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Special report: The impact of Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections

Special report: The impact of Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections

On 12 May, Iraqis head to the polls to choose their representatives for Parliament. In an environment influenced by the four-year conflict with the Islamic State (ISIS) and the fragmentation of politics, these elections are a critical test.

The context

  • Although most of the territories lost to ISIS have been recaptured, the factors that led to the rise of ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ project still exist today. Government structures are weak and suffer corruption at every level. The economy is inefficient and over-dependent on the oil windfall as well as the state sector.
  • Meanwhile, the war against ISIS has deepened the divisions between the various Shia, Sunni and Kurdish militias involved in the fighting.
  • In addition, in September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held an independence referendum in which Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favor of a split from Iraq, leading to the deployment of military troops in the territory around Kirkuk.
  • Baghdad also has plenty on its plate on the regional geopolitical scene. Iraq is sandwiched between Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime is on the verge of winning a pyrrhic victory, and Iran, whose strategic ambition lies in the creation of a Shia Crescent in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf region.
  • Nonetheless, the victory over ISIS provides a unique opportunity to achieve lasting stability through effective state-building and better governance.

Introduction: A turning point?

The upcoming parliamentary elections may represent an important turning point in Iraqi politics, as the rivalry between current prime minister Haider al-Abadi and his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki has caused a schism within the ruling Dawa party, which has been in power since 2005. Although political splits among the Shia community do not constitute a new trend, the antagonism between Abadi and Maliki, as well as populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s scope of influence, are expected to have a significant impact on government formation.

United in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s oppression for decades, the Shia groups are now deeply divided over the appropriate approach in the task of rebuilding the state. The fight against ISIS also saw the emergence of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a Shia organization of 60 militias with 66,000 fighters, which will run under the umbrella of the Fatah Alliance (Conquest Alliance). Hence, for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, non-sectarian nationalism will play an important role in the balance of votes.

Shia coalitions

Five Shia coalitions will be running in the 2018 elections: the Nasr Coalition (Victory and Reform Bloc), led by current prime minister Haider al-Abadi; the State of Law Coalition, led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki; the Fatah Alliance (Conquest Alliance), led by Hadi al-Amiri, the former Iraqi minister of transportation and the head of the Badr Organization, a powerful Shia militia backed by Iran; Al-Hikmah (Nation Wisdom Movement), led by Ammar al-Hakim, the former leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI); and the Marching Toward Reform Coalition, an alliance of secular groups under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Nasr Coalition

Prime minister Abadi’s Nasr Coalition is supported by Dawa Party members and Sunni forces, including the Independent Bloc as well as former defense minister Khalid al-Obeidi. Originally, the Nasr Coalition, also known as the Victory and Reform Bloc, was supposed to include Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah and Akim’s Al-Hikam movement, but both alliances collapsed over political strife. The Nasr Coalition has campaigned on the theme of transcending sectarian lines, as well as establishing greater authority over the various mix of militia forces involved in the fight against ISIS, including the PMF. Before assuming the role of prime minister, Abadi had already voiced his concern over the proliferation of non-state militias across Iraq, and recentlyissued a decree formalizing the inclusion of the PMF in the country’s security forces.

With regard to Iraq’s external relations, the Nasr Coalition intends to curb Iran’s influence on the country’s military and political spheres, while remaining apart from the US-Iran conflict. Although the Abadi administration worked in close concert with the United States in the fight against ISIS and is determined to foster ties with Washington, it might also need economic support from Tehran for the reconstruction effort. Baghdad’s tough balancing act was reflected in Abadi’s comments in the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, when he declared that “any change in relation between the US and Iran” would be harmful for Iraq.

Abadi’s coalition is in favor of the consolidation of the state in line with the teaching of the late Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr (a distant cousin and father-in-law of Muqtada), an Iraqi Shia cleric executed by the Saddam Hussein regime, who called for a strong state based on the concept of wilayat al-umma (governance of the people) rather than on the Khomeinist’ wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the clerics). Since coming to power in September 2014, Abadi has been squeezed by the rivalry between Maliki and Sadr, which reached its climax in 2012, when al-Sadr joined the Iraqi National Movement (al-Iraqiya) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in an attempt to pass a vote of no-confidence against Maliki, who held the position of prime minister at the time. Although the vote failed, this episode lifted the veil on the intra-Shia rivalry.

