As Iraq’s government formation continues to stall, the country’s two main political movements — Fatah and Sairoon — are teaming up to take control of the political scene and to prevent progress from being stalled by infighting with smaller parties.
The Iraqi political scene is known to be one of continuous crises. Political parties are addicted to them, often dealing with crises by creating bigger ones so they can forget the previous ones. They postpone any decision related to the previous crises and deal only with the one at hand. However, after the formation of the current government Oct. 24, political crises have been few and far between, perhaps due to the fact that President Barham Salih works in full sync with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi. All three cooperate on policy issues, and the president deals with crises that erupt, as he did when he mediated a dispute between the Hikma political coalition and the paramilitary group turned political movement Asaib Ahl al-Haq. At the same time, the prime minister does not interfere with the daily political issues that concern the political blocs, keeping his distance and leaving them on their own to deal with these subjects.
Yet the slow government formation process has disturbed the calm seas of politics. The country’s two largest parliamentary blocs — Islah and Al-Binaa — have failed to agree on who will head the three ministries that remain without a minister, namely the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Justice. Sairoon is part of the Islah bloc, and Fatah is part of the Al-Binaa grouping. The political wrangling among the parties within the blocs has meant failure to reach consensus over a single candidate for each ministry. The government is also slow in the implementation of its program as it is waiting for the completion of the Cabinet. It is also waiting on the appointments of high-ranking positions, such as heads of independent commissions, deputy ministers and director generals of many of the ministries.
The Fatah movement headed by Hadi al-Amiri and the Sairoon movement headed by Muqtada al-Sadr have engaged in covert negotiations for some time to reach an agreement on how to cross to the next phase of politics. On Feb. 11, representatives of the two movements met publicly and announced an agreement between them. Amiri, speaking at a press conference following the meeting between the two sides, said they had “formed a joint committee between Sairoon and Fatah to discuss [with our partners] the completion of the Cabinet formation, the appointment of independent commissions and remaining institutions, and the subject of local governments and services.” He also added, “We have not discussed names of any [potential ministers for the vacant posts], but will do so in the first parliament session.”
This new agreement between Fatah and Sairoon — without the participation of bloc partners such as the Hikma Movement headed by Ammar al-Hakim, who is also head of the Islah bloc, and Al-Binaa bloc member State of Law, headed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — is a significant development. It seems that both movements, Fatah and Sairoon, have come to realization that they are unable to settle the issue of which will be the largest bloc, and meanwhile the smaller parties within them are taking advantage of this. The smaller parties hold the key for completing a quorum for any session if there are disagreements between Islah and Al-Binaa and are holding the blocs hostage. Fatah and Sairoon also face problems from the Sunni blocs, as they jump from one side to the other whenever it suits them, requiring more compromise to satisfy the Sunnis.
So both Fatah and Sairoon decided to set aside their differences for now to move on with the government completion. After all, it was these two who jointly nominated Mahdi to become prime minister and they both voted for his Cabinet. They feel obliged to see the Cabinet completed, given the major challenges they face in the coming months. At the same time, the two movements want to show that they are the main political force on the Iraqi scene — the days of Dawa, Hikma and others dominating the arena are over, according to Fatah and Sairoon’s thinking.
Political observers predict that a Fatah-Sairoon coalition will try to replace the National Alliance that was formed in the past and contained all Shiite parties. Fatah and Sairoon will likely work to entice both Hikma and State of Law to join as junior partners. Fatah and Sairoon might also try to attract Sunni and Kurdish groupings to complete the picture and form the largest bloc in parliament. On the other hand, there are those who think that no new blocs will be announced, but that this level of cooperation between Fatah-Sairoon will continue for the time being in order to deal with the multiple challenges ahead. Many holding the view that no new blocs will be forthcoming say they think the Fatah-Sairoon alliance will disappear with the first signs of trouble.
There are multiple challenges ahead. The political elite must tackle these challenges head on or else they will face a tough and hot summer, especially since there seems to be no solution in place to deal with the chronic issues of electricity shortages and lack of services in the main cities of the south, specifically in Basra.
The war on the Islamic State (IS) is going to cast its shadow over Iraq. It is widely reported that thousands of IS fighters have crossed the Syrian border to come to Iraq. They represent a real threat to Iraq’s stability. Baghdad, however, did score a big win against the terror group this week when Iraqi security forces broke up a cell funding IS. At the same time, the issue of troop withdrawals by coalition partners or the suspension of the Strategic Framework Agreement needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. Iraqi army generals and military men think that Iraqi armed forces are not fully ready to deal with the IS threat on their own, at least for the time being.
The US efforts to contain Iran by imposing economic sanctions put Iraq between a rock and hard place. The Iraqis understand that the US-Iran crises have little to do with them — these crises extend to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gulf, and Iraq has little to gain from them and plenty to lose. It is going to be tough to stay neutral in a struggle where both sides expect you to be on their side one way or another.
Fatah and Sairoon need to think very carefully about how to deal with these challenges in the coming weeks and months. They need to make sure they don’t mix the long-term interests of Iraq with local party-politics antics, and they need to figure out how to get the government to deliver on the services and promises it made to the people; otherwise this summer could become a season of fire and fury.