The Iraqi politician capable of building strong relationships with the West and American partners while simultaneously sending positive messages to both Tehran and the Arab surroundings, is undoubtedly the statesman that Iraq needs and deserves. However, has Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani continued this approach after becoming the prime minister of Iraq since October 13, 2022?
The answer may rest on the one skill shared by all great statesmen: juggling.
The Coordination Framework (CF)—a collection of Shiite parties united against Muqtada Al-Sadr, an anti-Western Shiite cleric who leads the Sadrist Movement that wants to expel all U.S. from Iraq. But although the CF controls parliament, it does not control Al-Sudani, who was largely appointed as CF’s candidate for prime minister because Al-Sadr, whose constant argument is that all of Iraq’s political elites are corrupt, would never be able to cast doubts on Al-Sudani’s background and integrity.
The CF and Al-Sadr do have one thing in common: they both blame the West, and particularly the United States, for Iraq’s two decades of unending woes and current financial troubles. Al-Sudani, however, understands that categorically rejecting U.S. influence and removing its military presence would have far-reaching economic and security consequences that could upset Iraq’s fragile stability. And, unlike many former Iraqi prime ministers, the new prime minister is independent in his decisions.
The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 of Iraq that resulted in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and deaths of about 200,000 Iraqi citizens paved the way for the spread of ISIS fighters. This prompted the United States to deploy thousands of its troops back to Iraq and Syria in 2014, after having declared withdrawal in 2011. This was done to bolster efforts in combating ISIS, which had seized vast territories in both countries. Despite the defeat and significant leadership losses suffered by ISIS, UN experts reported that the organization still retains an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 members across northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. For this reason, there are still 2,500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq along with an additional 900 in Syria.
The last commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq after the invasion, Lloyd Austin, is now the U.S. secretary of Defense. During a March visit with Al-Sudani in Baghdad, Austin told reporters that U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq “at the invitation of the government of Iraq.” The prime minister has provoked the discontent of both the coordinating body and Al-Sadr alike by prolonging this invitation, as he understands what the coordinating body doesn’t comprehend.
CF leaders view the remaining U.S. troops in the country as a threat to Iraqi sovereignty; Al-Sudani views them as security against the Islamic State. The prime minister made it clear in January that he supports a continued Western military presence and does not have a timetable for an American withdrawal, commenting, “I don’t see this as an impossible matter, to see Iraq have a good relationship with Iran and the U.S.”.
The U.S. forces have reshaped their roles in Iraq, focusing on “advising, enabling, and assisting,” and concentrating on enhancing the capabilities of the Iraqi forces by providing equipment and ammunition. On the political front, both the United States and Britain can contribute to paving the way for Iraq to become a “voice of moderation and democracy in the Middle East” by supporting the Sudanese reforms aimed at establishing an Iraqi political system based on accountability.
The 2008 U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) ensures productive ties across a variety of sectors, including security, economic development, health, and the environment. Having focused heavily on promoting U.S. businesses in Iraq, soon after Al-Sudani took office U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski tweeted: “The Strategic Framework Agreement will guide our relations with the new Iraqi government.” Further strengthening the U.S.-Iraqi relationship, the prime minister won Washington’s praise by implementing demands to stop dollars being smuggled through Iraq to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
In reality, Al-Sudani is following through on his campaign promises of economic development and anti-corruption efforts. He has introduced his $17 billion Development Road project that includes, among other advancements, multiple 746-mile two-way high-speed rail networks and a new highway originating from the Grand Port of Al Faw that will link Asia to Europe, generating $4 billion annually and creating at least 100,000 jobs.
In a May meeting in Baghdad with representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council , Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan, Al-Sudani announced, “We see it as a cornerstone for a sustainable non-oil economy, serving Iraq’s neighbors and the region and contributing to efforts for economic integration.” The World Bank agreed. Its representative in Iraq, Richard Abdulnour, said the project is necessary for “unleashing the geographical potential of Iraq.”
