Iraq on brink of abyss: What happens next?

The steadily increasing crisis in Iraq is getting deeper over time, opening the space for a total political collapse.

al-monitor Iraqi university students carry Iraqi flags during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Dec. 29, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily.

Dec 29, 2019

Iraq's political crisis is getting increasingly deeper while the security situation is steadily declining, pushing the country toward further uncertainty and possible political collapse.

What are the conflicting forces and sources of the crisis, and what are the possible scenarios for Iraq's immediate future?

Conflicting forces

Four main forces are actively operating against each other in Iraq, shaping the political situation and deepening the ongoing crisis:

  • The first force is the protesters who have steadfastly remained in the streets, asking for fundamental change and even raising the ceiling of their demands. Although the prime minister resigned, the electoral commission has been changed and a new electoral law has been passed by the parliament, the protests are continuing and the demonstrators are asking for complete political change, which seems impossible.
  • The second force is Iran, which is increasing escalatory moves against the United States and the protesters. Tehran has referred to the protests as riots and has demanded strong, rapid action against demonstrators, similar to what occurred in Iran. Its proxies among the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are also increasing their attacks on US bases in Iraq. On Dec, 29, several Katyusha rockets hit the Taji military base, 17 miles north of Baghdad, following US attacks on Iranian proxy Kataib Hezbollah. Taji is the second-largest US facility in Iraq. Also, an attack on Kirkuk’s K1 base Dec. 27 resulted in the death of a US civilian contractor and injured several US service members and Iraqi personnel. Furthermore, several other Katyusha attacks have taken place against US bases during the last two months in conjunction with the ongoing protests that Iran accuses the United States of being involved with. 
  • The third force is the United States, which finally lost patience with Iranian proxies in Iraq and launched strikes against Kataib Hezbollah on Dec. 29. Several US aircraft and drones attacked five Kataib Hezbollah bases — three in Iraq and two in Syria — killing the commander of the first regiment in Kataib Hezbollah's Brigade 45, Abo Ali Khazali, along with 25 other PMU personnel; 51 were wounded. The PMU was quick in responding to the US strikes, as the attack against the Taji base occurred within hours of the US actions. The US Defense Department announced following the attacks on Kataib Hezbollah that the US military will continue targeting PMU bases in Iraq and Syria until the organization stops threatening US bases and interests in Iraq. The US Army also announced a maximum alert and the US Embassy in Baghdad evacuated a number of its civilian personnel. It appears that the United States has decided to curb Iran’s power in Iraq; this could increase the already escalated situation and take it to the abyss.
  • The fourth force is the political parties, which seem unable to manage the crisis and reach an agreement between conflicting forces in a way that reconciles all sides, at least relatively. The parties have not been able to nominate a new prime minister acceptable to different parties and the protesters at the same time. The top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has accused Iraqi politicians of not being wise enough, of being incapable of dealing with the crisis and of not being up to the task.

Source of crisis

The most important issue now is selecting the new prime minister. The Al-Binaa Alliance — consisting of the PMU’s Fatah bloc and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and other pro-Iran political groups — insists on nominating a candidate close to Iran and from the current political class. But the protesters are asking for a new, independent face with a nationalist character.

Following Iraqi President Barham Salih's rejection of the last Al-Binaa nominee, Asad Aidani, the group maneuvered toward a withdrawal of confidence from Salih, but was unable to put together enough votes in parliament as the Kurds, Sunnis and some Shiite parties expressed their support for the president. Salih has advised the parliament that he would only resign if Al-Binaa forces him to nominate a candidate who is not accepted by the people. To resign, he must send a formal resignation to the parliament. The resignation would then take effect after seven days if the parliament did not vote on it earlier. 

Al-Binaa sent a list of candidates to Salih on Dec. 29, asking him to select one and present the name to parliament for a vote. The list includes former Communications Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, Tawfiq al-Yasiri, who is a retired general, and Abdul Ghani Ajeel al-Asadi, a general who commands the Iraqi special operations force. It is not clear yet whether the protesters will accept any of the names, although there was no immediate objection expressed in the streets as happened previously when the names of nominees were put forth.

A few days before, Sadrist movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr, a controversial Shiite cleric who is currently in Iran, nominated three candidates for prime minister. However, he withdrew the names soon after, saying he had not received any response from the protesters and thus would not nominate anyone else.

The new electoral commission and the new electoral law passed by the parliament are controversial.

The electoral commission is set to be formed of judges, giving certain political influence to the head of the judiciary system, Faiq al-Zaidan, who is close to Iran and its allies in Iraq. This is contradictory to the principle of the separation of powers; people objecting to the composition of the commission have suggested that its members be selected via a random drawing of retired judges, preventing the judiciary from having influence on them.

The new electoral law is also controversial. It gives freedom to the voters to choose individual candidates rather than political parties and lists. Although this could end the domination of conventional political parties such as the Dawa party and the Hikma movement, it could increase the power of populist groupings such as the Sadrist movement and some PMU forces such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq that have strong financial and military positions that could allow them to buy votes. Some political parties, especially the Kurds, are asking for the law to be amended to allow fairer competition between different political forces.

Possible scenarios

The steadily increasing escalation is limiting Iraq's options and pushing Iraqis toward possibly having to choose between bad or worse scenarios.

  • In the best-case scenario, the political parties would agree on a figure accepted by different parties who are strong enough to bring all sides together and reach an agreement that reduces conflict and brings Iraq back to a relatively stable situation, allowing the politicians to solve the problems and manage the transitional period calmly. Many are suggesting the name of the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is close to the United States and Iran at the same time and accepted by most Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political parties. Kadhimi has shown great achievement in heading the Intelligence Service, which recently succeeded, in cooperation with US forces, in an effort to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.
  • One scenario is to select a new prime minister from the Al-Binaa list; it is not clear yet that this would satisfy the protesters or how well the candidate would be able to manage the transitional period.
  • Another scenario under discussion is for the prime minister who resigned, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to stay on until early elections are organized. But this could increase the protests, as demonstrators do not see him impartial and accuse him of being involved in the suppression of the protests.
  • The worst-case scenario is conflict leading to civil war, which would turn different PMU forces against each other — Sadrist against Iran-backed forces in particular — and involve Iran and the United States as well. It could be a civil war with foreign involvement. A military coup is also possible which would bring more crisis to the country as well. The website of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (Counterterrorism Service) had published a military coup announcement before but it claimed later that its website had been hacked.

The above all indicate that Iraq is moving steadily toward a greater uncertainty that could affect the entire region unless the internal and external forces involved in Iraq reach an agreement relatively acceptable for all parties.

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