Everyone in Iraq is rightfully focused on the upcoming battle to oust the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the Iraqi city of Mosul, and many analysts continue to focus on Shia-Sunni or Shia-Kurd sectarian tensions in post-ISIL Iraq. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, another battle brews — an intra-Shia battle that poses an existential threat to the Iraqi state. Recently, Iraq’s parliament launched anti-corruption cases and impeached Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi — a Sunni Arab — and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari — a Kurd. While both were complicit in some form of corruption, prominent Iraqi minister of parliament Hanan Fatlawi stated that “everyone has taken a piece of the cake and become happy… we have all benefitted.” The question, then, is why now, and why them?
The optimistic answer is that these corruption proceedings are a necessary supplement to the military battle against ISIL. The logic goes: A military solution against ISIL is not enough. To completely defeat the group, the country needs to win back disenfranchised Iraqis by convincing them that the central government is accountable and representative. This is particularly true for citizens who may have embraced or been complacent with alternatives governance structures, such as ISIL.
According to this view, the current parliamentary proceedings showcase the growing strength of the Iraqi state. In holding leaders accountable and moving against corruption — a longstanding grievance of the Iraqi street — the state’s institutions are moving for the first time against the personalities who have dominated since 2003.
Pressuring the State
Yet beneath the surface, an alternative reality looms. The state, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, is actually weak. As Iraq faces a security (ISIL) and economic (debt) crisis, the state no longer has ministers for interior, defense, and finance — arguably the three most important and relevant posts vis-à-vis Iraq’s current crises.
The state remains weak because two strong and competing Shia forces have Abadi caught between them. Since Shia elite now rule Baghdad, their internal struggle represents the greatest threat to the state. For policymakers, many answers about the future of politics in post-ISIL Iraq lie in understanding the dynamics of this power triangle between the two Shia forces and the state itself.
The first Shia force is a top-down movement led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who lost his office in 2014, but remains influential. He is actively working to discredit the Abadi administration, despite the fact that he hails from the same political party (Dawa) as Abadi himself. This group includes senior figures from the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), including Hadi al-Ameri and the Badr Organization, Qais Khazali and Asaib ahl al-Haq, and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis who formerly led Kataib Hzbollah, among others. The fight against ISIL has elevated the status of these leaders, who took advantage of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s ambiguously worded fatwa to enlist thousands of fighters and to pose as the defenders of Baghdad. They remain tremendously wealthy and well-armed owing largely to strong support from Iran. They are on the frontlines fighting against ISIL with the support of the state.
The goal for this coalition is to eventually re-emerge onto the post-ISIL political scene in the upcoming provincial (2017) and parliamentary (2018) elections. This became clear when Maliki attempted to create a PMF electoral bloc to compete in the next elections. In the meantime, the group will continue to use parliamentary allies such as Haithem al-Jabouri, who heads a corruption committee, to target potential opponents, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (i.e. Zebari), certain senior Sunni leaders (i.e. Obeidi), and the Sadrists. It will seek to discredit the Abadi administration and may bring the prime minister in for questioning.
The second force is a movement that has been protesting against the Abadi government for over a year. Recently, popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as a leader of this movement. Sadr is calling for a removal of the old elite (such as Abadi’s cabinet ministers) and its replacement with a technocratic cabinet. Sadr’s power was showcased in April, when he inspired thousands to storm the Green Zone and the parliament. The group’s influence forced Abadi to attempt cabinet reshuffles three times in April. Unfortunately, he failed each time due to the influence of the PMF group. Slowly, however, Abadi has been able to install technocrats in six ministries. According to a Sadrist leader, the populist movement has less arms and funds than the PMF largely because it remains critical of Iranian influence in Iraq. But it has power in numbers and the ability to mobilize millions, which makes it a threat to the Abadi administration.
Both non-state forces compete against each other for power over Shia (and by extension, Iraqi) politics. This animosity stems back to 2008, when Prime Minister Maliki defeated Sadr’s Mehdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) in Operation Knight’s Charge (Saulat al-Fursan). Subsequently, Sadr attempted but ultimately failed to dethrone Maliki from the premiership in 2012 by using a no-confidence motion in parliament.
Taking Over the State
While these two competing factions differ in many ways, they share similar objectives for a post-ISIL Iraq: They want to take over the state’s institutions and strengthen the state once in power. The next step for both groups is running in the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections.
Maliki calculates that the key to victory in these elections will creating an electoral bloc from the various PMF factions, which most Iraqi Shia view as an untouchable and gallant force unlike any political or religious figure – in Iraq, it is taboo to criticize the PMF because of the sacrifices that its martyrs are making in the fight against ISIL. If he is unable to do this, he will likely turn to other Shia allies such as Ammar Hakim, who was recently elevated to head of the National Iraqi Alliance.
Even if Maliki’s group does not end up in power, it will continue to act outside the state directly or indirectly to set up parallel political structures to both pressure the state and to weaken rivals. For instance, many of the leaders in the PMF force want to institutionalize their paramilitaries into permanent and semi-autonomous parts of the Iraqi state. Some, including Maliki, have even called for creating an institution similar to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In any case, this group will also attempt to silence the Sadrist movement with the help of its powerful ally, Iran. It will also likely continue using its influence in parliament to target opponents, given current rumors that former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari — a Shia opponent of Maliki — is next on the chopping block.
By contrast, the Sadrists will work to ensure that Maliki and his PMF allies do not acquire institutional positions. Sadr himself recently issued a decree warning against the PMF joining the political process. Instead, he wants the Maliki-allied PMF leaders to either subordinate themselves to the state or face expulsion from Iraq.
At the Forefront: Internal-Shia Politics in Baghdad
At least for the moment, Abadi is stuck between these two forces that seek to retain influence over the state. They have left the prime minister unable to maintain a functioning cabinet in these grave times.
Yet both these non-states forces remain untouchable. It is unlikely, for instance, that similar corruption inquiries are launched against Maliki, who is rumored to have taken billions from the state, not the mere millions for which Zebari or Obeidi were investigated. Sadr also remains above the rule of law: When he staged a sit-in in the Green Zone, the general in charge of security there kissed Sadr’s hand, rather than reprimanding the trespasser.
In post-ISIL Iraq, particularly following the two key upcoming elections in 2017 and 2018, the attention will turn to Baghdad’s internal political struggles. This internal Shia struggle for power will have major implications for the 2018 government formation process and the future of Iraqi state-building. Abadi will face serious difficulties in securing his premiership against these stronger forces.
This government formation process will also be a key part of the political victory needed to supplement the military victory over ISILTo ensure victory in the larger war against ISIL, Baghdad will have to pursue a political process that reaches out and guarantees representation of all Iraqi communities. Otherwise, if the state continues to fail, groups such as ISIL or al-Qaeda in Iraq before it will continue to reappear. Western policymakers must understand the internal Iraqi struggle for power to ensure that ISIL, which relies on state failure, does not re-emerge in another form a few years down the line.
Renad Mansour is a Fellow at Chatham House and a Guest Lecturer at the London School of Economics (LSE). He is a senior fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. Previously, he was an El-Erian fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He holds a PhD from Pembroke College, Cambridge.
Image: DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen