Despite the promises of Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Mohammed Allawi, to address the demands of protesters that drove his predecessor from office, his nomination has been met with universal derision by the demonstrators. With good reason, they view his candidacy as emerging from the heart of the corrupt, sectarian, Iranian-controlled order that they seek to transform.
On February 1, Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated Allawi to be Iraq’s next prime minister. Allawi has 30 days to form a government that would replace the caretaker regime of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in late November in the face of mass demonstrations demanding an overhaul of Iraq’s post-2003 political system.
Allawi is an Islamist-leaning Shiite and former member of parliament who served two terms as Iraq’s minister of communications under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In cabinets marred by thievery, Allawi reputedly was less corrupt than his colleagues. Much like Abdul-Mahdi, Allawi is more gray administrator than political power broker, claiming the backing of no party and lacking any independent base of support. But also like Abdul-Mahdi, he is a man of the post-2003 system, not outside it, which crosses a red line that the protesters have articulated for months.
Making matters infinitely worse for Allawi was the fact that his candidacy was so clearly born of a backroom deal brokered by an Iranian axis that forms not just the core of Iraq’s current governing order, but the leading edge of its bloody months-long campaign to repress the protest movement.
The key Iraqi players responsible for Allawi’s appointment were Hadi al-Ameri and Muqtada al-Sadr, both pillars of Iraq’s current system of Islamist spoils and out-of-control militias. Not coincidentally, their agreement on Allawi was finalized in Qom, the spiritual capital of Iran’s Islamic Republic, where Sadr (often mischaracterized as an Iraqi nationalist) regularly resides for extended periods.
Amiri, who fought with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, heads one of the most powerful factions in Iraq’s parliament. He is the longtime head of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia created, armed, and funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Badr for years has dominated Iraq’s Interior Ministry and has played a major role in the government’s repression of the protests, resulting in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.
Sadr is a populist anti-American Shiite cleric who commands a parliamentary bloc that won the greatest number of seats in the 2018 elections. Though a mercurial figure subject to dramatic policy reversals, Sadr has also been a staple of Iraq’s increasingly toxic post-2003 order, milking government ministries and wielding his personal militia to bolster the wealth and power of the Sadrist movement.
As Reuters reported this week, Lebanese Hezbollah also played a central role in putting Allawi forward. Tasked by the Iranian regime to expand its role in Iraq following the United States’ targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani (the general who masterminded the IRGC’s Iraq strategy), Hezbollah reportedly brought significant pressure on Sadr, Amiri, and Iran’s other Iraqi proxies last month to agree on a new prime minister, ultimately settling on Allawi.
Confirming protesters’ deep suspicions, on the day of Allawi’s nomination Sadr dispatched his militia to commence a week-long rampage against protest centers in Baghdad and across Iraq’s Shiite heartland, culminating in a massacre in Najaf on February 5 that killed at least eight.
With a provenance so clearly dependent on the likes of Amiri, Sadr, and Hezbollah, Iraq’s protesters have rightly concluded that Allawi’s nomination is far more likely intended to salvage Iraq’s Iranian-dominated order than transform it. U.S. officials would be well-advised to proceed from the same assumption.
John Hannah is senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from John and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.