Over the course of its armed struggle with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Iraq has devolved into a state captured by militias and foreign powers. The instability caused by a revived insurgency that took over Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in June 2014 has facilitated the emergence of new armed actors and deepened the influence of older ones. The level of security engagement Baghdad receives from the West, including cooperation with the 60-nation coalition against the Islamic State, has not strengthened Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s position. His government remains fragile and fragmented, unable to consolidate power and exercise authority over militias that have become necessary in its fight against the Islamic State. In addition, the prime minister is constrained by the inertia of the political system and the vested interests of powerful actors from his own Shiite sect that are averse to reform. Today, his position grows more uncertain as an intra-Shiite Arab power struggle threatens to upend his tenure.
Iraq’s Hodgepodge Government
In early November, Abadi’s efforts to implement a reform agenda that intended to tackle a corrupt and dysfunctional political system were decisively defeated in a unanimous vote in Parliament. From then on, his reform initiatives, which were announced in the summer of 2015 in response to mass demonstrations in Baghdad and southern Iraq, will require Parliament’s approval. This limits any unilateral power the prime minister has to shape Iraq going forward. Opposition to his proposed reforms exposed his vulnerability, which is now visible not only to the public but also to his political rivals. Indeed, despite waging a war focused on reclaiming lost territory on Iraq’s periphery, Baghdad is now preoccupied with a dangerous power struggle within the political establishment that Iran had worked for years to cultivate.
For Abadi, it is not the military threat posed by the Islamic State, per se, that looms over his premiership. Instead, the real threat to his leadership, and perhaps to U.S. interests to maintain an allied government in Baghdad, is an intra-Shiite contest for political authority. This competition is occurring within a fragmented government led by a prime minister who depends for his political survival on the very same forces threatening that survival. Indeed, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose autocratic and sectarian leadership the West blames for Iraq’s ills, has leveraged his prior relationships with pro-Iran Shiite militias and managed to make a potential comeback to threaten his successor. Abadi also faces challenges to his authority from other Shiite figures aligned with Iran, who, at best, effectively limit his power, and, at worst, could attempt to unseat him.
This intra-Shiite power struggle is rooted in Shiite militias’ ascent toward becoming the state’s primary security force. Their remobilization into a force comprising over 50 entities has occurred in the context of a revived Sunni insurgency, the unraveling of the state’s formal security institutions and the transition of power from Maliki to Abadi. While the mix of these factors has informed the current crisis in Baghdad, the main culprit is the ill-conceived framework that has characterized Iraq’s post-Saddam political system.
Strong nonstate forces alone do not explain the weak central government in Baghdad, which is plagued by its very political arrangement: consociational democracy. The logic of consociational political systems—or comprehensive power-sharing governments—is grounded in conflict prevention. Within deeply divided societies, particularly those with significant ethnic and religious diversity, such arrangements aim to solidify consensus-driven politics to avoid relapse toward civil war. In Iraq, no party represented in Parliament is excluded from the governing coalition or the executive government. By giving all components of society a share and stake in the state, it becomes more costly for any party to opt out of the political process.
Unfortunately, this power-sharing system, which the U.S. backs and helped install, has proven to be of little value toward stability, unity or democratic development in Iraq. By any standard, the complex arrangement has, rather than representing a functional governing coalition, created a hodgepodge government. Because the parties lack uniformity, the system has been too incoherent and indecisive to confront Iraq’s daunting state-building and nation-building challenges. Its decision-making process was based on a broad consensus model, whereby resolutions were diluted to the lowest common denominator, requiring agreement among all major factions in order for an initiative to proceed. Indeed, the more individual actors added to a collective body, the more diverse and incoherent its interests and constituencies become.
