In Baghdad this month, the mood is generally positive. A new government has been formed and higher oil prices (the recent decline notwithstanding) have given Iraq a stake of cash with which to address its problems. Despite continuing insecurity in the mixed areas between Baghdad and Mosul, levels of violence remain low. While most Westerners — constrained by the terms of their insurance policies or governments — retreat to convoys of SUVs, those unburdened by such restraints walk freely, are driven by friends, and take cabs or use “Uber-like” services. Nightlife continues to flourish in Baghdad as its youthful population brings a new mood to the city. And while the “opening” of the so-called “Green Zone” was a bit overhyped (it’s only open at night), it nonetheless shows the confidence of the Iraqi government to allow access to its own government center (after clearing numerous checkpoints). By any objective standard, things in Iraq are as good as they have ever been. True, the rest of the country lags behind the relative functionality of Baghdad, but the example set by the capital is important.
The Status of the Government
The shadow of the Basra protests of July and August still looms over the polity. The protests in Basra shook the state to the core, for several reasons. First, they occurred in the heart of the power base of most of the major parties. Major Shi’a parties such as Dawa, Fadhila, Hikma, Asa’ib al Haq (AAH) and Badr were all caught up in the conflagration, their offices burned by the protestors, making clear the lack of satisfaction with politics as usual. Second, Basra province is a critical, even existential, interest of the Iraqi state. As the last few years have demonstrated, Sunni-majority cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and even Mosul can be lost, and Iraq can win them back, albeit at too high a cost. The fate of these regions does not threaten the (Shi’a-majority) state itself, at least not in the short term. But Basra is the heart, and — for now — virtually the sum total, of the Iraqi economy. Absent Basra’s oil revenues, activity in Baghdad — and the other provinces — grinds to a halt. Finally, these protests involved an important, if controversial, sector of Iraqi society — those who fought against ISIL, as well as the families of those who died or were heavily wounded during the fight. The failure of the state to provide essential services for the demobilized Hashd fighters and their families is of deep embarrassment.
Out of these protests — and the lack of a clear electoral mandate — has emerged this new Iraqi government. Prior to the protests, the political leaders were caught up in discussions about the “largest bloc” of new parliamentarians — from the eleven major coalitions — to select the new government. Then came the protests, which seem to have driven the largest two vote-gaining (though opposing) parties from the 2018 electoral cycle — the Sadrists and the Hashd-aligned “Fatah” party — to forge a very informal deal to move forward on a government, bypassing that key and stabilizing step. After the somewhat surprising election of Dr. Barham Saleh as President (Dr. Barham, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(PUK) candidate, won over the Kuridish Democratic Party (KDP) candidate Fuad Hussein, despite the KDP’s backroom dealings with the other major parties), the familiar figure of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a 76 year-old former vice president, oil minister, and finance minister, was selected as the prime minister-designate.
On October 25, the parliament approved a majority of the nominated ministers (14 of 22), making Abdul-Mahdi the prime minister (three more were approved on December 18, then another two on December 24). Iraq-watchers immediately split on whether this was a glass half-full, or half-empty. The half-empty camp noted the absence of both security ministers, Interior and Defense, as well as the controversy surrounding three of the 14 approved ministers being plausibly accused of affiliation with extremist groups — two male ministers being accused of Baathist and al-Qaeda in Iraq ties, and, in late breaking news, the female education minister (the only female minister to date) was embroiled in a scandal regarding her brother’s alleged role as a high-level ISIL figure in Mosul. It now appears she was not sworn into office, leaving four ministries empty. It was, in this sense, a less than auspicious start.
The half-full camp also has reason for cheer, however. In the key economic and service ministries, the promise to nominate respected technocrats seems to have been honored. Thamir Ghadaban, a British trained petroleum engineer and the oil minister during the interim government of 2004 to 2005, accepted the oil ministry post. He is closely partnered with the new electricity minister, Luay al Khateeb, the founder of the Iraq Energy Association and a well-known infrastructure and resources expert in British and U.S. think tank circles. The health minister, Alaa al-Alwani, has served in senior positions at the World Health Organization, while the new foreign minister, Mohammad al-Hakim, was until recently the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations. These are all respected and relatively apolitical Iraqi figures with impressive resumes.
