A year has passed since Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was sworn in as prime minister of Iraq, and began a term focused on bringing stability to the country. This was no mean task: Sudani was leading a fragile coalition government formed after a yearlong deadlock that involved challenges to election results, protests, and violent clashes.
The first anniversary of Sudani’s premiership is a good opportunity to evaluate his progress—and to attempt some predictions about the year ahead. In short, Sudani has exceeded many expectations in bringing stability to Iraq, but will face increasing difficulty going forward.
On the positive side, Sudani has cautiously navigated several headwinds, and seems to have been successful with delivering on the priority of stability with his “service government.” Now, the question is whether he can keep Iraq stable while all of its underlying systemic issues remain unaddressed, with no significant reforms are forthcoming.
Can Sudani keep Iraq stable—while all of its underlying systemic issues remain unaddressed, with no significant reforms are forthcoming?
Since taking office, Sudani has neutralized the three most severe issues his government faced: tensions with the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, escalations on Iraqi soil between the United States and Iran, and public anger at poor governance.
He reduced tensions with the Sadrists with a multipronged strategy of keeping top Sadrist officials in their government posts, undertaking reconstruction projects in Baghdad’s Sadr City, and avoiding directly antagonizing Sadr with any anti-Sadrist measures.
Sudani tackled the issue of U.S.–Iran tensions by ensuring that his backers from the Shia Coordination Framework (CF)—a parliamentarian bloc to which Sudani belongs—prevented their armed wings from targeting U.S. interests in Iraq. He thus extended a period of de-escalation between Iran and the United States that is crucial for Iraq’s stability.
Finally, Sudani cooled public anger by adding 500,000 jobs to the public sector payroll through an expansionary budget, and by undertaking urgent repairs and reconstruction to infrastructure in cities such as Baghdad. (At the same time, he worked to repress public opposition by starting a campaign to quell dissent and reduce freedoms, including by taking his critics to court.)
Unaddressed Systemic Problems
But while Sudani has overcome some immense political challenges and pressures, these successes are overshadowed by Iraq’s daunting economic reality. Data and reports highlight the risks of an economic collapse due to deep structural challenges and a complete dependence on oil exports. One issue that has proven particularly difficult for the government to deal with is the devaluation of the dinar and pressure from the United States to restrict the illicit flow of dollars to other countries. Public anger has surged as food prices have risen and the average Iraqi is forced to rely on an ever-higher black market rate to purchase dollars.
Social unrest is another serious issue. Ethnic tensions in Kirkuk recently led to violence. As competition heats up, with local elections looming in December, more confrontations are likely in Kirkuk and in other ethnically mixed areas. Meanwhile, climate change is driving rural migration to cities, which has led to an increase in communal conflicts and violence. As the urban population swells and with little opportunities and weak infrastructure, crime is surging and social problems such as drug abuse are becoming endemic. The government has not made much headway on any of these issues, nor does there seem to be a plan or will to tackle them with urgency.
Perhaps where Sudani can be most severely criticized is not doing enough to tackle corruption. Corruption is the most difficult systemic issue Iraq faces, and defeating it is not a simple job. But Sudani promised when he took office that he would make progress in the fight against graft. The results so far have been lackluster, focusing on small-scale corruption with little political exposure, while no one has been held meaningfully accountable for large-scale cases that go to the heart of politically enabled corruption—such as the $2.5 billion “theft of the century” that came to light last year. Even when corruption causes national tragedies and the loss of life, Sudani has been unable to show that he is different from his predecessors. In September, a fire at a wedding in Hamdaniya, north of Baghdad, killed more than a hundred people. The building burned down with incredible speed after being ignited by fireworks, because it was built with cheap, flammable materials—indicating that the licensing process for its construction was corrupt. Such dangerous corruption is commonplace in Iraq, and Sudani has not tackled it in any significant way.
Successes and Ambition
Where Sudani has seen some success and does deserve recognition is in continuing to build better foreign relations while keeping Iraq relatively neutral. He has engaged Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates on investing in Iraq and expanding ties, concluded successful visits to Egypt and France, and maintained friendly relations with Iran, Syria, and Russia, while also retaining U.S. support for Iraq. When there have been tests, such as with Turkey’s block on oil exports, a maritime dispute with Kuwait, and the response to Hamas’s attack on Israel and the war in Gaza, Sudani has been cautious and diplomatically engaged.
It is clear that Sudani has ambitions to remain prime minister after the next national elections—and retaining his position may now be his top priority. The small party that he heads, Tayar al-Foratayn, announced that it would not compete in the upcoming local elections. Clearly, the party seeks to avoid competing with Sudani’s coalition partners and to gather resources and momentum for a run in the parliamentary elections that are scheduled to be held by October 2025. This strategy also accounts for why Sudani postponed a cabinet reshuffle—he fears that stiff opposition from the CF would severely undermine him and make a reshuffle unsuccessful. Instead, Sudani has attempted to placate the various parties in the governing coalition by acceding to nearly all their demands and requests. One such example is Sudani’s appointment of dozens (the true number is rumored to be up to a hundred) of party political nominees as advisors or officials in departments connected to him; members of parliament have described these appointments as party appeasements. Another example is Sudani’s regular replacement of senior officials in the civil service—the so-called special grades—with party loyalists.
Sudani has so far been successful in balancing the interests of the rival parties in the coalition. For example, he has made deals to maintain federal funding to Iraqi Kurdistan. However, it is unclear whether he can continue making such deals as elections draw nearer and competition intensifies.
A Mixed Record
One method Sudani has used to limit the influence of the parties in his government, particularly those in the CF, is appointing family members and distant relatives to key posts, such as those in security and intelligence. This has led to rumors that Sudani is facilitating corruption. Even Mustafa Sanad, a member of parliament who had seemed to be close to Sudani, recently asked the prime minister to clarify the role of his brother, Abbas al-Sudani, in the Prime Minister Office. Abbas has no official position, but was known to regularly meet high-level politicians and businessmen in an informal capacity soon after his brother’s premiership began, and rumors circulated that he was involved in backdoor deals and graft with the prime minister’s approval. Whatever the truth, Sudani’s failure to show real progress on fighting high-level corruption—combined with the fact that important posts are held by relatives—damages his credibility.
If the past year shows that Sudani has been successful in achieving stability in Iraq, then the next year will show how difficult it is to maintain that stability. And perhaps the most that can be expected from Sudani is that he stops Iraq from getting worse and collapsing completely.
In the eyes of those who desperately want Iraq to be stable and achieve a semblance of normalcy, Sudani has delivered. But for those expecting major reforms, the disappointing reality is that Sudani is either unable or unwilling to risk his political future to really change the status quo in Iraq. In this regard, Iraq’s prime minister is a custodian of the consociational system that has served the political elite well so far, and he is tasked with protecting and perhaps improving it rather than upending it. As Sudani himself has said, he is a “product of the institutions of the state.”
To be fair, this comment simply refers to the fact that his mandate is to keep the government functioning and not much more—just as the senior politicians who nominated him envisaged. Still, as Sudani keeps trying to steady the ship, it seems certain that he has an ambition to remain the captain for much longer.
Header image: Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani walks to the podium to address world leaders during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 22, 2023 in New York City. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images