Riding on the nationalist fervor from defeating the Islamic State (IS) and now through armed confrontation to drive back the Kurds, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sought to dispel criticism of being a weak leader and simultaneously put himself in the driving seat ahead of national elections in 2018.
However, with many parties with divergent affiliations and allegiances dotting the political and military landscape, Abadi’s political future is far from certain.
The crucial upcoming elections in Iraq will usher a critical post-IS phase in the country. This phase begs a number of questions.
Will the recent show of force against the Kurds backfire on Baghdad? Have Sunni concerns that spawned IS been truly addressed? Can Iraq undertake the huge rebuilding exercise required? Can Baghdad deliver on its elusive reform package? And, importantly, will the growing power and influence of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) undercut the political scene?
The heavy-handed approach to damage Kurdish statehood aspirations may have spurred Arab nationalism, but the disproportionate measures against the Kurdish people as a whole only masks the enormous challenges and fractures faced in Iraq.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains fixated on returning to the hot seat and has already amassed a string of allies among the pro-Iranian elements of the PMF as well as support from Iran.
Meanwhile, the PMF itself is deeply polarized with groups split broadly between loyalty to Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, or influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Abadi may give the impression that he commands the PMF forces but, in reality, these forces, who wield significant sway, have a great deal of autonomy. Abadi will remain cautious in approaching and appeasing the PMF, especially the pro-Iranian elements such as the Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
These groups can make or break the Prime Minister, and Abadi will have to achieve a delicate balancing act. In recent actions against the Kurds, many sides, not least Iran, would have pressured and greatly influenced Abadi’s decision making.
The likes of Sadr, who has assumed an increasingly anti-Iranian stance and who commands significant influence among the working class, will remain a thorn in the side of the future Prime Minister as well as the Iranian-allied groups.
Sadr’s mass protests in 2016 lead to a great dilemma for Baghdad, and he can easily mobilize such protests again if desired. When Maliki tried to reign in Sadr and his militias in the past, it largely backfired.
Almost all political parties have armed wings that further their own agendas. With such a diverse number of groups and end goals, there is every danger of intra-Shia fighting that will complicate the huge work that Baghdad has in front of it.
With the Kurds dominating the news, the Sunni voice has taken a quieter tone. However, the same sectarian undertones that saw Iraq slip into a vicious cycle of violence long before IS even took power have not been addressed. The Sunni insurgency is far from over, and Baghdad needs to take practical and meaningful measures to appease the long disenfranchised Sunni population.
With Shia militias dominating the security apparatus, the Sunnis remain as wary as ever.
Abadi’s strong reaction against the Kurds was as much for the audience in Baghdad as that in Erbil. However, with a tussle for power and influence among several groups and pressure to appease many state and non-state actors, Abadi’s quest to retain power is far from certain.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq, and current Middle Eastern affairs.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany