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Iraqi Gridlock: Essential Background

Photo: Iraqi police show of their ink-stained index fingers by Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin | This image is dedicated to the public domain under CC0.

Al Sudani; A Return to Establishment.

Iraq finally formed its new government on the 27th of October after almost 13 months of political gridlock following the October 2021 elections.

The new government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Shayya’ Al Sudani, is seen as a return to the old Muhasasa system of political division among ethno-sectarian lines.


Al Muhasasa

Since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq has been ruled through a system that maintains a balance of power between its major demographic groups on the basis of a quota in public office for each group.

This Muhasasa system divides political positions, like ministries and directorships, among ethno-sectarian lines. The most obvious example is the division of the three main executive positions of government, as every Prime Minister must be a Shia Arab, every President must be a Kurd, and every Speaker of Parliament must be a Sunni Arab; this convention is not codified into law but has been the de-facto rule for every government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

This sectarian system is one of the main reasons for Iraq’s failed experiment with democracy, as political candidates are chosen on the basis of sect instead of competence. It is not uncommon for a party that barely gained any seats in parliament to be granted multiple ministerial positions because they represent a particular sect, making the population generally distrustful and apathetic to any democratic process, as voting doesnโ€™t seem to change political personalities or bring about โ€œnew faces.โ€ This also fuels corruption as politicians don’t have to be loyal to their constituents to maintain power, and it has been a factor in fueling political violence; people are politically divided among sectarian lines and pushed to support groups that supposedly represent them, creating a culture of hate and distrust.


Political parties, coalitions, and alliances have been very syncretic and fluid with shifting loyalties and interests, but most actors can be grouped into different factions, depending on their loyalties and interests, most of the most prominent factions in contemporary Iraqi politics can be divided into three houses denoting ethno-sectarian group and loyalty.

The Shia House

The largest of the houses, the Shia house has been the dominating factor in Iraqi politics, as it claims to represent the 60% of Iraqis who are Shia Arabs, its stronghold is in the south and center of the country.

It is also the house most prone to division and in-fighting, as multiple factions inside the house have their own ideological and political interests, as well as degrees of foreign allegiance.

Some prominent factions inside this house are:

  • Fatah Coalition, a grouping of multiple Shia militias and pro-Iran personalities generally associated with the popular mobilization forces (PMF), these groups rose to elevated prominence after the 2014-2017 war against ISIS when many people saw them as the last line of defense holding back the Wahabists,
    They are made up of many militia groups directly supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran and are part of its Axis of Resistance.
  • Sadrist Bloc, followers of Shia theologian and politician Muqtada Al Sadr, who presents himself as a nationalistic and reformist figure, his image as an outsider and patriot is conflicted by the reality of his participation in multiple governments and tense but existing relationship with Iran.
  • State of Law coalition is a grouping of multiple parties and independents led by the Islamic Daโ€™wa Party, with Former Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki at its head, Maliki was the favorite of the U.S in his first term (2006-2010), even participating in joint operations with coalition forces to put down rebels in different parts of the country, but his loyalties shifted towards Iran in his second term (2010-2014).
    They are primarily Islamic conservatives who prioritize the state’s role over all other parties and emphasize Iraqโ€™s role as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran.
  • Victory Alliance, a coalition led by Former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi (2014-2018), its name is a reference to the victory over ISIS that Abadi presided over.
    Originally a splinter group from Malikiโ€™s State of Law, theyโ€™ve suffered recent electoral defeats. They share Malikiโ€™s prioritization of the state and international mediation without nearly as many resources and media coverage.
  • National Wisdom Movement, a movement led by Shia cleric Ammar Al Hakim, who hails from the prominent Hakim family, the family is known for its contributions to Shia politics and theology but has recently suffered many popular and electoral defeats. Ammar Al Hakim has recently shifted his focus to soft progressivism on social issues, prioritizing the role of women and the youth, but his movement has suffered a lot in terms of popularity due to focusing on the priority of the state and stability, which is what usually attracts people to Maliki or even Abadi more than Hakim.

These parties have had a history of shifting alliances between themselves as they try to maintain a relative balance of power where all parties can have a share of power without any of them gaining too much of it, ensuring that the Muhasasa can never be challenged by a rising star who has ambitions outside of his own house.

