Iraq hopes for dilemma-less summer

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Article Summary
Iraq’s new government faces potential problems and a cast of quirky characters.

It has been six months since Baghdad formed its new government, and no major political crises have arisen. For Iraq, this is unheard of. This could be the result of the president, prime minister and parliament speaker working in harmony. 

But as summer approaches, so do three potential problems: Basra’s urgent need for a reliable source of electricity, a growing opposition bloc in parliament and Baghdad’s contentious relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Many political pundits predict a tough summer ahead, one similar to last summer and its deadly unrest in Basra, when demonstrations erupted over the pitiful lack of basic services such as water and electricity, and many government and political party headquarters in the city were burned down. 

The problems in Basra are tied, in a way, to another issue: Iraq’s entanglement in US-Iran relations. The US-Iran saga could take another twist in the coming months. Last month, the United States granted Iraq another 90-day extension of a sanctions waiver so it can keep getting gas from Iran to produce electricity. But there’s speculation that the United States might not renew the waiver again. Washington is adamant that Iraq must take firm action to reduce its dependency on Iran as an energy source. The United States is even considering new measures that would further squeeze Iran and put Iraq between a rock and a hard place. 

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Another potential obstacle in Iraq’s path forward lies in parliament, where political parties are suffering from lack of direction and deep internal divisions. Some parties are on the fence about the current government and are thinking of joining the opposition. Such talk has been circulating for the past two months. Leading the charge in that regard is former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, head of the Nasr coalition.

Abadi has been quite vocal in his criticism of the government, especially in reference to current Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s policy toward the KRG. Abadi accuses Abdul Mahdi of sending the KRG its share of the budget for the past three months to appease Kurdistan Democratic Party leaders — despite the KRG not handing over the 250,000 barrels a day of crude oil stipulated in the 2019 budget law. 

Furthermore, Abdul Mahdi stands accused by the Nasr coalition of suspending or postponing court proceedings in a case Iraq brought against Ankara for allowing the KRG to sell crude oil through Turkey. However, Abdul Mahdi says the case is going ahead as planned and he rejects the accusations against him.

Abadi is not alone in his government criticism. Joining forces with him as an unlikely ally is former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is growing disappointed with the entire government because he was promised but hasn’t received a post as vice president. Maliki appears to be thinking of joining the opposition, amid the Dawa Party’s frantic effort to reform and reunite Abadi and Maliki inside the party. 

Another political party that has started publicly criticizing the government is the Hikma bloc, led by Ammar al-Hakim. Hikma has no representation in the Cabinet and party leaders believe they are getting little for their support of the government. With the provincial council elections looming, they may think it would be better for them, strategically, to join the opposition.

If these three coalitions — Nasr, State of Law and Hikma — join forces to become opposition, they are likely to be joined by some smaller entities such as the New Generation Movement and Fadhila party, among others. The opposition has the potential to reach 100 members, which would give it an influential opposing voice. 

From what we have learned in the past six months, Abdul Mahdi has a clear path ahead of him and knows where he stands. Alongside him are the president and speaker who fully understand the common cause. They collectively worked for good relations with the regional and international communities, and became a formidable force in front of the divided political blocs. The “three presidencies” have been able to establish unity, and working together gives them an aura of invincibility, unlike their predecessors.

Many insiders speak of Abdul Mahdi as being firmly in charge of his Cabinet, pushing his ministers to stick to the agenda they set out. His eyes are set on getting through this summer with minimal damage. Thereafter he would work on improving security and the economy, to deliver jobs and services. Insider sources talk about his desire to set a completely different budget and agenda for 2020 in which he will stress infrastructure projects and job creation. 

The government has helped form a task force in Basra. Spearheaded by Fatah Alliance leader Hadi al-Amiri, the task force seems to be delivering on the services. International agencies such as the United Nations Development Program and European Union are funding several projects in Basra.

However, it’s not clear how the Iraqi government will handle the US sanctions on Iran amid growing pressure from both Washington and Tehran. Iraq needs to make some hard choices in the near future, any of which could result in dire consequences.

The United States would like to see Iraq make progress on the electricity front, and has encouraged neighbors such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to supply Iraq with electricity this summer. Such action might help Iraq to increase its electricity supply to Basra and other provinces and avoid any unrest that might stem from it. 

Soft diplomacy will be needed to deal with opposition parties — or those that are thinking of becoming opponents. Abdul Mahdi will continue to rely on the parliamentary strength of the partnership between Amiri’s Fatah Alliance and the Sairoon Alliance headed by Muqtada al-Sadr. 

After May, KRG-Baghdad relations could become the first major crisis of this administration if the KRG continues to sell oil without handing over the proceeds to Baghdad. Abdul Mahdi would be put in a tough position and his potential strategy is unclear — but he would certainly try to find a balance as he has done in the past.

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Found in: Kurds

Farhad Alaaldin is the chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council (IAC), and served as a political advisor to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum from 2014 to 2018. Prior to this period, he was the chief of staff for the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) from 2009 until 2011, then senior advisor to the KRG prime minister from 2011 till 2012. Farhad is also executive director of RCD-English and a member of the RCD board of directors.

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