A somber 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, marked by hindsight-driven analysis of the past and pessimistic assessments of the future, overshadows the great strides on a razor-thin edge that Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani’s government has made in just over 160 days of its term. Since its term began, Iraq was teetering on the brink as multiple convergent challenges buffeted an overwhelmed republic still unable to find its feet after a chaotic two decades. Difficult questions remain unanswered to date, and comprehensive solutions to Iraq’s most pressing issues are still a long way away.
Yet, Iraq — for all its troubles — retains enormous economic and political potential. Most of it, of course, goes largely unrealized as daunting obstacles, many of them self-inflicted, continue constraining the chances of Baghdad successfully navigating its quagmire. As a result, hurdles from the political to the governmental, to economic and even budgetary issues, combine with the cultural and the religious to technological and environmental — leaving very little room for authorities to address the Iraqi public’s growing list of needs. Meanwhile, the post-pandemic triple threat of high unemployment, unruly inflation, and disruptions to public service delivery has not made things any easier either, and is partly responsible for the collapse of the previous administration.
Fast-forward to October of last year and Al-Sudani’s emergence was hardly surprising in such a chaotic climate, rife with tensions that left an overwhelmed political sphere holding its breath in anticipation and cautious optimism for whatever was next after gross escalations by the Sadrists. To many, Al-Sudani’s relative independence from prevailing parties, blocs and loose coalitions made him the perfect candidate to end the Iraqi political crisis and manage a post-Mustafa Al-Kadhimi “reset” of sorts. Critics, on the other hand, remain unconvinced since his proximity to the Shiite-dominated Coordination Framework gives the impression that Al-Sudani is simply going to be a continuation of an entrenched, 20-year-long status quo.
Fortunately, the then prime ministerial candidate was not keen on repeating the mistakes, committing unforced errors and tripping on the same pitfalls that tanked his predecessors. He quickly set about gaining the trust of not only the Iraqi public but a combative Iraqi parliament as well by presenting a platform that combined immediate demands and hopes of the various forces, movements and blocs in a very divided republic — including the “muqawama” (resistance) and the Sadrist movement. His message was not tinged by boisterous populism, often a last resort for aspiring despots. Instead, he pledged to hold provincial council elections, amending the general election law and declared his intent to hold early parliamentary elections, which was enough to rally a Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish coalition’s support for his bid to head the government.
However, well-timed speeches, political savvy, and promises of much-needed reform are not enough to “heal” Iraq after many years of political stagnation, loss of trust in public institutions, deteriorating economic conditions, intense polarization, porous security, external meddling and the ever-present threat of Daesh’s re-emergence. All these challenges were inherited from previous governments, which now make the task of, for instance, holding early local and parliamentary elections very unlikely. Besides, while the Al-Sudani government has broad support from the Coordination Framework, it lacks a large enough parliamentary majority to push through a new electoral law, let alone a comprehensive reform project covering the executive, legislative and the judiciary. Elsewhere, militia groups have not shied away from their intentions to limit the Al-Sudani government’s latitude and ability to resist their demands or their weighing in on strategic policy deliberations, security decisions, and even appointments to public offices.
It is an unenviable position that the new premier finds himself in, since the bulk of his job would seem to be more about managing chaos than governing in line with the declared intentions and priorities for the state. Nonetheless, Al-Sudani has prevailed despite being hobbled by severely limited political capital as he navigates crises on the domestic front, both politically and economically, while also catering to Iraq’s reintegration into the region. It may be a little early to unequivocally credit Al-Sudani for relative successes in managing the chaos in Iraq but his use of his own personal advantages has been commendable. A few of these include his past experience in government, a frequently highlighted non-involvement in Iraq’s endemic corruption, and balanced speeches that seek full legitimacy and not only from parliament.
Al-Sudani also hails from southern Iraq, granting him a geographic affiliation to the country’s most impoverished region, and granting it some say in the country’s development. Unlike other Iraqi politicians with alleged ties to external actors, Al-Sudani lacks such allegiances and citizenship in another country, which means he is not beholden to any influences, malign or otherwise, actively seeking to influence Iraqi politics or infiltrate its government in the shadow of its intense political malaise. That “distance” from polarizing actors is especially important when aiming for clear, balanced approaches to managing Iraq’s external ties, facilitating its regional reintegration and sustained prosperity. It also affords Al-Sudani the ability to objectively weigh the merits of collaboration and strategic cooperation to better serve Iraqi interests, rather than succumbing to the four-way extraterritorial scramble among the US, Iran and Turkiye.
This seemingly re-emergent Baghdad is currently resisting calls from within the Shiite coalition to divorce Iraq from the US and abruptly end a strategic partnership between the two countries that was outlined within the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, guiding Iraq-US cooperation in the diplomatic, military, security and economic spheres. Al-Sudani has insisted on strengthening and balancing relations with key partners as it will contribute significantly toward combating corruption, diversifying Iraq’s fossil fuel-dependent economy while simultaneously tackling the country’s high rates of poverty, rampant unemployment, as well as worsening food and water insecurity.
Many of Al-Sudani critics, both within and outside Iraq, preface their nay-saying with unrealistic expectations — forgetting rather conveniently: “Rome was not built in a day.” Many of Iraq’s maladies are an accumulation of a 20-year-long governance vacuum in a country torn by competing interests and visions that mostly fell flat — to the frustration of an exasperated public. Throw in Daesh, the pandemic, unstable global energy prices, climate change-induced droughts, the threat of a breakaway Kurdistan and ceaseless political squabbling, to list a few — the end result is a dangerous powder keg that will take a long time to diffuse before Iraq can regain its footing. What is, therefore, more important is ensuring that the right man is in the right place, with the right set of policies that do not make a mockery of Iraq’s woes nor dismiss them — and Mohammed Al-Sudani is that man.