On the surface, Iraq appears to have achieved a measure of stability. The country finally has a functioning government after a yearlong political vacuum. Terrorist violence has fallen to its lowest rate since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Even the country’s Iran-backed militias—long a source of tension with Washington—have significantly reduced their attacks on U.S. diplomatic and military sites. In a May 4 speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan credited a U.S strategy built on the “twin pillars of deterrence and diplomacy” for the decrease in attacks on U.S. interests.
As Sullivan’s speech illustrates, President Joe Biden’s national security team sees a quiet Middle East as an end unto itself—including in Iraq. Although Sullivan was quick to add that he was “not pulling out the victory flag on Iraq” and that the United States still has “a broad agenda” to strengthen Baghdad’s independence from Tehran, his real metric of success was clearly the de-escalation of tensions between the United States and the Iran-backed militias that dominate the Iraqi government. The White House believes that regional de-escalation is necessary to allow the United States to focus on its competition with China. But in Iraq, this approach promises to have long-term costs: the U.S. desire for calm is being exploited by Tehran’s allies to destabilize its politics.
Iraq may look calm, but looks can be deceiving. The country is actually entering a uniquely dangerous period: Iran’s allies have achieved unprecedented control of Iraq’s parliament, judiciary, and executive branch, and they are rapidly rigging the political system in their favor and looting the state of its resources. Washington’s complacent attitude toward these events is only setting it up for costly involvement later. Iraq is the world’s third-largest oil producer and a country whose collapse could destabilize the entire Middle East through the spread of refugees and terrorism. Great-power competition has never been an excuse to tune out the threats facing the country—and it shouldn’t be one now.
TRIUMPH OF THE MILITIAS
Iraq has passed through numerous dark moments since 2003, but arguably none were as devoid of hope as the present time. Yes, Iraq has a government led by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and the Coordination Framework, a political bloc closely allied with Iran. But this is only because the actual winner of the October 2021 election, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s populist movement, quit the parliament in June 2022. The Sadrists took this step after the judiciary, which is controlled by the leaders of the Iran-backed militias, changed the rules of government formation to benefit Tehran’s allies. As a result, the election result was rendered irrelevant and the losers were rewarded with victory—even after they rioted to overturn the results and fired drones at the prime minister’s house.
The Coordination Framework’s subsequent monopolization of all branches of the Iraqi government is unprecedented in the country’s post-2003 history. It is ruling with a level of unchecked authority that Iraq has not seen since the days of Saddam Hussein. Sudani is a puppet: while the prime minister is an experienced public sector manager and a hard worker, he leads Iraq in name only and is openly disparaged by Tehran’s allies in Baghdad. The real powers are three warlords, each closely tied to Iran, at the top of the Coordination Framework: U.S.-designated terrorist Qais al-Khazali, the head of the Iran-trained Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia; former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; and the leader of the Iran-founded Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri.
For many years, these three politicians were partly held in check by a patchwork of opponents. During the U.S. occupation from 2003 to 2011 and again during the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) from 2014 to 2019, Washington worked assiduously to prevent the militias from gaining control of too many levers of state power. Iraqi protestors have also acted as a check on the power of the Iran-backed groups—their mass demonstrations in 2019 brought down the militia-controlled Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. And during Iraq’s most recent elections, Sadr tried to rally a cross-sectarian and multiethnic majority to form a cabinet that excluded the Coordination Framework.
Today, these sources of opposition have all fallen away. Sadr’s electoral gambit failed due to the judiciary’s intervention, and his movement is now out of power and licking its wounds. The Iran-backed militias also have nothing to fear from the cowed and despondent youth protestors. Meanwhile, the United States is distracted by its geopolitical struggle with China and has reduced its goals to simply de-escalating tensions across the Middle East—no matter the long-term cost to U.S. interests in the region.
RIGGING THE SYSTEM
The implications of the Coordination Framework’s takeover of the Iraqi government are already clear. The bloc now has free rein to consolidate sweeping control of the country, pillage Iraqi state resources, and suppress dissenting voices. And its ascendancy shows no signs of waning: the Coordination Framework now dominates the country’s cabinet and controls the parliament until the next scheduled election, in October 2025.
Most important, the group directs the actions of the judiciary to an extent that has not been seen since Saddam’s fall. Iraq’s most senior judge, Faiq Zaydan, is a close ally of the warlords at the top of the Coordination Framework. Under his leadership, Iraq’s Supreme Court has intervened decisively in the country’s politics to perpetuate the militias’ power. At precisely the moment the Coordination Framework needed to block Sadr’s 2021 electoral victory, the court changed the rules of government formation—ruling that Sadr needed a two-thirds supermajority in parliament, rather than a simple majority, to form a government.
The Coordination Framework is also using its unchecked power to embed itself in other Iraqi state institutions. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service, Baghdad airport, anticorruption bodies, and customs posts have all come under the group’s control since October 2022. Iraqi state institutions such as these were already tottering, and these actions threaten to erode them further.
Iran-backed groups are using their expanding influence within these institutions to escalate efforts to silence their domestic opponents. For instance, after gaining control of Iraq’s media regulator, the Communications and Media Commission, in January, they developed plans to introduce draconian digital content regulations that promise to squelch Iraqis’ freedom of expression. The regulations, which would require social media influencers to move to Iraqi government–owned domains and include vague definitions of unsuitable content that will serve to justify censorship, have drawn criticism from international organizations for violating the Iraqi constitution.
Finally, the Coordination Framework is looting Iraqi state resources for its own political advantage. Iran-backed groups have established a state company that is actively consolidating state assets, using much the same approach as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Furthermore, these groups have overseen the massive expansion of Iraq’s budget in an effort to buy the population’s support as they consolidate power.
Source » foreignaffairs