Iraq is currently facing deep ceded political divisions. Old alliances are being torn apart, while long-time rivalries are coming to the fore again. This is happening within all three major alliances amongst the Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites. This will lead to increased instability and political stalemate until the parties re-align themselves into new coalitions.
The Kurdish parties used to have a rough consensus and acted as a unified bloc in Baghdad, but that is now breaking down. For years the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) divided up the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and positions in Baghdad between them. Then in 2009 the emergence of Gorran (Change), which broke away from the PUK promoting a reformist agenda, disrupted that power sharing. That year Gorran would come in second in Kurdish elections behind the KDP. This obviously caused huge problems for the PUK, but it and the KDP eventually attempted to co-opt Gorran into the Kurdish administration. That in turn broke down in 2015 when President Massoud Barzani’s term as Kurdish president expired. He had already been extended in office once before, but this time Gorran wanted changes in the KRG political system in return for Barzani to stay in power. That set off a huge political dispute topped off by the KDP removing Gorran’s ministers from the KRG and refusing the speaker of parliament, a Gorran member from entering Irbil in October 2015. The KDP took over all of Gorran’s positions and the Kurdish parliament has not met since then. Eventually that brought the PUK and Gorran back together in a recently agreed upon alliance to oppose Barzani who they accuse of acting unilaterally on major decisions such as independence, and portraying himself as the only Kurdish leader. Barzani has also written off cooperation with the central government because he does not believe it ever follows through with any of its agreements with the KRG. The PUK and Gorran however are more open to accommodation with Baghdad marking the possible end of the Kurds united front in the capital. This crisis has left Kurdistan with no parliament, and an illegal presidency.
Iraq’s Sunnis have always been divided, but they are even more so now. In 2010 they coalesced around Iraqiya and Iyad Allawi and came in first in national elections that year. They were quickly torn apart by the maneuverings of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Today all of those coalition members are acting independently of each other. The Nujafi brothers’ Mutahidun are pushing Sunni federalism and victimization at the hands of the government’s forces. Allawi’s new Wataniya is part of the reform bloc in parliament that includes some Kurdish parliamentarians and ironically Maliki’s followers who together are trying to undermine Prime Minister Haidar Abadi. The Iraqi Islamic Party on the other hand has thrown in its lot with the premier thinking that aligning with the central government is the only way to gain concessions. Other leaders like Salah al-Mutlaq are still around, but with much less influence than they once had. This means Sunnis remain leaderless and still carry out contradictory policies towards Baghdad.
Finally, the Shiite parties are coming apart and facing future challenges as well. The election of Abadi split the Dawa Party in two between his faction and that of Nouri al-Maliki. The latter is constantly attempting to undermine the prime minister and has aligned himself with Iran and pro-Iranian Hashd groups such as Badr, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and others to plot his comeback. Moqtada al-Sadr attempted to strong arm Abadi and the entire political class to follow his lead by threatening them with mob rule if they didn’t listen when his movement co-opted the anti-corruption, pro-services protest movement and took over the Green Zone twice. Not only was no one willing to listen to Sadr, but it blew up parliament as a result, which did not meet for several months afterward. Sadr also stands opposed to Maliki’s return and his allies, many of which broke away from the Sadr movement. They all have a long history of not only competing for votes amongst the same constituency but armed confrontations as well. That’s only likely to increase as many of those Hashd groups want to turn their prowess on the battlefield against the Islamic State and the high esteem they have amongst the Shiite community into political power in the next round of elections. Ammar Hakim and his Supreme Council at one time threw their lot behind Abadi, but then became frustrated by his announcing major decisions like merging ministries and appointing technocrats without consulting with them. They along with Sadr are also worried about their potential loss at the ballot box to the Hashd. The Shiite parties were never a monolithic force, and these differences existed for years. However, they often came together on major issues. Now they are all competing with each other. Not only that, but there is growing fear that these arguments could lead to political violence as happened before between Sadr and Badr and the Sadrists and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq.
This period of political upheaval came be traced back to two events, the concentration of power amongst Iraq’s leaders and the return of the Islamic State. First, when Maliki was premier he played divide and conquer and split the Sunni alliance behind Iraqiya, and they have never recovered since then. That’s actually not new as they were not that unified beforehand. Second, Maliki went after so many of his rivals amongst all the political factions that he ended up splitting his own Dawa party. His removal from power opened the door for the other leaders such as Sadr to make a play for leadership. Third, the war with IS has led to political aspirations amongst factions of the Hashd that threaten the established Shiite parties. Finally, Barzani’s unwillingness to make any concessions over his maintenance of the Kurdish presidency has brought the rival PUK and Gorran together to oppose him. All of these struggles along with the threat of future violence puts Iraqi politics in a dangerous place. There will likely be a long period of instability in both Baghdad and Irbil until the elite work out new alliances. That will make Iraqi politics even more fractious and dysfunctional than it already was.
Hassan, Hayman, “To Baghdad, Or Not To Baghdad? Bad Relationship With Central Govt. Threatens To Split Iraqi Kurdistan,” Niqash, 7/7/16
Al Mada, “Secret meetings to form new alliances to isolate the Sadrists and end the paralysis in parliament and the government,” 5/7/16
Rudaw, “Calls for resignation of parliament speaker still strong, Iraqi MP says,” 7/13/16
Salih, Mohammed, “How new alliance among Iraq’s Kurds might actually deepen divisions,” Al Monitor, 7/5/16
Sowell, Kirk, “Iraq’s Fake Populism and Anti-sectarianism,” Sada, 6/9/16