Iraq has been going through a political stalemate since the parliamentary elections in October 2021. While followers of the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr secured the most seats, he was not able to form a coalition government neither with other Shia political parties nor with the Sunnis and Kurds. Frustrated by the impasse, Al Sadr withdrew his party from the parliament in June, but when his rivals tried to form a government in August, his followers stormed the Iraqi parliament. The political feuding between the parties is expected to continue and is likely to undermine Iraq’s fragile political stability. In the meantime, foreign powers, including Iran, the US, and Turkey, are also getting involved in political negotiations in different capacities in order to shape the future of Iraq.
In this context, Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency, paid an official visit to Iraq on September 11. In Baghdad Fidan met three Iraqi leaders, namely Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, Falih Al-Fayyadh, the chairman of Iraqi popular forces, and Khamis al-Khanjar, the leader of the Sovereignty Alliance. There is no official statement about the content of the meetings. Yet, sources close to the Sovereignty Alliance point out that the head of the Turkish intelligence went to Baghdad to convince the Sunnis to continue the political process and attend parliament sessions that would enable them to form a new government. After meeting with Fidan, the Sunni leaders indeed rushed to Erbil to discuss the matter with Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani where the parties “stressed the need for constructive dialogue to resolve the political impasse before holding early elections.” The Sunni Sovereignty Alliance led by al-Halbousi and al-Khanjar and the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani were backing the “Saving the Homeland” coalition formed by al-Sadr, which failed to create a government.
Turkey already enjoys a strong relationship with the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Erbil. Observers believe that Turkey endeavors to play a significant role with the Sunnis in Iraq as well that would be comparable with the Iranian influence over the Shiites in Iraq, though without antagonizing Iran. Therefore, it will not be a wonder if Ankara and Tehran have a mutual understanding about engaging the Sunnis and the Kurdistan Democratic Party in forming a new government to break the political impasse.
Fidan also reportedly dealt with the security problems between Turkey and Iraq by asserting that Ankara will continue its military operations in the Iraqi territory as the PKK is still operational in the country. Erdoğan had previously declared that Turkey intended to create a 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone along its southern border with Syria and Iraq.
A striking aspect of Fidan’s visit was the absence of Turkey’s ambassador to Baghdad in the talks with the leading political figures in Iraq. While some argued that his total absence was due to the fact that the meetings were about security and intelligence, not diplomacy, a Turkish ambassador would never squander any opportunity to meet Turkey’s head of intelligence or preeminent political figures in the country where he is posted. The most probable cause is that the Turkish Foreign Ministry is not fully included in the decision-making mechanism regarding sensitive issues for the Turkish government. Turkish intelligence has the first and last say in matters such as Turkey’s relations with Iraq, Syria, Israel, Libya, and Egypt. Thus, the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad was not invited to the meetings. Similarly, when President Erdogan received al-Halbousi and al-Khanjar in Istanbul in February, Fidan attended the meeting, while Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu did not.
On the other hand, the US is watching the recent developments closely as well. Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, spent a whole week in September in Baghdad and Erbil, where she met with a range of senior government officials and political party figures, including President Barham Saleh, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Parliament Speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi. According to the power-sharing arrangements of the Iraqi constitution, partly modeled after Lebanon’s defunct political system, the prime minister must be a Shiite, the parliament speaker a Sunni, and the president, that mostly has ceremonial power, a Kurd. Barbara Leaf urged Iraqi political leaders “to come together for an inclusive dialogue to make important compromises that will chart a way out of Iraq’s current crisis over government formation” while emphasizing the importance of al-Sadr’s voice.
Iran is also directly involved in recent developments, although intra-Shia feuding between the Sadrists and the Coordination Framework has undermined its influence over Iraq. The Shia clerical Al-Sadr is known for his opposition to the meddling of Iran and the US into Iraq’s politics. Iranians are backing the Coordination Framework, a political umbrella for political parties aligned with Iran, which argues for establishing a new government and opposes renewing the elections. In any case, compared to other countries, Iran still has a more significant influence in Iraq thanks to its cultural links with the Shia majority in the country and its very presence in the field with Iranian-aligned militia groups and security forces.
Whether early elections or the formation of a government, what should happen next is still hotly debated among the Iraqi elites. Al-Sadr declared that he was retiring from politics, although he has probably been working behind the scenes to gain the upper hand in Iraqi politics. Other political parties with their foreign backers are also considering their next move. Unfortunately, the failure of the Iraqis to form a viable and functioning government risks unleashing further chaos and enables foreigners to meddle in the formation of the government.