On March 1, Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi (MTA) announced that he had failed to form a new government to replace the current caretaker one headed by PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned on Nov. 29, 2019. In his statement, MTA said he had to recuse himself due to pressure from political parties to include their candidates in the new cabinet. According to the Iraqi Constitution,[1] President Barham Salih should take over the premiership for a period of 15 days, during which he should nominate a new candidate to form the next government. However, caretaker PM Abdul-Mahdi introduced a new term to the Iraqi political lexicon when he announced on March 2 that he would act as a “volunteer absentee,” tasking his chief of staff and a few ministers with administrating governmental affairs until a new government is formed. President Salih, in turn, was keen to swiftly meet with key Shi’a power brokers, such as Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Hikma movement; former PM Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law coalition; Hadi al-Amiri head of Fatah list; and former PM Haider al-Abadi, head of the al-Nasr list, to project his continued control of the process. 

After weeks of relative silence, Abu Ali al-Askari, the head of the Iraqi Shi’a paramilitary group Kata’eb Hezbollah’s security unit, put out a tweet in which he threatened to target the political establishment after the head of Iraqi Intelligence, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was floated as a potential replacement.[2] Kata’eb Hezbollah accuses Kadhimi of helping the U.S. to assassinate Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the beginning of the year, and insinuated that the only obstacle to a second mandate for PM Abdul-Mahdi is Iraq’s Shi’a religious establishment, the Marjya.[3] In response, the Iraqi Intelligence apparatus issued a statement adamantly denying the accusation and concurrently launched a raid against the militia, arresting five of its members.[4]

These rapid developments may result in several outcomes, including the de facto continuation of Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet throughout 2020; the emboldening of the current popular demonstrations, further destabilizing the social and political situation; and the continued deterioration of the government’s performance and the state’s ability to provide services. Overall, the current political situation in Iraq has become critical, especially when factoring in Baghdad’s weak sovereignty vis-à-vis key regional developments in Iran, Syria, and Turkey, as well as the outbreak of coronavirus and the recent sharp decline in oil prices, which threatens to further increase the country’s projected 2020 budget deficit.[5]

In the post-Saddam era, government formation in Iraq has always been a complicated process with marathon negotiations among the parties competing for government spoils in a rentier state, but this is the first time since 2003 that a PM designate failed to form a government and withdrew his name. The existence of aggressive political rivalries in a parliamentary system is by no means unique to Iraq, and most developed democracies have adopted a parliamentary or some form of consensual democratic system. In Iraq, however, consensual democracy has been tainted by a profitable political marketization[6] of government institutions that results in systematic and structural corruption — a malady that Iraqi political practices post-2003 have proven unable to address. 

Laying bare the flaws

The failure of PM designate MTA to form a government has revealed fundamental deficiencies in the Iraqi political process. In turn, this has translated into flawed governance and flawed institutions, and further distorted and skewed interpretations of the constitution, weakening the legitimacy of the legal framework governing Iraqi politics. It has also made clear critical changes in the public’s role and input into political decision-making and showcased the depth of the intra-Shi’a political rivalry. While the Kurds and Sunnis opposed any effort to reduce their status and role in the government formation process, they could not have broken the parliamentary session quorum without the support and boycotting of certain Shi’a parties, such as State of Law and Shi’a elements within the al-Bina’a and Islah parliamentary blocs.[7] Major Shi’a parties were concerned that firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr might dominate the new government and further consolidate his power among the Shi’a constituencies. Al-Sadr took drastic measures to support MTA, attempting to end the demonstrations and silence any rejection of the PM designate’s candidacy, and these quickly devolved into violent clashes with the demonstrators. Despite this, however, it was al-Sadr’s interview on al-Sharqiya TV on Feb. 22 that alarmed the Shi’a parties, along with the Kurds and Sunnis, as he threatened to undermine the entire political establishment. As a result, key Shi’a players decided not to stand by the candidacy of MTA, leaving him unable to form a new government. 


 Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi arrives at the parliament headquarters ahead of a special session for a confidence vote on the new cabinet members. Photo: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/dpa (Photo by Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi arrives at Parliament ahead of a special session for a confidence vote on the new cabinet on March 1, 2020. (Photo by Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images)


The prospects for Iranian intervention

Contrary to what most political analysts believe, MTA’s failure does not necessarily reflect weakened Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Given its mounting challenges at home, especially in the post-Soleimani era, the Iranian regime has refrained from investing heavily or putting much time and energy into deciding Iraq’s next PM. Instead, Tehran has focused on keeping anti-Iranian office-seekers far from the premiership without intervening in the minutiae of the political process; bridging the differences among the Shi’a parties to maintain the Shi’a front; and mitigating the Shi’a political fragmentation. For example, Iran sent Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of its Supreme National Security Council, to Iraq on March 7. In addition to the Shi’a parties and leaders, he met with the head of Iraqi Intelligence, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, one of the main candidates for the PM position, who is known for not being a staunch supporter of Iran. 

Given the rise in popular anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq and the death of Soleimani, Iran has had to move from policies that boldly project power to a more restrained posture. Therefore, the meeting with al-Kadhimi should be seen as part of Tehran’s efforts to advance some damage control measures, in the event that the current intense political dynamics yield a PM like al-Kadhimi, whose candidacy Soleimani adamantly refused just a few months ago. At the end of the visit, Shamkhani was able to convince the Shi’a parties not of a particular candidate but of an approach that would include the two staunch rivals al-Maliki and al-Sadr, as well as the rest of the main Shi’a political parties.[8] This led to the creation of a seven-member committee representing the major Shi’a parties to nominate a Shi’a candidate for PM. Unlike MTA, the candidate will represent a Shi’a consensus and the collective decision of all the Shi’a parties. In turn, this is meant to support the new PM and cabinet, ensuring the government has a strong parliamentary bloc that will facilitate voting. 

Iran’s focus on mitigating Shi’a fragmentation and willingness to meet with a potential PM candidate who is moderate and to some extent even anti-Iranian represents an important change for Tehran. By 2020, Iran had succeeded in infiltrating major Iraqi government branches and institutions, grooming financial, political, judicial, and military/militias proxies. As a result control of the PM or specific ministries is less important in many ways than having a broader cohort of pro-Iranian bureaucrats able to infiltrate the Iraqi governance, security, banking, and legal systems in support of Tehran’s interests. The weakness of the central government has been confirmed by recent events, including attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations of activists. In these cases, PM Abdul-Mahdi’s authority and ability to protect the protestors or stop attacks against them has been limited and the further one gets from his office, the less weight his orders carry. Thus, while Iran prefers a pro-Iranian candidate in the PM position, it can live with a neutral or even an anti-Iranian one at this stage, given its deep infiltration of the Iraqi government, the country’s weak sovereignty, and its politicians’ feeble legitimacy. 

The way forward

Given the multiple complex elements at play in Iraq’s current political dynamics — including its weak sovereignty, feeble legitimacy, systemic corruption, and impotent political establishment, against a backdrop of burgeoning public mobilization, pressure from the Marjiya for early elections, and growing Iranian infiltration of the state — the political establishment in Baghdad will likely push to maintain the status quo by leaving Abdul-Mahdi’s caretaker government in power, at least for now. Keeping the current caretaker government in place would also be ideal for Iran, given its own major domestic political and economic challenges and the pressure imposed by American sanctions. 

However, over the past week, Iraq’s political situation has developed into a more complicated stalemate. While there is a constitutional deadline of March 15 to choose a new PM designate, the Iraqi political process is notorious for last-minute changes, fluctuating legal interpretations, and the breaking of constitutionally-mandated timelines. Just days ahead of the constitutional deadline, the political process seems to be stuck at an impasse. First, the Shi’a political leaders, especially al-Sadr and Amiri, are concerned that replacing PM Abdul-Mahdi might provide the Dawa party, whether Abadi’s al-Nasr or Maliki’s State of Law, an opportunity to regain the office of PM. Second, and concurrent with that, the public pressure, supported by the Marjiya, to replace the current cabinet and hold early elections is mounting. The demonstrators in al-Tahrir Square announced on March 9 that they will not reject any new candidate, aside from Abdul-Mahdi, and they will give the new PM designate a clear timeframe — eight Fridays[9] — to fulfill a series of specific tasks, including: a) announcing the date of early elections; b) bringing those who committed violence against the protestors to account; and c) promising to stop the systematic targeting of activists. 

For its part, Iraq’s Shi’a political establishment cannot risk holding early elections now, especially after its crackdown against popular demonstrations resulted in the deaths of more than 700 young people, severe injuries to thousands more, and numerous kidnappings. The events of the last few months have debilitated several leading Shi’a political and religious figures, particularly Muqtada al-Sadr, who called on his supporters to attack protestors after initially backing the movement. Furthermore, PM Abdul-Mahdi has come to represent a comfortable choice for the Sunnis and Kurds as well. During the government formation negotiations with MTA, the Sunnis recognized the possibility that the Shi’a political parties might try to exploit the crisis to further curtail their role and status within Iraqi political and governance structures. The Kurds also share this fear, and their leadership is less concerned with occupying the position of minister of finance or any other cabinet post than with preserving the semi-autonomy of the Kurdistan region under the Iraqi federal state. After all, former PM Maliki cut the region’s budget in February 2014 while one of the most powerful Kurdish politicians, Hoshyar Zibari, was heading the Ministry of Finance. 

Iraq is likely to remain challenged throughout much of 2020 by a crisis pitting a flagging political establishment against a nascent popular movement. At the same time, the country’s sovereignty and the legitimacy of the government will continue to be weakened. Over the next few years, Iraq’s traditional leadership will likely go into “survival mode,” guarding the status quo or making ineffective, incremental changes until the popular protest movement develops more mature leadership and political conduct. Once that happens, the changes will no longer be gradual, but swift and radical.  


Shahla Al-Kli is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and an expert in international development and political economy. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.

Photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images



[1] Article 81 of the Iraqi Constitution. 

[3] Marjya is the Shi’a jurisprudence and represents the Shi’a religious authority. There are two main Marjyas for Shi’as in the world. The Iraqi Shi’a Marjya is represented by Najaf’s seminary, commonly termed al-hawza al-‘ilmiyya — “the enclosure of learning” in Arabic. Several senior grand ayatollahs constitute the Hawza, and Ali al-Sistani is the grand ayatollah who heads the seminary and present the Marjya’s religious instructions and positions about political and governance issues. The Iraqi Marjya is the biggest and has followers across the world. The second Shi’a Marjya is Qom, in Iran, with followers mainly from India, Lebanon, and Pakistan. The Iraqi Shi’a Marjya differs from the Iranian one in that it does not approve a political role for religious leaders, while the Iranian Marjya adopted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Wilayat-Faqih (the “Rule of Jurisprudence” in Arabic). https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/00263200701568220?needAccess=true

[5] Currently, the deficit in the 2020 Iraqi national budget is projected at about 51 trillion Iraqi dinars — equivalent to $40 billion. 

[6] Marketization guides the politics and governance of the Iraqi political process and government. In the lexicon of Iraqi politics, Iraqis have coined the word muhassasa, which translates to “government apportionment” in Arabic. This refers to dominant parties use of GOI payrolls to reward political loyalty with public sector employment, government contracts to enrich allied businessmen, and personal theft from ministerial budgets. The result has been a state payroll which swelled from 850,000 to 1.2 million employees in 2003 to a peak of 3 million in 2015.

[7] There are two major parliamentary blocs in the new Council of Representatives, neither of which was able to create the largest parliamentary bloc. Both blocs share decision-making responsibilities for the government formation, cabinet confirmation, and other significant decisions by the new government headed by PM Abdul-Mahdi. These two parliamentary blocs are Sadr’s Islah (“reform” in Arabic) and Amiri’s Bina’a (”reconstruction” in Arabic). The former consists of Sadr’s Sairoon and Hakim’s Hikma lists, Sunnis who represent Ayad Alawi’s faction of the Wataniya list, al-Nujaifi’s wing of the al-Qarar al-Iraqi list, and the Turkoman Front. The Bina’a bloc is made up of Amiri’s PMF/Hashed Fatah and Maliki’s State of Law lists; Sunnis who represent the National Axis, led by Khamis al-Khanjar; and the pro-PMF/Hashed Christian Babylon list, led by Ryan Keldani.

[8] The Shi’a political establishment announced on March 10 the formation of a committee that consists of seven members representing al-Sadr’s Sairoon list, Maliki’s State of Law list, al-Hakim’s Hikma movement, Abadi’s Nasr list, Amiri’s Fatah list, Falih al-Fyaad’s Attaa list, and Fadhila party. The committee will lead the effort to nominate a candidate for the PM. 

[9] Eight Fridays is an Iraqi tribal tradition in which the tribes give a deadline of eight Fridays to fulfill agreements or pay compensation. 

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