Maliki and Sadr have both tried to interfere with the Abadi administration’s action, as highlighted by the 2016 cabinet reshuffle, when the two rivals used their influence in parliament to impose their picks for key positions, including the sovereign ministries of defense, oil and finance. Initially, Abadi had expressed his willingness to appoint technocrats in place of ministers chosen on the basis of party affiliation, or ethnic and sectarian identity. However, the prime minister’s bid failed on three occasions to secure parliamentary approval and was even declared unconstitutional by Iraq’s Federal Court. Abadi was only able to get the nominations of five technocratic ministers, including the oil ministers, but had to make concessions with Maliki and Sadr for the other appointments. Abadi’s failure to end the system of ethnic and sectarian quotas among the government was a blow to his political capital and could cost the Nasr Coalition the votes from a segment of the electorate receptive to non-sectarian nationalism rhetoric.

Abadi’s popularity has been bolstered by the victory against ISIS. According to figures from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 59 percent of Iraqis approved the prime minister’s action in April 2017, compared with just 33 percent in January 2017. Abadi’s fierce response to the threat of Kurdish independence, as well as his anti-corruption policies might have also boosted his approval rating. However, despite his military victory, many perceive the prime minister as a prisoner of the Dawa Party and criticize him for having failed to strike new political alliances during the campaign. Moreover, a recent spate of lethal attacks by remaining ISIS terrorists against security personnel in parts of Kirkuk governorate has brought to the surface insecurity feelings. The resurgence of jihadist elements poses a threat to Abadi’s credibility, as the prime minister has established himself as the country’s commander-in-chief who defeated ISIS. Nonetheless, giving the lack of a clear consensual alternative, Abadi’s relative charisma and his cross-sectarian appeal, the Nasr Coalition still stands a good chance of winning a plurality.

The State of Law Coalition

The State of Law Coalition is under the aegis of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who aspires to return to power, four years after being forced out of office under domestic and international pressures. The alliance enjoys the support of several Shia militias, such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq paramilitary, which consider Abadi as a weak leader. It includes traditional Shia parties such as the Middle Current, led by former national security advisor Muwafaq al-Rubae’, and Preachers of Islam Party, led by former vice president Khudhair al-Khuza’e, as well as other smaller Shia parties.  Blamed for the widespread corruption and sectarian policies that precipitated the fall of Mosul in 2014, Maliki lost the premiership to Haider al-Abadi and was sidelined as one of three largely ceremonial vice-presidents. During the campaign, Maliki has been presenting himself as Iraq’s Shia champion and as the strongman that the country needs. His camp claims that ISIS’ seizure of a third of Iraq in 2014 was not the result of Maliki’s sectarian policy, but the fruit of a conspiracy involving senior Sunni leaders, including the former governor of Mosul and other Kurdish figures within the KDP.

Like Abadi’s alliance, the State of Law Coalition rejects the sectarian quota system (Muhassasa), under which government appointments are made on the basis of sectarian affiliation. However, unlike the Nasr Coalition, Maliki does not believe in a political system relying on inclusive institutions and would likely try to strengthen its grip on the state if he was to return to power. Maliki’s Coalition envisioned the PMF as a means to reinforce state institutions and is favorable to a legitimization of the militias. The Maliki-aligned group believes that armed militias are essential to Iraq’s national security and should therefore not be enshrined by institutions flawed by the muhassasa quota system. The former prime minister and his allies also call for a strong relationship with Iran, which would represent another pillar of Iraq’s security and stability. Maliki believes that Tehran’s military and tactical support was the sole reason why the country did not completely collapse in the immediate aftermaths of the fall of Mosul. He would certainly try to reap the benefits from an enhanced relationship with the Islamic Republic to consolidate his power. In sum, the State of Law Coalition hopes to attract the vote of Iraqis favorable to the return of a heavily centralized state under the leadership of a strong man.

As prime minister, Maliki placed several independent bodies, including the central bank and the electoral agency, under the government’s control. Notably, he moved under his stewardship the office of the commander-in-chief, an extra-constitutional body which gave Maliki effective control over several military units, and staffed it with political allies. He also alienated the Sunni and Kurd minorities, by shutting them out of key security positions and undermining power-sharing. As most Iraqis still hold Maliki accountable for the rise of ISIS, especially in the western and Kurds provinces, the former prime minister’s coalition’s chances of performing well remain weak. However, this election promises to be among the least predictable since the establishment of the democratic system in 2005. If Maliki was successful in his bid to reclaim his crown, it would certainly have a negative impact on efforts to regain the trust of Sunnis in the government. It would also revive tensions over the Kurdish separatist movement, as president of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani recently statedthat he will declare independence if Maliki returns to power.

