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The Lebanonisation of Iraq

22 October, 2019

Nova Daban – Research Assistant

Iraq’s parliamentary elections in 2018 brought significant change to the political structure of the country. Following the results, where no majority was attained to form a government, cross-sectarian parliamentary groupings mimicking those in Lebanon began to emerge. The Reform (Islah) and Construction (Bina) blocs were formed, with the former critical of Iran’s interference in the country and wanting a ‘civil system’, whereas the latter is supported by the Islamic Republic. This arrangement parrots the system in Lebanon, where multi-party and cross-sectarian parliamentary groupings emerged after 2005; the March 14 alliance which is critical of Iran and Syria’s interference in the country, and the March 8 alliance which is backed by Iran and Syria. Although moving away from sectarian politics and moving towards a more policy-based system may seem like a positive thing for Iraq from a distance, the two blocs represent a foreign policy struggle that acts like a fissure for the country, as it has done for Lebanon.

Sectarianism had plagued Iraq during the Premiership of Nouri al-Maliki, allowing radical terrorist organisations such as ISIS to take advantage of the country’s fragile situation and take over one third of the country. However, following the recapture of the last of ISIS’s territory in Iraq, the political positions of influential Shia figures began to change. Shia Cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who was previously the leader of the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), decided to create his own National Wisdom Movement. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Marching Towards Reform sought to focus on national reconciliation and promotion of a civil system. Haider al-Abadi, the then Prime Minister and member of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party, also decided to form his own Victory Alliance parliamentary bloc, causing a divide in the party between him and former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. These three blocs, alongside the Sunni-dominated National Coalition of the secular Ayad Allawi and the more Sunni-centrist Decision Alliance of Osama al-Nujaifi, formed the core elements of the wider Reform Bloc in Iraq’s Parliament.

The Construction Bloc, on the other hand, consisted mainly of the Conquest (Fatah) Alliance of Hadial-Ameri, who were effectively the political wing of Iran-backed Shia militias, the State of Law Coalition of Nouri al-Maliki and the Sunni National Axis Alliance of Khamis al-Khanjar. Kurdish political parties largely abstained from the two new blocs in Iraq with the exception of the anti-establishment New Generation Movement of Shaswar Abdulwahid, which joined the Reform Bloc. This, however, did not stop the main Kurdish parties from swaying towards these blocs, with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) closer to the Construction Bloc and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), formerly led by the deceased Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, closer to the Reform Bloc. The KDP’s stance itself was quite interesting considering their persistent criticisms of Nouri al-Maliki and Shia militias, but following the United States failure to support the Kurdish independence aspirations after the referendum, they had aligned more towards them.

An example of the schisms between the two main Kurdish parties arose over Iraq’s ceremonial Presidency, a position reserved for a Kurd under Iraq’s confessional system and traditionally held by the PUK. After failing to agree on a joint candidate, the KDP had put forward Dr.Fuad Hussein, who had served as the Kurdistan Region Presidency’s Chief-of-Staff, as their candidate with the Construction Bloc’s backing, making an agreement with the Conquest Alliance and the State of Law Coalition. PUK, on the other hand, had put forward Dr. Barham Salih, a former Prime Minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, with the Reform Bloc’s backing. Despite the agreements made, Construction Bloc MPs independently also mainly sided with Dr. Barham Salih, confirming him as President in a parliamentary vote and failing to take the same stance as their leaders. This backing resulted from Dr. Salih being a more established politician both in the Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region, and a desire to punish Masoud Barzani for initiating Kurdistan’s Independence Referendum that Baghdad collectively and vigorously opposed. Notwithstanding, given the fact that Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Ameri were happy to back a KDP candidate despite the end result, this had shown that Kurdish parties were also swaying towards separate blocs. Another interesting part of this event was that the PUK was seen as the party that would accommodate Iranian geopolitical interests more than the KDP due to the huge border shared between the Kurdistan Region and Iran – a frontier that mainly fell under PUK’s zone of influence.

With neither bloc able to attain a majority to form a government, the two most influential figures of both the Reform and Construction Blocs, Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Ameri, agreed to form a national unity government that also consisted of technocrats, led by Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an independent. This unique situation placed Iraq’s executive branch at the mercy of the legislative, putting the Prime Minister into a weak position. Late July saw a Prime Minister’s decree demanding the unification of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) into the Iraqi Army Despite the decree, the chances of this happening now appear to be minimal following explosions at the PMU weapon bases in August, which were blamed on the United States and Israel by the Deputy Chairman, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Following this event, the PMU announced their intentions to create an air force for self-defence purposes, defying the Prime Minister and further strengthening the hand of the Hadi al-Ameri’s Conquest Alliance from the Construction Bloc. These events put Abdul-Mahdi in a huge predicament as he attempts to form a balancing act between the United States and Iran, something that the parliamentary blocs will only further complicate. To make matters more interesting, very recently after two months, the Prime Minister has also now claimed Israel was responsible for the attack on the PMU bases. Moreover, with Iraq recently plunged into further crisis due to protests focusing on a system change, unemployment and Iranian interference in the country, the government is under more pressure. It has been reported that over a hundred protestors and demonstrators have been killed by state security forces and Iran-linked militias that do not take orders from the Prime Minister, further weakening the institutions of the state.

The increasing Lebanonisation of Iraq risks the continued weakening of state institutions, with the PMU’s role in Iraq also beginning to mimic Hezbollah’s in Lebanon, with militia groups being given a free pass to work outside of the Defence Ministry and furthering Iranian geopolitical ambitions. Despite ethno-sectarian differences and a confessional system still being present in Iraq, there appears to be a trend of increasingly foreign policy-based fissures in the country– something which is only likely to further complicate the Iraq’s future.

Image: Iraqi Army and Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces of Iraq) (Source: Ahmad Shamloo Fard/Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0)

About Nova Daban

Nova Daban will soon complete his MA in Global Diplomacy: Middle East and North Africa from SOAS, University of London and has an undergraduate degree in Politics and International Relations. He previously worked in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and has interned at Quilliam International, where he has contributed to the online journal. Nova’s research interests include the Middle East as a whole, with special focus on Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the greater Kurdistan region. He also has a focus on Islamism and religious radicalisation (namely in Britain and the Middle East), British current affairs, culture war, identity politics, conflict resolution, extremism and international security.