By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell *
Last year, Iraqis took to the polls in renewed hopes of charting a new path to a prosperous, stable and secure future for their country. It was a hard-fought opportunity by an exhausted, wary Iraqi public left with little recourse but to take to the streets in a bid to apply pressure on a gilded political elite in Baghdad. Tragically, at the peak of the nationwide protests, several hundreds of young Iraqis would lose their lives, with thousands more injured. Worse yet, like other troubled post-conflict transitions in the Arab world, this hard-earned reaffirmation of democracy was quickly followed by divisive politics, generating bitter public disillusion and worrying signs of a return to armed conflict as the clock ticked on.
The protracted political crisis has already fueled so much instability and acrimony at levels not seen since the U.S.-led invasion nearly two decades ago. A striking testament of Iraq’s troubled year-long post-election phase was the barrage of rockets that rained down in the Green Zone in a bid to prevent lawmakers from heading into parliament to finally select a new president. The attack wounded at least 10, including four civilians, an all-too familiar consequence of the perpetual cycles of violence sparked by prolonged inaction, sectarianism and intransigence.
Similarly, endemic corruption, rampant unemployment and decaying infrastructure have also contributed to the decimation of Iraqi lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately, despite the relentless efforts undertaken in the past weeks and months for Iraqi politicians to engage, cooperate and commit to a credible path towards much-needed political stability, Baghdad never managed to achieve a single milestone or critical success. Granted, highly contested polls in post-civil war contexts often lead to a prolonged interim period between when results are announced and eventual government formation, or in Iraq’s case, achieving a quorum in its parliament (The Council of Representatives) to elect a new president.
However, a year after the last general election, Iraqi politics became paralyzed by endless squabbling, needless brinksmanship, increased insecurity and escalating violence engulfing the country in chronic instability that Barham Salih’s caretaker administration was severely ill-equipped to handle. It was no surprise that the two-decades-long chaos in Baghdad’s corridors of power began fueling a nostalgia for the pre-2003 era given the corruption, nepotism, escalating sectarian violence and a shrinking economy despite record windfalls from crude exports.
Continued failures, deliberate or otherwise, to seat a new head of state and begin a painstaking government formation process would have resulted in a repeat of the Afghanistan debacle. There, the collapse of an imported and flawed democracy ultimately paved the way for the return of a once-proscribed Taliban that quickly busied itself with dismantling America’s woeful legacy with acts of brutality and unmitigated violence against fellow Afghans. In Iraq, the revival of Saddamist tendencies in recent years speaks to a still active, organized and emboldened Baathist political force garnering even more support with its counternarratives for the repeated failures of Baghdad’s hard-fought yet still fragile democratic institutions.
The stakes could not be higher prior to the highly anticipated parliament session on Thursday that resulted in the election of Abdul Latif Rashid, a 78-year-old Iraqi Kurd nominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as head of state. More than two dozen candidates had put themselves forward but Rashid, a former water minister and presidential adviser, won by more than 160 votes to 99, signaling the parliament’s preference for a grizzled veteran that was more than capable of navigating the perennially fractious politics in Iraq’s capital.
Despite credentials as ‘compromise’ candidate that would appeal to hyper-polarized Baghdad political elites, President Rashid is relatively an unfamiliar face to a populace in which nearly 60% are under 25 years old. In other words, Thursday’s parliamentary session might just be Iraq’s long-sought watershed moment—a veritable last chance to address the country’s mounting woes by transforming dialogue into meaningful action instead of preserving a woeful status quo. Yet, the appointment of a subdued Rashid who lacks nationwide name-recognition is a worrying development since Iraq predicates the success of its politics and future of its democracy on the buy-in, sustained engagement with and enduring participation of its young population.
To others, however, Rashid’s ascendancy signals the prioritization or clear preference for mending frayed ties between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region as a result of past governments failing to adequately deal with, for instance, the latter’s controversial oil and gas law, as well as the disputed territories. To that end, President Rashid has since tapped Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, a nominee of the largest parliamentary bloc, the Iran-backed Coordination Framework. to form the new government within thirty days, a task al-Sudani has vowed to tackle quickly.
The prime minister-designate has been fairly critical of previous policies for managing delicate Erbil-Baghdad relations that remain instrumental to restoring long-term stability in Iraq. Sudani decried past government approaches vis-à-vis the Kurdistan Region as unhealthy and a major contributor to a climate of distrust at the worst possible time, a reflection echoed by the Iraqi parliament’s second deputy speaker, Shakhawan Abdullah.
Earlier this year, for instance, the Iraqi Supreme Court struck down the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas law, which was designed to insulate the autonomous region’s energy sector from Baghdad’s overreach—deeming it unconstitutional. Adding further insult to injury, the Kurdistan Region is not represented at all in the state oil marketer, State Organization for Marketing of Oil (SOMO), sidelining Kurds in the management of hydrocarbons extracted from within its territories. In addition, failure to “normalize” the situation in some 37,000 square kilometers of disputed land between northern and southern Iraq has only contributed to further fragmentation and renewed potential for an outbreak of violent clashes as the government, Kurdish Peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) vie for control there.
Over the past five years, the Kurds have sought to annex these territories—a step the government and the Iraqi public vehemently oppose, creating a stalemate that the Tehran-backed PMF have been all too happy to exploit as a means of obstructing the return of Peshmerga forces to a strategic region abundant in natural resources, arable land and water. This lack of a unified security architecture and coordination in these territories means that a vital bridge connecting northern and southern Iraq has a security vacuum that benefits insurgency groups, terrorists and proxies for malign actors threatened by a stable, unified and prosperous Iraq.
Beyond the much-need political realignments in the coming days appeasing the Kurds—who have not shied from leveraging their monopoly of the presidency in the post-2003 power-sharing system, Rashid and Sudani still face yet another daunting task quelling Sadrist oppositional defiance. Analysts predict that one way the new government could help de-escalate intra-Shi’ite tensions, would be rewarding the Sadrists’ tacit endorsement Sudani’s nomination with cabinet posts in the incoming administration.
Unfortunately, if past developments and prevailing dynamics are any indicator, it is unlikely a few ministerial posts would be enough to calm an opposition movement that has actively sought to derail Iraq’s political processes. It is too soon to expound on how the Rashid-Sudani era resolves this and other complex challenges in order to restore the public’s trust and lay the foundations for Iraq’s stability going forward.
One thing for sure is, there is some hope at last—for now.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell