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A not-so-historic deal: Iraq’s post-IS vision runs into trouble

The 'historic settlement' was supposed to unite post-IS Iraq; instead, scepticism reigns supreme in country already beset by sectarianism
Iraqi Shia Muslim leader Ammar al-Hakim, head of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), addresses religious conference in holy Iraqi city of Najaf on 11 June, 2015 (AFP)

A political reconciliation plan, spearheaded by the leader of Iraq’s Islamic Supreme Council Ammar al-Hakim, promises to heal Iraq and unite its warring factions.

Named the "historic settlement, the initiative is built on the areas around which Shia and Sunni political blocs can unite after Mosul’s liberation from the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Islamic Supreme Council is part of Iraq’s largest Shia political coalition, the National Coalition (al-Wataniyya), and issues ranging from domestic and regional security, terrorism, and political arrangements are all on Hakim’s proposed agenda.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi (R) speaks with Ammar al-Hakim during a parliament session in Baghdad on 8 September, 2014 (AFP)
The terms – if agreed upon – are to be enforced in partnership with the United Nations Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the king of Jordan, among others.

Against the backdrop of relentless fighting, Hakim has praised the stage of political maturity in Shia-Sunni relations, and called on all parties to abandon “their illusions and fears”.

However, not everyone shares Hakim’s conviction – including members of his own alliance.

Some are unconvinced that it can open the way to an equitable Iraq, while others view it with suspicion - and as yet another play for political influence in the post-IS era.

Bargaining in the shadows

The ambiguity of clauses concerning sectarian rule, power sharing, wealth redistribution, terrorism and corruption has resulted in fierce disapproval of Hakim’s plans in some quarters.

Ahmad Mahmoud, an analyst from the Foreign Relations Bureau of Iraq (FRB-I), a London-based opposition group, said that the "historic settlement" is “just a big name without substance. It offers an escape route instead of initiating genuine reconciliation.”

The promise of bringing Sunni representatives back into the political fold, he said, “is little more than a myth”.

Ammar al-Hakim addresses a religious conference in the shrine city of Najaf on 16 October, 2014 (AFP)
As part of the settlement’s initial terms, it was decided that IS and Baath Party figures would be excluded from the negotiating table.

But this has reportedly been overturned by the Jordanian government, according to Al Monitor.

In an article published earlier this month, the website claimed that the inclusion of Baath figures was a precondition laid down by King Abdullah. These claims have not been verified by the party.

Baath representative Salah al-Mukhtar denied claims that they were invited to participate: “Possibly this was said to market the initiative."

In the early discussion phase, Hakim, as well as representatives from Iraq’s two largest Sunni blocs, met with King Abdullah – but in separate trips.

The Sunni politicians invited included Osama al-Nujaifi from the Mutahidoun bloc, and Saleh al-Mutlaq from the al-Arabiya bloc, both of whom are members of the existing political establishment.

Iraqi Shia writer and intellectual Hassan al-Alawi in Baghdad on 16 January, 2010 (AFP)
Hassan al-Alawi, a veteran Shia politician and intellectual, said that Hakim was not in Jordan to discuss the settlement: "Hakim went to renegotiate bilateral relations, first with regards to Sunni representation, and second crude oil and natural gas deals between the two countries.

“It is therefore not wrong to read this entire attempt to ‘resettle’ political differences as farce,” Alawi added.

Groups excluded from the existing political establishment offered similar readings of Iraq's latest episode of state-imposed solutions.

“We have observed developments and, as we predicted, nothing has come to fruition,” Sheikh Muthanna al-Dhari, the general secretary of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (AMSI) said.

He added that the plan itself lacks the full approval of the parties that form the ruling, Shia-dominated government coalition: “The claim itself, that the ‘historic settlement’ was launched by the alliance, is misleading. The plan was hatched and pushed for by the Hakim branch, but in absence of consent from other branches.”

No longer welcome

Al-Dhari also questioned whether Hakim himself has the ability to lead dialogue and conciliation, accusing him of being one of the several beneficiaries of corruption in post-2003 Iraq.

The views of AMSI have been echoed by other voices from across the political spectrum.

In an interview on Iraqi satellite TV channel Al Mada, famed Iraqi Shia writer and thinker Ghalib Shahbandar ridiculed Hakim and what he described as “his latest trick.”
Ghalib Shahbandar’s searing comments on Iraqi TV (Arabic)

“As elections near, Hakim knows the Iraqi street is no longer his to control. He can no longer hide behind the slogan of injustice, for he is unjust, or the promise of providing services he has repeatedly failed to supply. This initiative is merely his latest slogan.”

He described Hakim and his close aide Humam Hamoudi as "bourgeois" figureheads and far from “suitable candidates to kick-start reconciliatory dialogue”.

Mahmoud, the London-based analyst, also spoke critically of the timing of the plan: “Convenient, no, that these promises are being trotted out months before Iraqis cast their local election votes.”

Iraq after IS

The blueprint, once finalised, can only be implemented after the total defeat of IS.

“And herein lies the problem,” said al-Dhari. “Who can guarantee peace in liberated territories?

"Moreover, how can the words of politicians who accepted a quota system imposed under occupation that destroyed the possibility of peace be trusted?”

Mahmoud believes the settlement will pave the way for the revival of the Sahwas, the Sunni movement that defeated al-Qaeda and became a key pillar of America's counterinsurgency strategy during the Iraq war.

Policy-makers have since referred to it as the greatest military deal struck in US history, but the Sahwas’ influence waned dramatically under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"The involvement of wealthy Sunni businessmen in Hakim's scheme with weak political credentials" has raised alarm that Hakim’s historic settlement may hand liberated provinces such as Mosul back to the Sahwas, Mahmoud said, adding that they currently "lack popularity and military bearing."

Ammar al-Hakim delivers a sermon at his headquarters in Baghdad on 11 September, 2010 (AFP)
One such businessman is Khamis Khanjar, who assisted US forces as part of the Sahwa.

Khanjar is an Iraqi Sunni multi-millionaire who made his fortune monopolising the local tobacco trade formerly run by Uday Hussein after coalition forces stormed Baghdad.

Some analysts are asking whether the Sunnis Hakim is bringing on board will all be like Khanjar – pillars of the ruling elite – or the millions of disenfranchised Sunnis living in makeshift tents and camps, who are essential for any kind of post-IS stability in Iraq.

“As a former Sahwa operator, Khanjar lacks popular support among Iraqi Sunnis to govern in the communities. What’s more, he does not have a force on the ground. It was America’s invasion that elevated Khanjar to a position of wealth and power,” Mahmoud said.

Opposition voices are not only disputing the propositions on the table, but are also suspicious of the motives of the plan’s conductors and skeptical of their will to undertake genuine political reform.

A Shia mourner holds up an image of Ammar al-Hakim during his father's funeral procession in the southern holy city of Karbala on 29 August, 2009 (AFP)
Alawi, the veteran Iraqi politician, argued that “there can be no settlement without rebuilding trust and consensual mechanisms.”

Coverage of Hakim’s settlement is also taking place within the context of growing fear of government-backed forces, namely the Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces), and allegations of their war crimes.

Groups including AMSI, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly condemned what they describe as “state terrorism” and called for those responsible to be held to account.

“At a time of serious uncertainties,” Mahmoud said, “political manoeuvring by Hakim and others is the last thing that can save Iraq from economic turmoil, institutional malfunction, corruption, terrorism, foreign meddling – and these are only a small slice of the problems in our country.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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