The struggle against the Islamic State created an unprecedented communion of purpose. Today, the political balance based on the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni blocks is crumbling down

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:34:41

Today Iraq is unusually calm. The Islamic State, having lost both Mosul and control over the border with Syria, has been defeated; in Kurdistan, Mas’ud Barzani’s referendum for the independence has proved to be a political boomerang. Since the deadly war against the jihadists has been won and the civil war with the Kurds has been thwarted, the situation in the country is more stable.


Unfortunately, however, the order in Baghdad is only apparent and this situation is most likely the prelude to a new cycle of tension and destabilization. In fact, to strengthen and accelerate the conflicting dynamics, in addition to the regional context of polarization between the Iranian axis and the Saudi block, provincial and national elections will occur in May 2018 in Iraq, right when the mandate of Prime Minister Haider al-‘Abadi will come to an end.


These elections will mark the future of Iraq, since the winner will be confronted with major challenges such as national reconciliation, the material and institutional reconstruction of the country, as well as relations with regional powers and the fight against jihadism.

The political balance of post-Ba‘thist Iraq is crumbling

The forthcoming elections and the start of the new government will occur in a radically transformed political framework, and will probably reflect new and unprecedented political balances. In other words, the long wave of the crisis generated by the Islamic State has redesigned internal political geometries, inducing profound changes in Iraqi society and politics.


First of all, the political balance of post-Ba‘thist Iraq is crumbling: the governance formula based on the ethnic-sectarian system of the muhasasa, where power is – theoretically – proportionally distributed between a Shiite, a Kurd and a Sunni block. However, so far this has actually translated into a strong duopoly of the Kurdish-Shiite coalition and the marginalization of the Sunni movements. Today, this balance is breaking down: in fact, although an intense competition on ethnic-sectarian lines persists, a further dynamic of disintegration and competition within each of the “traditional” blocks stengthens. The internal cohesion of each of the three ethnic-sectarian groups is dissolving. 


Kurdish internal competition

In Kurdistan, a political-institutional impasse has been dragging on for some time, with former regional president Ma’soud Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK) bitterly opposing the other two major Kurdish parties, Gorran and the Patriotic Kurdish Union (PUK).


Faced with the other political forces’ rejection of yet another renewal of his presidential mandate, promoting the referendum on autonomy Barzani aimed at obtaining from the people the authority that the Parliament was denying him. Not being able to oppose such a popular move with a predictable outcome, the other parties obtorto collo adhered to the referendum. However, no one was then willing to fight for Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, which was retaken by federal forces without resistance, also because of the interference of Iran that convinced PUK – in control of the city at the time – to give up.


Relations between Erbil (PDK) and Sulaymaniyah (PUK) today are terrible, while Kurdistan does not have a president and its Parliament is de-legitimized. So, united in the fight against Isis, the Kurdish alliance between PUK and PDK broke up in opposition to the government of Baghdad, compromising the axis of cooperation established since 2003 and rekindling the intra-Kurdish competition.


Sunni disorientation

As far as the Sunnis are concerned, the internal situation is equally problematic: the withdrawal of Isis as well as destroyed cities and hundreds of thousands of refugees have left a disoriented community without real political references, since there are no parties or movements that actually enclose its various geographical and ideological components.


The only national leaders, namely Salim al-Jubouri, president of the Parliament, and vice-president Osama al-Nujaifi, are not part of real organic parties but are both expressions of regional power groups.


Furthermore, at a local level, in the Sunni provinces there is a strong competition to fill the vacuum of power following Isis’ disappearance. Actually, the new Sunni political class still has to emerge and, most likely, rather than giving life to large-scale movements, it will be an expression of forces linked to specific local conditions and strongly in competition with each other.

Internal Shiite divisions

Shiites have recently witnessed a process of political disintegration too. The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the broad Shiite coalition founded during the January 2005 elections, starts to lose its cohesiveness. For a decade, this group, although formed by parties with very different characteristics, was able to hold together various parts of the Shiite bloc. Yet today, many signals point to deep cracks within this group; Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and head of the INA, at odds with pro-Iranian establishment ISCI, founded a new party, the National Wisdom Movement.


