In its first 100 days in office, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani has already left warning signs about what might lie ahead for the country. Although it is still in its early days, government actions have largely strayed from the promises Sudani made before taking office and resulted in setbacks for Iraq’s economy, security, sovereignty, and human rights. The situation deserves the attention of observers and stakeholders, who should keep a close eye on what follows and consider adjusting their approach to the administration.
Sudani’s appointment last October completed the takeover of Iraq’s government by the Iran-backed alliance of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the militia-supported Fatah Coalition. In the October 2021 election, these two factions won a mere 51 seats in parliament — just 15% of the legislature’s 329 seats. Joined by political actors who also performed poorly, like Ammar al-Hakim and Haider al-Abadi, the resulting Coordination Framework (CF) frustrated the efforts of the winners of the election, the Sadrists, to form a majority government that would have marginalized them.
While the CF’s political and legal maneuvers unfolded throughout 2022, the militias that make up the group’s backbone rocketed and intimidated the main Sunni and Kurdish seat-winners, who had initially aligned themselves with Muqtada al-Sadr, to force them to cooperate. To preserve their interests, Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party eventually acquiesced to the CF’s demand to join a government in which the Framework holds the uncontested upper hand. The outcome was an unsustainable deal that is already at risk of breaking down as the CF works to assert its dominance by cutting funds to the Kurdish region. Government by coercion is neither normal nor acceptable, and should be treated accordingly. To be clear, a government dominated by Sadr would have been highly problematic for Iraq too, but it didn’t come to be.
As the new prime minister took office last October, there was some merit to giving his government time to prove itself before making judgments. Unfortunately, in his first 100 days, Sudani has consistently put the interests of his benefactors ahead of those of the public.
To put Iraq’s injured democratic process back on track following the tumultuous aftermath of the October 2021 election, the government program promised to review and update election laws within three months to prepare for new elections within a year. The government was formed on the premise that it was another stopgap whose main task was to get Iraq past the anomalous legislative and political situation created by the departure of 73 Sadrist lawmakers from parliament. Within weeks, though, it became clear that Sudani’s main backers — Maliki and the Fatah Coalition — were not interested in holding early elections and were determined to remain in power by keeping Sudani in office for a full four-year term.
Economically, the Sudani government is continuing ruinous business as usual, relying on record oil revenue generated in recent months to sustain patronage networks and inflate a bloated public sector. There have been no signs of attempts to pursue the kind of reforms deemed necessary to cut spending and diversify the oil-dependent economy, which is struggling to create real, sustainable job opportunities for the hundreds of thousands who enter the workforce each year. Instead, the new government plans to increase unsustainable spending on public sector salaries by IQD20 trillion ($13.71 billion) in 2023. The funds would be used to hire some 66,000 new graduates and put another 360,000 temporary workers on permanent payroll. When it comes to services, Sudani and his team have focused on making ad-hoc and cosmetic improvements in a select few facilities and tying these improvements to the premier’s personal involvement. For a country of 42 million, such piecemeal efforts are a distraction and do nothing to advance the creation of the impartial, autonomous bureaucracy needed to make real progress. Sudani’s largest business initiative to date has been to allocate $70 million of public funds to start a new company, named after the deceased leader of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The company, whose purpose is unclear, will be placed under the direction of the militia-dominated Popular Mobilization Committee.
Upon assuming office, Sudani, like his predecessors, promised to vigorously fight corruption, but so far there have been no signs of progress. His first task was to respond to the “theft of the century” in which shell companies with powerful connections stole the equivalent of $2.5 billion from government accounts. In late November, Sudani released one of the main suspects in the theft, saying that the government had made a deal with that individual to return all the stolen funds within two weeks. But in the more than two months that have passed since the suspect was freed, barely 8% of the money has been recovered. While the full map of the criminal network remains to be exposed, it seems to include a wide range of political actors, including those close to the previous prime minister. The stalled recovery after the government said it had all the funds in sight suggests that the money is protected by significant coercive power and political cover beyond what the prime minister can handle.
On security and defending Iraq’s sovereignty, the government’s performance has been weak too. As they have done in recent years, Iran and Turkey continue to violate Iraq’s sovereignty, except that since Sudani took office, these violations have taken place without so much as an objection from the new commander in chief. After Iran sent waves of explosive drones and missiles into the Kurdistan region in mid-November, Sudani failed to address the attacks. That marked a departure from the customary verbal defenses of the country’s sovereignty by his predecessors, which were undoubtedly ineffective, but nonetheless officially called out the violations. And when Sudani met with Iranian leaders days after the latest such attack, his public message was not an objection to their actions, but to express gratitude and offer to support the Islamic Republic’s effort to secure its border.
