Iraq will see the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of the country that ended Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in three months’ time.
During the nearly two decades that it has lived under the post-Saddam regime, the country has been rocked by a protracted political crisis and suffered an insurgency that has torn it apart.
It has also been marred by government dysfunction and endemic corruption, while its oil-fuelled economy has been severely damaged by unprecedented mismanagement, taking a serious toll on the population.
While the fragile political system is still the main driver, the country’s security conundrum remains the force shaping Iraq’s future, as developments on the ground further complicate the scene.
Over the coming months, Iraq will have to grapple with unpredictability surrounding the impacts of the national conflict on the country’s shaky politics, the well-being of its populace, and its relations with neighbouring countries.
There are several themes and trends to watch during the year ahead.
In the immediate future, all eyes will be on the new government of Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani and whether it can deal with Iraq’s multiple crises and the ensuing public discontent.
Like the seven prime ministers who have been in office since Saddam’s ouster, Al-Sudani has vowed to reform the economy, fight corruption, improve deteriorating public services, and combat poverty and unemployment.
In his address to Iraq’s parliament following his endorsement, Al-Sudani also promised to amend the election law within three months and hold early parliamentary elections within a year.
Keen to solve the issues facing the country, Al-Sudani declared a quick-fix programme to deal with the most worrisome problems such as corruption, deteriorating public services, and unemployment.
In order to showcase his efforts to fight corruption, Al-Sudani appeared on local television on 27 November artfully positioned to be caught in a spotlight amid piles of Iraqi banknotes while he declared the recovery of some $126 million after the theft of $2.5 billion from government coffers in a heist that gripped the country.
Many Iraqis, however, remain sceptical about Al-Sudani’s anti-corruption measures and whether they will be effective in stopping a practice that has been facilitated by some of the highest institutions in the government and the country’s ruling elites.
Corruption continues to harm Iraq, hampering democracy, development, and the ability to bring people out of poverty. The country ranks lowest in the International Corruption Perceptions Index, at the bottom of the list of the 180 countries surveyed for their perceived levels of public sector corruption.
The failure of public services remains the hallmark of government dysfunction in Iraq, despite the public sector’s employing millions of people and receiving some 40 per cent of the annual budget.
Two decades of mismanagement and endemic corruption have left the public healthcare, education, and municipal sectors in disrepair amid a severe crisis in supplies of water and electricity.
The impact of poor economic policies and corruption on workers has been severe in both the public and the private sectors, with many Iraqis left unemployed, vulnerable to poverty, and struggling to pay for food and other necessities.
While the unemployment rate in Iraq is 14.19 per cent of the workforce, the poverty rate in the country is 24.8 per cent, according to the Ministry of Planning. These trends suggest that challenges may lie ahead for Al-Sudani’s government, with adverse implications for social unrest.
Among the key challenges faced by Iraq today is climate change, which has put the country at high risk of suffering the worst effects of the crisis, including desertification, soaring temperatures, and acute water scarcity.
For all the talk about the problem being largely the result of global warming, poor governance and inadequate management are also largely responsible for the worsening crisis that threatens the country’s stability.
Some five years after declaring victory over the so-called “caliphate” of the Islamic State in Iraq (IS) , the country is still grappling with this terrorist organization and the challenges of the return and reintegration of suspects affiliated to the group to their native cities.
While the terrorists no longer control Iraqi territory, they continue to pose security threats through abductions, hit-and-run attacks, and bombings, especially in areas on the desert fringes of Iraq’s major Sunni-populated cities.
Iraq is also under pressure to return thousands of those perceived as having been associated with IS and their families to their cities. They are currently in the Al-Hol Refugee Camp in the area of Syria under the control of US-backed Kurdish groups.
Iraq fears that such returnees will be able to establish “incubators” where they can regroup and make a comeback to spread and destabilise the country.
Of critical importance next year will be whether the Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and his Sadrist Movement decide to participate in the parliamentary elections that Al-Sudani has promised to hold within a year. Al-Sadr suspended his participation in politics in response to the deadlock in forming a government after his group won the largest number of the seats in parliament in last year’s poll.
