On March 2, Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi announced his inability to form a government after a month-long effort. This followed repeated attempts to obtain parliamentary approval for his government, an impossible task given that parliament’s sessions were boycotted by major political parties so that even a 50 percent quorum could not be achieved.
Iraq is today experiencing three separate but inter-related contentions. The principal challenge to the political order is from the popular demonstrations that have been taking place on the streets of the country’s major towns since October.
These protests have been largely made up of young people demanding a thorough reform of the country’s spoils system, the rooting out of corruption, and the inauguration of a new order based on transparency and accountability.
About 600 of the protesters have so far been killed and several thousand injured.
The second competition is the one between Iraq’s various political factions, structured on communitarian lines, whose principal interest is to obtain public office on the basis of community quotas and to use these positions largely for personal benefit.
The third battleground is the one between Iran and the US: Both are seeking to expand their influence in Iraq through local assets — military force on the part of the US and powerful Shiite militia, organized into the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), that back Iran. Their competition has acquired a sharper edge after the killings of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and PMU leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis by the Americans in early January.
Since the interests and claims of these three contenders are not reconcilable, their competitions have reinforced inefficiency, incompetence and chaos in Iraq’s political order; they also made it impossible for Allawi to form a government.
Allawi was not acceptable to the demonstrators from the outset: They had insisted on a leader who was not tainted by the nation’s politics, had not held office before, and only had Iraqi nationality. Allawi failed on all counts, having had British nationality and been a minister twice.
But he did try to meet one major demand of the protesters — to constitute a Cabinet that was made up of independent and technocratic figures who were outside existing political groups and did not represent community-based quotas.
Here he faced intense opposition from existing parliamentary members: The Sunni and Kurd parties believe they have benefitted from the present quota system and refuse to give it up.
Again, although Allawi was put up by the two principal Shiite parties — the Sairoon alliance of Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fatah bloc of Hadi Al-Amiri — they could not together muster the numbers he needed for a parliamentary majority.
The role of Al-Sadr in the whole imbroglio has been particularly curious. On the eve on the announcement of Allawi’s candidature, Al-Sadr abruptly withdrew his backing for the street demonstrators in Baghdad. On Jan. 26, he unleashed his militants on the demonstrators, set their tents on fire, and occupied Tahrir Square, the center of the protests, and the iconic “Turkish Restaurant,” the bare concrete block that had become the headquarters of dissent.
Al-Sadr had earlier championed the protesters’ demands for comprehensive reform, but never actually wished to realize them, having benefitted far too much from the existing order.
Observers believe that the deaths of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis have created a leadership vacuum among Iraq’s Shiite militia and that Al-Sadr hopes to use the opportunity to affirm his own pro-Iran credentials, disperse the demonstrators, assume leadership of the militia, and emerge as an unchallenged force in Iraqi affairs.
Allawi was also subjected to US and Iranian pressures. American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Allawi to ensure that his Cabinet had a proper balance of Shiite, Sunni and Kurd representation and advised him to work closely with the latter two groups. He also reminded Allawi of Iraq’s commitment to protect US diplomats, forces and facilities.
On the other hand, the pro-Iran Fatah bloc asked Allawi to fix a date for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
Allawi’s failed effort at government formation indicates that he was simply not up to the challenge — he just did not have the capacity to manage Iraq’s contentious and self-centered political groups or project his ability to handle the country’s militia and the pressures exerted by outside powers. He attempted to pursue some aspects of the protesters’ agenda but failed to see that from the outset he was discredited in their eyes.
The assault on the demonstrators by Al-Sadr’s forces has denied them their robust presence in Baghdad but reports from the ground suggest they are not defeated. They have made the southern city of Nasiriya their new headquarters. In this, one of the poorest areas of Iraq, they have the backing of local tribal heads and will not be easily dislodged.
And while Iraq’s politicians may continue to wallow in the corrupt order of their own making and sustain the sense of uncertainty and chaos in the country, the message of national unity and shared national identity emanating from the youth will have a long-term value and could, in time, reshape the political order of their country.