In June, Iraq’s parliament approved the prime minister’s $153 billion budget that includes hiring more than half a million new public sector workers to help relieve the country’s high unemployment rate, raising the total cost of public wages and pensions to more than $58 billion. To help pay for it, the budget also takes steps to address long-standing issues between Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, with its oil revenues set to be deposited in an account overseen by the Iraqi central bank.
Under an agreement signed between Baghdad and Erbil in April, Iraq’s state-run marketing company SOMO will have the authority to market and export crude oil produced from fields controlled by the Kurdish region. Al-Sudani has also courted foreign investment, including reviving a $27 billion deal with TotalEnergies and QatarEnergy to develop Iraq’s oil and gas output.
If there is one area that Al-Sudani is estranged from within the Iraqi system, it is corruption. Transparency International ranks Iraq 157th among 180 countries listed on its Corruption Perceptions Index, the leading global indicator of public-sector corruption. To underscore his commitment to battle corruption, the prime minister arrived at Iraq’s Federal Integrity Commission seven days after he assumed office to review progress on the investigation he ordered into the embezzlement of at least $2.5 billion in tax revenues between September 2021 and August 2022.
In November 2022, Al-Sudani delivered a televised statement about the recovery of 182.7 billion Iraqi dinars (almost $140 million): “Our actions continue against those who enabled these companies to control these funds, some of whom are directors and officials under political or security cover. Any individual mentioned in the investigations and proven to be involved will be arrested ... and anyone who misappropriates public funds will face the law.”
On March 4, 2023, arrest warrants were issued against former Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s minister of Finance, along with the former prime minister’s political advisor and private office director. This was in relation to what is known as the “the heist of the century.”
As prime minister, Al-Sudani operates quietly and only appears in the media when the occasion demands it. As a candidate, instead of offering empty promises, he threw his weight behind decentralizing power and empowering local governments by holding elections for provincial councils, amending the general election law, and announcing his intention to hold early parliamentary elections. This was sufficient to garner the support of the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish coalitions in choosing him as the prime minister. This support must continue, however. Without a minimum level of popular support rallying around him, the prime minister, no matter how much effort he puts in, will not be able to achieve his objectives.
Unfortunately, in late March Iraqi lawmakers passed controversial amendments to the country’s election law that increased the size of electoral districts and redrew the electoral maps to have Iraq return to one electoral district per each governorate, thus giving a great advantage to major political parties at the expense of smaller parties and independent candidates. Iraq’s provincial elections are slated for December 18, the country’s first local vote in a decade. The Iraqi government has not yet scheduled the next general elections. The painful reality is that reducing the chances of success for independent candidates in the Iraqi parliament hampers the effectiveness of Al-Sudani’s efforts to combat corruption and hinders achieving substantial improvements in the political structure and reform.
At the outset of his tenure, Al-Sudani faced skepticism from some critics both within and outside the country regarding the positions he would adopt due to his proximity to the Coordination Framework, which includes forces close to Iran or aligned with it. Critics were concerned that Al-Sudani would merely perpetuate the status quo of the past two decades. However, many of these individuals and foreign governments completely changed their perspectives when Al-Sudani demonstrated an unexpected independence from parties, blocs, and coalitions.
On April 18, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Al-Sudani to commend his on-going efforts to reach an agreement between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government on the export of oil through the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline and management of oil revenues. And during a visit to Baghdad in May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf described Al-Sudani’s agenda of economic reform and anti-corruption as “exactly what the doctor ordered,” adding, “We will support this government working through those steps.”
Yet I believe that Western countries that are still apprehensive, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, should reconsider their previously held positions built on inaccurate assumptions or, let’s say, rushed and premature judgments about Al-Sudani as “Iran’s man.” Both Western countries have the potential to play an extremely significant role in Iraq, and their support can assist the prime minister in facing the formidable challenges that he and his government confront, particularly since he displays courage and boldness in addressing complex and sensitive issues.
And one example of these complex issues came in Al-Sudani answering Great Britain’s recent call for help. After separate meetings in the capital cities of Baghdad and Erbil last month between UK Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat, Al-Sudani, and Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, the three governments are prepared to sign an agreement of intent to share information and work together against organized immigration crime, human trafficking, narcotics, and money laundering. “Many of the criminal gangs who operate small boat crossings in the English Channel operate out of Iraq, which is why I’m working with our partners in Baghdad [and Erbil] to bring them to justice,” Tugendhat said on the final day of his three-day visit.
It is, of course, too early to definitively label the actions of Al-Sudani as successful, but his steps are commendable, whether at the domestic or regional level. He has leveraged his prior experience in government, his lack of involvement in the deeply entrenched corruption in Iraq, his geographical affiliation with southern Iraq (one of the country’s poorest regions), his independence from external influences—unlike many Iraqi politicians who are beholden to foreign powers and may also hold foreign citizenship, and his balanced, non-inflammatory speeches. He utilized all of the above to gain popular legitimacy prior to the parliamentary elections and to garner the support of the Iraqi people despite their traditional political affiliation.
And if Washington and the West wish to rely on a suitable ally, Al-Sudani might be the preferable choice. The prime minister is a true son of Iraq. His history shows he has never been aligned with either the West or the East, and, unlike Al-Kadhimi and most of Iraq’s current political elite, Al-Sudani remained in Iraq his entire life rather than living in exile under Saddam Hussein’s regime, which killed his father and five other close family members. His lifelong service to Iraq has earned him the respect and trust of not only his allies but his adversaries and political rivals.
Relying on former prime ministers Haider Al-Abadi (2014–2018), Adel Abdul Mahdi (2018–2020), Al-Kadhimi (2020–2022) and other politicians has proven to be a losing bet, indicating a lack of deep understanding of Iraq’s history or its future potential. Thus, it’s possible that Washington, the West, and moderate Arab countries are seriously reviewing whether this prime minister might indeed be the long sought-after leader capable of bringing about the change and stability needed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. This is because no one, not even his fiercest rivals, doubt him, his trustworthiness, his patriotism, or his potential to be a statesman and leader in the Middle East.
Those seeking quick victories within the first ten months of Al-Sudani’s tenure will certainly not find them; Iraq’s current situation does not permit such an outcome. However, sustained and relentless efforts will define the tenure of this government. I am well aware that political acumen and reform promises, even when put into action, are not sufficient to recover from years of political stagnation, administrative and financial corruption, the public’s loss of trust in the state and its institutions, economic crisis, political polarization, external interference, and renewed terrorist threats from organizations like the Islamic State.
I recognize that rectifying the situation in Iraq necessitates a comprehensive reform project encompassing the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. Overturning the current state of chaos is not achieved solely through institutional reforms, even if they are radical. It also demands a profound transformation in the culture of governance. All of these are challenging and extremely difficult tasks that require concerted efforts at the popular, official, and international levels.
Therefore, what I call the “New Iraq” project is not just Al-Sudani’s alone; if it is, it will surely fail. It should be an Arab project, especially in light of the positive atmospheres prevailing in inter-Arab diplomacy and the emerging signs of unity within the Arab ranks overall. I pray that the significant efforts exerted by today’s Iraqi prime minister will be positively embraced and encouraged by his Arab counterparts. Furthermore, if the United States reevaluates its strategy in Iraq, it can support the prime minister’s anti-corruption efforts and reforms by applying economic pressure on corrupt entities through judicious use of sanctions, rendering corruption an unprofitable endeavor for them.
Once again, it must be emphasized that the path of reform in Iraq is long and arduous, demanding efforts that might at times exceed current capacities. Nevertheless, what instills positivity is the presence of will and grit, clear traits in the new prime minister determined to lead Iraq’s public institutions with integrity and efficiency despite 20 years of obstacles. Iraq possesses considerable economic and political potential, the utilization of which is attainable under Al-Sudani’s leadership.
Granted, if he goes against the wishes of the Coordination’s Framework leaders, Al-Sudani could lose their support for his government. Yet the prime minister is using his skills to make his agenda indispensable even to skeptics in the CF.
By convincing some of the CF hard-liners that their own security and interests are best served by adopting his tactic of maintaining a juggling act between Iraq’s relations with Iran and the West, Al-Sudani may well make them more dependent on the success of his agenda for their own future than he is beholden to them for his political survival. If successful, Iraq will have found the stateman—and master juggler—it so badly needs in Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani.