- The defeat of ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ project in Iraq, together with the national and provincial elections due in 2018, presents a renewed opportunity to halt the cycle of failure and repair that has undermined efforts to assert national cohesion and win citizens’ confidence in government institutions since 2003. The last opportunity to do so emerged in 2008–10, only for temporary success to disintegrate by 2014, when ISIS rapidly seized control of a third of Iraq’s territory.
- Most significant to this new round of state reinforcement is likely to be the breakdown of the monolithic ethno-sectarian blocs that have characterized previous government-formation cycles. With Iraq’s Shia, Kurdish and Sunni leaders now less able to rally or unify their constituents based principally on identity politics, intra-community rivalries will be seen to define the next stage of state reinforcement.
- The current mood in Iraq is generally one of cautious optimism. Although Iraqis are now more supportive of state institutions, they are also concerned that the root causes that led to the rise of ISIS have not been adequately addressed. As such, many are placing a new emphasis not only on defeating ISIS, but also on countering corruption through effective state-building and better governance. This common cause is evident in the breadth and endurance of the reformist, cross-sectoral protest movement.
- Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are now largely focused on securing influence and legitimacy within the Kurdistan Region, rather than in forging a stronger Iraqi state, while the Sunnis – in the absence of a long-established or well-developed political party to take forward their interests – still have little leverage in Baghdad and look for more local solutions.
- The country’s Shia power-brokers will thus continue to dominate after 2018, but the three main political actors have appreciably different visions of statehood. Former premier Nouri al-Maliki – closely associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces – presents himself as the ‘strongman’ who is needed to deliver a strong state; his long-time rival, the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is using the protest movement to push for strong institutions; while incumbent prime minister Haider al-Abadi, frequently embroiled in political manoeuvring between and against these two, has invested significant effort and reputational capital in strengthening the state security sector. All will claim credit for the liberation of Mosul from ISIS.
- It is unlikely that one camp will win outright control in 2018. The struggle for dominance of the key ministries, and the future of the constitutionally mandated independent commissions, is thus likely to prove a key indicator of the prevailing power balance and direction of state reinforcement.
- The intra-Shia rivalry also has implications for the dynamics of the US–Iran relationship in Iraq. It is now unlikely that Tehran and Washington will see eye to eye as regards what is in Iraq’s best interests. It can be expected that Iran will continue to support Maliki and his allies, as in previous election cycles, whereas the US will favour Abadi and others who want to mitigate Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.