ISW Tracking of Iraq’s 2016 Political Crisis

Updated on August 25: Iraq faces a major political crisis that threatens to collapse the current government and exacerbate political unrest. Political stability in Iraq is critical to the ability of the U.S. to continue anti-ISIS operations, not only to defeat ISIS but also to prevent its reconstitution. This page provides a comprehensive collection of ISW reporting and analysis of this political crisis, which ISW has covered since it began. As the crisis continues, ISW’s analysis and reporting will continue. This page will be updated accordingly with the most recent posts appearing at the top.

This reporting has been led by ISW's Iraq Analyst Patrick Martin with the constant and never-ending help of Emily Anagnostos, Rachel Bessette, Hannah Werman, and Tori Keller, along with Caitlin Forrest, Counter-terrorism Research Assistant.  The ISW Counterterrorism Team, lead by Harleen Gambhir with invaluable support from Claire Coyne, was responsible for the comprehensive timeline below.
Note: ISW has tracked Iraq’s building political crisis since early February, following political reforms proposed by Prime Minister Abadi and the challenges to them.  The Council of Representatives (CoR) has also faced challenges from an increasingly fractious set of parties some of which have attempted to break off from the CoR and form a “rump” Parliament that later morphed into a new opposition bloc, the Reform Front, composed of members from various parties.  As with all political maneuvering, ISW has relied on media reporting as well as our own assessment of likely political coordination, cooperation, and alignment among and between individuals and parties.  We are currently re-examining our methodology in light of recent maneuvers and statements leading up to the CoR Ramadan break and will update our CoR graphic when that analysis is completed.

Iraq's Parliament Ousts the Defense Minister (August 25)

Defense Minister ObeidiIraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his entire cabinet are at risk of a no-confidence vote following Parliament’s ouster of Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi.

Excerpts below.  Read the full analysis here.

The Situation

The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) voted to withdraw confidence in Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25.

  • The Reform Front, an opposition party in the CoR driven by Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has spearheaded the process to oust Obeidi.

The vote was rendered by a simple majority, while the Constitution stipulates that dismissing a minister requires a vote of absolute majority.

  • The CoR announced that Obeidi was dismissed; 142 CoR members voted against him, 102 voted in support, and the rest of the 263 attending CoR members abstained.

Context and Implications

Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the allied Reform Front exploited internal rivalries within the Sunni political bloc to oust Obeidi. The Sunni bloc remains vulnerable to further fracture.

  • The Sunni political bloc, Etihad, is not unified. Obeidi’s party, Mutahidun, is a rival to the Iraqi Islamic party, to which Speaker Salim al-Juburi belongs. Etihad has remained a fixture in the CoR out of necessity to counter Shi’a political dominance, but the parties are not cohesive.

 The successor Defense Minister could be a worse partner to the U.S. and anti—ISIS Coalition in Iraq.

  • Etihad will likely insist that the Defense Ministry remain a Sunni position. However, the intra-Sunni fighting will inhibit any consensus on a replacement candidate. Therefore, should a Sunni candidate become Defense Minister, he will be weaker than his predecessor because he will lack full political backing from the Sunni parties.

All ministerial positions – including the Prime Minister – are at risk if only a simple majority is required for no confidence, should the judiciary uphold this reading of the constitution.

  • The precedence of dismissing a minister with only a simple majority puts all weak ministers and allies of PM Abadi at risk.

Moving Forward

Iraq currently has no Minister of Defense or Minister of Interior.

  • The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are split between the Ministries of Defense and Interior. The ISF currently has neither minister on the eve of the Mosul operation.

The U.S. campaign to defeat ISIS by recapturing Mosul is in jeopardy.

  • U.S. coordination will continue through the Joint Operations Command (JOC).  However, Obeidi’s removal will likely diminish the U.S.’s ability to effectively coordinate with the ISF on the eve of strategic anti-ISIS operations in Mosul.