The failure to fill the Defense and Interior slots is, first, driven by internal tensions within Iraq’s ethno-sectarian communities, and not between them. Everyone agrees that the defense minister will be a Sunni — it’s just that the Sunni can’t decide internally who he or she should be. Internal to the Shi’a parties, at issue is the nomination of a new interior minister, with the Fatah block of Hadi al-Ameri (Population Mobilization Units/Hashd affiliated) putting forward former National Security Advisor Felah Fayahd as their nominee. This nomination has been strenuously opposed by the Sairoon party of Muqtada al-Sadr. It is widely believed that the inability of the parliament to confirm Fayahd during their session on December 11 means that a new nominee will have to emerge (though this has yet to occur). This is interpreted by Sadr and his allies as a “brushback” of the Iranian strategy of Qassim Soleimani.
Further, in Iraq’s highly pragmatic democracy, it is worth recalling that during the entirety of the second Maliki administration of 2010 to 2014, the parliament confirmed neither Interior nor Defense ministers. Not that this is a model to be followed, but a lapse of a few weeks or months is hardly a crisis.
Even for those who accept the quality of the ministers, there is deep concern about the lack of an underlying coalition. As noted earlier, the key step of forming a “largest bloc” was skipped over by the major parties, leaving it unclear who is supporting the newly formed government. Once again, there are two interpretations about the lack of an underlying coalition. One reading is that this new government is essentially ungrounded, without a reliable block in parliament on which is can fall back. In this interpretation the entire government is walking a daily knife-edge of a “no confidence” vote, and therefore it will be unable, or at least highly unlikely, to take any difficult or controversial positions. Given that resolute action on (hopefully non-corrupt) infrastructure spending is the key issue, an inability to confront contentious issues would put the government in a difficult spot indeed.
The second interpretation notes that the various factions have somewhat bravely moved forward. In the absence of a resounding mandate from the voters, familiar elites have stepped into the void, though limited by the new parliament with a majority of fresh faces. This reading of Baghdad politics maintains that since no new coalition is likely to be formed should a “no confidence” vote occur, that such a vote is politically impossible to generate (as witnessed in the unsuccessful attempts to generate a no confidence vote on Nouri al Maliki in 2013). In this reading, the new government, though again constrained by the parliament, is taking its real cues from the demonstrators (or the people more widely), and the religious authorities in Najaf, both of which are strong voices for reform and action. To introduce a very non-Arabic influence, they seem to be appealing to an almost Rousseauian “General Will” that includes the interests of the citizenry without concern for the interests of the political elites.
New Political Alignments
The parliament is now effectively divided into two opposing blocks. The first, al-Islah, consists of the Sadrists, al Hikma, Abadi’s “Victory,” and the traditional Sunni parties of former Prime Minister Allawi and Saleh Mutlaq, plus a few smaller parties, including the Turkomen Front and the Kurdish New Generation Movement (NGM) (just announced January 15). Opposed to them, in the Bina coalition are arrayed the Fatah party (discussed above), former Prime Minister Maliki’s “State of Law,” and the National Axis party of Khamis Khanjar and Jamal al-Dari. While the Kurds (NGM excepted) keep some distance from this arrangement, in general the KDP is loosely aligned with Bina, and the PUK and smaller parties (Gorran,Kurdish Islamists) aligned with al-Islah. It is extremely important to note the emergence of cross-sectarian coalitions in Iraq. Whatever one thinks of these two coalitions, their mere existence is a huge step forward in Iraqi politics. The dispute between these two blocs is not about blood, race, or religion, but genuine policy differences. This also brings us the phenomenon of one Shi’a majority party being the agent calling out the abuses of another Shi’a majority party from the opposing faction.
