In its first 100 days in power, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani has already left the first, and not very positive, signs of what may await the country in the near future. To say the least, the government’s heavy-handed actions have largely deviated from the promises al-Sudani made before taking office, resulting in unwanted disruptions and significant losses in the economic, security, sovereignty, and human rights sectors.
The appointment of al-Sudani last October completed the takeover of Iraq by the Iranian-backed alliance of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Fatah coalition, which is supported by militant forces. In the October 2021 elections, the two factions won 51 parliamentary seats and only 15% of the 329 seats in the legislature. They were joined by politicians who also achieved disastrous results in the elections, such as Ammar al-Hakim and Haider al-Abadi, as well as the Shiite Coordination Structure (CF), which together thwarted the efforts of the election winners, the Sadrists, to form a government. majority.
As the political and legal maneuvering of CF unfolded throughout 2022, the militias that form the backbone of the group shelled and intimidated their main rivals among the Sunnis and Kurds who had originally allied with Muqtada al-Sadr. To protect their interests, Speaker Mohammed al-Khalbusi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party eventually agreed to the CF ’s demand to participate in the government, in which the “coordination structure” now has an undeniable advantage. The result is an untenable agreement that is already in jeopardy as CF seeks to establish its full dominance while cutting funding to the Kurdish region.
It is well known that a government that imposes its policies through coercion is neither normal nor acceptable and should be treated accordingly. To be clear, an al-Sadr-dominated government would also be very problematic for Iraq, but it has not come to that. And apparently such an orientation will be implemented in the future, because the current government will be forced to resign sooner or later under the pressure of circumstances. The fact is that the US aggression, carried out under far-fetched and fictitious pretexts, has completely destroyed the state mechanism and disrupted the natural course of the centuries-old way of life in Iraq.
Since the new prime minister took office last October, political analysts have noted that it made sense to give his government time to prove itself before making judgments. Unfortunately, al-Sudani has consistently put the interests of his patrons ahead of the interests of society in his first 100 days.
To get Iraq’s democratic process back on track after the tumultuous aftermath of the October 2021 elections, the new prime minister has pledged to review and update electoral laws within three months. The government was formed on the premise that this was another temporary measure whose main task was to overcome the anomalous legislative and political situation created by the departure of 73 sadistic MPs from parliament. After a few weeks, however, it became clear that al-Sudani’s main supporters-Maliki and the Fatah coalition-were not interested in early elections and were determined to stay in power and keep their president and prime minister in power for a full four-year term.
Economically, the al-Sudani government continues what Shafaq called “ruinous business.” It relies on record oil revenues to maintain patronage networks and officials in a bloated public sector. There is no sign of reforms deemed necessary to reduce costs and diversify the oil-dependent economy to create new jobs for the hundreds of thousands of people who add to the country’s labor force each year. Instead, the new government plans to increase unacceptable spending on public sector wages by 20 trillion Iraqi dinars ($13.71 billion) by 2023. These funds will be used to hire some 66,000 new college graduates and convert another 360,000 temporary workers into full-time positions. In the service sector, al-Sudani and his team have focused on cosmetic improvements at a few sites, linking these measures to the prime minister’s personal commitment. For a country of 42 million, such scattered efforts are distracting and do nothing to build the nonpartisan, autonomous bureaucracy needed to make real progress.
Upon taking office, al-Sudani, like his predecessors, vowed to fight corruption vigorously, but so far there is no sign of progress. His first task was to respond to the “heist of the century,” in which shell companies with powerful connections stole $2.5 billion from government accounts. But in late November, al-Sudani released one of the main suspects in the theft, saying the government had reached an agreement with him to return all stolen funds within two weeks. In the more than two months since the suspect’s release, barely 8% of the money has been returned. The full map of the criminal network has yet to be revealed, but it appears to include a wide range of political figures, including those close to the former prime minister. The stalled investigation into the fraud makes it fairly clear that the stolen money, according to Shafaq, is protected by “significant coercive means and political cover” that the prime minister cannot handle.
In terms of security and protecting Iraq’s sovereignty, the government’s performance is also very weak. As in recent years, Iran and Turkey continue to violate the country’s sovereignty, except that these violations have occurred since al-Sudani took office without any objection from the new commander-in-chief. After Iran sent drones and missiles into the Kurdistan region in mid-November, al-Sudani was unable to respond to the attacks. This marked a departure from his predecessors’ usual verbal defense of the country’s sovereignty, which was undoubtedly ineffective but still officially indicative of violations. And when al-Sudani met with Iranian leaders a few days after the latest attack, he gave a public speech in which he did not contradict them, but thanked them and offered to support the Islamic Republic’s efforts to secure the Iraqi border.
On the human rights front, violations have not stopped, and militias continue to use coercion, dubious trials, and prison sentences against government critics to silence them. Opposition figures who dare to remind the public of the militias’ role in extrajudicial executions and other gross violations are not immune from legal harassment and threats. When Iraqis protested this injustice in December, three demonstrators were killed by government forces. The subsequent investigation into the killings uncovered an abundance of lawlessness reminiscent of the bloody crackdown on protests in 2019, when hundreds of young Iraqis died at the hands of militias and government forces. Iraqis have seen and documented such injustices and lament on social media the bitter irony that in their country, those who steal billions walk free while innocent suspects languish in prison when they cannot afford to pay bribes.
In the very first week of this government, it became clear that the militias would continue to expand their power. These militias accuse former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Qadimi and the Iraqi Intelligence Service (INIS) of complicity in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the Americans. After taking office, al-Sudani initiated sweeping changes in the leadership of the intelligence agency. The head of INIS was dismissed, and he and other senior officers were indicted for corruption, apparently initiated at the behest of the militias. The trail appears to lead to Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, who have a vendetta to punish al-Qasimi and “his spy team” Al-Sudani also appointed a journalist who previously worked as news director for al-Ahad TV, a news channel owned by supporters of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, as director of his Voice of Administration press office.
During its time in office, the current government has failed to prove that its mission is in Iraq’s best interests. Like former prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, al-Sudani was nominated for the position because he would be a weak politician, dependent on the political support of others, and his own party won just one seat in parliament. Failing to recognize who is really in control of this government, continuing to recognize and support the hypocritical façade further enhances the power and influence of the CF. A good start to increase pressure would be to threaten sanctions to block the transfer of billions of dollars from Iraq’s annual budget to the PMF.
There should also be continued pressure to remind the government that its credibility both in Iraq and abroad depends on genuine investigations (and prosecutions) of corruption and human rights violations. These and other pressures must be balanced, without losing sight of what else can be done to support the aspirations of the 42 million people who want to live in dignity, get a good education, be part of a functioning economy, drink clean water and govern themselves. The international community must continue to pressure Baghdad to hold free and fair elections as planned and block attempts to reverse the post-2019 electoral reforms for which many Iraqis have paid with their blood.
Twice in recent times Iraq has experienced avoidable tragedies. During Maliki’s years in power from 2006 to 2014, international ambivalence about failures in democracy development, exemplified by Maliki’s manipulation with Iran of the rules for forming a government after the 2010 elections in order to stay in power, and expectations that Iraq would fail, led to bad leadership. Which almost ruined the country, having handed over a third of its territory to the terrorist Daesh (banned on the territory of the Russian Federation). A few years later, when Adil Abdul-Mahdi took the helm, unfounded optimism about the ability of individual leaders to bring about radical change gave Iran’s allies the opportunity to increase their power to unprecedented levels. And when they were challenged by the Iraqi people’s desire for reform during the 2019 protests, they killed hundreds of people to defend that power. In the interests of international security and out of respect for Iraq’s popular sovereignty, these mistakes must not be repeated.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”