On human rights, violations have not abated and militias continue to target critics with coercive force, dubious lawsuits, and prison sentences to silence them. Even lawmakers who dare remind the public of the militias’ role in extrajudicial killings and other gross abuses are not immune from legal harassment and threats. When Iraqis protested against these injustices in December, three demonstrators were killed by government forces. A subsequent investigation into the killings obfuscated more facts about the culprits than it revealed, bringing back memories of the bloody suppression of the protests in 2019, when hundreds of young Iraqis died at the hands of militias and government forces. Iraqis are watching and recording the injustice. Their words on social media lament the jarring irony that in their country, those who steal billions walk free, while innocent suspects languish in jail if they can’t afford to pay bribes.
From the first week of this government’s term, it became clear that militias would expand their power further. These militias accuse former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Iraq’s National Intelligence Service (INIS) of complicity in the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Upon taking office, Sudani initiated sweeping changes in the leadership of the INIS. The INIS chief was sacked, and he and other senior officers are facing corruption charges that appear to have been initiated at the militias' behest. The trail seems to lead to Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which have been spearheading a vendetta to punish al-Kadhimi and “his spy team.” Sudani also appointed as director of his press office, the voice of his administration, a journalist who previously worked as news director at al-Ahad TV, a news channel that belongs to the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia.
Events have reinforced the claim that Sudani is, in the words of the Asaib’s Qais al-Khazali, a mere “general manager” who serves at the pleasure of the CF’s leaders, enabling them to operate with continued impunity. To use the colloquial Iraqi term infamously used in one of Khazali’s attacks on a former prime minister, Sudani is the kind of prime minister who knows when to ghallis, meaning to turn a blind eye when his superiors handle matters of real importance, like rocketing an embassy, disappearing a critic, or siphoning billions from the national budget each year.
The international community should exercise caution in dealing with Baghdad and adopt a clear and balanced approach. In its time in office so far, this government has failed to prove that its mission is aligned with Iraq’s best interest. Similar to former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Sudani was nominated for the role because he would be a weak prime minister dependent on the political support of others to govern, since his own party had won just a single seat in parliament. Failure to recognize who’s really in control of this government, and continuing to extend recognition and support to a disingenuous facade further empowers the CF. Additional precise mechanisms are needed to increase the cost to the CF leaders and their allies of undermining Iraq’s democracy and security and blocking its path towards economic reforms and accountability.
A good place to start applying more pressure would be to threaten sanctions to block the transfer of billions of dollars from Iraq’s annual budget to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an entity that’s been hijacked by terrorist-designated groups, until only legitimate personnel are left on its payroll. Pressure should also be maintained to remind the government that its credibility, both in Iraq and abroad, hinges on following through with genuine investigations — and prosecutions — into corruption and human rights abuses. Those and other forms of pressure need to be balanced by not losing sight of what could still be done to support the aspirations of 42 million people who desire to live in dignity, receive a good education, be part of a functioning economy, drink clean water, and govern themselves. The international community should maintain pressure on Baghdad to hold free and fair elections as planned and block attempts to undo the election law reforms introduced after 2019, for which many Iraqis paid with their blood.
Twice in recent memory, Iraq endured tragedies that were avoidable. During the Maliki years from 2006 through 2014, the international community’s ambivalence about setbacks to democracy — exemplified by Maliki’s manipulation, with Iran’s help, of government formation rules after the 2010 election to stay in office — and expectations that Iraq would muddle through, enabled bad leadership that nearly broke the country apart and surrendered a third of it to ISIS. A few years later, when Adil Abdul-Mahdi took the helm, unwarranted optimism about individual leaders’ ability to push radical change gave Iran’s allies the opportunity to grow their power to unprecedented levels. And when those were challenged by the Iraqi people’s desire for reforms in the 2019 protests, they killed hundreds of people to protect that power. In the interest of international security and out of respect for Iraq’s popular sovereignty, those mistakes must not be repeated.
Omar Al-Nidawi is a Middle East analyst focusing on Iraqi political, security, and energy affairs. He is the Director of Programs at the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), and a guest lecturer of Iraqi history and politics at the Foreign Service Institute. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images
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