Amid feuds, Iraq still without a full government

The debate over the formation of the new government illustrates the fragmentation within large, previously cohesive blocs.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Iraqi lawmakers during a session of the new Iraqi parliament in Baghdad.(Reuters)
Broken politics. Iraqi lawmakers during a session of the new Iraqi parliament in Baghdad.(Reuters)

LONDON - In October, five months after Iraqi elections, new Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi presented his cabinet of ministers. However, key posts were vacant because parties backing him remained divided over whose candidates should take over the eight remaining ministries. These include powerful portfolios, such as the defence and interior.

Debates intensified as parliament was to vote November 6 on the vacant ministerial posts. However, parliament skirted the issue, instead discussing the budget and the death of thousands of fish in the Euphrates River among other things. Abdul-Mahdi said the consultation with parliament to fill the remaining posts continued and vowed that nominations would be completed soon.

“What this reveals first and foremost,” said Renad Mansour, research fellow at Chatham House, “is the fragmentation of parliament.” Parliament has been unable to fulfil its duties amid a failure to agree on the largest bloc in parliament, Mansour added.

There is a broader logic behind the power struggles, observers said. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has been governed by an ethno-sectarian system locally known as muassasah, which granted various positions of power to different ethnicities and sects.

Control over ministries allowed various political parties to gain access to much coveted resources, including the awarding of government contracts. Corruption is widely seen as part of the political process, with Iraq ranking 169th out 180 countries in Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index 2017.”

“There is no clear line between politics, business and security in Iraq,” Mansour told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

However, trust in the muassasah system is at an all-time low. During widespread protests this year against corruption and a lack of services, protesters demanded an end to the political status quo. Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric, has championed this cause. His Sairoon political bloc, part of the larger Islah alliance, has pushed for the allocation of key ministries to technocrats not connected with political parties.

“It is naive to think the political parties would just give up political power… and that Abdul-Mahdi could go against them,” argued Mansour.

The debate over the formation of the new government illustrates the fragmentation within large, previously cohesive blocs. In the Shia camp, a key sticking point is the nomination of Falih al-Fayyadh as interior minister. Fayyadh is the former head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and the preferred candidate of Binaa, a political bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, who is the head of the Badr Brigades, one of the most powerful militias in Iraq.

The PMF is a controversial subject in Iraq. It was part of the coalition of local and international forces that beat the Islamic State (ISIS) but some of its most powerful member groups, such as Badr, have close links with Tehran and are accused of having committed human rights violations.

Sairoon has repeatedly rejected Fayyadh’s nomination due to his PMF connections. If his nomination proved successful, it would hand Fayyadh and Binaa control of Iraq’s internal security forces.

In this stalemate, Mansour said, “it is impossible” to see the interior minister position being taken away from Badr, which has presided over the ministry since 2014. Before that, the position was held for almost four years by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is also part of the Binaa coalition in parliament.

Filling the cabinet is not the only challenge Abdul-Mahdi is facing. The government experienced a setback when MPs rejected the draft budget for 2019. Representatives of various provinces hit by the war against ISIS said not enough funds were allocated for reconstruction.

“Unfortunately for Abdul-Mahdi, he doesn’t get to wait until he has filled his cabinet before he addresses the budget dispute, which is going to become a stalemate very soon,” said Kirk H. Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.

“The unbalanced allocation between provinces is the main obstacle,” he added. Abdul-Mahdi will have to address the budget issue, cabinet problem “and all other problems at once,” Sowell said.

“The continued failure to finish the cabinet just confirms what we already know; that the [Abdul-Mahdi] government is and will be hobbled by political disputes because he has no coalition base at all.”

Two cabinet ministers approved by parliament risk losing their jobs due to alleged ties to the regime of Saddam Hussein, Agence France Presse reported.

Mansour said it is difficult for the prime minister to “portray a sense of strength if his choices are rejected by parliament… There is already an assumption that he is weak” or is just facilitating matters for the political parties.

In a reminder of the country’s violent past, more than 200 mass graves containing as many as 12,000 bodies were found in areas once controlled by ISIS, a UN report said.