Muqtada al-Sadr, the controversial Shiite leader who, through the ups and downs, in the past was part of INA branded governments, is now instead moving away from the alliance and is actually using his nationalistic and anti-corruption platform to go against several large Shiite parties. Additionally, a paradoxical situation is developing insidethe Da‘wa party, from which came both the former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as well as the current one, al-‘Abadi, although they are locked in an irreconcilable and open conflict.

The pro-Iranian militias are either changing names or creating parallel structures 

Finally, the situation of the Shiite bloc as well as the national one are complicated by the entrance into politics of certain Shiite militias from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) which have sided with the armed forces in the fight against the Islamic State. In particular, the pro-Iranian militias are either changing names or creating parallel structures in an attempt to reach political affirmation despite maintaining their intrinsically military connotations.


It is exactly on these new players with a decidedly sectarian identity that both former Prime Minister al-Maliki and Iran are counting on, the former to guarantee a large electorate for himself, the latter to maintain a strong influence on Iraq.


It is not by chance that the political scenario in Iraq is becoming ever more polarized on contrasting perspectives based both on the national vision of the future as well as the current regional positioning. On one side, there is a pro-Iranian pole made up primarily by Munazzama Badr and the other militias that operate under the PMF, which is opposed to any Sunni or American influence and aspires to a State based on the Iranian religious model.

A second pole, which is in truth very diversified, is the nationalist Iraqi group, where intrinsically different leaders such as  al-‘Abadi and al-Sadr find common ground in the role of national identity, the fight against corruption and pluralism. Both are opposed to the PMF political revolution, seen as a Fifth Column of Iran, so much so that, in foreign policy, this pole is less tolerant of Tehran’s pervasive presence and the search for more balanced and independent international relations, even if al-‘Abadi and al-Sadr are deeply divided on what America’s role should be.


The definitive evidence of the Iraqi political shift is to be found precisely in the change within its foreign policy: in July Muqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia, the kingdom that sees itself as the guide of the Sunnis. The event would have been unimaginable not long ago.


It is clear that al-Sadr is not only looking to firmly detach himself from the other pro-Iranian Shiite movements, but also to show himself to be an international level statist and a non-sectarian leader. In reality, with al-‘Abadi – who also visited Riyadh in July – after decades of “Cold War” Iraq and Saudi Arabia have reopened their diplomatic and economic relationship. Opening up the Saudi kingdom, al-‘Abadi is trying to get rid of the invasive Iranian interference, to approach the Sunni electorate and, perhaps, to even find help for the reconstruction of Sunni provinces.

Fighting against an extremist mindset will become the key to achieving a peaceful coexistence between Iraqi religious and ethnic groups

Also of importance is the position taken by the Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, the undisputed religious guide for the Shiite Iraqi community and the safety net – not only at a moral level – of the country at large. Al-Sistani has always been opposed to the Iranian theocratic model and aspires to the idea of  a Civil State, where nationality overcomes the ethnic and sectarian divides and religion is separated from politics. However, today, the political and military growth of the pro-Tehran PMF militias and the deep internal division of the Shiite front caused by the Iranian influence might force al-Sistani to openly side with al-‘Abadi.


Another religious leader also speaks of the need to overcome ethnic and sectarian boundaries. After three years of war against the Islamic State, fighting against an extremist mindset will become the key to achieving a peaceful coexistence between Iraqi religious and ethnic groups, said Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, leader of the Chaldean Church, to France Press.


In conclusion, the strategic alliance between the Shiite coalition and the Kurdish coalition that has maintained a balance in the country for well over a decade now finds itself in a moment of crisis. The Kurdish block imploded, the Sunni block is confused and left to itself, while the Shiite block is deeply divided between a sectarian line and nationalist approach. All this in the midst of an entire political class that has been profoundly delegitimized by corruption and inefficiency: probably until now only the very serious security crisis caused by the presence of Isis has slowed down the widespread and numerous popular protests from deteriorating as happened in those countries taken over by Arab revolutions.


The hope is that by May al-‘Abadi will be able to take advantage of this reshuffling to pick widespread political support from the moderate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish movements which will allow him to scale the rough ethnic and sectarian barriers in the name of national unity, freedom in foreign policy and the redevelopment of institutions.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
Text translated from Italian