Iraqi Prime Minister al-Sudani Upstages His Benefactors in the Coordination Framework

Iraqi Prime Minister al-Sudani Upstages His Benefactors in the Coordination Framework

Shafaq News/ Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, who was sworn in on October 27, 2022, has nearly completed the first 100 days of his tenure. In this short period, he has shown himself to be an energetic and shrewd politician, balancing his commitments to Iran-friendly forces in Iraq while also maintaining good relations with Arab neighbors and the United States. His political survival for the rest of his four-year term will depend on his ability to maintain this balance and address the many serious political and economic challenges he currently faces.

Sudani was nominated by the Coordination Framework (CF), a motley group of Shia political parties dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—a collection of armed militias allied with Iran. In choosing Sudani, the CF nominated one of their own, saying that he would be the executor of its policies and decisions and would be expected to regularly report to the group. Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a leading militia group within the CF, likened him to a “general manager,” with the CF acting as his board of directors. And many Iraqis did actually believe that the new prime minister would indeed be an instrument controlled by the CF. However, things have not quite worked out that way.

Defending His Turf

In the early days of the new government, “hard-line” members of the CF, including Maliki and the PMF, sought to take control of Iraq’s security agencies with a wholesale sweep of the Ministry of Interior, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS), the National Security Council, and the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS). PMF groups accused the INIS of complicity in the January 3, 2020 assassination of both Qassem Soleimani, the powerful leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, PMF’s charismatic leader. There also are reports that Iraqi security agencies have arrested members of the PMF crossing the border between Iraq and Iran.

Control of the security apparatus would secure the safety and immunity of PMF members and give them powerful tools for suppressing their rivals, including Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers. But Sudani did not hand over the country’s security agencies to the CF. Instead, he adopted a tactic of “splitting the difference” by making some changes favorable to the CF, but retaining the INIS for himself, keeping the incumbent head of the CTS in his position, and choosing his own Minister of Interior. Sudani has also sought to hold a possible Sadrist insurgency at bay by refusing to implement the CF’s demand to uproot all Sadrist influence from the new government. For example, he has so far retained Hamid al-Ghazi, a Sadrist appointee, in his position as secretary general of the Council of Ministers.

Sudani has also refused to comply fully with other CF priorities. He was publicly criticized by Maliki for not dismissing all officials appointed by his predecessor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, including, crucially, governors of provinces. Control of the provincial apparatus is important for lucrative contracts and for the conducting of provincial elections, which are anticipated to be held in late 2023.

Safeguarding Relations with Arab Neighbors and the United States

To the dissatisfaction of the PMF, Sudani has highlighted relations with Arab countries. His first trips outside Iraq were to Jordan and Kuwait, and he also visited Saudi Arabia in December to participate in the recent China-Arab States Summit. In addition, Sudani has received an invitation to visit the United Arab Emirates. And while he also traveled to Iran and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Sudani’s emphasis has been on doing business with Iraq’s Arab neighbors and implementing energy and trade deals that were previously negotiated by the Kadhimi government.

Building greater economic ties with Arab countries would reduce Iraq’s dependence on Iranian fuel supplies and other products, and would indirectly weaken Iraqi factions that have political and economic links to Iran. The Arabian Gulf Cup soccer tournament in Basra gave Sudani another opportunity to emphasize Iraq’s Arab solidarity. But his use of the term “Arabian Gulf” during the tournament’s opening ceremony raised objections in Iran, which refers to the area as the Persian Gulf. And according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Sudani later “corrected” the matter.

One of the most striking developments in Sudani’s first 100 days are his frequent meetings with the US ambassador in Baghdad. The meetings have raised suspicions and criticism among some Shia militia groups, who continue to call for the full and immediate withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Mr. Sudani, however, asserted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that Iraq still needs non-combat support from foreign forces—including US forces—in its fight against the so-called Islamic State. So contrary were these comments to the stated position of hard-liners in the CF that they immediately raised the question of whether Sudani was acting against the wishes of pro-Iran factions in the CF or with their approval and coordination.

The reality may be more subtle than an either/or situation. Sudani has proved to be a skilled politician who knows how to exploit existing fissures and rivalries within the CF. He appears to have persuaded the moderates and at least some of the hard-liners that their own security and interests are best served by maintaining a balance in Iraq’s relations with the United States and Iran, and by positioning his government as a channel for dialogue with the US. Continuing his predecessor’s initiative in offering Iraq as a convener of rival powers in the region, Sudani may have also persuaded Iran that Iraq is the best conduit for talks with Saudi Arabia and perhaps even, indirectly, with the United States. With Iran in a perilous political situation both domestically and internationally, and with its economy and currency tanking, Iranian leaders may have decided that their purposes will be better served by having a friend who enjoys good relations with Washington. Sudani, for his part, promotes this balancing act as a win-win for all parties.

Working to Shore Up Domestic Credentials

Sudani is also focusing on providing better services to the Iraqi population, particularly the poor and jobless, and is thereby courting public support to bolster his national standing. Economic experts are critical of his promise to create yet more public sector jobs; but considering that this is a popular strategy, it is likely worth the gamble. Sudani undoubtedly wants to be able to serve out his four-year term in office and to gain a second term, while also building popular backing for his fledgling political party in the country’s upcoming provincial elections. Support from the electorate is thus just as critical to his political future as support from the CF.

Still, there are hazards ahead. Maliki and some of Iraq’s militant Shia groups eye Sudani with disapproval and distrust, and will try to undermine him. His relations with Iran must be handled cautiously and he must ensure that Iran perceives the benefit of his pragmatism. He must also maintain the finest balance of relations with the United States, Iran, and Arab countries in order to preserve Iraq’s credibility as a convener and host of regional dialogues. The plight of the Iraqi dinar, which has lost 7 percent of its value since November 2022, and the associated rise in consumer prices and overall business slow-down, place Sudani in a difficult position with both citizens and political parties, especially when the US is perceived as the cause of Iraq’s financial woes. His toughest challenge, however, will be delivering on his promise to fight corruption; here he will confront the entrenched interests of the CF and other political actors. Yet tackling corruption is vital to Sudani’s ability to build public confidence. To date, however, his record on corruption has been disappointing.

Despite the dangers of doing so, Sudani may well turn the tables on his CF backers, rendering them more dependent on the success of his agenda for their own future than he is beholden to them for his political survival. Mr. Sudani should continue to push the envelope, while using his skills to make his agenda indispensable even to skeptics in the CF.

Help from the International Community

It is too soon in Sudani’s tenure to judge outcomes, but this is a better-than-expected start for a prime minister selected by the Coordination Framework. For the present, the US would do well to support Sudani’s pragmatic balancing of difficult choices while advancing closer cooperation. The Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008 provides ample opportunity for the US to diversify and amplify its relationship with Iraq beyond the security sector. Recently, there has been growing US engagement with Iraq on environmental issues, education exchange, support for small businesses, and stabilization. Further expanding such cooperation benefits the Iraqi people, as well as the government. The US should also take Sudani at his word when he promises to fight corruption, and work with his government on developing tools and taking measures to prevent the hemorrhaging of Iraq’s wealth.

Meanwhile, Arab states should push the advantage that was gained during the historic Gulf Cup tournament in Basra, which saw an outpouring of popular support for Iraq’s role among its fellow Arab nations. These governments must now press for the implementation of energy, industry, and trade projects that former Prime Minister Kadhimi initiated, and also promote the type of people-to-people diplomacy that proved so successful in Basra.

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