It is important to note that the Shia house also includes several secular and non-Islamist parties that donโ€™t identify with the sectarian splits but have a base of primarily southern Shias. They emerged strongly after 2019 and have been looking to expand outwards; some of the most prominent examples are Emtidad and Kanun Dawn.

The Sunni House

Sunni politics has had a trend of dividing during elections and uniting right after them, and the Sunni political leadership knows the limitations of their demographic base, which makes up ~15% of the country, as different Sunni political factions try to outdo and outperform each other in getting an absolute majority of the Sunni vote, with one faction usually succeeding in getting over 60% of Sunnis to support them, the other minor faction joins the senior in an alliance of convenience, to negotiate with the Shia house in government formations on the equal ground without splintering into smaller vulnerable groups.

The main two contemporary factions in the Sunni house today are the  Taqadum (Progress) Party under Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Al Halbousi and the Azm Alliance under Khamis Al Khanjar, with Taqadum being the senior faction, winning more seats and votes than Azm; they were actively hostile in the period leading up to the election in October but reconciled after the elections in a โ€œSovereignty Allianceโ€, and as is usual, this alliance didnโ€™t end infighting over positions in Sunni governorates, but it was set up as a platform for unified negotiation with the Shia house.

One minor faction that has significant power in the Sunni Salahuddin province is the Patriotic Masses Party, led by strongman localist Abu Mazin Ahmed Al Juboori, who is a locally popular figure that has dominated Salahuddin politics for the past decade; Abu Mazin aligns himself with the Azm Alliance and has been the target of Taqadum media offensives for his unwillingness to join the Sovereignty Alliance, which goes to show the internal divisions still present in the Sunni house, despite its unification in negotiations with other houses.

The Kurdish House

The main two Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, have their bases of power and influence mostly inside the Kurdistan Regional Government, with some voters and supporters outside of the KRG from Kurdish minority groups in Diyala, Mosul, and Kirkuk governates.  The PUK and KDP have had a rivalry going back to the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s when they fought each other for control of Kurdish territory.

The PUK has its stronghold in Suleymaniah governorate, where it has been based since its very inception, and it has been the favorite party of the central government after 2003, having exclusive control over the prestigious but mostly symbolic post of President of the Republic.

While the KDP is the dominant party in Erbil and Dohuk governorates, being the main political party in Kurdish politics overall, overtaking its rival in the number of seats in both Kurdish and Central parliaments. 

Both parties are led and centralized around particular political families; the PUK is dominated by the Talabani family, while the KDP is led by the Barzani political tribe. Both of the mentioned families were influential in Kurdish politics before the 1990s.

The rivalry between the two parties has remained strong, even twenty-five years after the civil war; the parties are still hostile to each other and are reluctant to collaborate on any unified Kurdish resolution. Some notable recent attempts were the formation of the Kurdistani Coalition and the Kurdistan List in 2019 and 2009 respectively, which were electoral alliances that included both parties, as an attempt to unify the minority Kurds into a bigger parliamentary group in the green zone, while continuing their competition inside the Kurdistan Regional Government.

These noble attempts at โ€œBrotherhoodโ€ seem to have fallen apart before the 2021 elections, with the leadership of each party growing more distrustful of the other. The Kurdistan Coalition served no role in furthering cooperation between the two parties in the 2021 elections, and it seems to be practically defunct.

Minor parties hoping to break the duopoly on power the PUK and KDP possess have had ever-waning chances of success. The most promising examples are the Gorran movement and the New Generation movement, both of whom identify as Liberal or Liberal adjacent parties that desire a break from the rigid structure of Kurdish politics. The Gorran movement, the more senior of the two, had previous electoral successes, getting more votes than the PUK in 2013, but various corruption scandals have rocked the party, and the death of its leader and founder, Nawshirawan Mustafa, pushed the party into losing its popularity just ahead of the 2018 elections. 

The New Generation movement is another opposition party that was formed in 2017, it more strongly adopts a Liberal identity, pushing for economic liberalization and cooperation with the Iraq state on economic issues. It has closely aligned itself to center-left movements in the south like Emtidad, trying to break the ethnic gap that most Kurdish parties have neglected to address; itโ€™s still a new party, but it has shown promise in attracting young voters in 2018 regional and 2021 general elections. 

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