Rather than guaranteeing consensus or facilitating a progressive dialogue in Parliament, the inclusion of all major political factions into the executive government has institutionalized the fault lines of political contestation. Thus far, national elections in post-Saddam Iraq have done little to bring a legitimate central government that acts on behalf of the electorate. Instead, they have elevated and strengthened localized centers of power, which, despite being part of the government, often undermine the prime minister and keep him weak and dependent. This creates strong incentives for any prime minister to attempt to consolidate power or risk losing the capacity to govern autonomously, held hostage by other powerful actors within the coalition. The weak central government in Baghdad is plagued by its very political arrangement: consociational democracy.In effect, the structure of the political system the U.S. helped to put in place has fueled an unstable cycle of contentious politics in Iraq, prone to crises that increase the potential for armed conflict. The transition of power from Maliki to Abadi was bound to be unstable, especially during a time of civil war. Unfortunately, the U.S. incorrectly assumed that authority in Iraq was vested in the office of the prime minister, not with the personalities and the patronage networks the holder of that office, as well as rival political actors, wield.
Abadi’s Weak Hand
Since forming his government in September 2014, Abadi has struggled to shape and advance his initiatives and policies, either regarding military strategy against the Islamic State or political and economic reforms. Unlike when Maliki occupied the premiership, Abadi’s role as prime minister is relatively weak, constrained by his position within his own party and the parliamentary coalition, both of which are led by his predecessor. Abadi’s inability to push through the so-called national guard initiative—a major Sunni demand that aims to establish locally recruited and legal armed forces at the provincial level—convinced the Sunni political class early on that he was a paralyzed premier without the power to deliver on their demands.
However, mass demonstrations emerged last summer on the streets of Baghdad and southern Iraq, with participants protesting rampant corruption and the lack of basic services, notably power shortages during a devastating heat wave. Recognizing Iraqis’ growing dissatisfaction and frustration, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered religious figure within Shiite Islam, signaled the need for the new government to implement reforms to fight corruption. But instead of carefully adapting his efforts and recognizing his political vulnerability, Abadi unwisely chose to utilize his newfound clout to undermine his rivals. In August 2015, he announced that he would abolish Iraq’s three vice presidencies, thereby cutting off a critical source of patronage power and immunity for the current holders of the office.
In order to save face and avoid being perceived as opposed to fighting corruption by undermining Sistani’s position, Iraq’s political class expressed public support for Abadi’s agenda. However, in private, they were concerned, and many wondered who it was backing Abadi to give him the confidence and bravado to ignore his constraints and cut against the grain of Iraqi politics. After all, his reform package came as a surprise, since he announced it without consulting a single coalition partner. But over time, the answer became clear: Abadi was not acting on behalf of a foreign power, but taking advantage of the situation to empower himself vis-a-vis his rivals. That led his rivals, who are typically divided among themselves, to unify against the prime minister’s misplaced confidence.
Instead of generating authority from his political position, Abadi largely borrowed his legitimacy from Najaf, Iraq’s Shiite religious establishment. Iraq is, more or less, a soft theocracy: Although political decision-making may not be concentrated in the hands of clerics, there are direct and indirect consequences of attaining or exercising power without their tacit support. Maliki was forced to leave office not only because he had lost Najaf’s support, but because his missteps were so grave that they prompted the clerical leadership to intervene politically to prevent him from securing a third term. Similarly, it was only Sistani’s public blessing that gave Abadi the political clout necessary to announce an ambitious reform package that directly clashed with the interests of his rivals. But Sistani’s endorsement, though powerful, cannot by itself empower Abadi to overcome the inertia inherent to the system, an inertia rooted in the deep-seated interests of Iraq’s political class.
The prime minster’s dilemma is defined by his practical weakness and political vulnerability. He neither has the credibility to make concessions nor the capability to carry out his will. Indeed, despite being head of government, Abadi is far from holding a monopoly over executive authority. Whenever he has tried to exercise authority out of line with the interests of his Shiite backers, his initiatives were not implemented. That is because Abadi did not come to power out of any legitimacy he had previously accumulated. He had no real constituency on the ground, did not lead any party or coalition, and most importantly missed the strategic opportunities required to broker necessary alliances with other political leaders.
As was the case when Maliki came to power in 2006, Abadi was awarded the premiership as a compromise choice among Shiite powerbrokers. He was chosen not because of any eagerness to see him become the new prime minister, but simply to replace the previous one. But unlike Abadi, Maliki had the presence of the U.S. military to serve as a safety net and pave his way toward consolidating and centralizing power at the expense of his rivals.
In 2008, knowing well that the American military would bail him out, Maliki took unilateral action—against U.S. advice—to militarily confront the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. The Washington establishment subsequently hailed Maliki’s bold actions to tackle his own sect’s militias, painting him as an Iraqi nationalist. But this attribution mistook the structural incentives shaped by Maliki’s political environment for a personal sense of duty. The military offensive against the most feared and powerful Shiite militia was never about nationalism. It was about survival and consolidating authority against other centers of power. Maliki wasn’t building a nation; he was building a regime.
Unequipped with Maliki’s U.S. security blanket, Abadi has attempted to consolidate power through reform. In other words, he has masked his goal to consolidate power behind the idealist cosmetics of fighting corruption, in so doing generating a degree of political and international support from the West. Abadi’s purge of many Iraqi security officials in late 2014 was not as much about “fighting corruption” and “nepotism,” as he suggested at the time, as it was about building a regime loyal to him rather than to Maliki. Indeed, despite the fact that both individuals come from the same Shiite Islamist party, the new premier was never going to let his predecessor’s security architecture remain intact. To do so would jeopardize his political survival.
Shiite Militias and Cyclic Strategy
As the government battles the Islamic State, another threat has emerged in Iraq: Shiite militarization. The re-emergence of Shiite militias is a product of the Iraqi armed forces’ dismal performance against Sunni insurgents in 2013 and early 2014. That experience, combined with the effectiveness of Shiite militias—most notably Hezbollah—fighting in Syria’s civil war on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, led Maliki to believe that countering Sunni militants in Iraq would similarly require employing Shiite militias. Today, a symbiotic relationship has formed between the irregular combatants, whereby the existence of Sunni insurgents perpetuates the need for Shiite militias and vice versa.
When the U.S. military had completed its withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, Iran-backed Shiite militias began turning toward politics to maintain their organizational survival. But as the civil war in Syria evolved into a sectarian and regional proxy war, its convergence with Iraq’s insurgency grew, thereby creating a venue for Shiite militias to enhance their membership, renew their militarized cause and fill their coffers. Indeed, even before Mosul fell to the Islamic State in June 2014, Iraq’s Shiite militias had already fought in Syria against Sunni insurgents.
However, once Mosul fell amid mass desertion by multiple divisions of Iraq’s army, a radically new strategic environment emerged for militia formation in Iraq. Indeed, despite the Iraqi armed forces’ overall poor performance in battling insurgents, it was their unraveling that created an institutional void in the state security apparatus. With the need for heightened security, Sistani issued an unprecedented fatwa calling for Iraqis to volunteer and defend the state. Tens of thousands of Shiite Iraqis would soon be recruited, enhancing the power of well-established Iran-backed militias such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, but also leading to the emergence of new ones.
Unlike the Islamic State, which is deemed an outright enemy of the state, Iraq’s Shiite militias have never fit neatly into any category. In their current iteration, they are an extension of the Iraqi state. From their formal representation in Parliament to their direct relations with foreign governments, the new institutional demand for security has functionally integrated Shiite militias into the Iraqi security apparatus, to the point that U.S. military assistance empowers them as well. Indeed, Mohammed al-Ghabban, a senior member of the Badr Organization, Iraq’s most powerful militia, is also the minister of the interior.
In general, militias form within weak states facing insurgent threats. But as the state builds its capacity to reassert its sovereignty and monopoly over force, the question emerges of how to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate these unofficial forces into an official framework. During the counterinsurgency years under the U.S. military occupation, Shiite militias were integrated into Iraq’s armed forces. Once integrated, however, they failed to transcend their own informal networks, corruption and sectarianism, which in turn infested the country’s security apparatus.
