In Qais al-Khazali’s televised interview with BBC Persian on January 18, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq discussed the internal debate among the Coordination Framework; the alliance of Shiite factions continuing to object to the results of Iraq’s most recent election, while politicians and parties scramble to form the country’s next government.
“Either we all choose the path of boycotting the political process, or the opposition, and most political forces, are likely to choose to boycott the political process,” the senior member of the Fatih Alliance said. “I do not say that the situation will pass easily,” he added, warning that there were no guarantees against friction, and “that the next government will not be able to succeed in its work and will not be able to provide services or provide job opportunities.”
In contrast, the Sadrist Movement are pushing the formation of a majority government with its partners in a 162 member-strong tripartite alliance known as Homeland Rescue (Enqath Watan), which includes the Sadrists, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunnis, with the door open for others to join. The leader of the Sadrist bloc, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is evidently refusing to give up what he considers to be his electoral entitlement.
Alliance of the strongest
The three political forces that consider themselves to be the most powerful in the political arena marked out by the informal sectarian system of muhasasa have established this alliance to lead the way in a more cohesive, and potentially effective, move.
Sadr leads the tripartite alliance. As a key instigator of the majority government project, he wants to break away from the political consensus that has produced governments since 2006. Sadr derives his strength from the size of his bloc of 75 members (the Sadrist Movement won 73 seats, and have been joined by a member from Diyala, and a member from the party formed by Wasit Governor Mohammed al-Mayahi), and also from his complete control over the bloc’s direction.
Sadr is running negotiations and planning to form the next government with his partners while keeping the door open for other Shiite forces to join him, helping to cross the comfortable majority barrier.
The KDP enjoys the strength of a 31-member bloc, and hopes to enhance its political strength by attaining the Iraqi presidency, deputy prime minister, and several ministries, in addition to its current positions of parliamentary deputy speaker, as well as the presidency and premiership within the Kurdistan Region. The party and its leader, Masoud Barzani, have played a significant role in uniting the Sunni parties which has, in turn, enhanced the KDP’s political influence, and could well be parallel to the influence of Sadr in the political arena.
The leader of the Taqadum Alliance, Mohammad al-Halbousi, for his part, was able to form a strong bloc before the election and achieved a landslide victory, winning 37 seats from the Sunni component; the first time that more than half of the Sunni representatives have belonged to one bloc. His strength was further enhanced by striking an alliance with his rival, the al-Azm alliance leader Khamis al-Khanjar. Furthermore, in a first-time achievement by any Sunni politician since 2003, Halbousi won the speakership of parliament for a second term when the new parliamentarians convened earlier this month.
The tripartite alliance will become the nucleus of forming the next government. Some observers believe that a government formed of the strongest performing factions will be best equipped to carry out the reforms demanded by the Iraqi people. Unlike previous national consensus governments, a majority government – and its opposition – would mean one less likely to evade responsibility. In addition, these blocs could pass the required legislation and take meaningful decisions to determine the course of governance over the coming years.
Critics argue that a government formed along these lines would face other problems, most notably deriving from the lack of participation of influential political forces, with military backing, and the presence of a strong opposition that has been hitherto absent in Iraqi politics.
Dialogue of the deaf
Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Fatih Alliance, visited Najaf and met Sadr alone in al-Hanana on January 15. He tried hard to persuade Sadr to form a consensus government in which everyone would participate. Despite this, Sadr has refused the participation of Framework forces as it intersects with his project to form a national majority government. As a compromise, Sadr offered the Fatih Alliance four ministries in return for their participation, on the condition that he selects the prime minister without their objection. Amiri rejected the offer.
Observers suggest that the political blocs within the Coordination Framework fear that Sadr will exploit his numerical superiority and dominance on the political scene to weaken his political opponents by not providing them with the opportunity to reorganize their ranks.
Amiri also visited Erbil, where he met with KDP leaders, trying to convince them that consensus would be the best option for Iraqi and Kurdish-Shiite relations. He cautioned them with a theme that the Coordination Framework shares, telling them that if Shiite differences disappear, then the Shiites would become the majority. By then, they could not be blamed for monopolizing positions or passing decisions, and might leave the Kurds vulnerable. He returned to Baghdad without reaching any agreement with the KDP.
The KDP and PUK at odds with each other
The two Kurdish parties of the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have tried to unify their negotiations with Baghdad, and agreed to form a joint committee. An informed source in the PUK explained that the committee met four times and drafted a document agreed upon by the two parties to present to the political forces in Baghdad.
