Who Will Be the Next Prime Minister?

The next Iraqi government will need the vote of confidence of a majority of parliamentarians—at a minimum, 163. No single party comes even remotely close to having enough seats, so the new government will need support from more than one coalition. The need to ensure representation for all ethnic groups complicates the formation of the government.

The four major players in the formation of the new government are the four coalitions with the largest number of votes (Iraqiya 91 seats, State of Law 89, Iraqi National Alliance 70, and the Kurdish Alliance 43) It is quite possible that these alliances will break up in the process of forming a government and that new ones will emerge.

There is a distinct possibility that neither Nouri al-Maliki nor Iyad Allawi will form the next government, although they head the two coalitions with the largest number of seats.

Possible Contenders

Maliki and Allawi remain in the running, but former prime minister Ibrahim Jafaari is again being mentioned, as is vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi. Jaafar Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a cousin of Moqtada al-Sadr who was elected on the State of Law Coalition, is the latest and most interesting addition to the list of rumored possible prime ministers. Another frequently mentioned but less likely candidate is Minister of Finance Bayan Badr Solagh, supported above all by ISCI.

Maliki’s Personal Challenge

Maliki is not acceptable as prime minister to some of the Shi’i parties in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), who would otherwise be open to joining the State of Law Coalition, which Maliki currently heads. Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls 39 of the 70 seats won by the INA, is particularly adamant in his rejection of Maliki, who unleashed the Iraqi military on his militias in Basra and Najaf in March 2008. Other members of the INA, including Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq’s leader Ammar al-Hakim, have also hinted that they would prefer a different prime minister.

While the Kurdish parties, which would need to be included in the government to ensure stability, do not seem to object to Maliki personally, Sunni parties are a different story. Maliki will probably have difficulty in convincing Sunni organizations presently part of Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition to join him. His support for a ruling that banned candidates accused of being Baathists considerably dimmed his chances for Sunni support. The strong election showing for Maliki’s State of Law coalition may thus be followed by his personal defeat and the selection of a different prime minister.

Allawi’s Struggle for Unity

Iyad Allawi’s problem is different. The main obstacle to his efforts to form a government is not the idea of him as prime minister, but the nature of some of his allies so far.

Allawi’s Iraqiya won 91 seats in parliament largely because of the Sunni vote. Of the some 2.5 million votes received by Iraqiya, about 2 million were probably cast by Sunnis, which makes it more difficult for Allawi to attract Shi’i parties in the INA to his coalition, which he needs to form a government. However, the likelihood of Allawi’s success would increase if Maliki refused to step aside in favor of another Shi’i candidate. To make matters worse, some of Allawi’s Sunni supporters are unacceptable to the Kurdish parties, whose support Allawi would also need. Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a member of the Iraqiya list, angered the Kurds by declaring that the next president of Iraq must be an Arab, not a Kurd. Osama al-Nujeifi, another Iraqiya member, has also angered the Kurds with similar nationalist statements. As a result, Allawi may not be able to assemble enough support to form a government.

Ibrahim Jaafari

National Reform Movement/Iraqi National Alliance

As an Islamic Dawa Movement member since 1966, Ibrahim al-Jaafari rose through the party ranks to become one of its leading figures. He was forced to leave Iraq in 1980, spending the next two decades in Syria, Iran, and Great Britain. He returned to Iraq in 2003, becoming first spokesman for the Dawa Party and then one of two vice-presidents in the 2004–2005 interim government. In January 2005, after the United Iraqi Alliance’s victory in Iraq’s first elections, Jaafari became prime minister in the transitional government. His rise was facilitated by his ties not only to the Dawa party, but also to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq), which he helped set up in the early 1980s in Iran.

During his tenure in office, Iraq experienced high levels of sectarian strife, the rise of sectarian militias and death squads in the streets and even some ministries, and an increase in corruption. Sunnis and Kurds in particular believed that the government was complicit in the violence directed against them. As a result, after the December 2005 elections, under great pressure from representatives of the Sunnis and the Kurds, Jaafari was replaced as prime minister by Nouri al-Maliki, another leader of the Islamic Dawa Movement.

Over the next two years, Jaafari disappeared from the public scene amid rumors of conflict within the Dawa leadership. He made a political come back in 2008, announcing the formation of the National Reform Movement, a new political party that would fight sectarianism, sectarian quotas, and militias.

Jaafari had not spoken to or visited with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki since al-Maliki succeeded Jaafari in 2006. However, since the March 2010 elections, Jaafari has taken a more conciliatory approach with his former party and with Maliki. After the election results were announced, Jaafari visited Maliki for the first time in two years and he has expressed support for an alliance between his coalition and Maliki’s.

Jaafar Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr

Independent/State of Law

Jaafar Mohamed Baqir entered the political fray in Iraq only recently. He is the only son of the highly respected Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr, assassinated by the Saddam regime in 1980, and is a second cousin of Moqtada al-Sadr.

After the death of his own father, Jaafar al-Sadr pursued his religious studies in Najaf under the guidance of Moqtada’s father, Mohamed Mohamed Sadiq al-Sadr. In the late 1990s he left for Iran to continue his religious studies in Qom, but soon faced problems with the Iranian regime and was placed under house arrest or jailed for six months (sources differ on this point). He continued to pursue his religious and academic training, moving between Qom, Beirut, and London until 2009, when he returned to Iraq. Jaafar al-Sadr has attributed his return and engagement in politics to the signing of the security agreement with the United States, that set a timeframe for the withdrawal of foreign troops. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat (a pan-Arab newspaper), he declared his agreement with his cousin Moqtada’s view that the occupation must end and Iraq’s sovereignty be restored, but that he differs with him on tactics.

Jaafar al-Sadr has given few media interviews, but he is depicted in the media as a conciliator with a modern worldview. He has argued that the outgoing government faltered because it was formed on the basis of muhasasa (ethno-sectarian considerations) rather than competence, and because ministers were not directly responsible to the prime minister. A new government will need to create a real partnership among all Iraqi entities to make them feel that they are helping shape the future. Such a government will also have to serve the poor and disenfranchised classes of Iraq and help revive intellectual dynamism among the youth of the country.

Jaafar al-Sadr believes that the deterioration of the security and political situation in Iraq has many causes: the legacy of the Saddam regime; the decision by the “foreign coalition forces” to dissolve Saddam’s army and security forces, as well as their policies that encouraged sectarianism; and a ruling elite whose members also strengthened sectarianism and ethnocentrism. The de-Baathification process also made the situation worse because it was highly politicized.  Instead, Jaafar al-Sadr has declared: “We must not live the past and its issues; rather, we should leave the past and address its issues in a legal manner. Leaving the past does not mean forgetting its victims, but we must be careful to not create new victims.”   

Although Jaafar al-Sadr—who believes in the separation of religion and state—chose to join Maliki’s State of Law coalition as an independent rather than join his cousin Moqtada’s Sadrist Trend (which ran as part of the Iraqi National Alliance), his family relations are critical to his political success. He enjoys automatic prominence as the son of one of the most revered religious figures in Iraq’s recent history; he has family ties to Lebanon’s Mousa al-Sadr (a prominent Shi’i leader during the civil war), and to the Iran’s Muhammad Khatemi. Jaafar al-Sadr has reportedly been nominated for the prime minister post by the Sadrist Trend, which rejects Maliki. Jaafar al-Sadr is also well respected among State of Law supporters, receiving the second highest number of votes in Baghdad after Maliki. 

Adel Abdul Mahdi

Vice President
Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq/Iraqi National Alliance

Adel Abdul Mahdi was born into prominent Baghdadi Shi’i family—his father had been a minister under King Faisal I. He became an active member of the Baath party in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade he broke with the party and subsequently fled the country fearing that his life was in danger. He then studied political science and economics in Paris, where he embraced Maoist communism. This was the first of several ideological switches that have made him highly controversial in the eyes of many Iraqis.

During the late 1970s and 1980s he traveled extensively between France, Lebanon, and Iran. There, he was attracted to the ideas of the Iranian Revolution, and in a second ideological turnaround, he began advocating for the adoption of a moderate version of clerical rule by Iraq.

