of Kurdish nationalism.
The Kurds are now firmly in control of the so-called “disputed areas” and have by some accounts increased the size of the territory they control in Iraq by 40 per cent since 2014. This is a huge expansion that poses a far graver threat to Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity than Daesh ever did.
It is primarily on the back of these territorial gains that the Kurdish leadership in Erbil is keen to press ahead with a highly divisive independence referendum later this month. Not surprisingly, the only country to welcome Kurdish independence is Israel, an occupying power continually seeking regional fragmentation with a view to consigning the plight of the Palestinians to oblivion.
Whilst an independence referendum does not automatically lead to statehood, nevertheless the stage is being set for massive political polarisation and potential military conflict between Baghdad and Erbil. It is against this backdrop that the political establishment in Baghdad will hold two important elections next year.
Political manoeuvring ahead of next year’s parliamentary election has started in earnest, and unsurprisingly the maverick Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has been quick off the mark by forging an agreement with the Wataniya (National) coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Widely seen as a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset, Allawi is one of Washington’s main counterweights to the deeply-entrenched Iranian influence in Baghdad. Forging an alliance with an alleged CIA asset is entirely in keeping with Sadr’s volatile behaviour, as demonstrated recently by his visit to Saudi Arabia. It is in the context of this alliance between pro-American groups and an important section of the Shia grassroots that Iran may well be toying with the idea of providing another former Prime Minister — Nouri Al-Maliki — with the opportunity and resources to make a serious comeback.
There have been previous predictions of a comeback by Maliki, with some analysts interpreting his return as a direct challenge to the incumbent Abadi. In reality, though, any return by Maliki would have wider objectives than the mere ouster of Abadi. At any rate, the latter’s power base is relatively weak as his constituency is made up of technocrats and tentative reformers. Crucially, the current Prime Minister doesn’t not have a sufficiently strong bond with either the Shia parties or the Najaf-based Marjayeyat (centred on Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani) to secure his position. From Iran’s point of view, any comeback by Maliki should satisfy the immediate objective of securing the position of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the Shia-led paramilitary forces that are developing insidiously into a state within a state.
Tension between sections of the PMU leadership and Abadi was on full display following a Syrian and Hezbollah brokered deal to transfer Daesh fighters from Lebanon to eastern Syria adjoining the Iraqi border. Whilst Abadi strongly criticised the deal, Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq paramilitary force, came out in defence of the agreement.
Maliki appears to be supportive of the deal, an oppositional posture that he is likely to intensify in the lead-up to parliamentary elections. In view of strong US opposition, Maliki has a very slim chance of regaining the premiership. However, his forceful presence on the political scene will pressure the Americans to accede to a consensual future prime minister, and crucially one who doesn’t set out to undermine the PMU.
It remains to be seen if the bitter political battles of the coming months will give way to a measure of unity and consensus which Iraq needs badly in order to contain the fallout from the Kurdish independence referendum.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.