 Iraq Situation Report: June 21- 28, 2016

By Patrick Martin and the ISW Iraq Team

CoRKey Takeaway: The Iraqi Federal Court ruled that two key sessions of the Council of Representatives (CoR) in April, one held by legitimate CoR and the other held rebelling members of a rump parliament, were illegal. The ruling stated that the April 14 rump CoR session, when rebelling CoR members illegally voted to remove CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi from his position, was invalid as it did not meet quorum. The Federal Court also ruled that the April 26 regular CoR session that voted in the new technocratic ministers was invalid due to unconstitutional procedure of the session. The former decision deals a blow to the Reform Front – the incarnation of the rebelling CoR members and the rump parliament – as one of its primary objectives has been to remove Speaker Juburi from oce and replace him with a member of the Reform Front. Some of their members stated that the group would return to the CoR and attempt to vote out Speaker Juburi once more. The Reform Front’s return could help the CoR make quorum and recommence legislative work, but political stability is far from likely. The second decision to nullify the April 26 session undermines PM Abadi’s credibility by highlighting his inability to carry out even a compromise cabinet reform, let alone a preferred full reshue. The CoR is slated to reconvene in early July. Even if it reaches quorum, the perpetually-stalled reform agenda, calls by Muqtada al-Sadr and other rebrand CoR members for resignations of senior government members, and a fracturing Kurdistan Alliance all but ensure a delay on progress for important legislation. Continued disruptive behavior and obstructionism will likely continue within the CoR, and further momentum could build for a no-condence vote in PM Abadi in the wake of Federal Court’s decision. Read the full analysis here

Iraqi Parliament Update: Quorum Reached as Reform Front Fractures, Kurds Lose Leverage (June 7)
By Emily Anagnostos

CoRKey Takeaway: The Council of Representatives (CoR) successfully reached quorum and convened two sessions on May 29 and May 31. The CoR struggled to reach this threshold since members formed a rump CoR on April 12. Despite the limited success of May 29 and 31, the CoR has not returned to its pre-April 12 state and many political blocs remain withdrawn. The CoR will not likely soon resolve fundamental issues in the political process needed to pass legislation required to acquire the critical International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan or address security breaches in Baghdad, which will likely require a reorganization of security forces in the capital. The sessions also exposed underlying fractures in the Reform Front between hardliners and compromisers, which will weaken the opposition bloc in the CoR and lead to the reintegration of some members to their original parties. The Reform Front is also in danger of losing its tenuous legitimacy and leverage as a nascent political party if the Federal Court strikes down the constitutionality of the rump CoR, the Reform Front’s predecessor. The CoR has already demonstrated that it can and will leave the Reform Front behind to continue to function. Additionally, Kurdish parties have lost their leverage over Baghdad as some Kurdish members ended their boycott without any promise of requested financial assistance. The failure to secure these funds has underscored the limit to Kurdish parties’ power in the Iraqi Government when operating outside the umbrella of the Kurdistan Alliance. Read the full analysis here.

Iraq  Awaits Court Ruling on Legitimacy of Parliamentary Actions (May 24)
By Emily Anagnostos

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s Federal Court will issue an important ruling on May 25 that could have a major impact on the political crisis.  The issues at stake are the legitimacy of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s ministerial appointments and the speakership of the Council of Representatives.  Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a driver of the political party that has raised the legal challenges. Iraq has been experiencing a political crisis since April 12, and protesters have stormed the Green Zone twice since April 30. They were followers of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been trying to channel a populist protest movement that has been underway since August.  One main issue at stake is the composition of the Cabinet. Sadr and Prime Minister Abadi are not close allies, but they both have sought to replace political party elites with technocratic ministers. Their chief opponent has been Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister and a rival of both. The appointment of ministers requires approval of Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives (CoR). The body had fractured on April 12, when a group of members staged an overnight sit-in against Prime Minister Abadi’s slate and the conduct of the Council of Representatives under Speaker Salim al-Juburi.  The group consisted of parliamentarians from many political parties and ultimately claimed a false quorum and enacted legislation. This rump parliament lasted for two weeks, but then disbanded. Some of its members formed a political bloc, called the Reform Front, and launched a legal case to try to preserve some of their rump parliamentary decisions and block some of the ministerial changes underway. The Reform Front is struggling for legitimacy as a legal entity and political power. The crux of the bloc’s legitimacy and its future in the political process has been relegated to the Federal Court to decide. The Federal Court, under longtime Maliki-ally Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud, announced it will hold the first session on May 25 regarding the legitimacy of the legislation passed by the rump CoR on April 14 and the ministerial changes enacted by Prime Minister Abadi on April 26. The Federal Court’s ruling could change the composition and leadership of the Council of Representatives and influence the momentum of Abadi’s reforms. Read teh full analysis here.