In Iran, he also developed close ties with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (known then as SCIRI, now ISCI). Abdul Mahdi joined SCIRI and became its representative in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s, developing strong ties with the Kurdish leadership.

Like many SCIRI members, Abdul Mahdi returned to Iraq in 2003 following the fall of Saddam Hussein, and became minister of finance under Ayad al-Allawi. In that position he played a key role in convincing members of the Paris Club to write off 80 percent of Iraq’s debt. In 2006 he was a top contender for the prime minister post, but as part of a deal struck between the Shi’i parties and the Kurds, he was instead appointed vice-president, with Ibrahim Jaafari becoming prime minister.

It is difficult to characterize precisely Abdul Mahdi’s positions today. He is a member of ISCI, an Islamist party, but defines himself as secular. He is a proponent of federalism and he has backed the Kurds’ demand for a referendum on Kirkuk. He is an advocate of the free market. He supports de-Baathification and has a lifetime friendship with Ahmed Chalabi, (who has been driving the de-Baathification process), but also has close ties with Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition became one of the main target of de-Baathification. He is seen as having close relations with not only the Americans and the French, but the Iranians as well.

Above all, Abdul Mahdi appears to be a party man for the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). In the past few weeks, he has advocated the integration of INA and State of Law, but he backed down when the party decided to take a more cautious stance. He defended the integration of the major Shi’i coalitions against charges of sectarianism by claiming that as long as the ruling Shi’a did not discriminate against other groups, it was not sectarianism. In his views, the unification of the Shi’a would help unite and strengthen all Iraqis. In line with the ISCI position, he now maintains that not only should State of Law and the INA be incorporated into the government, but also Allawi’s Iraqya and the Kurdish alliance.

Abdul Mahdi’s frequent ideological switches as well as his ambiguous positions leave some Iraqis skeptical. His response to accusations of inconsistency and duplicity is to state that it is natural for a person not to maintain a single position during fifty years of political engagement. Despite this skepticism about him, he remains a leading contender for the position of prime minister.

Bayan Jabr Solagh

Minister of Finance
Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq/Iraqi National Alliance

A highly controversial figure, Baqir Jabr Solagh started his political career as a representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in Syria and Lebanon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He later became the founder and editor-in-chief of the SCIRI magazine Neda’a al-Rafedein. The magazine acquired notoriety after printing an article claiming that Saddam Hussein had ordered weapons of mass destruction to be hidden in residential areas.

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Jabr Solagh held posts in each of the three successive governments. Under Allawi, he served as the minister of housing and construction (nominated as a representative of the Turkmen minority). In the Jaafari government he served as minister of interior, and finally, under Maliki, he became minister of finance, a position he holds today.

Confusion abounds in Iraq when discussing Jabr Solagh’s past, his roots, and even his name. He has changed his name repeatedly—he has also been known as Bayan Jabr Solagh al-Khesrewi or Baqir Solagh Jabr al-Zebeidi and, under Saddam’s Rule, as Bayan Jabr. His past remains murky, as not many details about him are available to the public. While he asserts his Arab roots, pointing to his ties to the Arab al- Zebeidi tribe, many continue to believe that he comes from either Persian or Turkmen roots—after all, he was the Turkmen nominee in Allawi’s government. He also has strong ties with Tehran.

His tenure as minister of interior is highly controversial. Under his control, the Ministry of Interior was infiltrated by the Badr militia, which was beginning to integrate with the internal security forces and whose leadership was given high-ranking positions in the ministry. Death squads were also rampant at the time, and many Iraqis accused Jabr Solagh of condoning the use of torture and backing the sectarian death squads. Jabr Solagh denies these allegations, arguing the perpetrators were not actually ministry officials and that anyone could have put on an internal security uniform and committed these atrocities.

Jabr Solagh’s name has been floated for prime minister as a possible candidate by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. While his name is being considered inside ISCI circles and in the Iraqi media, the reputation he has gained as minister of interior could very well destroy his chances of garnering enough support to do so.