Country Risk

Iranian-backed militias likely to lead Iraqi cabinet formation, pressure oil companies to provide basic services in south

14 September 2018

The Iraqi parliament convening on 3 September for the first time since the May elections. A session on 8 September discussed the Basra protests. Source: Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Key Points

  • A coalition of Iran’s allies and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is increasingly likely to form the next Iraqi cabinet, and agree to expel US forces through political means.
  • Such a coalition would increase pressure on oil companies to help provide basic services, but would also resort to greater use of force to end and prevent further protests.
  • If no such coalition is formed, there will be a greater risk of Shia-Shia fighting affecting Baghdad and southern provinces, including government buildings and energy assets.


Sayyid Ali Sistani, who leads the Shia religious establishment in Iraq (the marjiya), issued a statement on 10 September that rejected assigning the Iraqi premiership to politicians who had already been in power.

The statement from Sayyid Ali Sistani indicates that the marjiya would not approve of either former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki or current caretaker Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi as Iraq’s new premier.

Since the inconclusive May 2018 elections, efforts to form a parliamentary bloc that is able to secure 165 votes in the legislature and elect a president, speaker of parliament, and prime minister have reached gridlock. Neither the Alliance of Reform and Building nor the coalition of Iran’s allies can attain a majority in parliament. It appears that the Sunni and Kurdish blocs are indifferent over the two coalitions and are willing to work with either. The United States has been trying to dissuade its allies from backing a pro-Iranian government.

The support of the religious establishment is critical for the credibility and ability to govern of any future Iraqi prime minister or cabinet. Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s allies had claimed that the marjiya had rejected five names for prime minister, including Maliki and Abadi, suggesting marjiya support for Sadr’s nationalist stance. During the Friday sermon on 7 September, a marjiya representative, Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalai, repeated many of the themes that Sadr has expressed, including criticism of political parties that have made Iraq into a zone of competition between foreign powers, implicitly criticising both pro-Iranian and pro-US elements.

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