One decade ago, Iraq was on fire. While think tankers and army historians praise the U.S. military’s troop surge, Iraqis know different. Gen. David Petraeus traded short-term calm for longer-term instability. By convincing Arab Sunnis that the path to legitimacy could be found outside the political process, the surge and the bodies it empowered incentivized insurgency. U.S. President Barack Obama then added fuel. His 2011 withdrawal left a vacuum that sectarian extremists across the spectrum filled.
As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki battled al Qaeda-linked insurgents, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani pursued a dangerous game. He believed naively that a weak Baghdad was in Iraqi Kurdistan’s interest. Alongside Turkey, he quietly passed weaponry to the nascent Islamic State militant group. He did not believe that the group would turn on its benefactors. He certainly did not think that they could defeat the Peshmerga if they did turn. Corruption and sycophancy hobbled the Iraqi Kurdish militia. His forces could not vocalize faults, as Barzani had appointed his own sons as commanders. To criticize them was to commit career suicide. His cynical approach to the Islamic State enabled the Yezidi genocide and cost thousands of Kurdish lives. Only the heroism of the Iraqi army, the volunteers answering Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call, and Iraq’s intelligence service enabled Baghdad to defeat the Islamic State.
Fast-forward nine years. Maliki and his successor, Haider al-Abadi, act as elder statesmen. Adil Abdul-Mahdi enjoys a Baghdad retirement, while Mustafa Al-Kadhimi lives in self-imposed exile. Almost one year into office, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani has approached governance with more competence than his two predecessors, but his record is mixed. Baghdad is secure. His supporters attribute that to Sudani’s stewardship while detractors say, without evidence, that his permissiveness to Iranian-backed militias means they have little reason to destabilize the government. Likewise, he passed a multiyear budget, though it remains unclear whether this will bring needed reform, or actually hamper it.
Few can deny that Sudani has been a godsend to infrastructure. In the 1970s, prior to Saddam Hussein’s decisions to invade Iran and Kuwait, Iraqis would take vacations in neighboring states and note how crossing from Iraq into Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, or Iran would mean a transition from streetlights and well-paved highways into lands of third-world infrastructure.
Today, the opposite is true. Iraq is far wealthier now than in 2003, though far below its potential. Sudani is repaving roads and building highways in a way that benefits all Iraqis, whether impoverished or elite.
Sudani’s greatest fault may be political. Every Iraqi prime minister recognizes the knives are out the moment he takes office. Muqtada al-Sadr, a corrupt chameleon who today champions himself as an anti-corruption, anti-Iran populist, lays low now, waiting for his opportunity to strike. Sudani must also worry about his own coalition. As a minister under Maliki, he was never the pawn Maliki demanded. Maliki has always put himself above his country, and he will not forget the lack of complete loyalty. More important, Sudani must worry about the Barzanis.
In recent weeks, tension has risen precipitously in Kirkuk, a northern city that Kurdish parties seek to incorporate into the Kurdistan Regional Government. Earlier this month, tension erupted into bloodshed when Iraqi security forces fired on Kurdish protesters.
The Barzanis are also upset that Sudani’s government has upstaged them financially. This is not his fault, but rather the result of Barzani corruption and incompetent management. Still, the fact that Iraq exports oil and pays salaries while Kurdistan does not and remains in arrears causes the Barzanis’ resentment toward Sudani to grow.
This raises a dangerous possibility that the Barzanis, who were never held accountable for their actions in 2013, will revert to the same tactics and once again empower the remnants of the Islamic State. In such a scenario, it is crucial that the Iraqi National Intelligence Service is well-staffed and can dedicate itself to weeding out Islamic State operatives before they can strike. Sudani, however, has delayed appointing a head to the agency, preferring to take the reins himself even though he does not have the time to manage the portfolio adequately.
This is understandable on one level. Kadhimi used his position atop the intelligence service to launch himself to the premiership. To be fair, Kadhimi did not expect the promotion. He was a compromise candidate as Abdul-Mahdi’s rule collapsed. Nevertheless, Kadhimi established a precedent that Sudani now fears.
Should Sudani not staff the position, though, he could create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Should security diminish, Sudani will hemorrhage support. He may find there are politicians waiting in the wings who are far more ambitious than any technocrat he might put into the intelligence service.
About the Author
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).