Iraq: A Functioning or a Failing State?

State Functionality in the Middle East & North Africa

I am currently working on a book entitled State Functionality in the Middle East and North Africa. This will examine how power and sovereignty is exercised in six Arab majority states, and how each of these states function in the context of complex and unstable political dynamics. Full details of this project are below. The paper on Iraq is complete and can be read via the PDF below. What then follows is a summary of its findings and the paper’s conclusion.

Summary of ‘Iraq: A Functioning or a Failing State?’
This research paper examines the structure and exercise of power in Iraq. It considers the competing interests both within and external to the state, and how these contribute, or not, to state functionality. The paper provides some historical context, but its primary aim is to address the current situation and the prospects for stability going forward. Political instability continues to threaten to spill-over into violent street confrontation, reflecting a stalemated factional struggle for power. In the process the legitimacy, coherence and functionality of the Iraqi state is being further undermined. 
The research is based mainly on extensive interviews conducted with key Iraqi political and social figures.
Some Key Points
Muhasasa (the quota-based apportionment of resources and jobs) is ingrained in the Iraqi state and in its wealth disbursal. Muhasasa will not die easily given intra-sect pressures and the influence of regional actors and their political and financial patronage. Muhasasa runs deeper than the three main ethno-sectarian groupings. The ‘majority’ government proposed by Moqtada Al-Sadr wouldn’t change it. Quotas would still be required to ensure that those factions politically ‘representing’ the three main sectarian groupings are able to adequately service their distinct interests, especially as they would be more vulnerable to rivals within their own sectarian camp but outside of government.
Sub-state and para-state loyalties to local or regional actors/ideologies weaken the Iraqi nation-state. Important ministries like interior, oil, and defence are less an expression of state power and functionality, than a platform for any major militia and/or political movement (Shia, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish) to use for power, patronage and protection of their sub-state networks.
Foreign states (US, Turkey and Iran included) and foreign non-state movements continue to contravene Iraqi sovereignty. This fuels political resentment and even legitimacy for sub-state actors whose armed and organisational capacity is asserted in defence of their ethno-sectarian group or, rhetorically, of Iraq itself.
The state is weak even if government measures look strong. A state, and a state leadership, without legitimacy can wield power, perhaps brutally as under Saddam Hussein, but the state itself will not be strong. Following decades of war and international sanctions, by the time of its wholesale foreign occupation in 2003 the Iraqi state was barely functioning.
Security is a factional and inter-factional business, compounding state weakness. Security whether over borders or oil fields and pipelines is militia business, and money trumps sect. Just as muhasasa is deeply sectarian and para-sectarian at the same time – all are ‘in the tent’ – then these smuggling networks cannot be fully cleaned up. Security, and the state’s inability to ensure it, is key to corruption, and in turn compounds the state’s failure to properly control its oil, borders, and much else.
There is greater loyalty to sub-state identity than to the Iraqi nation or the Iraqi state. Consequently, Iraqi national identity is compromised. National belonging is something felt but weakened by the effective political institutionalisation of sectarian belonging: Shia, Sunni (Arab) and Kurdish. Tribes are both a Shia and a Sunni social and political backstop, and a platform for militia power. National identity has weakened as Iraq has grown older. This is a perhaps surprising contrast with the efforts and partial success, albeit state-led, of younger countries in the Gulf.
Federalism is a crude way to try to hold disparate sectarian interests together. Federalism needs a strong centre. In Iraq in the 2000s the ‘Shia-stan’ version of federalism, and the Kurds’ ongoing ethno-sectarian ambitions in Kirkuk and the struggle to control its oil, further weaken the centre and threaten state break-up.
Sovereignty is managed by factional compromise, not held by the head of the government or the people. Sect will remain a key instrument of political power in Iraq; one that will continue to inherently weaken the state as an instrument of national power and as an expression of national sovereignty. The state will continue to struggle to function because sovereignty is diffuse or fundamentally compromised by non-state, semi-state and para-state actors.
Iraq remains a struggling state, and this research paper shows that there is little that can coalesce to make it a more coherent, functioning entity. The formation of a new government (delayed since the October 2021 elections) would make muhasasa operate more smoothly, not that it isn’t functioning in the absence of a formal government. Ministerial post-holders – whether caretakers or not – utilise their position to serve their interests and that of their faction and its popular base. The assumed inclusion of all significant political factions, from across the main ethno-sectarian groups, in a new government, presumably without the Sadrists, would enable business as usual. For this to be remotely stable though the Sadrists would need to be accommodated by means other than the parliamentary road to patronage that they departed from. Perhaps budgets in the hands of non-elected Sadrist officials in ministries or via the Baghdad and Basra governorates would do it. If the Sadrists are not accommodated in a new ‘national government’, then Sadr, who wanted to end the politics of the militia, will increasingly publicly assert his own militia’s strength on the street. Another ‘Battle of the Knights’, like the last Maliki-Sadr face-off, will beckon.