The Fatah Alliance (Conquest Alliance)

The Fatah Alliance is a result of a schism within the ISCI, which has been one of Dawa’s major rivals for decades but has not been able to recover from the split with its military arm, the Badr Organization, which left ISCI during the 2014 parliamentary elections campaign to join Dawa’s State of Law coalition. The Fatah Alliance was formed by PMF and includes ISCI’s traditionalists and members of the Badr Organization, which has become the strongest individual group among the PMF. It is led by Hadi al-Amiri, the former Iraqi minister of transportation and the head of the Badr Organization. Fatah’s campaign echoed a religious rhetoric and a firm willingness of restoring the rule of law across the country. With regard to external relations, this alliance holds negative views of the US involvement in Syria and is in favor of maintaining close ties with Iran, as its core member, the Badr Organization, is backed by Tehran.

This coalition is expected to do well in the elections, as its militiamen enjoy a considerable degree of popularity for liberating the country from ISIS’ yoke. Fatah is especially popular in the southern governorates of Dhi-Qar, Basra, Misan, Diwaniya, Najaf, Karbala, and other Shiite pockets in Baghdad, Diyala, and Wasit. It could also perform well in several Sunni areas, including Mosul, Salahaddin, Kirkuk and Diyala governorates.

Al-Hikmah (Nation Wisdom Movement)

Al-Hikmah is another product of the divisions within the ISCI. The coalition was formed by Ammar al-Hakim, who broke with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in July 2017, amid tensions with ISCI’s old guard. Hakim wants to appear as a moderate cleric, acceptable within the Sunni world and free from Iran’s influence. He seeks to appeal to a younger and more progressive generation of Iraqis. Although Al-Hikmah’s non-sectarian rhetoric has been positively received by different segments of the electorate, the movement is perceived as the weakest Shia coalition.

The Marching Toward Reform Coalition

The Marching Toward Reform Coalition includes a wide range of elements, including the Iraqi Communist Party, the Sadrist movement (Istiqama) as well as other leftists and secular groups. It is led by Although an alliance between a religious movement and a secular party appears paradoxical, this coalition has been leading a dynamic anti-corruption campaign and is expected to gain seats. Several small Sunni and secular groups have joined the Sadr-led alliance, which has focused its discourse on the widespread corruption among governmental structures on the need to move away from the muhassasa system. Notably, Muqtada al-Sadr has established himself as fierce of critic of Iran’s interventions in Iraq and is generally opposed to any meddling by external countries, including the United States.

Sunni coalitions

The Sunni political landscape suffers from long-standing divisions between parties and still has not completely recovered from the large displacements of population caused by the war against ISIS. Last January, Sunni lawmakers called for the elections to be postponed to December 1, but they were met with fierce opposition from Shia and Kurdish parties. Moreover, large segments of the Sunni electorate have grown disillusioned with Sunni politicians, following claims that corrupt Sunni officials have been forcing displaced families to pay bribes in order to receive internally displaced persons’ relief. In this context, Sunni leaders have gathered around two primary lists: the al-Qarar Al-Iraqi coalition, and the al-Wataniya Alliance.

The al-Qarar Al-Iraqi Coalition

The al-Qarar Al-Iraqi Coalition is led by Osama al-Nujaifi, one of of Iraq’s three vice presidents, along with his brother Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of the Niveneh Province. This group includes members of the Mutahidoon (United) Alliance and the Arab Project led by Sunni businessman Khamis Khanjar. Although their coalition will contest elections in Mosul and other Sunni-dominated provinces (such as Nineveh, Saladin and Anbar), it does not have a national reach. It is also under public scrutiny, as Atheel al-Nujaifi is still facing an arrestwarrant for allegedly allowing Turkish troops during his governorship.

The al-Wataniya Alliance

The al-Wataniya Alliance is an anti-sectarian, nationalist, secular coalition under the aegis of former prime minister Ayad Allawi. It has joined a coalition with Salim al-Jabouri, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, and former deputy prime minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq, who now heads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. During the campaign, Allawi’s coalition has been advocating for national reconciliation and opposing outside interferences. Although the al-Wataniya Alliance’s campaign has been successful in transcending ethnic and sectarian lines, it is undermined by prime minister Abadi’s popularity among the Sunni community. This should not prevent Allawi from gaining significant shares of votes among nationalists, secular Shia and Sunni in major cities such as Baghdad and Ramadi.

Kurdish parties

The Kurdistan Alliance (al-tahaluf al-Kurdistani) comprising the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that ran in previous elections no longer exist. Although the Kurds played the role of kingmaker in the selection of the prime minister in 2010 and 2014, fragmentation within the Kurdish political spectrum has significantly weakened their prospects for the 2018 elections. Notably, in August 2017, PUK leader Barham Salih left the party to form the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ). In October 2017, Shaswar Abdulwahid, a Kurdish businessman and media mogul, founded the New Generation Movement. As a consequence, in a shift compared the united front during the previous ballots, the 2018 elections include five Kurdish lists: Goran (Movement for Change)the PUKthe KDPthe New Generation Movementthe CDJ.

The referendum independence held in September 2017, which resulted in a 93 percent vote in favor of a split with Iraq, pushed the Iraqi military to seize control of disputed territories, including the oil-rich Kirkuk. The referendum has exacerbated existing tensions between the different parties, amid accusations that the PUK ceded Kirkuk to the federal government, which significantly affected the Kurds’ bargaining power with Baghdad. Moreover, the loss of disputed territories will certainly cost all Kurdish parties seats in the assembly, which will ultimately constrain the KRG in its ability to influence Iraqi political dynamics.

The recent waves of protests in the province – in December 2017 in Sulaimaniya and March 2018 across the Kurdistan region – testified of a widespread feeling of resentment among the Kurdish population against the ruling elites. In the light of the KRG’s growing fiscal deficit, which has resulted in three years of unpaid salaries and rising public debt to local creditors, it is unlikely that the region’s economic outlook will improve on the short-term. Under these circumstances, it will prove difficult for the KDP and the PUK to dominate Kurdish representation in Baghdad.

Goran (Movement for Change)

Led by Omar Said Ali, a former senior PUK official, the Goran movement was formed in 2009 in a split off from the PUK and constitutes the most prominent of Kurdistan’s smaller parties. The Movement for Change has campaigned on the theme of Kurdistan’s national unity, although it has voiced its opposition to the region’s independence, citing the poor state of the economy as well as the dependence on the oil manna.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)

Under fire for its tacit approval of the seizure of Kirkuk by the federal government, the PUK also lost its leader Barham Salih, who left the party in August 2017 to form to CDJ. The party has received many hard blows since the 2009, particularly in its traditional strongholds of Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk, and will be participating in the 2018 elections as an independent electoral list, outside of any coalition. The PUK is currently headed by Kosrat Rasul Ali, a veteran military leader from the Peshmerga, a Kurdish armed militia. The upcoming ballot is likely to see the PUK being increasingly challenged by the Goran movement, which is quickly moving to dominate the PUK’s voter base.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

Under the leadership of KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, the KDP has campaigned on familiar themes, including the fight for Kurdistan’s constitutional rights and the region’s independence movement. The party has been blamed alongside the PUK for the loss of disputed areas following September’s referendum, and will likely lose further seats to Goran, the CDJ and New Generation. Moreover, the KDP must also cope with growing criticism over its long-standing patronage network and for the way it handled the March 2018 protests in Erbil, when KDP-affiliated security forces attacked demonstrators and journalists.

The New Generation Movement

The New Generation movement was founded following the independence referendum. Based in Sulaimaniya. It voiced its opposition to the referendum, describing it as “an excuse by Kurdish leaders to remain in power.’ Its leader, Shaswar Abdulwahid, a businessman who owns the NRT media group, was arrested by Kurdish authorities in December 2017 for his alleged role in violent protests in Sulaimaniya and Halabja. He was released on bail and the arrest seems to have bolstered his popularity. New Generation’s campaign focused its criticism on Kurdistan’s tribal power structure and family networks. Although it led a dynamic campaign, it remains the least popular party of the Kurdish political scene.

Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ)

Former in August 2017 by former PUK leader Barham Salih, the CDJ includes former members of the KDP and the PUK. It has established an alliance with Goran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), also known as Komal and which is led by Ali Bapir. On April 23, the three parties signed an agreement to form a coalition after the elections. The CDJ has centered its campaign rhetoric over the high level of corruption within the KRG, and has called for the implementation of ambitious economic plans to curb youth unemployment. As Kurdish politics is more than divided than at any time since the mid-1990s, this tri-partite coalition could further split the Kurdish vote.


 In the light of Iraq’s political scene fragmentation, no single alliance is expected to win a majority of parliamentary seats. Internal divisions within the traditional confessional coalitions are likely to lead to the formation of a grand-coalition government, which is most likely to be led by one of the following four coalitions:

  • Prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr Coalition (Victory and Reform Bloc);
  • Former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya Alliance;
  • The State of Law Coalition, led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki;
  • The Fatah Alliance (Conquest Alliance), under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces and led by Hadi al-Amiri.

Although the outcome of the elections remains unpredictable, al-Abadi’s Nasr Coalition stands the best change of marginally winning most seats. It can be expected that Abadi will stay on as prime minister, given the lack of a clear consensual alternative and his increased popularity in the aftermaths of the victory against ISIS. The prime minister can take credit for the successful restructuration of the Counter-Terrorism Services and the federal police, and for nipping in the bud the Kurdish independence movement. His strong stance on corruption echoes with Iraqis’ frustration over widespread bribery practices within the governmental structures. Although sometimes described as ‘weak’ by his political opponents, it seems that Abadi’s conciliatory style is paying off.

Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya Alliance’s strategy of building cross-sectarian alliances might prove a risky gamble. A secular Shia himself, Allawi’s partnership with Sunni parties, such as speaker of parliament Salim al-Jabouri (Civil Congregation for Reform) and former deputy prime minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq (Iraqi Front for National Dialogue) may turn out to pay off with Iraq’s Sunni electorate. But there are two downside risks to Allawi’s tactic. On the one hand, given voters’ general disarray toward the Sunni political class, they might show little enthusiasm for two figures such as al-Jabouri and Al-Mutlaq, who both come from the Sunni political establishment. On the other hand, some segments of the electorate fear that Baathists might be using Allawi as a means to return to power, as the former prime minister used to be a member of the Baath party before breaking with Hussein’s regime in 1975. Finally, during his short-lived premiership, Allawi’s was often denounced by many Iraqis as an American puppet, a feeling reinforced after he stepped down from power in May 2005.

As explained above, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition will be disadvantaged by the former prime minister’s failure to prevent the rise of ISIS and the fall of Mosul. Moreover, despite undeniable organizational strengths, this coalition is perceived as heavily corrupted, divided and poorly governed, largely because of its affiliation with the Dawa party. Although Maliki can count on the support of a significant number of traditional Shia parties, it is expected to win fewer seats than Abadi’s coalition.

The Fatah Alliance might be able to capitalize on its crucial role in the victory against ISIS and the presence within its coalition of 18 predominately Shia political entities. Notably, besides Amiri’s Badr Organization, Fatah includes Salim al-Bahadeli’s Hezbollah-Iraq, al-Sadiqoun / Asab Ahil al-Haq (League of the Righteous People) led by Qais al-Khazali, and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, which all enjoy solid political capital vis-à-vis Shia electorate. In this way, Fatah will most likely perform well in the Shia-dominated governorates. The rise of this PMF-led coalition poses a significant challenge to the formation of the future administration, especially if Abadi, who has been trying to place Shia militias under his office’s command since 2015, was to maintain his position as prime minister. As some of the armed groups within the PMF still receive financing and strategic support from Iran, they will continue to have the capacity to act outside Baghdad’s control.

Beyond the elections: the challenges of the post-ISIS era

The ballot will play a key role in determining the direction the country will take in the future, in the sense that Iraq’s parliamentary elections are “as much about choosing a prime minister as they are to elect member of parliament,” as former Iraqi ambassador to Washington Rend-Al-Rahim notes. Although ISIS factions have been defeated, Iraq’s broader problems in politics, governance, security and economics persist. Although the list is not exhaustive, three immediate challenges must be tackled on the short term: the blight of corruption, the renewed risk of sectarian and ethnic violence, and dealing with the country’s indolent youth population.


The first challenge that the new administration will have to tackle is corruption, which is perceived by a large part of Iraqis as the single deepest reason they distrust the government. According to Amnesty International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq is the 12th most corrupt nation in the world, ahead of countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, or Central African Republic. In August 2015, Abadi introduced a range of anti-corruption reforms, including rescinding all exclusivity allocated to high government positions, a ban on the application of a quota system on high positions in ministries, and revisiting old corruption cases under the supervision of a High Commission to fight corruption. But it seems that the prime minister’s policies have failed to provide a sufficiently strong integrity framework.

Corruption in Iraq is exacerbated by Saddam Hussein’s legacy, and pervasive corruption across all levels of government and sectors did not disappear after the fall of the dictatorship. According to the Commission of Integrity (COI), an independent Iraqi governmental body established in 2004 to fight corruption, in 2012 alone, 12 ministers, 97 heads of department or higher, 7 parliamentary candidates, and 11 governorate council candidates were charged on corruption grounds. It has also been advanced that corruption significantly contributed to the advance of ISIS in the country. Corrupt practices allowed inexperienced generals to be given prominent roles and resulted in the multiplication of “ghost soldiers,” an expression referring to soldiers on the military’s payroll but who do not exist.

Such a high level of corruption represents a major disincentive for foreign firms seeking to invest in the country. The 2011 World Bank’s Business Enterprise survey for Iraq (the latest version available for the country) indicates that during the course of 2011, a third (34%) of public transactions with private firms involved a gift or an informal payment. Four years of fighting against ISIS certainly did not make things any better. Iraq currently has three main bodies responsible for fighting corruption: the COI, the Inspector General’s Offices (IGO), and the Federal Board of the Supreme Audit. But none of these can effectively tackle corruption. The penal code is still confusing, with forms of corruption such as bribery, embezzlement and fraud still defined as “dishonorable offences,” and therefore still treated as petty crimes. Although Iraq adopted in 2004 an Anti-Money Laundering Act, it falls short of international standards, and whistleblowers still face substantial political pressure.  Hence, the implementation of a legal framework providing judicial institutions with effective tools to fight and deter corrupt practices should be made an absolute priority.

Renewed risk of ethnic and sectarian violence

 Another challenge will be to prevent a new surge of sectarian and factional violence. Although most of the territory lost to ISIS has been recaptured, Iraqi forces remain considerably fragmented between non-state militias and troops under the aegis of the federal government. There is a still of a high risk of clashes between Sunni and Shia communities, especially if Shia militias seek revenge on Sunni civilians for the crimes of ISIS. Moreover, divisions within the PMF could also result in violence. Although sometime perceived as unified umbrella of militias, three competing camps can be identified within the PMF: one camp is affiliated with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; another camp is loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a very influential cleric among the Shia community; finally, a third camp is aligned with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, such as the Peace Brigades (Sarayat al-Salam). If the competition between the various affiliated-militias was to lead to a schism within the PMF, the situation could degenerate into a bloodshed.

 Dealing with an indolent youth population

The next government will also have to cope with Iraq’s youth population. According to a 2016 estimate by United States Census Bureau, the Iraqi population is distributed as follows:

  • 0-14 years: 39.88% (male 7,666,832/female 7,445,633)
  • 15-24 years: 19.07% (male 3,703,302/female 3,572,702)
  • 25-54 years: 33.7% (male 6,499,345/female 6,354,506)
  • 55-64 years: 3.96% (male 720,976/female 790,301)
  • 65 years and over: 3.39% (male 574,521/female 717,907).

In the post-ISIS era, Iraq’s youth population will need job opportunities, which can only be achieved by reducing the country’s economy dependence on the oil windfall. According to public data from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in 2016, the oil sector provided more than 90% of government revenue and 80% of foreign exchange earnings. The CIA also notes that “rampant corruption, outdated infrastructure, insufficient essential services, skilled labor shortages, and antiquated commercial laws stifle investment and continue to constrain growth of a private, nonoil sector.”

As highlighted by the figures above, Iraq’s youth population requires the introduction of dynamic private sector, especially if Baghdad is to eradicate the scourge of radicalization. According to a report published by the World Bank in 2017, youth unemployment and underemployment, as well as the lack of economic opportunities were among the main factors in the indoctrination of young Iraqis by ISIS.


This article was first published on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Leo Kabouche.