The joint committee began their visit to Baghdad on January 7, and their first appointment was with the Sadrist Movement’s political body. The source added that the PUK was surprised by the existence of a separate paper agreed upon between the KDP and the Sadrist Movement; they knew nothing about it, and only saw the details hours before the meeting. The visit of the joint delegation to the political forces was limited to heterogeneous protocol meetings that did not lead to any significant results. The KDP signed a unilateral agreement with the Sadrists, leaving the PUK behind.
A power-sharing agreement between the two sides since 2006 has meant that the PUK holds the presidency of Iraq in exchange for the KDP holding the presidency of the Kurdistan Region. Disagreements between the two sides deepened when the KDP nominatedHoshyar Zebari as a candidate for Iraq’s president on January 12.
Commentators believe that Zebari’s nomination is clear evidence that the KDP intends to seriously obtain the presidency and that this position falls within the party’s scheme to dominate the political scene in the region and Iraq alike in the future.
Leaving the PUK outside of the federal government and taking away its influence over the presidency would undoubtedly complicate the political scene. The PUK shares power within the KRG, controlling the regions of Sulaimani, Halabja, and Garmian, and it has extensive political influence in Kirkuk. Its fighting forces control the contact lines with the Islamic State (ISIS), from the Iranian border in Diyala to the Hamrin Mountains.
The soft role of America and Iran
Contrary to the usual practice during the government formation process in Iraq, the Iranians and Americans have been absent from the scene, especially compared to the role they both played in the 2018 process. The role of Iran and the United States has become limited to monitoring political developments from a distance without direct intervention.
In the BBC Persian interview, al-Khazali also noted that, “the management of the relevant institutions in Iran in dealing with the Iraqi file has changed greatly after the martyrdom of Haj Qasem Soleimani,” explaining that the Iranians have promised to not interfere. “We do not have a decision, but the decision is what the Iraqis decide,” he recounted.
Commentators argue that Iran has already defined its strategic interests in Iraq and works to achieve these interests with Iraqi political actors without having to choose or favor one party. They follow political developments closely and have follow-ups with the political blocs, and one of their priorities is to unify the Shiite position and prevent its fragmentation.
What is noticeable here is the lack of Iranian mediation between the political blocs and their emphasis that they stand at the same distance from all parties, including the Sadrist Movement. It is worth noting that Quds Force commander Ismail Qaani has been in Baghdad since January 16, and has not yet met with the Sadrist leader. He did not even request to meet him despite his visit to Najaf; evidence that the Iranian side is watching and not directly interfering.
Similarly, the Americans are not on the scene. Unlike what the country has previously witnessed, there have been no high-level delegation visits. The American representation is left to the US ambassador and his diplomatic team, who closely monitor the situation while observing what is happening in the political arena without direct intervention.
The non-interference of the US and Iran does not necessarily mean the granting of their approval for what is happening in the political arena. Still, they are allowing Iraqi political forces to organize their understanding away from their influence, which gives a positive impression to all parties.
Dialogue of understanding – or breaking of will
The political scene has become complicated with the approach of the governing constitutional dates. There are no signs on the horizon to resolve the differences between the political blocs; the road is uneven, and it is tinged with anxiety. Iraqis are living in dire conditions amid a series of crises that continue to threaten the country. The tripartite alliance does not show flexibility by changing its positions, as it still adheres to the approved negotiation strategy, and it has no intention of reaching a consensus with all partners.
In the recent past, initiatives launched by some influential political figures were enough to bring the parties together to compromise on solutions, achieve understanding and consensus, and ultimately defuse crises. This does not seem as likely now. As for trying to satisfy them by sharing the spoils of electoral victory, observers consider the position of the winning forces to be constitutional and reflect the origin and spirit of democracy.
However, they also believe that the reality of Iraq does not tolerate the sudden exclusion of influential political forces. In the end, all parties should make reasonable concessions to ensure overcoming the obstruction of the current situation to meet the country’s needs and guarantee the achievement of common objectives to serve the present and future of Iraq.
Farhad Alaaldin is the chairman of the Iraqi Advisory Council. He was the political adviser to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum, the former chief of staff to the KRG prime minister from 2009 to 2011, and former senior adviser to the KRG prime minister from 2011 to 2012.