Sadr’s attempted Tripartite Alliance government with a Sunni Arab alignment and the leading Kurdish faction, reflected a perceptible weakening of Iranian influence in Iraq, even though Nouri Al-Maliki allegedly privately accused Iran of having supported Sadr’s past ambitions. The Sadrists believe Iran (and its ‘High Commissioner’, the IRGC Qods Force chief Esmail Qani) has encouraged Maliki to propose an anti-Sadrist PM. This rhetorical spinning aside, the reassertion of the ‘national’ government option by Maliki and his Shia allies reflects the fact that this Shia political plurality were never going to surrender power easily, and that they knew they could count on discreet Iranian backing, even if Tehran is not the player in Iraq it was under Qassim Suleimani. In this context a continued Kadhemi premiership could be the preference of the Iraqi Shia political plurality, the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds, and Iran. Kadhemi, after all, has no political base, enjoys good relations with the ‘enemy’ (the US), and is unable to seriously restructure the Hashed Al-Sha’abi. The leading Hashed militias may not be Iranian tools, but they are not an Iraqi nationalist enemy of Iran either.
As long as the rhetoric of militia reconstruction does little to alter the Hashed’s shadow role as the armed wing of leading Shia political forces, whether Maliki’s Da’wa, Hadi Al-Amri’s Badr, Qais Khazali’s Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and others of an even more overt wilaya hue, then Iran will be content and Iraqi sovereignty will remain an oxymoron. The US will seek to persuade whomever the nominal Iraqi ‘Commander-in-Chief’ is, that loosening the Iranian lines of political and militia influence is an important part of a wider regional realignment in which pre-eminent Sunni Arab-led states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt (together with Jordan), are hoping to include Iraq. Iraq will probably be a member of any Arab club that is going, as long as Israel isn’t visibly present. Iraq’s foreign minister will sit in any fora that may encourage Baghdad’s ‘normalisation’ with Iraq’s former Arab brethren. That foreign minister is and will be a cypher for the wider internal and regional Iraqi status quo in which Baghdad isn’t master of its own house.
In the north, Baghdad will contest with Irbil for Kirkuk and the control of oil (court decisions do not affect practise, it seems). However, the Baghdad Government will let other Iraqis fight Turkey as the latter constrains ‘foreign’ Kurds in Iraq and makes a nonsense of either Iraqi or would-be (Iraqi) Kurdish sovereignty. As Turkey bombs parts of the Iraqi north, so too does Iran assault Iraqi territory indirectly, or in recent months even directly. Unusually, Iran admitted in March 2022 to bombing what it said was a ‘Zionist’ (Israeli) target in the KRG capital Irbil. However, this was equally likely to have been an Iranian-attempted but unsuccessful coercion of the KDP over its (since failed) participation in a three-way Sadrist-led majority government, and resentment at the presence of Iranian Kurdish militia. The US’ reconfigured military role inside Iraq remains contested and controversial, even though many Iraqi factions (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd) do not wish the US’ infringement of Iraqi sovereignty to end just yet.  
Outside of the machinations of formal executive power, sub-state identities, and to extent para-state identities, look set to run counter to state coherence and strength. A state that does not function properly always enables default space for identities and social formations for popular support and even some political weight. This remains the case among Sunni Arabs even as ‘tribe’ is neither the state-incorporated construct nor the intermediate force it once was in Iraq. Among the Shia, tribe is likewise a platform for social and political support and, for Hashed Al-Sha’abi militia especially, influence. 
Iraq’s regional and international ‘allies’ continue to make a nonsense of Iraqi statehood, often assisted by Iraqi clients pursuing sub-state interests concomitant with those of their external sponsors. A truly national government, whose component parts are not calculating their political decisions based on sub and/or para-state interests, remains illusive in Iraq, if it ever existed. Iraqi state functionality does exist, but in sovereign security or economic terms it is often by accident rather than design.
Sovereign authority isn’t lent to the Iraqi state by Iraqi citizens equally capable of withdrawing this consent. Sovereignty in Iraq is a painfully negotiated compromise between powerful armed political groups asserting state writ when that fits with their own sectional interests, and equally withdrawing approval for state action if that does not accord with factional considerations. The literal security of the state and thus of the citizenry is determined or directly undermined by competing state, sub-state, para-state and even anti-state actors. Iraqi state sovereignty is an awkward by-product of armed groups, not the supposed outcome of popular sovereign will.
September 2022
​​​​Book – State Functionality in the Middle East & North Africa
I am currently working on a book entitled State Functionality in the Middle East and North Africa. This will examine how power and sovereignty is exercised in six Arab majority states, and how each of these states function in the context of complex and unstable political dynamics.  All six countries struggle to function according to the conventional norms of sovereign statehood. Military power is diffuse and not accountable to, let alone controlled by, the designated state leader. National allegiance is compromised by sub-state and para-state identities and fealties, state resources are appropriated by sub or para-state interests and external actors (state and often related militia) impose their interests on the ‘host’ state, thus rendering it even weaker.  
