The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq transformed Iraq’s political settlement by ejecting the previous elites from power and by initiating state-building processes with previously marginalised elites
and different governance principles. Iraq’s current day elites and institutions are the inheritors of that process. This review summarises the post-2003 processes that structure the nature of Iraqi
politics today, it then explains how elites exercise power within these processes, and who those elites are.
Key findings of the nature of political power and how power is exercised include:
- Ethno-sectarian identities have always been present in Iraq, but have deepened since 2003. The US-led invasion changed the political settlement by disbanding the Ba’ath Party (and its favouring of Sunnis), while the previously marginalised Shia community gained power post-2003, due to its larger population size, and its central role in the constitution process. The Kurds also gained power as the Kurdistan Region became autonomous, with its own government, president and parliament. The constitution thus institutionalised and reinforced ethno-sectarian divides and claims to power.
- The constitution was drafted and approved very quickly and is widely acknowledged not reflect a national consensus. By excluding key Sunni politicians and their followers, this exclusive elite bargain has contributed to transforming the insurgency in Iraq into a sectarian war. Many Sunnis rejected the state-building processes initiated in 2003.
- Sectarian-based patronage and corruption followed from the re-articulation of Iraqi politics along sectarian lines.
- Elections play an important role in shaping how elites exercise power, particularly with other elites. And while they are the main mechanism for changing the elites indirect control of the central state apparatus, they act more to ‘reshuffle’, rather than substantively change, who is in and who is out (Haddad, 2017)
- Elite-citizen relations have been damaged by weak state capacity to deliver basic state services, by the disenchantment with divisive sectarian politics, and by anger at increasing poverty, inequality and corruption. Calls for reform are growing, as embodied by the protest movement that started in 2015.
- Political violence has been endemic as the state has been unable to withstand pressure from local, national, regional, and international state and non-state actors. This weakness has to allow rival factions to compete for control and influence (Mansour, 2018a). However, the widespread Sunni rejection of the post-2003 order may be waning, as they tire of war, and as the fight against ISIS1 went some way to uniting groups across Iraq.
- Tribalism as a source of social and political organisation has been declining over the decades. However, its legacy is strong and tribal ties ‘often take precedence over national loyalties and broader ideologies’ (Marr & Al-Marashi, 2018, p.16)
Key findings of Iraq’s elites include:
- Central government elites – the May 2018 elections saw a surprise result as Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Sairoon” coalition won the most seats, but not enough to be an outright winner. Negotiations are ongoing.
- Intra-Shia rivalry – The current political settlement is shaped and contested by the intra-Shia rivalry between three political blocs, finds Mansour (2018a, p.15-17):
- The Sadrist movement led by al-Sadr and joined to a large non-sectarian protest movement. The coalition derives power and legitimacy from its ability to assemble demonstrations and protests.
- A right-wing Dawa faction led by Nouri al-Maliki. The faction derives power and legitimacy from its role in fighting ISIS since 2014 through paramilitary groups and militias, its close relations to Iran, Maliki’s previous public popularity, and through his approach of targeting opponents.
- The Nasr coalition, led by the current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The coalition derives power and legitimacy from ISIS’s defeat, al-Abadi’s successes in improving key ministries, and in gaining support to fight ISIS from allies beyond Tehran.
- Sunni and Kurdish leaders ‘remain weak due to internal rivalries, weak institutionalisation, and their off-and-on boycotts of Baghdad’ (Mansour, 2018a, p.15).
- Sunnis have not had strong political representation since 2003 due to: the deliberate exclusion of representative Sunni leaders from governance processes, the rejection of the post-2003 democratic processes by many Sunnis, de-Ba’athification, and Sunni distrust of Sunni politicians (Seloom, 2017). But this may be changing.
- Kurds post-2003 were very influential in Iraq’s political settlement, gaining autonomy, land and resources. However, their influence waned significantly, as they rejected Iraq’s political system, and boycotted parliament and the central government, thus losing their foothold in it.
- Iraq’s public sector ministries are largely under the control of the central government elites, and their patronage networks.
- A range of non-state armed groups has emerged in Iraq seeking to capture resources and power in the vacuum left by the weak Iraqi state, poor governance, and endemic conflict post-2003 (especially the threat of ISIS and the collapse of the Iraqi army).
- Religious elites play a central role in political and social life, especially for Shias.
- Economic elites are restricted by weak growth in the private sector, outside of the oil sector.
A medium amount of literature was found during this rapid literature review – the majority of it focusses on the party political elites that control, and compete over, central government, and its
patronage networks. There was very little literature focussed on religious or economic elites. This review includes sources from think tanks, policy, academia, and some news reports/blogs, where
necessary, for an up-to-date perspective on the 2018 election. The literature is gender-blind and does not include information on disability.
The literature is somewhat contradictory in that it universally describes Iraqi elites according to their sectarian affiliation, and discusses how elites use sectarian identity to mobilise people and
achieve political gains. Yet it also critiques the use of sectarian analysis as relying on a simplistic ‘populist primordialism’ (Dodge, 2018), and as being ‘never fully convincing or useful on its own’
and ‘is especially dated today’ (Haddad, 2017, p.2). While this review uses sectarian terms to frame and organise the analysis, it does so by understanding identity to be socially constructed
(Fearon & Laitin, 2000, p.843).