Kurdish infighting could undermine a sovereign Iraqi government

Associated Press/Anmar Khalil
Populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, speaks during a press conference in Najaf, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2021.

For Washington and other supporters of a sovereign and prosperous Iraq, the October 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections were a success. Contrary to expectations, Iranian-backed Shiite Islamist parties and their militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd, were defeated at the ballot box. The Hashd lost not to Western-oriented candidates but to another credible local Shiite party whose leader’s hashtag, #NeitherEastnorWest, was an unambiguous call for an Iraq dominated by neither Tehran nor Washington. The election results mitigated toward the establishment of a new, majoritarian government — the first since the 2003 U.S. invasion — capable of pursuing better governance and an independent Iraq.

It’s cruel irony that this potential outcome, a longstanding U.S. aspiration for Iraq, appears to have been undermined in part by Washington’s best friends in Iraq: the Kurds.

The big winner in the electoral contest was Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose Sairoun political party won a plurality of the seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, Sadr’s “Mahdi army” emerged as a leading adversary of the U.S., and the firebrand was nearly targeted by U.S. forces. More recently, however, Sadr, an unabashed populist who tapped into the electorate’s resentment of Iranian overreach in Iraq, has developed into a somewhat more responsible politician. 

Sadr is no panacea, but he has advocated — at least rhetorically — for fighting endemic corruption in the state, criticized Iranian missile attacks on Iraq, and called for an end of “the military actions of the [Hashd] resistance” against the U.S. presence in Iraq. Along these lines, unlike other Iraqi politicians, Sadr doesn’t treat Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Ismail Qaani, a frequent visitor to Iraq, with obeisance. While he remains a vocal critic of Washington, Sadr appeared in the aftermath of his election to want to chart a different course.

Sadr moved to establish a majoritarian government composed of a coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Theoretically, this so-called tripartite alliance — which excluded the Iranian-backed militias and promised to return pro-West premier Mustafa al Kadhimi to office — would have been able to make the kind of difficult decisions on corruption and reform required to change Iraq for the better.

Not surprisingly, Iran’s allies in Iraq considered Sadr’s initiative as a threat and acted quickly to undermine the effort and resume a consensus-based, gridlocked government in Baghdad. The Hashd has engaged in a campaign of violence to intimidate members of the alliance. Iran’s allies also weaponized an increasingly Iranian-aligned judiciary to mire the alliance in court proceedings, further delaying government formation.

While these tactics were effective, the biggest impediment by far to formatting a majoritarian Iraqi government has been the Kurds. The Kurdish Regional Government KRG autonomous region long has been beset by divisions between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) Barzanis based in the capital Erbil and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Talibanis in Sulaymaniyah. These clans, which fought a civil war in the 1990s, remain determined political and economic rivals.  

Had the Kurds voted en bloc with Sadr, the alliance would have attained a quorum in the Council of Representatives sufficient to elect the Kurdish president, who in turn would designate a prime minister to form a majoritarian government. At least initially, it appeared that Sadr and the Sunni contingent supported the reelection of President Barham Salih and Prime Minister al Kadhimi — a slate backed by Washington. Instead of throwing their support behind the alliance, however, the Kurds squabbled over PUK affiliated Salih, and after his nomination was scuttled, fought about his proposed replacement, KRG Minister of Interior and KDP stalwart Rebar Ahmed. A Kurdish boycott of the March 29 parliamentary session — the third to date — prevented a quorum.

Should Kurdish intransigence persist and a president is not selected by April 6, Iraq may move to new elections. This time, however, having learned from their mistakes campaigning under a novel electoral system, the Hashd likely will perform better. Sadr appears to understand the enormity of the moment. On March 30 he tweeted, “Consensus [government] means the end of the country.” However, rather than putting aside parochial internecine differences and becoming part of a majority government in Baghdad that could better serve KRG interests, Kurdish leaders apparently remain unapologetically obstinate.                

Absent a last-minute Kurdish about-face, Iraq’s best opportunity to date to push back on Iranian meddling and exert sovereignty likely will be lost. Washington’s ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, no doubt conveyed the urgency to his Kurdish interlocutors when he delivered a letter from President Biden to KDP President Masoud Barzani reportedly encouraging greater Kurdish unity vis-à-vis government formation. It may be too little, too late.

For years, the Kurds have been a reliable partner for Washington and the U.S. has been a consistent supporter of the KRG, paying $240 million per year in salaries to the federal region’s Peshmerga forces and pressing the region’s interests with Baghdad. The KRG correctly complains that its close relationship with Washington makes it a target of Iran, but the ties clearly have helped to make the region Iraq’s most prosperous. It’s now time for the Kurds to do their part to ensure that Iraq succeeds. It would be a shame if they helped to perpetuate Iran’s domination of Iraq.   

David Schenker is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute and a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during the Trump administration.

Tags Iran Iraq Iraqi government Joe Biden Kurdish Regional Government Kurds Muqtada al-Sadr Sunni-Shia relations

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