With regard to policy, as a convenient shorthand, one can look at al-Islah as the coalition of those parties whose priority is building the capacity of the Iraqi government, while the Bina coalition has an interest in keeping Baghdad weak so that their extra-governmental interests (be that their militia, Iranian interests, rejection of the post-2003 order, or an independent KRG) become more viable. What is at first look an odd array of allies in Bina takes on a clear logic when viewed through this lens. Some analysts have posited that the phenomenon of the KDP working closely with Maliki and the PMU-aligned parties (with whom they otherwise have long-standing disputes) can be explained only by heavy Iranian influence. But when their shared interest in a weak Baghdad is considered, the coalition makes much more sense and can be considered a natural. And just as US interests naturally align it with al-Islah, so also Iran’s interests in a weak Iraq align it with Bina. Again, having two cross-sectarian and ethnically diverse political “blocs” is a major development and should be applauded. But note that the government draws its primary support from a major actor on each side (Sadrists from al-Islah, Fatah from Bina), so this has not yet evolved into a more traditional bloc in power and bloc in opposition. The quota, or muhasasa, system—in which all parties get a share, leaving the government without a clear program—has once again survived another round of Iraqi elections, though weaker.
I find a vague, though cautious, optimism in well-informed Iraqi circles. Having well-known and internationally respected figures in the presidency (especially) and the prime ministry, as well as technocrats in the service ministries, gives a great deal of hope.
But there is a general awareness that the next crisis is looming, all revolving around infrastructure and services. Iraq’s sweltering temperatures create a huge demand for electricity in the summer, primarily for air conditioning. Summer demand peaks at 23 gigawatts, with the Iraqi grid averaging just over 12 gigawatts of power (peaking at 16 to 17) — enough for winter demand, but with its inadequacies and inefficiencies clearly on display during the blistering summer heat. It is this lack of electrical capacity (despite growing almost 300 percent since 2003), combined with similar deficiencies in clean water — for drinking, agriculture, and fisheries — and a general lack of economic opportunity that have most galvanized the Iraqi public. While the last government dealt with ISIL and the budget crisis, this government will be judged by services and the economy.
In a sentence, this government must find the “low hanging fruit” in services improvement, aggressively pursue these easy (or at least easier) solutions, and then move forward on the longer-term fixes. In the electrical sector, this means finding another source for a gigawatt or two of power, repairing the grid to reduce losses in transmission, and finding ways to move forward on actually having Iraqis pay for their government power, so that demand is kept at more reasonable levels. Once these steps are taken, Iraqis should then be able to see serious movement on longer-term solutions, as GE and/or Siemens begin to construct large-scale power generation plants to really address the demand issues of summer air conditioning.
Water projects need similar focus. Short-term local filtering efforts may be needed to address crisis situations, while longer-term projects are developed to deal with the underlying issues of poor urban sewage treatment throughout Iraq, and poor water management within all the river systems. State-of-the-art irrigation systems will be necessary to regenerate Iraq’s agricultural sector, as it is clear that there will not be sufficient water in Iraq’s future to allow for flood-style irrigation techniques now common. Further, the Turks will soon begin filling the reservoir behind Ilisu Dam, putting more pressure on the Iraqi water system already challenged by climate change, as considerably fewer gallons make their way downstream. This reduced flow both gives less water in absolute terms and increases the proportion of toxins in the water that does continue down the Tigris to the sea.
The domestic oil and gas sector has been making incremental improvements for years, but a more aggressive approach, in conjunction with assistance from international oil and gas and service companies, may be required. There are already very promising moves towards investment projects involving gas capture. Having these come to full maturity with both a working project and a viable business model would do a great deal to ease suspicions on both sides. Increasing the crude oil export capacity is a key requirement. The new Iraqi pipeline going north to Turkey is a good sign, but the lag in putting the long-discussed pipeline through Jordan to the Port of Aqaba should be addressed soonest, in addition to infrastructure improvements at and around the Basra ports. Finally, Iraq should move fully forward on the development of its gas fields, not only those associated with the oil fields in Basra and Kirkuk, but also those in Anbar and Sulimaniya. Full engagement of Iraq’s gas sector would not only allow for independent fueling of its own electrical plants, but an export commodity that would promote more economic interdependence with Turkey.