Kurdish Objectives in Iraq's Political Crisis (May 21)
by: Emily Anagnostos with Patrick Martin

CoR May 19Key Takeaway:
Iraqi politics are deadlocked. Several political parties and blocs boycotted the Council of Representatives (CoR) following the Sadrist protesters’ first breach of the Green Zone on April 30. The Kurdish Alliance, a bloc that consisted of nearly one-fifth of the CoR, withdrew on May 5. The bloc has now split, and two of its component political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, formally reunited on May 14 to create a new bloc.  The PUK and Gorran were incentivized by the urgent need for financial assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and likely by Iranian urging. A loan from the IMF in which Baghdad and the KRG will have a share proved decisive in incentivizing their cohesion. The PUK-Gorran Alliance will therefore likely strengthen ties between Baghdad and Arbil. Their rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), retains ambitions of regional independence and a stranglehold on political power in the KRG. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will either have to reintegrate or seek new political partners. The PUK and Gorran will likely eventually return to the CoR. Although they are still negotiating with the KDP, Kurdish parties are unlikely to return the CoR as one entity, ending what had been a significant, cohesive bloc. The new political alliance will nevertheless shift the power dynamics of both Baghdad and Arbil. Read the full text here.

Updated! Political Blocs and Parties in Iraq's Council of Representatives (May 9)
By Emily Anagnostos with Patrick Martin

CoR Political BlocsMay 9 Update: Multiple political parties announced that they would boycott any upcoming session of the Council of Representatives (CoR). The Sunni Etihad bloc announced on May 9 that it would not attend any parliamentary session until those responsible for the April 30 protests were held accountable. In addition, a member of the Reform Front, the opposition bloc formed by rump CoR members, also reaffirmed that it would not attend any CoR session as long as Salim al-Juburi remained CoR Speaker. A member from the Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq, within the State of Law Alliance (SLA), revealed his participation in the Reform Front, further reducing the size of the SLA in the CoR. This graphic is updated from its May 6 version to reflect these additional boycotting parties and the new Reform Front member.

Speaker Juburi had set May 10 as the next CoR session when it last adjourned on April 30.  Currently, there are at least 209 members boycotting the session, making it impossible for the CoR to meet the 165 member requirement to reach quorum. The certainty of failure to convene likely encouraged Juburi to instead call for only CoR committees to meet on May 10, as opposed to a full CoR session. A date for a full CoR session has yet to be determined, which Juburi attributed to ongoing repairs to the parliamentary building. Several political figures and parties have called for a quick resumption of CoR sessions. However, political parties have each issued conditions for their return to Baghdad, making a continued political stalemate likely to drag on.

Political Blocs and Parties in Iraq's Council of Representatives (May 6)
By Emily Anagnostos with Patrick Martin

COR blocsExcerpt:  Iraq’s “rump” Council of Representatives (CoR) formed on April 14, 2016 when some members of Parliament staged a sit in after months of stalled reforms. The rump CoR, at its zenith, was supported by multiple prominent political parties, including the Sadrist al-Ahrar Bloc and the Badr Organization. These parties largely walked out of the rump CoR by April 20. The rump CoR could not reach a quorum as a result and failed to gain recognition as a legal entity.  Most of its members have refocused their efforts on forming  a new opposition bloc, the “Reform Front,” first reported on April 27. The Reform Front claims to have at least 98 members, consisting of 42 pro-Maliki Dawa Party members, all of the members from Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya Bloc, and an unverifiable number of members who defected from their parties. If the claim is accurate, then the Reform Front will become the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives (CoR), surpassing the State of Law Alliance which stands to lose substantial numbers to the Front.  Read the full analysis here.

This graphic is an approximate depiction of the current state of the Council of Representatives. It shows the number and party affiliation of CoR members who have boycotted future parliamentary sessions. It also shows the number and party affiliation of CoR members whom ISW assesses may be part of the Reform Front based on the Reform Front's unconfirmed claim that it is at least 98-members strong. The graphic demonstrates the tumultuous current state of the CoR and the difficulty for a session to achieve quorum. 

Sadr Attempts a de facto Coup in Iraq (May 1)
By Patrick Martin, Emily Anagnostos, and Rachel Bessette

Green Zone RiotKey Takeaway: Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr is attempting to launch a de-facto coup against Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The Sadrist Trend’s protests in the Green Zone constitute an attempt to seize control of the government process and limit the ability of the government to physically access the Green Zone. Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr have stormed the Green Zone and the parliament building and they are refusing to leave. Some members are setting up tents, indicating that Sadrists will attempt a sit-in in the Green Zone itself. The Sadrists have not mobilized formal military forces. They have, however, prevented Iraqi leaders from accessing government buildings and forced members of the Council of Representatives (CoR) to leave the Green Zone, attacking several of them as they left. Sadrist demonstrators in the predominantly Shi’a southern provinces have also stormed offices of the rival Dawa Party, to which PM Abadi and former PM Nouri al-Maliki belong. There is potential for intra-Shi’a violence; security forces and Iranian proxy militias, rivals to the Sadrist Trend, deployed to Baghdad’s southern belts to secure the area during the commemoration of the death of the Imam al-Kadhim, a major Shi’a holiday. Meanwhile, security forces could clash with demonstrators or attempt to forcibly evict them from public spaces. This could also lead to further instability, while the possibility of an attempted ISIS attack against either pilgrims or demonstrators remains high. Read the full report here.

Warning:  Sadrists Storm Green Zone (April 30)
By Patrick Martin

Sadrists in CoRKey takeaway: Iraq’s political crisis has intensified. Hundreds of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone on April 30 and entered the Council of Representatives (CoR) building. Sadr and Sadrist Trend leaders have urged for a peaceful demonstration but have not ordered the demonstrators to leave the area, indicating that the Green Zone may see an extended sit-in. Violence is a possibility as the security forces attempt to secure Baghdad, particularly as they are already stretched thin protecting thousands of Shi’a pilgrims descending on Kadhimiyah neighborhood for the commemoration of the death of the Imam al-Kadhim, a major Shi’a holiday. ISIS will likely attempt to take advantage of the security breach by launching spectacular attacks against demonstrators and pilgrims. There is a potential threat to U.S. bases and infrastructure, though Sadr has ordered his followers not to approach any embassies. Iraq’s government is now at its most unstable, as the CoR is physically inaccessible to many members of government amid reports that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi were evacuated from the Green Zone. Read the full analysis here.

 Iraq Situation Report: April 12-25, 2016
By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraq SITREP: April 12-25, 2016The U.S. announced additional “accelerants” in the fight against ISIS, reporting on April 18 that it would deploy 217 additional train-and-advise personnel to embed at the brigade and battalion levels with attack helicopters and an additional High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The limited increase in U.S. military support came in conjunction with an increased number of high-level U.S. military and diplomatic visits between April 8 and April 21 with Iraqi officials during its major political crisis. The Council of Representatives (CoR) split into two parallel parliaments on April 12 over a disagreement regarding Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle. Rebelling CoR members in the illegal rump parliament have attempted to oust CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi as well as PM Abadi and President Fuad Masoum in a series of illegal CoR sessions over the past two weeks, unsuccessfully courting the Shi’a religious authorities to back them in effectively collapsing the government. However, the illegitimate parliament, which at its height reached around 150 CoR members, has suffered from defections, notably from members of the Sadrist Trend, and the rebelling CoR members have failed to reach quorum of 165 CoR members. The larger legitimate CoR, which will attempt to meet on April 26 without the members of the rump parliament, will struggle to accomplish much beyond renewing confidence in Speaker Juburi. The CoR remains divided on numerous political issues, including the cabinet reshuffle that sparked the crisis in the first place.  Read the full Situation Report here.

Iraq's Political Crisis Can Constrain the U.S. Campaign Against ISIS (April 18)
By Patrick Martin

Sadr Demonstrations

Iraq faces a constitutional crisis that is likely to protract should its rump, parallel parliament continue to challenge the authority of the official Council of Representatives (CoR). Iraq will likely face several overlapping scenarios, including efforts to dissolve the government and mass street demonstrations, in the near future that could dramatically undermine its stability and pose a threat to the U.S. campaign against ISIS. In the most dangerous scenario, the Iraqi government could collapse and set off a chain of events that leads to the selection of a pro-Iranian Prime Minister. This course of action would undermine the progress of the anti-ISIS campaign, as Iran’s strategic interest remains expelling U.S. forces from the country. Meanwhile, the instability resulting from the political crisis could lead ISIS to expand its capabilities in Iraq and launch a wave of attacks aimed at further destabilizing the country. The U.S. must take steps to mitigate the possibility of the dissolution of a government amenable to U.S. influence and the eruption of political instability that would facilitate ISIS’s expansion. The U.S. should make a concerted effort to apply diplomatic pressure to Iraq’s political blocs in order to facilitate the return to a more stable political environment under PM Abadi’s leadership. Read the full analysis here.

Iraq's Political Crisis: An Interactive Timeline (April 15)
By Harleen Gambhir and Claire Coyne

Iraqi Political Crisis Timeline

ISW's timeline presents the major meetings and events leading to Iraq's current political crisis.  Spanning 7 weeks, this timeline details nearly 70 individual meetings related to the political crisis precipitated by Prime Minister Abadi’s announcement of an impending Cabinet shuffle. The meetings demonstrate the level of negotiations between international and regional actors and Iraq’s major political blocs to find a solution to Iraq’s ongoing political crisis.

Power-Plays in Iraq's Political Crisis:" Constitutional Provisions (April 15)
By Emily Anagnostos and Patrick Martin

Constitutional Provisions

Iraq's political crisis is cresting to a point where the collapse of the government is a distinct possibility. Iraq's political blocs have begun to split, with some members calling for the dissolution of the government and others insistent on replacing the cabinet as part of a protracted cabinet reshuffle process initiated on February 9. Major reforms in the government must be done in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution, which lays out how and by whom certain actions may be taken with regard to dismissing the Prime Minister, various Cabinet ministers, the Council of Representatives (CoR), etc.  This week, Iraqi Parliamentarians use the justification of a non-existent “quorum” – a majority of the CoR – to convene an illegal session, dismiss the Speaker of the CoR, and elect a new Speaker.  All this was done under the alleged mantle of Constitutional legitimacy.

This document examines and excerpts the relevant sections of the Iraqi Constitution related to the powers to dismiss and/or dissolve the various bodies and positions in the Iraqi government.  This information is not intended to be a predictor of what will come nor a guide for action, but rather an information source so that when claims are made about the legality and Constitutionality of certain actions by any actor, you will be able to judge those statements for yourself. See the full document here.

Iraqi Government Collapse Likely as Rump Parliament Calls for Resignations (April 15)
By Patrick Martin with Emily Anagnostos, Rachel Bessette, and Hannah Werman

Iraqi Cabinet Reshuffle 2016

Iraq Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi faces new calls for his resignation as a rump parliament of roughly 131 members, falsely claiming a quorum, has begun to ouster its sitting leaders. The rump Council of Representatives (CoR) barricaded itself in the Parliament building after an overnight sit in on April 13 to 14. The parliamentary remnant illegally convened a session, voted amongst itself to dismiss CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi, and elected a new provisional speaker. Party discipline and cohesion is devolving, though the Kurdistan Alliance, ISCI, and Badr Organization – each of which has received benefits in the evolving cabinet reshuffle – appear to have retained control of their members. Senior political leaders are meeting. Longtime allies Ammar al-Hakim and Jalal Talabani met in Suleimaniyah on April 13, presumably to discuss ISCI cooperation with the Kurdish Alliance, while rumors state that Muqtada Sadr is in Lebanon, as is Jawad al-Sharistani, the son-in-law and representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Although these leaders may be trying to stave off government collapse, they may not be able to overcome the parliamentary entropy. Street protests have reignited in advance of Friday prayers. Parliamentary means, protests, or force may topple the current government.  Read the full analysis here.

 WARNING: Political Crisis in Iraq's Parliament as PM Abadi Reforms Presented (April 12)
By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

CoR sit-in

The session of the Council of Representatives (CoR) to select a new cabinet for the government dissolved into chaos when political blocs could not reach an agreement over the cabinet’s final composition. The CoR members burst into an uproar when CoR Speaker Juburi announced the decision that followed a closed-door meeting of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, CoR Speaker Juburi, and the heads of several political blocs during a recess of the CoR session. Reportedly over 100 members of the CoR began a sit-in in the CoR to protest the decision by CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi to postpone the vote on the cabinet reshuffle until Thursday, April 14. The protesters’ demands include the removal of PM Abadi, President Fuad Masoum, and CoR Speaker Juburi, as well as the end to political quotas determining the composition of the cabinet. Several members also demanded that the CoR vote on PM Abadi’s original list of technocratic candidates presented on March 31, and not the April 12 list of candidates that constituted a compromise between technocrats and political appointees. An unconfirmed source stated that there are at least 114 signatures for their removal. The participants appear to be cross-sectarian; members of the Sunni Etihad bloc, the Shi’a State of Law Alliance, and the Sadrist Trend are participating, Members that have a strong dislike for one another are also participating; senior Sadrist Trend member Hakim al-Zamili, for example, is participating alongside Hassan Salam, a CoR member linked to the Iranian proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. 

 Iraq Situation Report: April 5-11, 2016
By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraq SITREP: April 5-11, 2016

Excerpt:  Political blocs continue to jockey for influence over the final composition of the Council of Ministers (CoM) amid increased threats to Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s position. Reuters reported on April 6 that U.S. and Iranian officials intervened to “stave off” an initiative by Vice President Nouri al-Maliki to oust PM Abadi, with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force, Qassim Suleimani, reportedly intervening in order to prevent any change in the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Baghdad on April 8, reiterated that the U.S. administration had unequivocal support for PM Abadi. U.S., and notably Iranian, support for the notion of keeping PM Abadi in his position indicate that PM Abadi will likely remain Prime Minister, as political blocs will be hesitant to oppose U.S. and Iranian directives. However, it also looks increasingly likely that political blocs will determine the final composition of the cabinet and will not select technocrats for the ministerial positions or other senior government posts, as PM Abadi originally intended. The Council of Representatives (CoR) is slated to discuss the new cabinet on April 12, but the date could be further delayed or the session blocked by a lack of quorum if no agreement can be reached before the CoR session. It remains to be seen how the Kurdistan Alliance, the most vocal opponents of the cabinet reshuffle, and Muqtada al-Sadr, who has positioned himself as a leader of the reform process and the strongest supporter of the cabinet reshuffle, will react to the new cabinet changes. However, both have previously stated they will pursue a no-confidence vote or withdraw from government if their vision of the cabinet reshuffle are not met, courses of action that have the potential to seriously undermine the stability of the government. It thus looks increasingly likely that any substantial changes in government will be delayed, if they occur at all. Read the full Situation Report here.

 Iraq Situation Report: March 22-28, 2016
By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraq SITREP: March 22-28, 2016

Pressure continues to mount on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reshuffle the cabinet. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr gave PM Abadi until March 26 to submit the list of nominations for the new cabinet to the Council of Representatives (CoR). However, discussions underway in the pan-Shi’a political body, the National Alliance, over what positions blocs will retain in the new government stalled the reshuffle process, and PM Abadi missed the deadline as a result. In response, Sadr initiated his own sit-in inside of a tent in the Green Zone on March 27 to pressure PM Abadi to conduct reforms, refusing to meet with politicians and government officials. Political blocs meanwhile have pressured PM Abadi to conduct reforms to their own preferences, seeking to preserve their positions and increase their representation within the cabinet. Groups like the Sunni Etihad and the Kurdistan Alliance refused to submit nominations for the new cabinet positions, citing concerns over the unclear selection process. Meanwhile, the National Alliance decided on March 27 to form a new sub-committee aimed at “advising” PM Abadi during the cabinet reshuffle process. However, the presence of Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri and Popular Mobilization Commission Chairman Faleh al-Fayadh on the committee indicate that Iranian proxies are attempting to direct the final outcome of the cabinet reshuffle, an outcome that would undermine the U.S.’s ability to continue its advise-and-assist mission in Iraq and effectively combat ISIS. PM Abadi is being pulled in multiple directions by Sadr, pro-Iranian elements, and non-Shi’a political blocs in a way that makes it impossible to satisfy all parties involved. It is a distinct possibility that multiple political blocs will reject PM Abadi’s cabinet submission on Thursday, or that he may not be able to submit it at all, given the disparate demands of the political blocs. PM Abadi may thus face the real possibility of a questioning session and a subsequent vote of no-confidence if the reform process continues to stall.