If the Sadrists stay away from the elections, the decision will perhaps constitute the largest single tinderbox in Iraq’s politics that there has ever been. Iraq could witness the election of a new legislature that would completely change the structure of its political system.
However, if the Sadrists do decide to participate in the elections, this could be another opportunity for Al-Sadr to try to win the majority of the seats he needs to form a governing coalition that could weaken the pro-Iran camp in the country.
Another potential flashpoint to watch out for in 2023 will be the deteriorating relationship between the two main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
A fierce power struggle has been going on between the two rivals for months, and fears are mounting that they are heading towards another round of the violence that has characterised their relationship for decades.
In foreign policy, Al-Sudani’s government will continue to face a delicate balancing act between maintaining Iraq’s sovereignty and the ambitions of its neighbours and the interests of its international partners on various issues.
Iran has been expanding its influence in Iraq due to the fact that Iraq’s Shia Coordination Framework, which consists of Iran-backed groups, is enjoying enhanced political clout after it succeeded in bringing Al-Sudani’s government to office.
Since Al-Sudani came to power in October, the framework’s leaders have been playing a key role in steering national politics, and its pro-Iran groups have reinstated their members in key government and security posts.
To boost their chances in the next polls, the Alliance plans to introduce a new election law that is designed to increase its number of seats in the next parliament.
In a major shift in Baghdad’s relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, Tehran has also succeeded in persuading the two sides to agree to deploy Iraqi army units along the border between Iran and the federal region of Iraq in order to guard frontiers that the Islamic Republic claims have been used by opposition groups to instigate trouble.
Another foreign policy challenge facing Al-Sudani is Turkey’s growing military aggression in northern Iraq, which has violated its sovereignty and increased instability. For months, the Turkish military has been carrying out air strikes and land incursions in the region, claiming it is pursuing Turkish Kurdish militants that it says are using it to carry out attacks on Turkey.
The Turkish aggression is part of Ankara’s expansionist policy in Iraq and the regional ambitions that have been taking shape since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. While its presence in northern Iraq aims at taming the Kurds, Turkey has also been targeting Sunni Muslim political groups and Iraq’s Turkouman minority in order to help embolden them against the Shia-led central government in Baghdad.
Iraq’s relations with its other neighbours and international partners will remain tied to its stability and whether the strategic interests of all sides are served. To this end, the world will keep watching closely this new phase in Iraq’s regional relationships.
Under the former government of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq already advanced various agreements with some regional and foreign countries. Al-Sudani has yet to express his intention to maintain meaningful ties with these countries in order to balance Iran’s rising influence within Iraq.
One key trend to watch for in the coming year will be the Iraqi-US relationship. Iraq’s Iran-backed political parties that now control the government and want to see Tehran becoming a pivot in Iraq do not have much interest in advancing ties with Washington.
This has unleashed a wave of concern in the United States, which seems to have been irritated by Iran’s defeating its attempts to bring the government of Al-Sudani closer to the US and its allies while continuing to navigate the US-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil.
Washington has been resorting to new tactics by putting the activities of Iranian proxies in the Iraqi government under its radar and using carrot-and-stick policies with Al-Sudani to promote new dynamics influencing US-Iraqi relations.
While the US is offering Al-Sudani’s government a partnership in fighting corruption, addressing the climate crisis, and assisting in economic reforms, it has also been blacklisting Iraqi government ministers and officials connected to pro-Iran militias.
A second regional summit on Iraq that will see nearly all the major regional players attending and is sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron is slated for this week. The focus of the summit, to be held in Jordan, will be on how the various stakeholders can support Iraq’s sovereignty – in other words, for Al-Sudani maintaining balanced relationships with Iraq’s neighbours.
In today’s uncertain times, Iraq continues to face old and new challenges. However, given its trajectory since the US-led invasion in 2003, it seems likely that this already fatigued nation will remain stuck in a vicious cycle of fragility and crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly