Sunday, April 17, 2016

Iraq’s Political Crisis Can Constrain the U.S. Campaign Against ISIS

By Patrick Martin

Key Take-Away: 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. 

[Above: Sadrist demonstrators in Baghdad call for reforms on April 15. Many of them also carried posters critical of Vice President Nouri al-Maliki.]

Scenarios and Risks

The following list represents a series of scenarios, ranging from most-likely to most-dangerous, and the risks they pose to both the stability of Iraq and the ability of the U.S. to conduct anti-ISIS operations in Iraq.

1: The rump CoR dismisses the three presidencies and the government collapses

Scenario: The U.S. must be prepared for a scenario in which the rump parliament attempts to remove all three presidencies – Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, Speaker Salim al-Juburi, and President Fuad Masoum – from their positions, as outlined in a recent ISW publication on constitutional provisions. An estimated 131 Council of Representatives (CoR) members have joined the rump parliament, already outnumbering the largest established political blocs, including the State of Law Alliance (SLA) which holds at least 40 fewer seats. If the rump parliament peels supporters away from other political blocs and builds towards the 165 seats needed to constitute a majority in the CoR, they could undermine the three presidencies and block all efforts to legislate and execute laws, though it is not entirely clear what mechanisms the CoR could use to legally remove all three presidencies. PM Abadi and his cabinet would remain in office for 30 days if the government is dissolved, though as a lame-duck Prime Minister.

Risks: A collapsed government and the removal of PM Abadi could lead to the eventual reduction or expulsion of U.S. forces conducting anti-ISIS operations and participating in the advise-and-assist mission from Iraq. This scenario would have dire consequences on the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) ability to conduct anti-ISIS operations and would dramatically reduce the possibility of a successful operation to recapture Ninewa Province and Mosul. Political blocs do not currently agree on a consensus candidate to replace PM Abadi, but any new Prime Minister would most likely be more pro-Iranian in leaning than supportive of the U.S. This scenario would greatly challenge the U.S.’s ability to operate freely in Iraq, as it is an Iranian strategic objective to expel the U.S. from the region. Instead, Iranian pressure could force the new Prime Minister to expel the U.S. from the country. The new pro-Iranian premier could replace U.S. and Coalition assistance with less effective and likely detrimental support from Iran and Russia, two actors that would benefit from expelling the U.S. from the region. Even if the new government did not expel the U.S., the loss of a Prime Minister welcoming of U.S. support in the anti-ISIS fight would constrain the ability of the U.S. to direct the progress of the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq. 

Negotiating necessary increases in support for the ISF to fight ISIS, such as additional trainers, the deployment of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) to coordinate airstrikes, and the construction of additional firebases to support ISF advances in northern Iraq to recapture Ninewa Province will likely be suspended for the duration a collapsed government and would be more difficult with a pro-Iranian Prime Minister. The security situation could worsen during a political crisis, as ISIS would re-focus its efforts on exploiting the situation to exacerbate the crisis further. It would likely attempt to target large popular demonstrations and could plausibly launch a wave of Suicide Vest (SVEST) or Suicide Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) attacks in Baghdad to plunge the Iraqi government into further disorder. Moreover, the Coalition’s progress against ISIS in both the Euphrates River Valley and in the Ninewa operations area would likely slow or even be suspended, rendering any effort to advance towards and recapture Mosul in 2016 a pipedream.

2: Political deadlock

Scenario: An extended period of deadlock within the CoR remains as likely as a government collapse. CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi decided against calling a CoR session on April 16, and the rump parliament continues to negotiate with fence-sitting CoR members to join the rump parliament in a bid to oust the three presidencies. The leadership of political blocs may fail to reassert control over their rebelling members, leading to an extended period of disagreement or resorting to expelling their rebelling members from their parties, as has occurred with at least one member of the Sunni Etihad bloc. Future CoR sessions could thus be suspended and crucial votes on the government’s composition delayed further. Such a delay may extend for an unclear stretch of time, but could be cut short within a week if CoR Speaker Juburi calls for the dissolution of the CoR with the approval of PM Abadi, President Masoum, and one-third of the CoR’s members. Two parallel parliaments could thus continue in competition with one another for some time if the crisis does not reach a cresting point.

Risks: A split CoR with two different Speakers paralyzes the government and will render it unable to pass legislation or votes on important processes. PM Abadi’s cabinet reshuffle process, announced on February 9 and the catalyst for the formation of the rump parliament, would be suspended, upholding Iraq’s most pressing reform program. However, a suspended government would have less of an effect on ongoing security operations, as it would leave the security branches of the government relatively untouched. Prior to the formation of the rump parliament, there was general agreement among all political blocs and PM Abadi to keep the Defense and Interior Ministers in their positions in order to minimize the effect that the political situation has on the fight against ISIS, as noted by the fact that no cabinet reshuffle proposal suggested replacing either the Defense or the Interior Minister. Political deadlock is thus unlikely to affect the U.S.’s anti-ISIS efforts in the short-term, as the impact of political deadlock on the security forces would be minimal. However, political deadlock could rapidly degenerate into government collapse if the rump parliament gains a surge in supporters or if CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi calls for the dissolution of the CoR. Political deadlock is thus a dangerous scenario for the U.S. and threatens its ability to exert influence in Iraq as well as to direct the anti-ISIS fight. The existence of two parallel parliaments could also bring into question the legality of all legislative decisions that could result in policy paralysis and confusion among the security forces.

3: Street demonstrations and sit-ins

Scenario: The ongoing political crisis has sparked a series of demonstrations and sit-ins across Baghdad and southern Iraq, primarily by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Trend. Popular demonstrations have a mixed track record of forcing change in Iraq – the August 2015 protests hardly achieved any meaningful reforms, while Sadrist demonstrations in March 2016 were more successful, though largely because of their connection to Sadr, a major power-broker. Demonstrations are likely to grow in size in the near-term as popular and Sadrist demonstrators push the government to engage in sweeping reforms. Sit-ins in front of government buildings are also likely across southern Iraq. Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr began setting up sit-in sites in Baghdad in Tahrir Square and in front of several government ministries while other demonstrators commenced sit-ins in several southern provinces, where they have been ongoing for at least six days. Demonstrations may vastly increase in size as Sadr gave the government 72 hours to form a government on April 16, threatening unspecified consequences that would likely involve the mass deployment of Sadr’s supporters in street protests.

This scenario could be made even more dangerous if CoR Speaker Juburi, with the support of one-third of the CoR’s members, requests that PM Abadi and President Masoum dissolve the CoR in order to prevent the rump parliament from increasing in power, an option that Juburi has reportedly floated in closed-door meetings with the three presidencies. This outcome would result in the calling of early elections within 60 days, but would more importantly signify the failure of Iraq’s political leaders to accomplish any meaningful reforms. 

Risks: Security conditions in Iraq do not permit elections country-wide. The war against ISIS is ongoing, and much of Iraqi territory and a large segment of Iraq’s population remains outside of government control and under ISIS rule. The internal displacement of at least 3.3 million people, in addition to at least 377,000 refugees, would complicate any elections, but especially those held on short notice. Most if not all of those internally-displaced persons (IDPs) are Sunni, increasing the possibility of a sectarian, majoritarian electoral outcome that further fuels the sense of disenfranchisement that created conditions for ISIS in the first place. 

A call for early elections would likely coincide with a sharp uptick in street demonstrations and street violence between partisan groups over frustration with the political situation, making it a particularly risky mechanism for defusing the ongoing political crisis. Moreover, street demonstrations would be prime targets for ISIS spectacular attacks and could force the ISF to redeploy its forces away from the frontlines to Baghdad and the southern provinces in order to provide security for demonstrators; ISIS can and has attempted to target Baghdad protests with spectacular attacks. ISIS spectacular attacks are a growing threat in southern Iraq because most of the security forces intended to secure southern Iraq deployed northwards towards the frontlines with ISIS. ISIS has re-established attack capabilities in the southern provinces of Babil, Dhi Qar, and Basra, and will almost certainly attempt to target demonstrations in the South in order to compel security forces to re-deploy away from the frontlines. Demonstrations are also potential catalysts for inter-party violence, particularly between the Sadrist Trend and rival Shi’a blocs. Militias and armed supporters of various Shi’a parties could clash during demonstrations if proximate to one another, a scenario that would also require security forces to re-deploy to the area to pre-empt any other potential sources of instability from growing.

4: Militias could take advantage of the political situation and mass in Baghdad

Scenario: Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias have been conspicuously quiet during the cabinet reshuffle crisis, and have likely been ordered by their Iranian supervisors to keep a low profile in order to avoid creating any further instability; Iran and its proxies are presently preoccupied with operations in Syria in the Aleppo area, and likely would prefer it if the political crisis forced Iran and Iraqi Shi’a militias to delay the Aleppo operations to stabilize the political situation in Baghdad. The Iranian regime also would likely avoid popular turmoil in Iraq that could give rise to domestic, internal disorder in Iran. However, ongoing instability could cause Iraqi Shi’a militias to deploy forces to Baghdad to prepare to influence the political process and potentially deploy violence against the state or protesters. Iranian proxy militias are not the only sub-state armed groups who could take advantage of the situation. Militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, including the armed elements loyal to the infamous Sadrist commander Abu Deraa, could mobilize on short notice for similar reasons and clash with rival militias. The mass deployment of Sadrist militias, historically known for a lack of discipline, could also result in Sadrist demonstrations degenerating into rioting or violence as well. 

Risks: The mass deployment of Iranian proxy or other militias deploying to Baghdad would increase the possibility of street violence; various militias, positioning themselves to take advantage of the political crisis, could clash as they mobilize in Baghdad’s streets or even attack protesters from rival political factions, creating a serious security issue. ISIS could exploit a breakdown in militia discipline as well and re-commence attacks against militia gatherings in Baghdad. A breakdown in security could force the ISF to re-deploy towards Baghdad in order to secure the city, and would likely delay or halt anti-ISIS operations in other parts of the country or leave parts of the country exposed to ISIS attacks. The mass deployment of militias could also fracture the ISF in a way that seriously damages or destroys the cohesion of the ISF. Extended political competition and the deployment of militias to Baghdad could accelerate efforts by political blocs to capture parts of the ISF and further undermine the ability of the central government to exert independent command and control over its own forces. Security could thus fall into the hands of militias and security forces that are more responsive to Iran than to the government. 

However, the likelihood of Iranian proxy militias deploying en masse to Baghdad at present is limited; one of Iran’s primary proxy militias, the Badr Organization, a group that also holds at least 23 seats in the CoR, has appealed for order and even withdrawn its members from the rump parliament in order to calm the tense political situation. Iranian proxy militias are heavily invested in fighting in Syria; a top proxy militia fighter’s recent deployment to participate in Aleppo operations is indicative of Iran and the proxy militias’ shift of focus to Syria away from Iraq’s battlefields. But an extended political crisis and security breaches could force Iran to withdraw some of its Iraqi Shi’a militias from Syria and place them in Baghdad, under the pretense of providing security, in order to re-assert militia dominance in the capital. However, this is a scenario that Iran most likely does not want to see; its primary operational effort remains operations in Aleppo, where Iran has deployed a large number of Iranian proxies as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and regular forces to conduct operations against the Syrian Opposition in support of its ally Syrian President Bashar al Assad. If Iran views that the deployment of militias to Baghdad will detract from its operations in Syria and undermine stability in Iraq, it will be unlikely to order its proxy forces to congregate in force in Baghdad. 

5: The ISF could be involved in political violence

Scenario: The ISF could also become involved in political violence during the political crisis. The threat would likely stem from elements of the ISF that have remained loyal to Vice President Nouri al-Maliki from his time as premier. Maliki could use loyal security forces to attempt to reassert his political position by potentially deploying violence against opposing parliamentarians or popular demonstrators. These forces could include the 56th Iraqi Army Brigade, a unique unit with a poor human rights record that is responsible for the security of the Green Zone, or the 54th IA Brigade, which, like the 56th, used to fall under the command and control of Maliki’s Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC), as opposed the Ministry of Defense.

Risks: While extremely dangerous, this scenario is also unlikely at the present. ISW has assessed that there have been no efforts by security forces inside the Green Zone or anywhere else to position themselves for any sort of coup-style operation in Baghdad. Furthermore, security forces in the Green Zone are not fully loyal to Maliki; many of them were pictured welcoming Muqtada al-Sadr, Maliki’s primary rival within the Shi’a political sphere, when he began his own sit-in in the Green Zone on March 27. Both the 54th and the 56th Brigades now fall under the command of the Prime Minister’s Special Forces Division, a formation charged with protecting the Prime Minister. PM Abadi has also reasserted control over Baghdad Operations Command (BOC), the branch of the Ministry of Defense assigned to oversee operations in the Baghdad area, by subordinating it to the Joint Operations Command (JOC), run by a professional military commander responsive to PM Abadi. Pressure from Sadr was crucial in convincing BOC and Baghdad-based security forces to allow Sadrist demonstrators to converge on the Green Zone on March 18, indicating that PM Abadi and the JOC still does not exert full control over the behavior of the security forces. Nevertheless, strengthened Defense Ministry control over the security forces in Baghdad renders the possibility of Maliki-linked security forces from engaging in political violence unlikely.

6: A judicial challenge from Medhat and Maliki

Scenario: A more likely method for former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reassert his political power is through the judiciary, headed by a long-time ally, Judge Medhat Mahmoud. Maliki previously used the judiciary to for his own political ends, including the disqualification of Sunni candidates from the rival Iraqi List in the 2010 parliamentary elections in order to secure the premiership. It is possible that Maliki could devise some method of facilitating the overthrow of the government through a constitutional ruling from Mahmoud, particularly in the event of a protracted constitutional crisis.

Risks: Maliki’s ability to channel popular frustration with the government is extremely limited at present, not least because Iran, his main external supporter, quashed his most recent attempt to oust PM Abadi in late March/early April 2016. Furthermore, while Maliki has voiced support for the rump parliament demanding the dissolution of the government, he is unlikely able to exert significant control over the rebelling CoR members, despite the presence of Maliki stalwarts like Aliyah Nassif and Hanan al-Fatlawi in the rump parliament. Other rebelling CoR members include members of the Sadrist Trend, the secular Wataniya Bloc, and the Sunni Etihad bloc, groups that are unlikely to align themselves with Maliki on any issue. Thousands of Sadrist Trend supporters are currently demonstrating across Iraq with explicitly anti-Maliki iconography and messages, and Sadr himself issued a blistering condemnation of Maliki during a speech on April 16. The Sadrist Trend’s overall aversion to Malik renders it unlikely that the Sadrist Trend’s political representatives would publicly align with Maliki in any meaningful way. 

Maliki is more likely attempting to steer the direction of the rump parliament without enjoying direct control. Wataniya Bloc leader Iyad Allawi likely faces the same situation, as he is participating in the rump parliament but also strongly opposes Maliki. Allawi and Maliki likely are not cooperating, however. Both seek to take advantage of the moment in a bid to increase their individual political statures.

7: The political blocs reassert control

Scenario: Maliki’s allies, Allawi, and other participants in the rump parliament are attempting to peel CoR members away from the political blocs’ leadership and convince them to join the rump parliament; they have already achieved some success with attracting defectors from the Sunni Etihad bloc. However, political blocs are also attempting to reassert control over their rebelling CoR members. The longer the rump parliament meets, the greater the risk of old political differences, namely between Maliki supporters and members of al-Ahrar and Wataniya Blocs, bubbling to the surface and undermining cohesion and cooperation among the rebelling CoR members. Political blocs could begin re-absorbing their members from the rump parliament back under the leadership and discipline of the bloc leaders over the next several days. 

Risks: The issues that existed prior to the formation of the rump parliament will remain even if the rump parliament fails and the political blocs reassert control over the CoR. Political blocs will still need to vote on a new cabinet and decide its composition, and the question of whether or not to keep PM Abadi in his position will continue to be a point of contention among political blocs. If the political blocs quash the rump parliament, then PM Abadi’s position will remain endangered. The political blocs could still vote to oust PM Abadi or collapse the government in a bid to introduce change in the government, a scenario that could even lead to the expulsion of the U.S. from Iraq. Political blocs reasserting control over their rebelling members will still leave open the major questions that are leading to instability in the Iraqi government and continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests. Unless the political blocs can agree both on how to proceed with PM Abadi’s reform program and to leave PM Abadi in his position, then marginalizing the rump parliament will fail to lead to any change in the cabinet or the completion of any genuine reforms.


The U.S. must engage in an intense diplomatic effort to prevent the collapse of the government and to strengthen PM Abadi in the face of his enormous challenge. The U.S. has already doubled down on efforts to publicly support PM Abadi, including visits to Iraq within the past two weeks from a Congressional delegation, U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk, U.S. Ambassador Stuart Jones, CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as phone calls from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. But the continuous diplomatic outreach should also extend to the leaders of all political blocs, not just PM Abadi and the three presidencies, to coordinate an effort to preserve the current government and form a consensus agreement between political bloc leaders to stabilize the political situation. 

The U.S. must also prepare for the possibility that security in Baghdad could rapidly collapse amid street demonstrations, inter-militia violence, clashing of various actors with the security forces, and a wave of ISIS spectacular attacks aimed at exacerbating the crisis. But there are few kinetic options available to the U.S. that could stabilize the situation. The U.S. only has the capacity to protect U.S. personnel and assets in Baghdad. However, the U.S. must be prepared to continue with anti-ISIS operations in a potential power vacuum and work with the security forces to introduce additional U.S.capabilities as needed to maintain momentum in recapturing territory. Additional capabilities, such as additional firebases, the deployment of additional advise-and-assist personnel, and the deployment of JTACs to Iraq are potential options available to the U.S. to expedite the ISF’s progress in recapturing territory from ISIS. The U.S. must exert as much diplomatic pressure at its disposal in order to stabilize the political situation and support PM Abadi. The U.S. must minimize the possibility of a government collapse that could lead to the nomination of a pro-Iranian premier and the consequent possibility of the new Iraqi government reducing or even expelling U.S. forces from the country. In doing so, the U.S. must ensure that all options for supporting Iraq in the fight against ISIS remain open and that the political crisis does not reverse or damage the progress of the fight against ISIS.