The book will consist of six chapters of approximately 15,000 words each, and will be based on first-hand interviews with local political, governmental, military and business actors at both senior and mid-level. It was conceived following a trip to Iraq in October 2021 where I was struck by the disconnect between the surface expression of sovereignty in the form of a fiercely-contested election campaign, and how the state functions outside of any supposed sovereign oversight by parliament. The Iraq chapter is now complete and the ideas behind each chapter can be seen below.
Please note that I am actively seeking a publisher for the book in its entirety. (For full proposal please contact me). 
Iraq (complete – see summary above) 
This provides an examination of the contemporary exercise of political, armed and economic power in Iraq and how much power is rooted in the institutions of state. It assesses whether these expressions of power are accountable, and whether they relate to national sovereignty, or sub or para-state identities or loyalties. It contrasts Iraq’s open and highly competitive parliamentary elections with the seemingly paradoxical weakness of the Iraqi state. It asks how much state coherence has been undermined by direct external intervention, whether military or economic, by state and non-state actors. It also examines the legacy of Iraq’s own military expansionism and the damaging disconnect between an externally-imposed political model and the reality of how power is actually wielded.      
This chapter will examine why the Yemeni state is struggling to function. In doing so it will explore how conflict and secessionism have weakened the prospect of a united republic. It will ask where political and armed power and sovereignty actually sit in Yemen today, and consider whether the exercise of power in the north for example, has the rudiments of a coherent state. It will ask if the practise of political and armed power throughout Yemen is contrary to state sovereignty and may in some instances even be an expression of foreign sovereignty. The proposed federal power sharing will be considered for its relevance to how power is exercised in Yemen, and to how the protagonists see their political ambitions being realised. Whilst this chapter will not seek to be an exercise in political futurology, it will reflect on the range of foreign and local interests vying for territorial leverage and what this says about the prospects for state survival in Yemen. 
The October 2021 military coup overthrew what had widely been described as a ‘regime change’ supposedly achieved by the ‘revolutionary’ assertion of civilian authority in 2019. However that coup threw into sharp relief the ongoing reality of the Sudanese state. This chapter will take the October 2021 events as the starting point for an examination of the nature of political power in Sudan in order to assess where state authority really lies. It will test the notion that the diffuse array of armed forces, militia and intelligence bodies is actually a loose alliance of old regime interests who, together with residual ideological allies and some powerful external friends, have maintained their authority at the expense of both state coherence and popular consent.  
A loose state apparatus maintained by coercion and economic patronage has, since 2011, barely functioned due to civil conflict following externally-backed regime change. What is left of Libyan state functionality is mostly subservient to the national interests of external powers. This raises serious doubts about the capacity of the Libyan state to exercise national authority, despite or because of its energy assets. Tacked on to the largely externally negotiated Libyan political process is the supposed ‘cure-all’ of another national election. This chapter will assess the relevance of these formal processes to the real exercise of power in Libya – both foreign and domestic – and what this means for any meaningful expression of Libyan state sovereignty. 
The apparent end of over a decade of civil war will be the start point for examining where state sovereignty lies in Syria. The regime’s reassertion of authority in formal terms was symbolised by the May 2021 presidential election victory by Bashar Al-Assad against highly constrained ‘rivals’. At the same time external dependence on Russia and Iran enables the Syrian political leadership to assert its authority even in the face of these foreign powers’ manipulation of sub-state interests to their own advanatge. In addition, uninvited external actors, Turkey and the USA, play a militarily interventionist role that, by choosing to favour or disregard sub-state actors, undermines national sovereignty. This chapter will explore the complex array of domestic sectarian and foreign-related actors vying for authority in Syria where the war appears to be over but the struggle for real state power continues.   
A state whose functionality has long been rendered incoherent by its externally-connected sectarian and highly corrupt political class, has been challenged by a popular and largely youthful demand for a genuinely new and non-sectarian order. The only way that the ongoing political impasse could be envisaged as being resolved was to yet again reproduce the symptoms of a failed political system by holding another election. This speaks volumes about the ongoing crisis in Lebanon. Sovereign authority isn’t in the hands of either voters or their supposed confessional representatives, but is arguably shared between the holders of unaccountable and non-state armed power who have shown a renewed and highly dangerous willingness to wield it directly on the street. This chapter will explore these issues in order to better understand the extent of state failure in Lebanon. 
(In relation to this project, on March 18 2022 I spoke on  ‘The Future of State Functionality in the Middle East’ in a panel of the same name, which formed part of the Policy Studies Organization’s ‘Middle East Dialogue 2022’ conference. The PSO organised the four day conference in partnership with the American Public University (APU) and the American Military University (AMU).)
Senior Fellow of the Next Century Foundation, Neil Partrick, is currently working on a book entitled State Functionality in the Middle East and North Africa. It will examine how power and sovereignty is exercised in six Arab majority states, and how each of these states function in the context of complex and unstable political dynamics. As part of this process, he has written a paper on Iraq, entitled ‘Iraq: A Functioning or a Failing State?’. READ THE FULL PAPER HERE.

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