Nouri al-Maliki was a relatively unknown parliamentary infighter for Iraq’s Dawa Party when he was tapped to replace the ineffectual Ibrahim al-Jaafari as his country’s prime minister following the disastrous bombing of a Shiite holy site in the city of Samarra in 2006. Haider al-Abadi was as obscure when he received the blessings of Tehran, Washington, and the senior clergy in Najaf to take the helm after the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in the face of an Islamic State onslaught in 2014.
If the pattern holds, two things can already be said about the prime minister who will eventually emerge from last week’s general election in Iraq: He’ll be from the country’s majority Shiite community, and if it’s not Abadi he will probably be relatively unknown, to Iraqis and the international community alike. (It’s also clear that Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who is the leader of the coalition that surprisingly won the election, won’t end up prime minister, because he didn’t run for a seat in parliament.) “Judging by experience, it could be an unexpected candidate — the compromise figure rather than any of the household names,” says Fanar Haddad, an Iraq specialist at the National University of Singapore.
Iraqi politicians will begin assembling their next government as soon as last weekend’s general election vote is officially ratified and seats in the 329-seat parliament are allocated (a process that could take weeks given the number of voting irregularity allegations). The process will necessarily be a compromise: Winning a majority of lawmakers requires proving unobjectionable to the country’s main power brokers.
These include the Iraqi political blocs representing all three major sects and ethnicities, the Shiite clergy in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, and Iraq’s patrons in Iran and the United States. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia — which shares a border and tribal links with Iraq and sees itself as a protector of the country’s Sunni minority — is gaining a say in who leads Iraq. With strong ties to Iraq’s ethnic Turkmen minority and some Sunni factions, Turkey also has leverage, though no veto. And the brinkmanship has already begun. According to one analyst, Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s secretive Quds Force, has dispatched deputies to Baghdad to make sure Iran’s interests are represented.
Politicians and analysts, often speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, helped Foreign Policy formulate this shortlist of potential premiers:
Haider al-Abadi: The incumbent premier remains the front-runner for the position of prime minister, even though the coalition he led only came in third place in the May 12 elections. The 66-year-old U.K.-educated electrical engineer, born to a prominent Baghdad family, has name recognition, the power of incumbency, and the continued goodwill of Iraq’s neighbors, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Most important, he has cooled the country’s sectarian tensions. Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoun faction has indicated it would be willing to endorse Abadi for a second term, especially if it blocks anyone from Shiite militia leader Hadi al-Ameri’s faction from coming to power.
But all those calculations stem from before Sadr’s first-place showing. Though he is seen as personally uncorrupt and well intentioned, he still has a reputation for weakness and failing to rein in the corruption of others. “He barely delivered anything,” says one Iraqi scholar. “Plus, he continued a lot of Maliki’s practices,” including the Shiite-sectarian Dawa Party’s domination of the national anti-corruption body.
Iraqis also appear to be in a rather anti-incumbent mood. Witness the spontaneous protestthat erupted against the prime minister’s representatives at the opening of a soccer stadium in Najaf just days before the election. “You are all thieves,” the protesters shouted. Abadi’s estimated 42 seats in parliament were a disappointment. “Dr. Abadi had his chance and did terribly on governance and anti-corruption,” says the same Iraqi scholar. “His election results don’t support another term.”
Ali Dawai Lazem: The 53-year-old governor of southern Iraq’s impoverished Maysan province since 2009 is said to be the choice for prime minister of the Sadr list, which — with an estimated 54 seats — received the largest bloc in the May 12 election. “Having the backing of the winning list and Sadr is a big added advantage,” says another Iraqi scholar.
Lazem was the Sadrists’ nominee for prime minister in 2014, and he is seen as hardworking, honest, and a man of the people. Whereas most Iraqi politicians shuttle between barricaded compounds in armored cars, he is famous for donning coveralls, heading into the streets of Amara, the capital of Maysan province, and sweating alongside construction workers.
His accomplishments as governor have made him something of a national folk hero. Maysan now has electricity for more hours each day than Baghdad. Still some say he lacks substance and traditional credentials. According to a report in the New York Times, he grew up in Iraq’s southern marshlands, served time in jail under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and got a job working at a sugar factory despite having a university degree in Islamic studies. Still, he has his critics. “How does it make sense for a governor to spend his time sweeping streets?” wonders one Iraqi analyst. “If he was effective, he would be spending his time shaping policy and making sure that other people are picking up the trash.”
In the rough-and-tumble of Iraqi insider politics, his popularity and name recognition could also hurt him. “Either it’s the incumbent getting another term, or it’s a compromise candidate who everyone else sees as weak and obscure enough to be nonthreatening or manipulable,” says an Iraqi energy-sector analyst.
Hadi al-Ameri: The 63-year-old Diyala province native, whose bloc won the second-most seats in parliament, has reinvented himself several times over the decades. He went from warlord to politician back to warlord and is now a politician again. He’s been an Iranian agent, then a tacit ally of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then an enemy of America, and partner in Washington’s fight against the Islamic State; he’s gone from Shiite militia leader fighting Sunni insurgents to Shiite militia leader fighting alongside Sunni gunmen.
