In 2003, Iraq emerged from decades of dictatorship during which political dissent was highly dangerous and brutally repressed. In consequence, at the time of the US invasion there was little familiarity in Iraqi political culture with broad-based, institutionalised political parties, using politics as a venue for forging difficult compromises between opposing factional interests, or acceptance of the functionality of the rule of law in a democracy. Moderating political practices and institutions (e.g. parliamentary management, courts of law, organs of state) largely did not exist, or did not function in a meaningful sense. Instead, most political parties such as Da’wa or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – existed outside of the country. Their leaders and dissidents returned en masse in 2003 with ideas and entitlements, but not with recent governance experience or even socio-economic familiarity with life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The religious centres of Najaf and Karbala had kept the flames of social resilience, public duty and social obligation alive, but they had been stripped of their political role as the deaths in the 1980s and 1990s of a number of prominent religious leaders, such as Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, Mohammad Taqi al-Khoei and Mohamad Sadiq al-Sadr, testified to..
It is in this context that the 2005 constitution defined Iraq as a unitary federal state with a ‘republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic’ system of government. Discussed, written, put to a referendum and a parliamentary vote in the span of barely two years, while being boycotted by the country’s Sunni population, the Iraqi constitution introduced a set of governance principles, terms and conditions that were poorly understood, contested and inadequately thought out in terms of their implications for the actual business of governance. Plenty of practical, but highly important, issues – such as the precise authority of different bodies of state and the division of power between key public roles – were deferred to later parliamentary decision making. These decisions were subsequently gridlocked in sectarian strife and engulfed in the flames of the Sunni guerrilla resistance to US forces, the Sunni-Shi’a civil war, and internal Shi’a violence. Major ‘meta-rules’ – i.e. rules that govern political contestation about rules, such as the political parties law – do not exist, remain vague or are not implemented, with little prospect for improvement since the resulting ambiguity largely suits Iraq’s political elites.
Together with the fact that many of Iraq’s leaders lack democratic experience, it should therefore hardly have been a surprise that a major gap opened up in Iraq’s nascent democracy between its governance model as laid down on paper and its actual practices of rule. Iraq’s constitutional framework rapidly transformed into a practice in which politicians are nominated and appointed based on their ethnic or sectarian identity rather than their politics, ideas, merit or competence. This system is known as Al-Muhasasa. Although it has no formal legal basis, it grafted easily onto existing ethno-sectarian identities that had been forged in the fire of the Ba’ath regime’s repression and collective punishment of Iraq’s Shi’a and Kurds. Today, it continues to form the basis of Iraqi politics, although it is facing growing dissatisfaction across broad swathes of the Iraqi population, transcending ethno-sectarian divides, because of the poor output it produces (see Section 5). To its credit, it can be argued that Al-Muhasasa has managed to maintain a degree of political stability at the elite level over the past 16 years and ensured a fair, albeit somewhat symbolic, representation of most of the ethno-sectarian groups that make up Iraq’s diverse society.
The Al-Muhasasa system is applied top-down throughout the Iraqi government. Essentially, it combines a pre-arranged division of top-level political executive functions between Iraq’s main ethno-sectarian groups – Sunni, Shi’a, Kurds and minorities – with a points system to take care of the actual distribution of jobs between particular parties and coalitions within a given ethno-sectarian group. The points system is based on parliamentary seats and gives parties or coalitions the basic political capital to negotiate for jobs if they decide to explore the possibilities of forming a ruling coalition. For example, a party or coalition with 48 seats in Parliament had 24 points ‘to spend’ during the formation of the 2018 government.
To start with, the offices of President, Speaker of the Parliament and Prime Minister – the ‘three presidencies’ – are staffed by respectively a Kurd, a Sunni and a Shi’a by prior agreement. A party or coalition needs to spend roughly 15 points to obtain one of these positions, or 10 to obtain the position of one of their deputies on the proviso of an ethno-sectarian match. As to ministries, these are informally divided using the approximate formula: 54% Shi’a, 24% Sunni, 18% Kurdish, 4% minorities. Thus, in Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet of 22 ministries, 12 ministries are allocated to Shi’a, 6 to Sunni, 3 to Kurds, and 1 to minorities (usually the Christian community). A further distinction must be made between the ‘sovereign ministries’ that have greater status, authority and budgets (Interior, Finance, Oil, Foreign Affairs and Defence) and other ministries as well as bodies of state. Since 2006, based on a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, a Sunni controls the department of defence and a Shi’a the Ministry of Interior. The finance and foreign affairs ministries are split between the Shi’a and Kurds. If the Kurds take the finance ministry, a Shi’a minister assumes the foreign affairs ministry and vice versa. To actually obtain any of these ministries, parties or coalitions must spend five points on a sovereign ministry and four on another ministry or body of state. Only coalition parties with a meaningful number of seats in the Parliament assume ministerial posts. Ministries with little political influence and/or small budgets are sometimes allocated to minorities or women. Positions pre-allocated to women tend to be divided on ethno-sectarian grounds and usually held by women with strong affiliations to the main political parties. The result is that they tend to be party ‘yes-women’ rather than representatives of their gender. Finally, it should be noted that the points system is applied with some flexibility. In other words, if the situation warrants it, deviations can occur. A good example is the political deadlock in respect of the presidency in 2018. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could not agree on a candidate and so both nominated one. The Iraqi Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the PUK candidate – Barham Saleh – although it had only 18 seats in Parliament. The points system is a set of guidelines rather than carved in stone.