 WARNING:  Iraq's Shi'a Parties Split Over Cabinet Reshuffle Amidtst Protests (March 25)
By Patrick Martin with Emily Anagnostos, Rachel Bessette, and Hannah Werman

Bloc Positions on Maliki and Cabinet Reshuffle

Key Takeaway: Political violence may erupt in Iraq as supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr continue large-scale protests to pressure the current government to reshuffle the cabinet fundamentally. Sadr had threatened on February 26 to withdraw his support from Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi if such an overhaul did not occur by March 29, 2016. The Sadrists began a large sit-in at the entrance to the Green Zone on March 18 and are harnessing the power of street demonstrations to either compel PM Abadi to comply or make it possible for him to do so. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his supporters within the State of Law Alliance (SLA), rather than Abadi, seem to be the chief obstacle to a cabinet reshuffle. Other political blocs seek to neutralize this faction while retaining their current representation in cabinet. Meanwhile, some political blocs, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrist Trend, are in the process of attempting to create a new political alliance that could challenge Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA) as the dominant political bloc. It would need to overcome a plethora of obstacles to succeed, but could be the basis for a cabinet reshuffle process aimed at weakening the SLA and its dominant leader, Nouri al-Maliki. ISCI and the Sadrists may throw a lifeline to Abadi, or he may be political collateral damage in their play to counter Maliki. It is unclear what Sadr will do if there is no cabinet reshuffle by March 29 that meets his standards. He may compromise, as he might sacrifice some of his reform demands in order to strengthen himself or weaken Maliki and his Dawa Party. Alternatively, the Sadrists may continue the sit-in and pull out of the government, as Sadr threatened to do on February 13. The prospect for violence – initiated either by the demonstrators or by the security forces to break up the sit-in – remains a possibility that could destabilize or even collapse the already precarious Abadi government, and it is far from certain that PM Abadi will be able to retain his position if a new government is eventually formed. Read the full analysis here. 

 Iraq Situation Report: March 15-21, 2016
By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraq Situation Report: March 15-21, 2016

Supporters of Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr began a large sit-in in front of the entrance to the Green Zone on March 18. The sit-in escalates pressure on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to follow Sadr's reform agenda. PM Abadi, along with Council of Representatives Speaker Salim al-Juburi and President Fuad Masoum, met with the leaders of major political blocs on March 20 to discuss the cabinet reshuffle, but the assembled leaders could not form an agreement on the final shape of the cabinet. PM Abadi blamed unspecified individuals for blocking the reshuffle process for fear of losing their positions and privileges, indicating that political blocs are unwilling to lose control over ministries and the patronage that follows. Further disagreement over the cabinet cannot continue for much longer without provoking a response from an increasingly bold Sadr. He ordered the sit-in to continue on March 18 in defiance of orders from the Council of Ministers and the Interior Ministry banning the sit-in, and repeated calls for a full overhaul of the government, while a senior member of the Sadrist Trend, Sabah al-Ta'i, warned that protesters could "storm the Green Zone" if a technocratic government was not in place by March 29. PM Abadi thus faces no good options for completing the cabinet reshuffle process. Political blocs could obstruct PM Abadi if he attempts to impose a technocratic government that deprives political blocs of their ministerial positions. However, Sadr could incite further demonstrations or even violence if PM Abadi decides to conduct a partial reform that preserves political blocs' power within the cabinet.  Sadr could attempt to force PM Abadi's hand through some bold action by the March 29 deadline that threatens to destabilize the government and end PM Abadi's tenure.  

 Iraq's Prime Minister Abadi Attempts to Reshuffle the Cabinet (March 13)
By Patrick Martin with Emily Anagnostos

National Alliance Meeting

Key Take-Away: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle faces enormous pressure from competing blocs over the final composition of the cabinet. The State of Law Alliance (SLA) is attempting to preserve political party interests within the cabinet, a contradiction of PM Abadi’s and popular demonstrations’ demands for a full government overhaul. However, Muqtada al-Sadr, the charismatic leader of the Sadrist Trend, is demanding a comprehensive change in government, which would threaten political blocs’ access to sources of patronage by preventing party elements from controlling ministerial positions. Moreover, Sadr has threatened to withdraw confidence from PM Abadi if he does not pursue comprehensive reforms. PM Abadi thus has few options to achieve a cabinet reshuffle and preserve his position, as the SLA or the Sadrist Trend may seek to oust PM Abadi from his position if he does not acquiesce to their demands. PM Abadi’s removal would be detrimental to the stability of Iraq, as well as the U.S.’s ability to operate in Iraq in the fight against ISIS, as any candidate to replace him would most likely be more amenable to Iranian directives than PM Abadi. It is imperative that the U.S. support both PM Abadi and the Iraqi Security Forces in order to forestall any effort that would result in his departure from office. Read the full report here.

