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Protesters display a huge Iraqi flag during a demonstration in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, on 13 August 2015. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

Iraq Conflict Alert

A wave of protests has brought Iraq to the edge of yet more serious conflict. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has introduced sweeping reforms to halt the deterioration but in a manner that may make things worse. An important course correction is needed if he is to survive politically and Iraq is to avoid what could become in effect a military takeover.

The country has seen protests over the systemic inadequacy of service delivery before, but this crisis lays bare two overriding problems: massive, deeply entrenched corruption and growing militarism heightened by the war against the Islamic State (IS). The power grid’s failure during extreme summer heat was the trigger that turned general discontent into anger about governance and the political class. An ineffectual effort to overcome the crisis and start addressing fundamental problems could turn that anger into fury, precipitating a breakdown of the post-2003 order.

The protests tie into an intra-elite power struggle that opposes the prime minister, a year in office, to Iran-backed Shiite militia commanders whose credibility has been burnished by the war against IS and who seek to capitalise on popular disenchantment to assert control.

In tackling simultaneously the two most pressing problems, Abadi appears to have the support of the marjaiya, the Shiite religious leadership. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s 7 August call on him to institute overdue reforms amounts to an instruction and political cover. But the street’s explosive, anti-establishment mood could easily benefit Shiite militias claiming to be a radical alternative – even if several commanders are former officials with an abysmal government record.

Abadi is fighting a difficult two-front battle: against a political class whose failings brought the crisis but with which he is associated and whose support he can assume only if his reforms promise to change little; and against adroit, emerging challengers whose ambitions are backed by considerable resources and recently acquired legitimacy. The way he introduces change is critical.

The Shiite political leadership saw its legitimacy plunge over the past year, as it proved impotent against IS’s takeover of Sunni-populated areas. Those standing up to the threat were Shiite militias organised under the “popular mobilisation” umbrella to defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. Their success in partially pushing back IS resonated with unemployed young Shiites, who could measure that against the shortcomings of politicians locked within the Green Zone. Devoid of conventional prospects and in many cases even basic education, many joined the militias as the only way to have an income. Many are now in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The past year’s events opened a rift among Shiite forces. Militias with strong Iranian ties, such as the Badr Brigade, the League of the Sons of the Righteous and (Iraqi) Hizbollah, benefited the most, owing to a plentiful supply of weapons and military advice. Their commanders, especially Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri and the League’s Qais al-Khazali, became military heroes, their portraits prominent in Baghdad’s central districts, while commentators in social media began referring to leading politicians, including Abadi, derogatorily as inbitahi (“inert”). Some senior members (including Abadi’s predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki) of established parties – al-Daawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Ahrar list – aligned with the militias to recover credibility.

Already in July, Khazali called for replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one that would empower Iran-friendly figures, such as President Fuad Masoum and Maliki (now vice president), at the expense of the prime minister and legislature.

In Basra, the League used protests against electricity shortages and criticism of local officials to delegitimise provincial institutions, providing impetus for the protests to spread throughout the south and into Baghdad and threaten the political and religious establishment. Sistani extended his support to Abadi and called on him for major reforms in an attempt to change the course of events. This compelled even militia commanders and their allies to declare support for the reform program but also put it on Abadi to get results.

The absence of a clear plan is glaring, but other deficiencies could also scuttle the reform. Abadi has reduced his government’s size by scrapping some ministries, merging others and cancelling multiple deputy prime minister and vice president posts; he has also reduced ministry advisers and ministers’ bodyguards and created committees to select candidates for senior positions on merit and review officials’ salaries and benefits.

The package appears to tackle corruption and senior appointments based on party affiliation or ethnic/sectarian grounds. Yet, implementation repeats old unhelpful patterns. Abadi announced reforms frenetically to show real change, but they lacked a framework, criteria for decisions, a timeframe, and implementing agencies and procedures. With so much unclear, the public sector’s mid and upper ranks, where nepotism is most deeply rooted, have started to shift loyalty toward the militias to save their jobs.

Another troubling aspect is the decision to shun consultations with political blocs that are mistrustful and reluctant to surrender important positions both nationally and provincially. This risks alienating the support he needs to make substantive cuts. In the provinces, reforms have affected only the appendages of the petty-patronage network, mid-level local officials. In Baghdad, apart from the cancellation of the vice president and deputy prime minister posts, reform has been limited to statements and nominal threats about dismissal of controversial figures and representatives of minority groups whose departure would buy time. Disconnect with the political blocs prevents substantial achievement.

Abadi also risks his endeavour by putting it on shaky constitutional ground. Rushing to regain the street’s favour, he launched it partly outside the constitution, cancelling the vice presidents’ posts, for example, without legal power to do so. This sets a precedent that could be overturned by the Supreme Court and exploited by political rivals to remove him.

Abadi has raised expectations of a deeply impatient public. Failure to meet them would play into militia commanders’ hands. They and their allies do not want to openly defy Sistani, but if street dissatisfaction peaks again, they will be ready to sow chaos, especially in southern provinces where frustration grows daily. Militia members in the protests could spark clashes with police or popular mobilisation branches affiliated with other Shiite groups lacking equal Iranian support, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades. If popular anger explodes, those on the militias’ side could denounce existing institutions as obsolete and, on the pretext of reestablishing order, use military superiority to impose their rule.

Abadi needs to display consummate political skill. Rather than unilaterally rushing through dramatic changes that challenge the legal order, he should work with his political partners to put forward a clear, realistic plan that reinforces that order, using Sistani’s support to manage expectations and mitigate the street’s impatience. In particular, he should build on unprecedented, but temporary parliament and council of ministers support to introduce a new, non-sectarian brand of politics and governance with the following elements:

  • A concerted effort with parliament to pass or revise implementing legislation for key constitutional articles, whose absence or inadequacy has blocked a workable government system for a decade. It should prioritise reversing party control of state institutions and reviving parliament’s role in national and provincial affairs. This requires a political parties law regulating activities, duties and funding; revision of the provincial powers law to define relations between central and provincial governments and give parliament more oversight of provincial officials; a law delineating the role of the security forces, including police and army, and addressing militias’ status; and regulating employment procedures in all ministries to ensure fair, non-partisan competition.
  • Close cooperation with his political partners to effect the cancellation of senior government posts without a major backlash. Particularly the Shiite political blocs need to calculate that compromise on senior posts is the ticket to longevity and influence. Recognising the difficulty in removing his own and allied parties’ corrupt officials, Abadi should instead set the tone for governance going forward, making clear corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated from anyone, and instructing police and judiciary to act against offenders regardless of political affiliation.
  • Use of external support to gain time needed for results. Years of state dysfunction cannot be surmounted in a few weeks or months. Abadi already has help from an actor (Sistani) who could persuade protesters to be patient. Western governments, particularly the U.S., should openly declare support of a prime minister they helped install and of the reform effort, so as to preserve and strengthen the political process and institutions they have invested in. Abadi should reach out to Iran, which has an interest in protecting Iraqi territorial integrity that is under threat from militias Tehran empowers but whose actions foster centrifugal forces, in effect partition.
  • The Baghdad political elite can save itself only if it changes its ways meaningfully. This requires rooting out the corruption that has kept many in power regardless of competence, and reinforcing the many institutions that have become empty shells.

If the current reforms prove little more than window-dressing, they will mean the end of the political life of the prime minister and large portions of the political class. In their place, militia commanders would ride popular anger and military supremacy to power. There are many precedents in Iraq’s history. It was, after all, only a year ago that IS used Sunni anger and a lightening military strike to impose repressive rule in large parts of the country.


A girl walks near a poster depicting Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party was the biggest winner in initial election results, in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq. October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Wissam Al-Okaili

Iraq’s Surprise Election Results

Though it did not produce fundamental change, the October voting in Iraq did upset the balance of power in parliament. The most likely outcome is a coalition that can sustain the political status quo but perhaps not the social peace.

All is still not well in Iraqi politics some eighteen years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 2019, a wave of popular protest known as the Tishreen movement swept across the country, as demonstrators called for fundamental reform of the post-2003 political system. Elections held in October, which the government brought forward by six months in response to anger on the street, are the only tangible result of the protests to date. Yet well under half the electorate showed up to vote, raising doubt that the system can generate the legitimacy it so desperately needs. Meanwhile, some of the losing parties are crying fraud in a bid to change the results or at least improve their chances of gaining advantageous positions in a new cabinet. Some have resorted to violence – including, it appears, an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi – to press their demands. The most plausible outcome is another coalition that is ill equipped to govern and thus may not survive for very long.

On 10 October, Iraqis went to the polls in the fifth general election since 2003. The campaign was competitive, and afterward, UN and European Union (EU) observers affirmed that the vote was well managed. But these formalities apparently mattered little to Iraqis, as most of them did not cast a ballot. Turnout hit a record low for the post-2003 period, with only 36 per cent of eligible voters and 44 per cent of registered voters participating. The meagre rate was widely expected, as few Iraqis believe that elections can bring about meaningful change to the system as it is configured.

The Baghdad High School polling station in Mansour neighbourhood. 10 October 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Julie David de Lossy

Few, however, had predicted that the results would shake up the system in another way. With larger than usual gaps between winners and losers, the vote has upset the balance within Iraq’s elite pact, especially in the Shiite camp, where cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces have gained considerable strength at the expense of the Fateh alliance. The latter bloc represents the interests of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary groups, which the Shiite clerical hierarchy summoned to arms in 2014 to help the government fight the Islamic State (ISIS). Few of these groups have disarmed; some are close to Iran, and all remain a thorn in the Iraqi state’s side.

The losing side in the loose amalgam of Shiite parties is now seeking to save face by discrediting the elections that its rivals won. As the attempt on Kadhimi’s life shows, the stakes in this struggle are high and the dangers to Iraq’s security real. Yet, in the end, no party has an interest in disrupting the status quo. The most likely outcome is another inclusive elite pact able to sustain the political peace by guaranteeing all established parties a share in government. Whether such a deal can keep the social peace is another matter.

How Should We Understand the Results?

Even if the biggest winners were established parties, the polls provided several surprises thanks to a new electoral system (known as the Single Non-Transferable Vote). This system divided Iraq’s eighteen governorates into 83 multi-member electoral districts, with parliament’s 329 seats allocated among them. Voters select a single candidate – so, while candidates may be party members, they, in essence, compete as individuals and cannot transfer excess votes to other candidates in their party – and the candidates with the most votes in each district win the available seats (districts have between three and six seats depending on size). In previous post-2003 elections, the party-list proportional system determined seat allocation according to the total number of votes a party won, not individual candidates.

Sadr’s movement won big. It was predicted to do so, given its loyal base, which is well organised and concentrated in Baghdad’s eastern suburbs and the south. But the extent of its gains, from 54 seats in 2018 to 73 in the new legislature, was unexpected. The Sadrist vote itself did not grow; in some provinces, it was smaller than in 2018. Sadr benefited from the combination of low turnout and meticulous study of the new electoral districts, allowing his party to ensure that its candidates did not compete for the same voters.

By contrast, the Fateh coalition, comprised of several Hashd affiliates, lost big. Due partly to the new system, its losses – it is down to seventeen seats from 48 in 2018 – were proportionally far greater than the decline in its total vote. Unlike the Sadrists, Fateh fielded many candidates who ran against one another in the same electoral districts, competing for the same votes and thus coming up short. It was also in competition with the Huqouq (Rights) movement, a new party tied to Kataib Hezbollah, a group within the Hashd that had previously not stood in elections. A third factor was that Fateh lost votes to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which made a significant comeback with a ten-seat increase to 35. Many Hashd constituents are dissatisfied with the corruption of parties representing the institution. They view Maliki, a strong civilian leader who during his premiership expanded employment in the security sector, as a good alternative. Maliki thus has emerged as the main rival to Sadr in efforts to form a government with the support of smaller parties.

The other main losers were the centrist Shiite leaders, Ammar al-Hakim and Haider al-Abadi, the latter also a former prime minister. Like Fateh, they made the mistake of running a joint coalition, fielding rival candidates, thereby splitting the votes of their quite small constituencies, and gaining only two seats each. Hakim may also have lost votes to independents and Tishreen-linked parties, as he sought to appeal to the younger generation without appreciating that many youths will reject traditional parties no matter how ardently the candidates profess their commitment to reform.    

The success of Imtidad, a party that emerged from the Tishreen protest movement, is indicative of the public appetite for new faces in Iraqi politics.

Among the newcomers, the success of Imtidad, a party that emerged from the Tishreen protest movement, is indicative of the public appetite for new faces in Iraqi politics. Apart from its home base in the southern Nasiriyya governorate, the party won seats in south-central Babel and Najaf, for a total of nine. Imtidad might have done even better had it not also underestimated the desire for new leadership. Mindful of the risk of presenting too many candidates and thereby splitting the vote, it fielded only one candidate in each of Nasiriyya’s five districts. Its candidates came in first in all five, winning by significant margins over the Sadrist candidates who came in second. Still, because of the Sadrists’ more tactical voting, the party ended up with nine seats in total from those five districts. Had Imtidad fielded more candidates and better organised its supporters, it would undoubtedly have won more seats.

The election results caught the protest movement itself off guard. Most of the Tishreen-linked parties boycotted the polls, in part because previous elections had helped form the very system they are protesting. They have now recovered a degree of confidence in Iraq’s post-2003 democratic process, having seen that independents and new parties can gain entry into parliament. Some have already started preparing for provincial elections, scheduled to take place sometime in 2022. Voters seem to have regained some trust in the political system as well: some disillusioned constituents who sympathised with the protest movement, and answered the call to sit out the elections, are expressing regret at having done so.

Election signs posted in the streets of Baghdad ahead of parliamentary elections. Baghdad, 8 October. CRISIS GROUP / Julie David de Lossy

Outside the Shiite-majority areas of Baghdad and the south, the new electoral system’s impact was not as evident.

On the Sunni side, Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi’s party Taqaddum did well, winning 37 seats, while its main rival, Khamis al-Khanjar, won only fourteen. Halbousi invested heavily in relations with Sunni tribal leaders across the country. He also benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with older veteran politicians and low turnout in predominantly Sunni areas. Sunnis in Ninewa and Salah al-Din, eyeing Halbousi’s efforts to attract investment in reconstruction of his home province Anbar, voted for him hoping that his leadership will have a similar impact in their areas.

Among the Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party predictably won, with 32 seats, whereas its rival the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) suffered a loss, partly due to internal struggles, winding up with sixteen seats. Like Sadr, the KDP benefited from a well organised base despite winning fewer votes overall than in the previous polls. Similar to Imtidad’s success in the south, the New Generation Movement, a Kurdish pro-reform group that first entered parliament after the 2018 elections and supported the Tishreen protests in 2019, garnered nine seats, highlighting dissatisfaction with traditional parties in the Kurdistan region as well. New Generation profited from the PUK’s weakness and won over former constituents of the pro-reform Gorran movement, which lost all its seats running on a joint list with the PUK.

Challenging the Election Results

For the losing Shiite parties, the election results came as a shock. In response, they formed a united front, the Shiite Coordination Framework, which includes all major Shiite leaders except Sadr, to challenge the results based on allegations of fraud. But the parties disagree over how to proceed should their formal complaints to the Independent High Electoral Commission fail, as they likely will, to bring about a significant change in the elections’ outcome. Even if the Commission decides on some adjustments, these are unlikely to amount to more than a handful of seats. The Commission is conducting a partial manual recount, whereas the losing parties are demanding a full nationwide recount, saying nothing less can address all their complaints.