Finally on the jobs front, simply getting the first of these “shovel ready” projects underway should result in a number of jobs, both directly in construction, and secondarily in the contracts providing services to the companies and workers on the direct contracts. While many of the highly skilled jobs will have to go to expats — whether Turkish, Korean, or American — there will be significant numbers of Iraqis put to work. Of course, the business climate is sufficiently hostile that the number put to work will almost certainly be significantly less than it might otherwise be. But still, more jobs are better, even if the total is artificially deflated.
The crisis of infrastructure and services in the south is echoed in the north, though with a slightly different accent. The north had — in general — superior infrastructure to the south, but it has suffered a great deal of damage in the liberation from ISIL. Iraqi cities — Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul — suffered anywhere from significant to devastating damage from airpower, artillery, truck bombs, and hand-to-hand fighting. But in general one can say that the infrastructure in the north is suffering only a few years of neglect (since the arrival of ISIL), rather than the 15 years of neglect in Basra.
But the situation in the north is complicated by at least four other issues — the tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, the lack of security in many of the rural areas in the north, the problems related to the various minority groups (Turkomen, Christians, Yezidi, Shabak), and the issues of re-integrating those who participated, to whatever degree, in the ISIL project. Each of these issues is a full project unto itself, and it is not clear that Baghdad has the capacity — or the focus, given the issues in the south — to deal with all, or any, of these issues.
But while the north has a host of challenges, Baghdad’s primary focus will remain on the south. While the north’s problems are very real, the problems in the south are existential to the state. It is therefore by solving the problems in the south that the state will be judged. From the perspective of state survival, the south is existential, while Baghdad has demonstrated that it can lose the north, then recover it. Baghdad must make serious progress in infrastructure throughout the country, but particularly make amends with Basra, the generator of the entirety of the Iraqi financial system. This will make for an interesting tension with the international community, which is far more focused on the liberated areas and Iraqi minorities.
The United States has a key role to play in providing technical expertise, helping Iraq where it can. The United States should resist the temptation to be transactional in its dealings with Iraq at this moment. The United States is deeply vested in a fully functioning Iraq (which, de facto, essentially aligns its interests with al-Islah) and in the longer term, its relationship with Iraq will be deeper and more beneficial for having helped in this key moment. There is a significant role for U.S. business to play in Iraq (despite, again, the very difficult business climate), but it should be on the basis of free and open competition. Finally, the United States should work very closely with at least the president and the prime minister. Both President Barham Saleh and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi are known quantities to the U.S. , particularly Dr. Barham, who lived in the United States for over a decade (making the political accusations of his being some type of Iranian proxy, or even the Iranian candidate, simply risible). This is not to say that the United States is or should be opposed to the parliamentary speaker, Mohammad al-Halbousi; it’s simply that we don’t yet have the same long history with him.
Iraq’s infrastructure problem is the crucible that will test the next government. In short, the debate between the optimists and pessimists, whether on the government or the stability of the coalition underlying it, will be resolved next summer. It is not unthinkable that this government could fail. The government must show significant progress by next summer. Electrical generation must show at least incremental improvement, with the promise of significant change in evidence. While Iraq’s water problem probably cannot be changed at all in the next year, the government must be able to show that ground has been broken — or at the very least contracts awarded — on projects that international experts agree will address the myriad of water issues. New jobs must be in evidence, both in construction on all the items above, plus private-public partnerships with the State-Owned Enterprises and reduced regulation for the nascent entrepreneurial sector. And finally, there must be both an improved revenue flow — from oil sales in the near term — and better management of finances and contracts.
Summer is coming. And patience — both in the “street” and in Najaf — has worn thin. This government is sitting on a powder keg. Baghdad must show serious progress, or else the absence of power and water might overthrow the government in a way that ISIL could not.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to the Hashd-aligned “Faith” party. The correct name is the Fatah party.
Douglas Ollivant, a former NSC Director for Iraq during the Bush and Obama administrations, is an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America. He is a managing partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington, Beirut and Baghdad, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. Mantid International advises clients working in Federal Iraq.