Political parties also vie for posts at the provincial level. By acquiring the governorship of a province for one of their members, a political party obtains appreciable influence over the province's budget, bureaucracy, resources and state-funded projects. Iraq’s federal system enables the governor and his council to function with a considerable degree of autonomy, but governors are financially dependent on Baghdad and encumbered by burdensome bureaucracies at federal and provincial levels. Resource leakage typically occurs at both points: upon the transfer of funds from Baghdad to a province and within the provincial bureaucratic system. Provincial bureaucracies are highly politicised and entrenched mechanisms of corruption and nepotism allow officials to direct substantial funds towards their party and allies. Leakage increases when several larger parties enjoy sizeable representation in the bureaucracy of a particular province as they each seek to appropriate a part of the provincial resources and budget. In such cases, levels of public service provision tend to deteriorate further. Basra exemplifies this kind of situation, which helps to explain the recurrence and increasing size of protests in this province (see Box 1 below).
Governance in Basra province: Partisan interests replace public services
Over the past 10 years, no single party or coalition has been able to dominate Basra province, home to Iraq’s greatest natural resource wealth. Al-Hikmah, Da’wa (State of Law) and the Sadrist movement are well established there, and recently Badr and Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq have emerged as political competitors. The result has been a fierce competition over Basra's resources, which range from the procurement of gas and oil subcontracts, control over border crossings with Iran and Kuwait, a significant provincial budget, and control over seaports and major public infrastructure projects.
The competition between these parties is exemplified by the recent struggle over the governor's office. In 2017, Assad Al-Eidani (Al-Hikmah) was appointed governor via a political deal between all key parties. However, a series of partisan political incidents in 2018 – Al-Eidani supported Al-Abadi in the 2018 elections, Al-Abadi blamed Basra’s government for the summer protests and Abdul Mahdi expanded the governor's executive powers so that Al-Eidani could credibly threaten to act independently – renewed the fight over this office. Initially, the Sadrist movement sought to remove him from office altogether. However, as other political parties in Basra realised that this could cause more instability, the governor remained in place. Today, he is strongly opposed by the Hikmah movement that originally nominated him. Political parties have also zealously guarded their entrenched networks in the provincial bureaucracy, while Basra and its residents continue to suffer poor public administration and public services.
Ali Saleem, Z. and M. Skelton,
Basra’s Political Marketplace: Understanding Government Failure After Protests, Sulaymaniya: IRIS, April 2019, online; Skelton, M. and Z. Ali Saleem,
The politics of unemployment in Basra: Spotlight on the oil sector, Sulaymaniya: IRIS policy report, 2019.
For an account of the rise of the Ba’athist dictatorship, practices of collective punishment and methods of rule under Saddam Hussein: Blaydes, L., State of repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Princeton: PUP, 2018.
See: Makiya, K., The rope, New York: Pantheon books, 2016.
This period is analysed in detail in: Makiya (2016), op.cit. (especially in ‘A personal note’ towards the end of the book); also: Al-Qarawee, H., Imaging the nation: Nationalism, sectarianism and socio-political conflict in Iraq, Rossendale Books, 2012.
Blaydes argues that the relatively poor ‘legibility’ of these communities to the regime – due to e.g. their language (Farsi among Shi’a religious students and Kurdish among Kurdish communities), their autonomy and their transnationality – forced the Ba’ath regime to resort to collective punishment more than it would have liked. This strengthened ethno-sectarian identities based on collective grievances. Blaydes (2018), op.cit.
For example: Al-Monitor, ‘Basra protests’, 29 June 2019, online (accessed 25 July 2019). It should be noted that the use of sectarianism as political tool to mobilize popular support has been declining as it lost its effectiveness, but that the use of sectarianism as a mechanism to distribute political power is alive and well. The latter is the essence of Al-Muhasasa. See also: Dodge, T. and R. Mansour, ‘Sectarianization and De-sectarianization in the Struggle for Iraq’s Political Field’, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Vol. 18:1, pp. 58-69, 2020.
Gilgamesh Press, 21 October 2018, online (Arabic) (accessed 25 July 2019).
Arguments over the top-level staffing of these ministries after the September 2018 elections meant that it took until June 2019 to form a government. The different parties could not agree on each other’s nominations. See: Mansour, R., Iraq’s 2018 government formation: Unpacking the friction between reform and the status quo, London: LSE, 2019.
Arabi Post, 14 August 2018, online (Arabic); Al-Hermizi, A., Middle East Online, 21 November 2010, online (Arabic) (all accessed 23 July 2019).
Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s cabinet did not feature a single female minister. See: Yaseen Taha, Daraj, 29 October 2018, online (Arabic) (accessed 15 July 2019).
Lena Imad al-Musawi, Ultra Iraq, 16 January 2019, online (Arabic).
Mohammed Sadiq al-Hashimi, Al-Medar, 3 February 2019, online (Arabic) (accessed 15 July 2019).
Iraqi New Network, 24 November 2018, online (Arabic) (accessed 15 July 2019).