[Published here September 17, 2019]
Baghdad (AFP) – As fissures within a powerful paramilitary force go public for the first time and a revolving door of top politicians consults Tehran, Iraq’s fragile political balance is crumbling, analysts say, with worrying consequences for its premier.
It has been a shaky 11 months for Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s government since it was painstakingly stitched together in the prolonged wake of May 2018 elections.
The administration’s power rests on the curious coupling of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with Fatah, the political arm of the Hashed al-Shaabi armed network.
But a cocktail of new pressure points — from Sadr’s frustration with the Hashed to purported Israeli strikes targeting the force — are fraying this tenuous deal, said Ihsan al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Center for Political Thought.
“The situation is messy. The political parties are repositioning themselves and the major alliances have broken apart,” Shammari told AFP.
He predicted the “tactical partnership” between Sadr and Fatah will collapse amid the cleric’s escalating criticism of the Hashed’s possession of arms and moves to create its own air force.
Sadr even dramatically tweeted last week that Iraq was turning into a “rogue” state.
Days later, he appeared in an unannounced visit to Iran, the influential powerbroker consulted during times of crisis in Iraq’s political scene.
Sadr was likely there to complain about the Hashed or lobby for more support, including having a say in selecting Iraq’s next premier in case the government falls, said Shammari.
Sadr would also probably use the spectre of popular protests to secure his political goals.
“Sadr remains the government’s biggest sponsor, but if it doesn’t make progress, he’ll put the possibility of protests forward -– and we’re starting to see him hint at that,” Shammari said.
In a sign of what may be to come, Iraq’s Sadr-backed health minister Alaa Alwan resigned on Sunday out of frustration with what he said was a corrupt administration.
– ‘Murky, fragile’ –
Since Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime was toppled by the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq’s Shiite parties have revived and thrived.
For years, they were broadly split between those loyal to Iran and its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against those supporting Iraq’s own Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said Renad Mansour, a researcher at the Chatham House think-tank.
“Now, it’s murky and much more fragile. The biggest credit for that goes to the challenge facing the Hashed in becoming a post-Islamic State Iraqi institution,” he said.
The Hashed was established in 2014 from mostly-Shiite armed groups and volunteers to fight IS jihadists, who had swept across a third of Iraq. But that common enemy was defeated in 2017.
“Because the front has dried up, the groups are no longer able to profit and are now competing with each other for profits and political positions,” Mansour said.
And this summer, purported Israeli strikes on Hashed bases exposed another rift, this time between the force’s official leader Faleh Fayyadh and his deputy Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, who is much closer to Iran and is said to hold the real power.
Muhandis was quick to blame Washington and Israel for the strikes, but Fayyadh publicly walked back his statement and said the accusation didn’t reflect the Hashed’s position.
Weeks later, a decree signed by Muhandis appeared to authorise the Hashed to create its own air force, later denied by the force.
It was “the first time” the leaders had publicly clashed like this, said Mansour.
“The divide was not a big deal until Muhandis decided that Fayyadh needed to do a better job in protecting Hashed from these strikes,” he told AFP.
“That’s the most important thing — because if Muhandis determines that the leadership is not protecting him, he’ll make moves to remove them,” he said.
– Pax Persiana? –
To push his government past its first birthday in late October, Abdel Mahdi will grapple with a host of challenges.
Lawmakers are threatening to summon ministers to parliament over a lack of progress in services, job creation and combatting corruption.
The widening fissure between Fayyadh and Muhandis could weaken the premier further, said Mansour.
“The precedent of removing a prime minister would be destabilising, if it comes to that. That’s never happened,” he said.
And more strikes on the Hashed would complicate Baghdad’s efforts to maintain its precarious balance between its two allies Tehran and Washington, said Randa Slim of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Ultimately, Abdel Mahdi may have Iran to thank if he stays in his post, Slim told AFP.
“Iran wants to keep what exists today in Baghdad, and wants to convince Sadr to live with Abdel Mahdi for now,” she said.