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The new Iraqi PM is a status quo leader, but for how long?

One thing is clear: that if previous parliaments demanded the ouster of the US military, this one seems fine with the way things are.

Analysis | Middle East

The appointment of a new prime minister and his cabinet last week represents a peaceful government formation in Iraq following months of tension and a bout of violence. But can Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani keep it together? That is the question among U.S. officials and Iraq’s elites today.

The parliament approved the new prime minister’s cabinet allowing the new government — finally — to get to work. Earlier this month a year-long political stalemate in Iraq finally came to an end with the election of Abdul Latif Rashid as president and Sudani’s appointment.

Sudani is widely viewed as well-intentioned and has not been implicated in corrupt activities. His main distinguishing feature is that he actually lived in Iraq during the Saddam era — unlike most prominent Iraqi political players who were expatriates in Iran, Syria, Jordan, Europe or elsewhere, and returned to Iraq as carpetbaggers backed by the U.S. or Iran, or as seen as such by many Iraqis. In this context, Sudani is a breath of fresh air. 

But concerns exist in Washington and among some of Iraq’s Kurdish, Sunni, and secular Shi’a political elites that he will prove too weak to resist the inclinations of the Iran-aligned Coordination Framework that brought him to power in the first place. This is the overriding concern for Washington, which hopes that Sudani will follow in Mustafa Khadimi’s footsteps and try to lash the Popular Mobilization Forces — a group of militias that fought ISIS and then were formally merged into the Iraqi security forces, but maintain substantial independence — more tightly to the Baghdad government’s mast. 

The Coordination Framework is a bloc of Shi’a parties that also includes the political representatives of the PMFs. Such hybrid armies are not exclusive to Iraq, but wherever they are, they pose an implicit challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence. 

Anxieties in Washington were stirred by the new government’s decisions to relieve officials appointed by Khadimi when he served as interim prime minister during the prolonged standoff between Sadr and the Coordination Framework. Iraqis, however, were quick to point out that these dismissals — which included the pro-U.S. intelligence director — were necessary to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that, in essence, said that the appointments were interim ones and must therefore end with the formation of a new government.

Some PMF units operate in coordination with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iraq’s new government has received praise from Iranian officials and the IRGC. The PMF’s influence can be seen in some of the cabinet posts. For example, Minister of Higher Education Naim al-Aboudi served as the spokesperson of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a PMF unit that was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the United States. His ministry, of course, is not a security-related portfolio and does not necessarily signify that terrorists are now at the helm in Baghdad.

The most important priority for Washington is the continuation of the U.S. “advise, assist, and enable” military mission to help contain and eliminate the residual ISIS threat. This priority was apparent in a readout of a November 3 conversation between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Prime Minister Sudani. It specifically mentioned a “mutual commitment to the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement and shared interest in preserving Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty.” 

The 2008 agreement officially guides “overall political, economic, cultural, and security ties with Iraq.” Its strength is its avoidance of specifics after attempts to strike a clearer Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) failed during the Obama administration. The ambiguity of the Framework Agreement gives Washington the flexibility to adjust troop numbers, particularly during periods of turnover, and use them as it sees fit. It also allows Iraqi politicians to save face. 

While some Iraqi MPs welcome the opportunity to criticize the U.S. in public speeches, few desire the responsibility of exerting actual oversight. Behind closed doors, many of these politicians express a desire for U.S. troops to remain in some capacity. As far as Iraqis are concerned, there seems to be an acceptance of the U.S. military presence, which, as a practical matter, is invisible to the public eye. But favorability ratings from the Arab Barometer 2021 poll could lead one to infer a preference among Iraqis for Chinese — as opposed to American — involvement. U.S. troops currently advise Iraq’s military at the invitation of Baghdad, but this could change. 

However, it is unlikely that the Sudani administration or even its PMF backers will apply much pressure to change the status quo. Indeed, it looks now that at least one key Iraqi security official who works hand in glove with the U.S. — the commander of the counterterrorism service — will retain his post. In formal terms, all Sudani has asked from the U.S. thus far is “greater transparency,” which Washington can presumably supply. 

Another question is how long the Sudani administration will last and what overtures it will give to the Sadrist movement, which finds itself out of government after withdrawing its MPs from parliament in protest last summer. One potential olive branch is to pursue early elections, thus offering the Sadrists a way back into government. As the experience of the last year suggests, the appetite for another round of elections is limited.

Sudani himself has the tiniest electoral base. His party won only three seats in the new Parliament, one of which is his own. And he can’t even occupy it because members of Parliament holding ministerial posts cannot take their seats. His goals, such as shrinking and rationalizing the public sector, while essential, will face insurmountable opposition from a jumble of coalition partners that depend on a steady supply of government jobs to feed their patronage networks. And the PMFs have the parliamentary clout to resist attempts to rein them in. 

One interesting Sudani initiative that might prove both survivable and salutary involves reaching out to neighboring Arab states to foster stronger ties. If successful, such an effort might offset both the reality and broad perception of excessive Iranian influence in Iraq and begin to normalize Iraq’s position as an independent actor within its regional setting. Iraq made progress in this realm under Khadimi; whether Sudani succeeds remains to be seen.

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, arrives before a vote on Sudani's cabinet at the parliament in Baghdad, Iraq, October 27, 2022. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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