Stalemate persists in Iraq, Shia blocs remain at loggerheads

A face-off between two of the most powerful Shia politicians in Iraq has deepened tensions within and between major blocs.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Entrenched divisions. Lawmakers attend a session of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, on October 24. (Iraqi Parliament Office)
Entrenched divisions. Lawmakers attend a session of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, on October 24. (Iraqi Parliament Office)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has been struggling since October to fill the remaining eight posts in his cabinet. There was another reminder recently of how entrenched divisions are in Iraq’s political scene.

The key posts that have held up the government’s formation are the so-called sovereign ministries of interior and defence. A face-off between two of the most powerful Shia politicians in Iraq has deepened tensions within and between major blocs.

Speculation was rife before a planned parliamentary session on December 4. One member of parliament with the Binaa bloc told Alsumaria news that parliament was set to confirm six out of the eight remaining ministers, excluding defence and migration. A Kurdish lawmaker told Kurdistan24 that the Shia and Sunni factions had not reached an agreement on the interior and defence ministries.

After an initial delay, parliament convened as planned. However, MPs failed to elect the remaining cabinet members presented by Abdul-Mahdi because representatives mostly affiliated with Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly interrupted the session by shouting “illegitimate” and banging on tables. The session was postponed and the political stalemate persisted.

The parliamentary sessions had been preceded by deepening tensions between major political blocs. At the heart of the dispute lies Falih Alfayyadh’s nomination as interior minister, widely seen as the most contentious candidacy on Abdul-Mahdi’s list.

Alfayyadh previously served as the head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and is the preferred candidate of Binaa, a political bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri, who is the head of the Badr Organisation, an Iran-backed militia and political party.

Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance finished with the most seats after the elections in May, has strongly rejected Alfayyadh’s nomination. A video on social media showed MPs allied with al-Sadr chanting “our decision was Iraqi” after blocking Alfayyadh’s confirmation.

Al-Sadr further raised the stakes by sending a letter to Abdul-Mahdi in which he warned that the prime minister had one year to “prove himself.” He urged Abdul-Mahdi to appoint technocrats, especially to the interior and defence ministries.

“You are obliged not to comply with what is going on behind the scenes but to be free to establish a state on the right basis, through technocrat ministers who are independent and have free decisions, especially the ministers of defence and interior and other security organs,” the letter read.

A failure to accommodate al-Sadr’s demands could have a big effect beyond the halls of power in Baghdad. One member of al-Sadr’s alliance told Reuters on condition of anonymity: “If Binaa ignores us then we will resort to all possible options, including mobilising the street.”

Al-Sadr has led mass protests against corruption and the political status quo in past years. His supporters stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad, the seat of government, in 2016.

“I think the current prime minister will lose Muqtada al-Sadr’s support because of his insistence on Falih Alfayyadh,” said Iraqi journalist Methaq al-Fayyadh.

Observers also identified tensions within Amiri’s Binaa bloc. Commenting on Twitter, Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, said Amiri was losing power and could not be seen as conceding too much.

However, as head of the Binaa bloc and the Fateh alliance, Amiri and his allies control heavily armed forces that are part of the PMF. Amiri has close ties to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF who has reportedly concentrated more power in his hands while Abdul-Mahdi struggles to form a government.

For the position of defence minister, Abdul-Mahdi stuck with his nomination of Faisal al-Jarba, who has been investigated for his ties to the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, the national de-Ba’athification commission cleared Jarba, who is seen as the favoured candidate of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. However, other Sunni politicians close to Amiri are vying for the post.

Asked how hopeful he was that the government formation would be completed by the end of the month, Lukman Faily, spokesman for Iraqi President Barham Salih, said: “We are expecting the prime minister every day to fix a date and provide the CVs [of the candidates]… and take it from there.”

He said Salih had been engaging in political dialogue with the political blocs and would continue to do so to “accelerate the government formation and implementation of the government’s reform programme.”

The last months have shown that, while Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions that have shaped much of post-2003 Iraq are still pervasive, the current stalemate is a direct result of divisions within previously cohesive blocs. Shias are divided over the Interior Ministry, Sunnis over the defence post and Christians over the migration portfolio.

In a potential sign of future instability, protesters in Basra, the site of mass demonstrations this year, interrupted a news conference by Iraqi Finance Minister Fuad Hussein, loudly voicing their frustration.