Iraq’s Worsening – and Unnecessary – Cabinet Crisis

Kirk H Sowell

Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, has made a startling admission: he has been a mere puppet on the political stage. Of course, he did not put it quite like that. What he did say was that ministerial nominations have not been of his choosing, but of candidates foisted on him. Abdul-Mahdi’s revelation shows the fragility of the government, particularly as it comes just a week after the breakdown in relationship between he and Muqtada Al Sadr, the Shia populist leader, over the top post at the powerful interior ministry. Given Al Sadr’s proven ability to mobilize his followers, politics once again threatens to spill into the streets with violent effect.

Abdul-Mahdi’s quandary goes back to his elevation to the prime minister’s post, when Al Sadr backed him precisely because he was seen as “independent.” Because Abdul-Mahdi had cut all political ties after resigning as oil minister in 2016, Al Sadr assumed he would not be influenced by the latter’s rivals, in particular, the Iran-aligned Construction Bloc headed by Hadi Al Amiri. While Al Amiri approved Abdul-Mahdi’s nomination, he and Al Sadr have little, if any, common ground. Thus, there was no formal coalition agreement behind the choice. Sadrists insist that the prime minister must put key ministries under the leadership of independent “technocrats,” while Al Amiri’s allies openly admit to wanting to politicize nominations in their favor.

It was thus no surprise that Abdul-Mahdi’s proposed cabinet became entangled in the two factions’ differing view of government. On October 25, parliament approved the nominations of just 14 of the 22 ministers Abdul-Mahdi proposed. The biggest fight was over the nomination of Falih Al Fayyad as interior minister. Al Fayyad is aligned with Al Amiri and was at one time viewed as Iran’s candidate for the premiership. Al Sadr, unsurprisingly, blocked the nomination.

Subsequently, Abdul-Mahdi was forced to repeatedly retreat on new nominations, largely because of Al Sadr’s opposition to Al Fayyad, who remained on the slate – it was no secret that Al Amiri was his key backer. On November 8, Al Amiri and Al Fayyad visited Al Sadr in the hopes of cutting a deal. But Al Sadr wouldn’t budge, and for the rest of the month Al Amiri and his allies threatened to use their majority to confirm Al Fayyad. The threat was a dangerous one to make, given Al Sadr’s ability to mobilize large numbers onto the streets in his support. Yet Abdul-Mahdi persevered in pushing forward Al Fayyad’s nomination.

On December 3, the day before parliament was expected to hold another vote, Al Sadr published an open letter to Abdul-Mahdi, threatening to move into the opposition if he persisted with his ministerial slate. “You will be responsible in front of the people, in front of God and in front of religious authority,” Al Sadr wrote. “And in that case, we will be in opposition to your government.” In a previous letter, Al Sadr had said he would give Abdul-Mahdi a year to prove himself; now, he threatened to allow as little as six months.

The next day, Abdul-Mahdi submitted a list of eight candidates, including Al Fayyad, to parliament. Along with this was an apparent response to Al Sadr. “Anyone who thinks he can pressure me into resigning is wrong,” he wrote. In contradiction to his later admission, he claimed he drew up the list free of interference – Al Fayyad’s inclusion notwithstanding – which was thus was a statement of independence.

The subsequent parliamentary session turned into a farce. With Al Sadr and his allies boycotting the day’s sitting, a quorum could not be convened. MPs from the Sadr-backed Sairun alliance chanted, “Our decision is Iraqi,” implying that others were driven by foreign agendas.

In response to criticism that he had insisted on Al Fayyad for partisan reasons, Al Amiri claimed that that decision was made by Abdul-Mahdi himself – an assertion most observers disbelieve. Two days later, Abdul-Mahdi contradicted Al Amiri (and himself) by declaring that Al Fayyad had been nominated at the behest of Al Amiri’s bloc.

Since Abdul-Mahdi had declared the new slate to be his independent choice, its rejection made it worse for him politically. Now, declaring that Al Fayyad was forced on him allows for a way out, an option offered by a December 16 court decision. The court reinstated Al Fayyad as head of the National Security Agency, from which Abdul-Mahdi’s predecessor had fired him this summer. Yet, it is unclear if Al Fayyad and his allies will withdraw his candidacy. As such, Abdul-Mahdi is not yet out of the woods.

Abdul-Mahdi began with a weak hand, and then proceeded to play it even worse. Not only did he contradict himself about the ministerial nominations, he ruptured ties with Al Sadr and then publicly contradicted Al Amiri. For all that, he gained nothing. On the other hand, neither Al Amiri nor Al Sadr is accustomed to being told off in such a manner.

Unless he can make a dignified retreat that satisfies Al Sadr, the prime minister can expect further trouble from an increasingly uncooperative parliament, to say nothing of the protests that the cabinet debacle will instigate – more fuel for the next summer season of anti-government demonstrations.

Kirk H Sowell is a political-risk analyst and publisher of the biweekly newsletter, Inside Iraqi Politics.