Experts say he has a chance of becoming the prime minister, with about 47 seats in parliament. But he may prefer to remain in the background for now, offering up one of his deputies.
Ameri has an above-average reputation in Iraq, in part because his 2010 to 2014 tenure as transportation minister was not a complete disaster. But it was his outreach to Iraq’s Sunni tribesmen during the fight against the Islamic State that may have buoyed enthusiasm for his list. “Ameri is very popular and has big chances,” says a third Iraqi scholar. Still, Sadrists will be skeptical about him or any of his deputies becoming premier. Ameri, whose Badr Brigades were once trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, speaks fluent Persian and maintains excellent relations with Tehran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Though he has refrained from adopting Iran’s harsh rhetoric against America, his ascent would make Washington nervous.
Ali Allawi: The 70-year-old Baghdad native, who has served over the years as Iraq’s defense, finance, and trade minister, is a perennial name tossed into the hat of potential prime ministers. Not to be confused with political bloc leader Ayad Allawi, Ali Allawi is the preferred candidate of Iraq’s fading Western-aligned mandarins, with degrees from Harvard and MIT. He spent the Saddam years in the U.K., where he penned elegant treatises against the regime, and is seen today as an antidote to the rough sectarian discourse that has damaged Iraq’s political scene. “Allawi is excellent,” says one analyst. “He can be picked if they need a qualified compromise candidate.” Though he’s a relative political outsider, he’s been lately seen as nestling up to Dawa Party supporters. Still, his lack of some kind of political base makes him something of a long shot.
Nouri al-Maliki: This stalwart of the Dawa Party served as prime minister of Iraq from 2006 to 2014, a period during which the country saw some infrastructure and living standard improvements. But sectarian tensions, violence, and corruption peaked during his tenure. In 2018, he earned the most votes of any individual candidate, and as a former prime minister who maintains a robust political organization that garnered him a fourth-place finish in elections and an estimated 25 seats in parliament, as well as the tacit support of certain factions in Iran, he can’t be completely ruled out or a return to the premiership. But the 67-year-old native of Karbala province would have to overcome the formidable resistance of Iraq’s Sunnis and the Kurds to be named prime minister, as well as the Americans and Saudis. In addition, Sadrists despise him for ordering the armed forces to violently crush their 2008 rebellion, while the senior clergy in Najaf and Karbala have all but vetoed his ascent.
Saleh al-Hasnawi: The former Iraqi health minister is another name bandied about for prime minister by the Sadrists. The 58-year-old native of the southern city of Karbala is technocratic and independent. He came to politics after the fall of Saddam’s regime rallying doctors under his leadership in Karbala in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion. The English-speaking former psychiatry professor was Iraq’s nominee to head UNESCO last year. His technocratic credentials might make him a dark horse in case Ali Dawai Lazem falls to political infighting. But his tenure as health minister isn’t celebrated, and Iraqi hospitals remain a mess, riddled with corruption and incompetence. “Dr. Hasnawi isn’t qualified,” insists one analyst.
Adil Abdul-Mahdi: The colorful 76-year-old Francophone economist and onetime Maoist is also a perennial prime ministerial candidate and remains viable, according to several analysts. In the 15 years since the downfall of Saddam, he has served as minister of finance and oil, and as a vice president. Liked by Americans and Iranians, he is also friendly with the Dawa Party, though he is associated more strongly with the rival Shiite faction led by Ammar Hakim, which won only 19 seats in parliament. Given the current mood, he might be considered too much of an insider to satisfy public demands for fresh blood.
Ayad Allawi: Handpicked by U.S. President George W. Bush as prime minister of the year-old interim government in 2004, the 73-year-old Baghdad native and retired surgeon could also be considered a possible contender for the premiership, though an extreme long shot. His bloc won an estimated 22 seats in parliament, far less than it received in previous elections, including 2010 elections in which he received a larger share of seats than Maliki only to lose out in the subsequent horse-trading. A secular Shiite, Allawi’s partnerships with former Saddam loyalists have made him toxic to the mainstream Shiite parties as well as many Kurds, whose parties control some 54 seats in parliament. His chumminess with the United States has earned him the scorn of Iran, which will likely rule out any government he leads.
Tariq Najm: The 72-year-old Dhi Qar province native and Islamic scholar is another Dawa Party loyalist, and a potential dark horse candidate for the premiership. He served as Maliki’s chief of staff and was considered a potential replacement in 2014. He spent his exile years studying and teaching in the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, and he maintains constructive ties with Washington, Tehran, and Ankara, as well as the senior Shiite clergy in Najaf. Crucially, he could unite Abadi and Maliki wings of the Dawa Party. “Najm — who is already secretary of the Dawa Party — may emerge as an acceptable candidate to both those men if it means keeping the party together,” says one analyst.
Dia Asadi: The 49-year-old Basra lawmaker is a forceful and eloquent advocate of Moqtada al-Sadr. Fluent in English, he serves as a bridge between the movement’s urban underclass and diplomats and international media. “He would be out of his depth as a prime minister,” says one Iraq expert. “But so would all the others.”
Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist with over 16 years experience in the Middle East