Building Pressures Risk Tearing Iraq's Fragile Government Apart

7 MINS READSep 25, 2019 | 13:48 GMT
An infantry fighting vehicle belonging to one of Iraq's popular mobilization units maneuvers in the desert near Anbar province on Sept. 16, 2019.

An infantry fighting vehicle of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitaries is seen during a military operation in a desert area near the village of Nukhayb in Iraq's western Anbar province on Sept. 16, 2019. 

  • Popular mobilization units increasingly form fundamental parts of Iraq's political and security fabric, and Iran is more determined than ever to maintain and deepen its established connections to many of them.
  • Divisions within the complex Shiite political community could widen in the coming months, adding pressure to the weak government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. 
  • As the United States remains committed to its maximum pressure campaign against Iran, U.S. efforts to force Baghdad to choose sides risk exacerbating Iraq’s existing political, security and economic weaknesses.

Even under ideal conditions, the inherent political and structural weaknesses of Iraq's central government leave it fragile and allow non-state actors and external powers to wield a significant level of influence over what should be purely Iraqi affairs. Its baseline instability means that any new stressors that surface — such as the deterioration in the relationship between the United States and Iran, both major Iraqi patrons, which accelerated in the wake of the Sept. 14 Iranian attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure — could cause the Iraqi government to fall apart. 

The situation Iraq finds itself in today is certainly less than ideal. Since his appointment in late 2018, months after May elections concluded, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to match the domestic popularity that his predecessor enjoyed, let alone govern effectively or even form a complete Cabinet. (It took him months to fill eight of the vacant positions, and the education minister's post remains vacant.) While the length of this specific logjam is unique to Abdul-Mahdi's leadership, political bottlenecks have become routine in Iraq, where after 2003, central governments have been cobbled together from a variety of interest groups, with no one segment able to exert dominance.

The Big Picture

The ongoing cycle of deterrence, escalation and de-escalation between the United States and Iran has fueled a climate of instability in Iraq. Any negotiations between Washington and Tehran would make Iranian hard-liners uneasy; in response, they will tighten their grip over their connections to valuable Iraqi proxies, which function as a sort of forward-deployed Iranian force. If a military conflict were to break out between the United States and Iran, Tehran could use the proxies to attack U.S. or allied assets inside Iraq.

Internal Factors Driving Weakness

The gradual reconstitution of jihadist militant groups in the country has also contributed to Iraqi weakness. A resurgent Islamic State, in particular, has taken root in the disputed territories between the Iraqi Kurdistan region and Baghdad, including Diyala and Salahuddin, creating an urgent security risk that will demand a considerable amount of the government's money and attention. That kind of security challenge presents an ambivalent situation that fosters cooperation among government security forces and Kurdish and Shiite militias, even as it exacerbates existing command and control issues. The government, after all, does not possess complete control over the various militias contributing to counterterrorism efforts

Because of its precarious economic situation, Iraq's economic necessity at times leaves its priorities and those of its benefactors misaligned.

Iraq's chronically weak economy deepens its economic dependence on external benefactors, most notably Iran, but also Tehran's adversaries across the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. Its reliance on neighboring Iran is natural: Iraq depends on Iranian energy supplies, buying both electricity and natural gas from the Islamic republic. It also imports a significant amount of food and other basic goods from Iran.

Because of its precarious economic situation, Iraq's necessities at times leave its priorities and those of its benefactors misaligned. The White House's sanctions strategy against Iran, for instance, has strained Iraq's relationship with the United States. Even though the United States has pushed Iraq to end its economic ties with Iran, Iraq has few alternatives, especially for energy. Iraq's electricity minister said Sept. 10 in Abu Dhabi that he doesn't see Iraq's electricity sector weaning itself off Iranian gas for "three or four years." Naturally, Iran does not want to lose the benefits that come from the dependent relationship, including the ability to use Iraq as a proxy theater.

A separate energy-related issue has put a strain on Iraq's relationship with Saudi Arabia. Baghdad's need for oil revenue to prop up its economy had led it to violate the pumping limits it had agreed to under an OPEC production cut plan. Even though Iraq recently pledged to comply with the cuts, a move that could smooth its ties with the kingdom (which is striving to keep a stable floor for oil prices), Saudi Arabia will probably believe it when it sees it. 

Emerging Issues

While ostensibly a component of Iraq's armed forces since their incorporation by law in 2016, the country's popular mobilization units (PMUs) wield considerable power over their internal logistics and operations. This situation challenges the state's monopoly over the use of force and offers a channel through which Iran can exert influence. Moreover, internal rivalries within the PMUs themselves have become increasingly high-profile, highlighting a struggle for power between those closer to Iran on one side and those with a more nationalist bent on the other. This has driven a debate among PMU leaders over how to exercise the power the militias have. The independent-minded PMUs have added to the strains on the Iraqi government. U.S. intelligence identified Iraq as the likely origin point of a May attack targeting Saudi oil infrastructure; that left Baghdad in the position of having to refute its ally's conclusion. Suspicions of possible PMU involvement made Iraq a prime suspect in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 14 attacks on two major Saudi Arabian Oil Co. production facilities, although information soon emerged that shifted the spotlight to direct Iranian involvement.

As PMUs have blamed U.S. acquiescence for allowing the Israelis to conduct the attacks against them, their leaders will increase pressure on Baghdad to review its status-of-forces agreement with the United States.

Iranian-aligned PMUs have also drawn unwanted attention from Israel, which has pursued a series of airstrikes on Iraqi soil targeting their assets. The Israeli campaign has angered the PMUs and their political allies, aggravating militia infighting and ramping up the tension between the central government and the PMU leadership. The attacks highlight two immediate implications: First, Iran will never give up these valuable proxy forces or the ability they give Tehran to stockpile missile arsenals and materiel across the region. If anything, the Israeli strikes could spark retaliation against U.S. targets in the country. Second, because PMUs have blamed U.S. acquiescence for allowing the Israelis to conduct the attacks against them, their leaders will increase pressure on Baghdad to review its status-of-forces agreement with the United States. The situation also strengthens the argument made by nationalist and Iranian-allied Iraqi militias that the continuing U.S. presence creates a security liability for Iraq.

The attacks have also renewed debate over whether parliament should control leadership roles within the PMUs. One easily defensible legal opinion is that the 2016 integration of the PMUs into Iraq's security forces makes them subject to the same laws that Iraqi federal security forces must adhere to. This concept will be a hard sell to the largely independent PMUs, which continue to act independently despite directives to integrate into the government's chain of command.

Amid the ongoing effort to weaken the PMUs, intra-Shiite shifts point to potential efforts to oust Abdul-Mahdi — or at least reshuffle the political cards. Rivalries between powerful competing Shiite groups like the militias under prominent nationalist leader Muqtada al-Sadr and those more closely aligned with Iran have been a constant source of instability over the last 15 years. Given that history, al-Sadr's recent visit to Iran appears unusual. Photos from the trip confirmed that he met with top Iranian political and military leaders. This would seem to indicate either an effort by al-Sadr to move closer to Iran or by Iranian leaders to win his favor

The trip raises the possibility that al-Sadr, who has expressed dissatisfaction with Abdul-Mahdi's government, could be negotiating to get rid of the prime minister. Given that al-Sadr's coalition holds the most seats in parliament, if he teamed up with the Iran-leaning Fatih coalition, the combined groups would have enough heft to mount a challenge to the prime minister. Abdul-Mahdi's ouster at this juncture would create economic and security policy paralysis at a critical time for Iraq. And it raises the chances that the next Iraqi leader would be one friendlier toward Iran and more hostile to Western powers.

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