Iraq Situation Report: February 12-17, 2016

By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraq SITREP: February 12-17, 2016Prime Minister Abadi is facing grave political challenges following his announcement of a cabinet reshuffle on February 9. Supporters of his past reform have stated that all positions should be open for consideration in a government, including that of the prime minister. In addition, Muqtada al-Sadr gave PM Abadi 45 days before he threatened to withdraw his support from PM Abadi’s government. Separately, PM Abadi stated that he was willing to resign as part of the reshuffle if necessary. The prime minister does not have the constitutional right or the power to undertake sweeping reforms of the government without support from the political blocs, which bodes ill for his ability to stay in office. PM Abadi’s removal would be highly problematic for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS Coalition, as he is a pro-Coalition figure that would likely be replaced by a leader far more willing to accept greater Iranian assistance. Meanwhile, the Popular Mobilization Commission stated that it had cut its ranks by 30 percent due to financial constraints, likely an attempt to access funding from the Iraqi government. Iranian proxy militias secure their funding from Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but a large number of other militia groups rely on funding from the Iraqi government, though they may also be competing for potential access to Iranian resources. If the announced cuts target Sunni tribal fighters in the Popular Mobilization and more nationalist groups not closely tied to Iran, it would make the Popular Mobilization even more difficult to include in future security operations due to their increasingly pro-Iranian slant.

Iraq Prime Minister Cabinet Reshuffle May Lead to No-Confidence Vot (February 15)
by Patrick Martin

MalikiKey TakeawayPrime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced a major cabinet reshuffle on February 9 in an attempt to reform his government. Political blocs are unlikely to tolerate losing control over their ministries, however, and could unite to override the prime minster if he attempts to undercut them. Shi’a religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who formerly backed the prime minister’s reforms, has ceased to give political sermons, depriving PM Abadi of his public backing. Meanwhile, PM Abadi’s political opponents and Iranian proxy militias have escalated their efforts to restrict his powers over the past month. PM Abadi’s survival in office may be tenuous at best, and there is a possibility that the cabinet reshuffle could backfire against him, weakening him further or leading to his removal. Actors who previously supported PM Abadi’s reform programs may consider ousting him in the event of non-implementation of the reform agenda. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who previously expressed strong support for PM Abadi’s reforms, gave him only 45 days to implement wide-ranging reforms, threatening to “withdraw confidence within the Council of Representatives” in the event of failure. PM Abadi’s weakening and possible removal would strike a serious blow to the U.S.’s ability to support the ISF in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, as it is likely that a pro-Iranian – and anti-Coalition – political figure would secure the premiership. Read ISW's complete analysis here.

Iraq Situation Report: February 2-11, 2016
By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraq SITREP: February 2-11, 2016Excerpt:  The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Chief, Vincent Stewart, noted that a Mosul operation was unlikely to occur in 2016, underscoring that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have far to go before being ready to recapture the city....However, any operation to recapture Mosul remains a long way off and will require intense Coalition assistance to recapture territory. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan is witnessing a large number of protests against reduced or undelivered salaries and the weak state of the economy, a situation that is exacerbating political differences between Kurdish political parties, while weekly demonstrations against corruption and for government reform continued across southern Iraq. In addition, PM Abadi announced a cabinet reshuffle on February 9, but such an initiative will depend on the support of political blocs to have any hope of succeeding. A unilateral attempt to remove ministers without the support of political blocs could increase support for a no-confidence vote against him, as major parties will not accept PM Abadi removing their senior members from the government. Ongoing political difficulties underscore the need to strengthen Iraq’s central government and financial situation as part of any campaign to recapture territory from ISIS, as the Iraqi state and the Kurdistan Regional Government require increase Coalition and U.S. support to prevent from weakening further and fracturing. Read the full Situation Report here.