On one side of the losing camp are centrist leaders such as Hakim and Abadi, for whom the results are embarrassing. They are unlikely to go further than insisting on legal remedies for what they refer to as “irregularities” in the count. Meanwhile, they have initiated talks with Sadr about forming a government. On the other side are the pro-Iran Hashd factions linked to the Fateh bloc, as well as Huqouq, which view the results as a scam intended to cut them out of power. Maliki, despite doing well in the elections, has supported both in challenging the results, as he wants Fateh and other Shiite parties behind him in negotiations with Sadr.

Meanwhile, Hashd factions such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah have escalated pressure tactics to a degree that has isolated them in government formation talks rather than winning them concessions that would enable them to save face. On 5 November, these groups staged a sit-in outside the Green Zone, the area of Baghdad where most government buildings are located. The protest was peaceful until some in attendance breached the perimeter, clashing with security personnel who tried to block their entry. Two protesters belonging to Asaib Ahl- al-Haq were killed, while the security forces suffered more than a hundred injured. The group’s leader, Qais al-Khazali, visited the demonstration site, where he recorded a video blaming Prime Minister Kadhimi for the shooting deaths and vowing to take him to trial.

[The drone attack] was likely a message to Kadhimi that he should not put himself forward as candidate for prime minister in the new government.

The following evening, three explosives-laden drones struck Kadhimi’s residence. Unclaimed, the attack, which caused only structural damage, was widely attributed in the media to pro-Iran paramilitary groups (mainly because of the use of drone technology). Whoever ordered the attack, it was likely a message to Kadhimi that he should not put himself forward as candidate for prime minister in the new government. It was not the first such signal. On 31 October, three rockets struck an area near the intelligence headquarters in Baghdad, an institution that Kadhimi headed and still controls.

If these attacks were intended as a warning, they may have had the opposite effect. Widely assumed to be an assassination attempt, the drone strike on Kadhimi’s residence brought national and international condemnation, along with statements of support for the prime minister and his cabinet, including from Iran, which backs the paramilitary groups but also the government. Iran’s Qods force commander, Ismael Qaani, visited Baghdad shortly afterward, paying personal respects to the prime minister and reportedly asking paramilitary groups within the Fateh bloc to accept the election results. The top Iranian priority remains unity in the Shiite camp over key concerns, such as formation of a government led by Shiite parties.

Already before Qaani’s visit, paramilitary groups appeared to be restraining themselves due to the backlash from the drone attack on Kadhimi, which widened the gaps within the Shiite camp and even within the Fateh bloc. Those who supported peaceful demonstrations were pitted against the groups that had chosen to escalate, with the latter a diminishing minority. Strong condemnations of the attack from Maliki and Hashd leader Hadi al-Ameri are likely to ease intra-Shiite dialogue and push Fateh to rally behind Maliki as the strongest leader in negotiations with Sadr.

But tensions will remain, as rejecting the results is also about preserving the pro-Iran factions’ core interests, especially the future of the Hashd as an institution that enjoys relative autonomy from the state. The Fateh alliance, which views itself as the Hashd’s main political protector, considers Sadr’s rise a threat to its influence. Sadr has on several occasions expressed his intent to rein in militias and bring all arms under state control. Yet he is unlikely to insist on this step if he wants to form a government, or to actually take it if he wants to sustain a cabinet in which his movement plays a major role. Sadr cannot proceed without consensus in the Shiite camp if he wants to avoid open conflict with his rivals, and any guarantees he can give that he will protect the Hashd once his party is in government will be key, as will the question of what the Hashd-affiliated groups consider their rightful share in governing institutions.

Moreover, the electoral commission is nearing the end of its partial manual recount, after which the Supreme Court is to ratify the results. The new parliament may therefore convene its first session in early December. By that time, the countdown to the next major event – the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq scheduled for the end of the year – will have begun (the remaining troops’ mandate will focus on training and advising Iraqi forces). Paramilitary groups, which suspect that the U.S. will try to retain combat capacity, may resume attacks on U.S. military installations and diplomatic missions as a pressure point in government formation talks.

A polling station near Palestine street. Baghdad, 10 October 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Julie David de Lossy

Government Formation

Putting together a new government will almost certainly be a drawn-out affair. Somewhat counterintuitively, the large margin of Sadr’s victory makes it unlikely that he will seek to form a majority government that excludes Maliki or the Fateh alliance. Fateh, for instance, is incensed by its stinging defeat; excluding these parties from power would only increase their determination to fight back (although some of their leaders claim they will not join the government). Furthermore, even if Sadr appears triumphant, he will not want to assume government responsibilities alone and risk shouldering all the blame for any failures. He is therefore far more likely to push forward a consensus prime minister with his Shiite rivals than to insist that one of his own people take the top spot.

The government formation exercise is also more complicated than just distributing ministerial posts. It includes shares of key positions (so-called special grades) in the state bureaucracy and influence over financial institutions such as the central bank, as well as managerial roles in the executive branch that hold sway over policymaking. If the Shiite parties come close to a satisfying agreement across these levels on where to place their loyalists, the competition, likely between Sadr and Maliki, over who can form the largest bloc in parliament – and therefore nominate the prime minister – will be less important in piecing together a new government.

Pre-electoral alliances, such as that between Sadr, the KDP and Taqaddum, are also unlikely to translate into the largest parliamentary bloc at the expense of other Shiite parties. Halbousi and the KDP will be looking closely to the intra-Shiite talks and may find a consensus government that includes the main Shiite parties the best way to secure their own interests. For instance, one of the Kurdish parties’ priorities in Baghdad is to settle the question of the disputed territories, lands to which both the federal and Kurdish regional governments lay claim. Sadr has little influence in these areas; the Hashd holds much of the ground.

Halbousi will similarly look to how he can best solidify his gains. Being almost unrivalled in the Sunni camp, he may seek to assume a leading role in demanding increased autonomy for Sunni areas, similar to the Kurdistan region’s status in federal Iraq. But both Sunnis and Kurds will wait for the dust to settle in the Shiite camp before clarifying their claims on positions, such as who should be president and parliament speaker, posts they are supposed to receive according to Iraq’s unwritten post-2003 power-sharing formula, which reserves the premiership for a Shiite, the presidency for a Kurd and the speaker’s role for a Sunni.

Government formation ... will be inclusive – at least of political elites – rather than exclusionary in order to keep the political peace.

Government formation is thus unlikely to depart from the traditional horse trading. It will be inclusive – at least of political elites – rather than exclusionary in order to keep the political peace, and it will thus be based on the same unsustainable equation that brought down the government during the Tishreen upheaval two years ago. Having to please everyone, it can only, once again, be ineffective and unable to embark on much-needed reforms.

What is new in the equation is the entry into parliament of a significant number of parties and independent candidates who do not intend to join the government. For the first time, the legislature will feature an opposition of some 40-50 parliamentarians. But this collection of small, mostly politically inexperienced movements and individuals is unlikely to form a unified bloc that can withstand the pressure from the established parties seeking to preserve the status quo. At best, they will be able to challenge certain government policies and advocate for alternative laws as ways of retaining the confidence of their constituents until the next elections.

While high oil prices will help a new ruling coalition stay afloat, Iraqis’ growing impatience with poor governance will make it fragile in the face of external shocks, be they security-related, economic or environmental. Crises such as 2018’s acute water shortage in Basra may reignite public unrest, this time with parliamentarians echoing the voices in the streets.

Security forces personnel casting their votes at a polling station in Zayouna neighbourhood. 8 October is a special voting day for security forces. Baghdad, 8 October 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Julie David de Lossy