Iraq and Muhasasa Ta’ifia; the external imposition of sectarian politics
By Toby Dodge
In the aftermath of invasion and regime change in 2003, Iraq’s political field was deliberately and overtly restructured around an informal version of consociationalism, the Muhasasa Ta’ifia (sectarian apportionment) system. This exclusive elite pact was designed to empower people and parties who claimed to be acting as representatives of three allegedly distinct communities, Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd.1 The empowerment of those wielding sectarian rhetoric left Iraq with a post-invasion civil war, endemic corruption, institutional weakness and the widespread alienation of the populous from the governing elite.
The planning for the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system was done in the early 1990s, by a disparate group of exiled Iraqi politicians. It was then imported into the country, along with those exiles that went on to form Iraq’s new ruling elite, under American force of arms. At various points in its history, the functioning of the Muhasasa Ta’ifia has been defended and extended by US, Iranian and Saudi Arabian intervention.
Plans for the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system were agreed upon by the Iraqi opposition at a conference in October 1992. Here a number of councils and committees were established to act as a government-in-waiting. Most importantly, positions on these governing bodies were allocated according to the ‘Salah al-Din principles’, with a ‘virtual census’ upon dividing jobs according to the conference’s assessment of the percentage of the population that were Shi’a, Kurdish and Sunni.2 An assertion of religious and ethnic identities was placed at the centre of this agreement. The seven major parties that came to dominate Iraqi politics post - 2003 were the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Iraqi National Council, the Iraqi National Accord, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Iraqi Islamic Party. They all agreed to work within the Muhasasa Ta’ifia to solidify and expand their grip on Iraq.
In June and July 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American civilian body running the occupation of Iraq, created the Iraq Governing Council, (IGC) the first political body after regime change designed to represent the Iraqi population during the occupation. The predominance of a sectarian understanding of Iraq was so strong that the process of its formation was an act of ethno-sectarian balancing.
The seven parties that formed the majority of the ICG’s membership were then given the job of picking ministers to run Iraq’s government. Not only had the Muhasasa system been used to pick Iraq’s first post- 2003 governing body, it had given economic power to those parties promoting ethno-sectarian division. Each party appointed Ministers who controlled the resources and payroll of their ministries, accelerating the sacking of existing civil servants, justified through de-Ba’athification, whilst hiring those linked to their parties and the sectarian communities they claimed to represent.
After the IGC was formed in 2003, during the interim government of 2004, and after each national election in 2005, 2010, 2014 and most recently in 2018, the Muhasasa system has dictated that ministries and their resources were awarded to the ethno-sectarian parties in governments of national unity. Each party has used its ministers to exploit government resources. They expand government payrolls to employ their members and followers. As a result, access to government employment, dominant in the Iraqi job market, is only guaranteed by pledging alliance to one of the political parties promoting the Muhasasa system. Iraqis seeking government jobs are interpolated as members of exclusive ethno-sectarian communities, Sunni, Shi’a or Kurd. The extent of this practise can be seen in the rapid growth of the state payroll that swelled from 850,000 employees a year after regime change to between seven and nine million in 2016.
The external players
Although the US and their formerly exiled allies set up and imposed the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have at times intervened to ensure it works in their interests. Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of the Quds Forces of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is the central coordinator of Iran’s presence in Iraq. Dr Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former National Security Adviser, has proclaimed that Suleimani is ‘the most powerful man in Iraq without question. Nothing gets done without him’.3 Suleimani has been in Baghdad and actively involved in the process of government formation in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. Of equal importance, he has been central in defending the Muhasasa system when it has been in crisis, during the ‘Charge of the Knights’ in 2008, the strong showing of the anti-Muhasasa, Iraqiyaa coalition, in the 2010 elections and in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014. Clearly, Iran sees Muhasasa as the best vehicle for empowering its client Shi’a Islamist parties and keeping the Iraqi state weak enough to secure its own interests.
Saudi Arabia’s role in Iraq has been more informal and covert. Initially, Saudi intervention was constrained by a strong American presence. Support for the post-war insurgency and one side in the civil war came from senior religious figures in the kingdom, with societal actors supplying resources and encouraging a sizeable number of Islamic radical ‘Jihadi tourists’ to fight and die in Iraq.
However, in the run- up to the second election of 2005, the Saudi government leant its considerable financial support to establishing a specifically Sunni electoral coalition, Jabha al-Tawafuq al-Iraq (the Accord Front). This coalition successfully mobilised the Sunni section of Iraqi society, interpolating them specifically as Sunnis and juxtaposing them against the Shi’a and Kurdish sections of society, integrating them into the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system as minority players.
The dominance of Iraq’s political field by the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system has greatly weakened the Iraqi state, while the widespread political and personal corruption it encourages has reduced the state’s ability to deliver public goods. From at least 2015 onwards, this has produced a large protest movement within Iraqi society, calling for the removal of religion from politics and the creation of a civic state. It is this popular alienation that led to such a low electoral turn out in the May 2018 elections. However, parties that have benefitted from Muhasasa have simply ignored popular pressure for change and formed yet another government using the system. In doing so, they were strongly supported by both the United States and Iran.
1. On exclusive elite pacts see Stefan Lindemann, ‘Do inclusive elite bargains matter? A research framework for understanding the causes of civil war
in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Crisis States Discussion Paper 15, Crisis States Research Centre, LSE, February 2008, http://www.lse.ac.uk/internati...
Assets/Documents/PDFs/csrc-discussion-papers/dp15-Do-Inclusive-Elite-Bargains-Matter.pdf. On its application to Iraq see Toby
Dodge, Iraq; from war to a new authoritarianism, 2012, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.
2. Ibrahim Nawar, ‘Untying the Knot’, Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 625, February 2003, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/archive/2003/625/sc5.htm.
3. Martin Chulov, Qassem Suleimani: the Iranian General “Secretly Running” Iraq, The Guardian, July 2011,