The re-emergence of militias is remaking the character and arrangement of Iraq’s security institutions and beyond. Political leaders and parties are leveraging the mobilization of militias in an attempt to translate hard power into electoral outcomes in hopes of shifting the political landscape in their favor. This structural incentive could lead to armed electoral politics, which is not unprecedented in post-Saddam Iraq, notably by the armed counterparts of Shiite political parties in 2005-2007. In addition, when the Islamic State is eventually neutralized in Iraq, militias could establish their own political entities to ensure their survival.
While these scenarios would destabilize Iraqi politics, the relationship between Sunni insurgency and Shiite militarization, both of which diminish state sovereignty, is particularly dangerous. The former aims to chip away at the state from the outside, but the growth of the latter is rotting it from within. In this dual, mutually reinforcing process, Abadi will likely continue losing authority over the security sector and remain a weak partner for the United States.
Today, there are well over 50 militias in Iraq under an umbrella organization—Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization—that, in theory, is supposed to report to the prime minister. But in practice, the real authority does not appear to be with Abadi, but rather with the leaders of that organization, who are closely aligned with Iran. In fact, the military campaign against the Islamic State in Tikrit that took place in March commenced without the involvement, or even the knowledge, of either the minister of defense or the prime minister.
Despite the fact that it controls roughly a third of Iraq’s territory, the Islamic State is not the major threat to Abadi’s regime. Rather, it is those closest to his political base. If concentric circles were used to depict the various threats that Iraq’s leader faces, the innermost would be his own party, while subsequent ones would include a diverse array of Shiite powerbrokers. The Islamic State would be the outermost circle—for Abadi, a distant threat. However, he is keen to defeat the Islamic State under his supervision and at the hands of armed forces under his control because it would buy him political prestige and power.
Contestation Under Abadi
Since Maliki was forced to relinquish the premiership in 2014, power and authority have become diffused across Iraq. Various players, both internal and external, are now exercising unchecked control over the use of force. This could potentially create conditions leading to a wider, armed contestation among the country’s political factions. The growing inability to monopolize the legitimate use of violence is the primary criteria for a failed state. Thus, Abadi’s state is much less of an autonomous regime than Maliki’s was, and is more accurately characterized as an arena of contestation among various forces.
Even beyond the many actors exercising power over the use of force, the elements of authority and legitimacy among the political classes of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis are becoming fragmented. Not too many years ago, a simplified schemata of political authority in Iraq would more or less have included two Kurds: Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani; four Sunnis: Tariq al-Hashimi, Osama al-Nujaifi, Saleh al-Mutlaq and Rafi al-Issawi; and three Shiites: Ammar al-Hakim, Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr. Today, there are far more players emerging within each ethno-sectarian community, complicating any U.S. engagement strategy in Iraq. A mixture of failing older political forces and rising new ones has devolved and redistributed power, fueling intra-sectarian contestation in the reconfiguration of political order.
The U.S. decision to reboot its security relationship with Iraq had multiple objectives: to help strengthen an allied government that was growing more fragile, to cultivate influence in Iraq at the expense of Iran, and to give Iraq the resources to counter the Islamic State. However, this diplomatic and military assistance has occurred as the Iraqi government faces an authority crisis. This means that Washington cannot effectively utilize coercive diplomacy and pressure toward Baghdad, making it unable to control either where its arms end up or the objective for which they are used.
It is uncertain if a consolidated government can emerge in Baghdad, either under Abadi or any future leadership. The Iraqi state is unraveling, having lost its monopoly over force and its grip on centralized authority. However, Washington continues to misdiagnose the Islamic State as the source rather than symptom of Iraq’s deeper ills. This fixation on defeating the militant organization has led to shortsighted policies with dangerous consequences. Today, U.S. policymakers are threatening to bypass Iraq’s government and directly arm the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Although this is driven by frustration with the politics in Baghdad, it is a policy that lacks strategic consideration and foresight. If pursued, its backers must accept the risk that arming these groups could exacerbate the fragmentation of Iraq, undermine the government’s authority and further strengthen the logic sustaining militias.
Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He can be followed on Twitter at @RamzyMardini.