Dr. Mohammed A. Salih is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. His research and writing focus on Iraq and regional issues.
In mid-November, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court removed Mohammed al-Halbousi from both the speakership and membership of the Iraqi Parliament. Halbousi, a pragmatic politician, was the most prominent and powerful Sunni Arab politician to emerge in Iraq since mid-2010s. He was a member of the new generation of Sunni political elites who had reconciled with the diminished influence of their community after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 and agreed to take part in the new Shia-dominated order. The Court’s grounds for Halbousi’s removal centered on his role in forging a letter in the name of Laith al-Dulaimi, a former member of the Halbousi-led Taqadoum parliamentary bloc.
Additionally, the Court found fault with Halbousi for dealing with BGR Government Affairs, a U.S.-based lobbying and PR firm, because BRG has former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on its pay list as an advisor. Iraqi law explicitly prohibits engaging with Israel, yet it remains unclear how Barak's association with a U.S. firm can be leveraged as criticism against Halbousi's conduct. The association, however, exposes Halbousi to further judicial prosecution if he resists or creates complications for Shia groups dominating Iraq's political scene. Halbousi's removal from power has been interpreted through various lenses, primarily linked to corruption, personality-driven conflicts within the Sunni camp, and his ambition for power. While he is likely culpable of corruption and other wrongdoing, such behavior is endemic in Iraq's political culture. Hence, attributing Halbousi's downfall solely to these factors is reductive and obscures the broader context of Iraqi politics and its implications for the evolving political landscape.
In essence, Halbousi’s ouster should be read as an outcome of the Shia-Sunni political struggle. As such, Halbousi’s dethroning was, first and foremost, a new episode in the protracted game of the political decapitation of the Sunni community engineered since 2003 by the dominant Shia groups in charge of Baghdad. Therefore, seeking the ultimate reasons for Halbousi's downfall should not focus solely on his personal shortcomings. Who decides when and why a particular law is violated in Iraq is primarily political, selective and a matter of inter and intra-community politics and balance of power. While Halbousi's willingness, following the 2022 parliamentary elections, to circumvent his former Shia allies and align with Muqtada al-Sadr, the primary rival of the ruling pro-Iran Coordination Framework, hastened his downfall, his removal aligns with the established pattern of overthrowing prominent Sunni politicians in Iraq.
Halbousi's removal from power has been interpreted through various lenses, primarily linked to corruption, personality-driven conflicts within the Sunni camp, and his ambition for power. While he is likely culpable of corruption and other wrongdoing, such behavior is endemic in Iraq's political culture. Hence, attributing Halbousi's downfall solely to these factors is reductive and obscures the broader context of Iraqi politics.
Prominent Sunni figures, from former Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi to former Finance Minister Rafeh al-Issawi, former Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak, and former Nineveh Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, have systematically been sidelined over the past decade and a half under charges of corruption or terrorism— it is noteworthy and raises questions that no prominent Shia politician has ever faced similar charges. Halbousi stands as the latest in a series of events that is likely to persist. Hence, it is important to realize that despite public weariness of sectarian politics, sectarianism remains the fundamental force shaping Iraq's divided politics at the elite level.
The broader ramifications of Halbousi's removal will reverberate through the landscape of Iraqi politics and its future trajectory. This has dual consequences, first, propelling additional turmoil that risks destabilizing the Sunni political arena by dismantling one of its key pillars. Halbousi's rivals currently reveling in his ouster expose the deep-seated political divisions within the Sunni camp. However, this jubilation may prove myopic, as whoever emerges as relatively dominant in the Sunni political scene post-Halbousi should anticipate a similar fate in the coming years.
While Halbousi's willingness, following the 2022 parliamentary elections, to circumvent his former Shia allies and align with Muqtada al-Sadr hastened his downfall, his removal aligns with the established pattern of overthrowing prominent Sunni politicians in Iraq.
Secondly, beyond the immediate Sunni context, Halbousi’s ouster has to be read as part of an aggressive campaign in recent years by Shia groups, particularly pro-Iran factions, to assert full dominance over the Iraqi state. This involves consolidating control over all levers of power by weakening Sunni and Kurdish rivals. Such an approach contradicts the post-2003 political contract in Iraq and further jeopardizes the prospects of a stable, equitable, and functional political process and system.
Moreover, the Shia factions' pursuit of power and dominance could incite resistance from within the Sunni and Kurdish communities, potentially inviting further intervention by neighboring countries alarmed by Iran and its allies' attempts to establish unchallenged control over Iraq.
The periodic attacks by Iran-aligned armed groups against the territories and/or interests of neighboring countries would provide further incentive down the road to domestic and regional counter-campaigns. Such backlash could potentially escalate into violent forms, reminiscent of patterns observed from the 1960s to the late 2010s in Iraq.
Those watching Iraq have legitimate cause for concern given these recent political developments. A crucial reset in Iraq's political process is imperative to establish a balance of power between the three Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities. Without this recalibration, the drive for dominance by specific factions, particularly pro-Iran groups, threatens to destabilize Iraq and its immediate surroundings sooner rather than later.