The formation of a new government in Baghdad on Sept. 8 is an important first step toward dealing with the Islamic State transnational jihadist movement. In sharp contrast to the post-Baathist Cabinets formed in 2006 and 2010, only four months have elapsed since parliamentary elections took place. More significant, the new government was formed against the backdrop of a major offensive by a unified militant force, a threat that far eclipses the 2003-07 Sunni insurgency.
The menace of the Islamic State provided the impetus for Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni political principals, and their respective international patrons, to agree on a new government, although the interior, defense and national security ministries have yet to be decided. There are some notable changes in the composition of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s new Cabinet, not least of which is the appointment of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki to the presidential council, holding the Shiite post of vice president. Outgoing parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi assumed the vice presidential position assigned to the Sunnis. Interestingly, Iraq’s Kurdish president, Fouad Massoum, chose to accept three vice presidents rather than two as part of a factional agreement. Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and centrist politician supported by the country’s Sunni minority, came on as the additional vice president.
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Another key change in the Cabinet was the removal of the Foreign Ministry portfolio from Kurdish favor, appointing instead Ibrahim Jaafari, a prominent Shiite politician and close ally to Iran. Outgoing Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari assumed the deputy prime minister post reserved for the Kurds, while noted Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq retained the Sunni deputy premiership. In a similar move to the expanded vice presidency, the Shia gained a deputy prime minister post that went to Baha al-Araji, a major gain for maverick Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose affiliates typically hold less important portfolios.
Iraq’s Kurds were able to gain two additional concessions in the new Cabinet. First, Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq replaced Abdul-Kareem Luaibi Bahedh as deputy prime minister for energy affairs. The new oil minister is not only close to Tehran but enjoys close ties with the Kurds, a relationship Arbil hopes will facilitate future negotiations over the chronic issue of energy exports and revenue sharing. The Kurds also gained a key position in the Finance Ministry with the appointment of Rose Nuri Shaways, who has held a variety of top positions in the federal and regional government.
Not everyone did so well: Hussain al-Shahristani, a controversial associate of al-Maliki, was demoted to minister of higher education and scientific research while his previous post as deputy prime minister for energy affairs was disbanded. Al-Shahristani faced deep opposition from the ethnic minority community because of a long-standing dispute over control of energy resources between the central government and the Kurds.
While the central government said it would resume fund transfers to the Kurdistan Regional Government, the two sides are unlikely to resolve their core energy disagreements anytime soon, especially considering the Kurds’ attempts to export their own oil and control their own energy revenues. Regardless of who is energy minister, Baghdad will continue its efforts to undermine the Kurdistan Regional Government’s energy policies, as well as its prominence in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Despite achieving a basic framework for a government in which the Sunni community has been integrated, getting key Sunni elements to turn against the Islamic State will be difficult. The Sunnis are wary after being persecuted at the hands of al-Maliki, despite a 2007 agreement promising to make them stakeholders in Baghdad.
With al-Maliki still in the presidential council and wielding influence through the civil and military bureaucracies, bringing the Sunnis back into the system will be extremely difficult. The tribal and ex-Baathist core that is attempting to leverage Islamic State aggression will not sell out the transnational jihadist movement without exacting a high price. It hopes to gain a share of the political and security landscape, but more important, it wants a cut of the oil. It is precisely here that Kirkuk becomes a thorny issue: The Sunnis want a major share of the oil fields, and the subject is already a source of tension in the dispute between Baghdad and Arbil over energy resources.
On the security front, the Islamic State-led Sunni uprising will make the finalization of the Iraqi government’s security ministries difficult. The Shia are wary of the Sunnis retaining control of the defense portfolio, while the Sunnis are concerned that the Interior Ministry will go to a person like Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization and successor to the Badr Brigades. Al-Ameri is very close to the head of the overseas operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, at a time when Iran and the Iraqi Shia are employing Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State. The matter of who controls the National Security Ministry, which serves as a secondary intelligence service in the hands of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi polity, also has to be resolved.
Through no small endeavor, the Iraqi government is almost in place, but there are significant issues that have the potential to inhibit international efforts to counter the Islamic State. A unified Iraqi government, able and willing to cooperate with foreign powers, offers the best chance to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, this is why the transnational jihadist movement will be exploiting any opportunity to undermine Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cohesion at the parliamentary level and beyond.