Iraq: Political impasse ends with new PM, but Shiite infighting is far from over

In a peaceful session, the members of the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives, appointed Abdul Latif Rashid as the new president, who in turn tapped al-Sudani as prime minister. 

Shi'ite fighters from Saraya al-Salam, who are loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, gather in the holy city of Najaf before heading to the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit (photo credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-MARJANI)
Shi'ite fighters from Saraya al-Salam, who are loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, gather in the holy city of Najaf before heading to the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-MARJANI)

Veteran Iraqi politician Mohammad Shia' al-Sudani has been named as the country’s new prime minister, bringing to a close a year of political paralysis following the October 2021 election and giving an Iranian-backed coalition of Shiite parties a win over its fellow Shiite rivals. 

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In a peaceful session, the members of the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives, appointed Abdul Latif Rashid as the new president, who in turn tapped al-Sudani as prime minister. 

The Coordination Framework

Sudani, who now has a month to form a government, had been nominated by the coalition of Shiite parties known as the Coordination Framework. 

The Iran-backed Framework was formed after the October 2021 elections, making it a powerful rival to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist Movement was unable to form a government despite winning more seats than any other party. 

Muqtada al-Sadr (credit: REUTERS)Muqtada al-Sadr (credit: REUTERS)

The populist Sadr himself retired from politics in July and all 73 of his movement’s MPs resigned en masse, paving the way for the Coordination Framework to take the mantle of largest parliamentary bloc. 

Sudani must now try to heal the breach between the two large Shiite factions, and has pledged to form a government "as quickly as possible." But with one of Sadr’s allies denouncing the appointment to The Media Line as a “coup,” that could prove to be a tough task. 

Shiite cleric Wissam al-Sumairi, who is close to Sadr, told The Media Line: "What happened is a coup against the legitimacy of the leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, and this government will not last long." 

He attributed this to “a secret conspiracy between the various corrupt parties.” 

According to Sumairi, “the people will certainly reject this government, which will only increase Iraq's corruption, killing and sectarianism."

He added: "Corruption began [with] the beginning of the formation of the government. The new prime minister offers candidates privileges that no minister in the world receives, and the corrupt will certainly take these positions."

This opposition to the newly nominated prime minister was echoed by Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi, who is often credited with giving a public voice to Sadr’s opinions. Iraqi wrote in a lengthy Twitter post that the formation of a new government was the action of a “proven militia coalition" and categorically rejected the Sadrists' participation in it. 

“The government does not and will not meet the aspirations of the people," he declared. 

“Categorically, clearly and frankly, the participation of any of our affiliates who are in the previous or current governments, or those outside them, or those who defected from us before or later, whether from inside and outside Iraq, or any of those affiliated with us directly or indirectly in the next government does not represent us at all. Rather, we are acquitted of him until the Day of Judgment, and he is considered expelled immediately from us [the Sadr family].”

Iraq has witnessed major unrest this year, beginning with a weeks-long protest in the summer by Sadr's supporters in front of the Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone. The protesters demanded the dissolution of parliament after Sadr and his party resigned and the rejection of the sectarian quota system for dividing power among ethnic parties. 

Protests outside the court

The protest then relocated outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, a move that was followed by armed confrontations with supporters of the Coordination Framework. The resulting curfew - imposed in an attempt to restore order - led Sadr to announce his departure from politics.

Rashid’s election and Sudani’s appointment on Thursday were swiftly welcomed by Arab and European countries, the US and the United Nations, who all hope for a return to stability in Iraq. 

Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi also congratulated his new Iraqi counterpart, expressing his hope that "the new government of this country will take steps towards the growth and prosperity of Iraq, and further expand relations between Tehran and Baghdad."

But Iraqi writer, political analyst and Sadr critic Zaid al-Issa had a different perspective. "Iraq is getting out of the impasse. Abdul Latif Rashid is an old Iraqi politician, and Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is the first Iraqi prime minister who does not hold any other nationality than Iraqi," he told The Media Line.

"Muqtada al-Sadr does not exist,” Issa added. “I call on the Iraqi prime minister, after forming the government, to bring Sadr to trial. The threat to the security and stability of Iraq must not be ignored. The Iraqi people are optimistic. We went through a very difficult year, and now, thank God, the right man has been chosen."

Iraqi journalist and broadcaster Qusay Shafiq struck a more balanced note, telling The Media Line: "Muqtada al-Sadr stuck to a prime minister who destroyed Iraq, starting with free oil exports to some Arab countries, and they passed a reduction in the Iraqi dinar exchange rate against the dollar. We do not expect much from Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani, and we will not judge him until we see the cabinet line-up."  

Iraqi politician S.A., who preferred to remain anonymous, accused the new prime minister of being a front for predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, who left office in 2014 after eight years in power and who was also seen as close to Iran.  

"Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani is the shadow man for Nouri al-Maliki," he told The Media Line. "Now what happened is Nouri al-Maliki's return to power. Iran has won. Nuri al-Maliki convinced Masoud Barzani, and with Rashid and the Coordination Framework defeated Muqtada al-Sadr, making the Iranian-backed militias powerful."

He added, "Muqtada al-Sadr made a big mistake when he withdrew from the political process, but I am sure that one of his … followers will get a ministry. This quota system we are used to, and the same process has been repeated since 2003. The number of ministries is limited for each party in Iraq, and no one can change the prime minister, so there is no real change."

The Iraqi constitution dictates that the president must be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Sunni Muslim. 

S.A. concluded on a more optimistic note, however, predicting that "there will be no armed confrontations before the budget is presented. The real dispute is over the shares of the budget and influence, and not over the public interest."

As well as the internecine Shiite conflict, the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union, also clashed over who to back for the presidency, adding to the political logjam before finally agreeing on Rashid.