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If Iraq Collapses, Where Will its Politicians Flee?

Iraqi flag. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Iraqi flag. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

It has now been more than three years since Iraq erupted into protest. Corruption and self-dealing eroded Iraqi faith in their political class. Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s low-energy premiership was the last straw.

While politicians in Washington continue to litigate the 2003 Iraq war, Iraqis have a different perspective: Close to half were born after Saddam’s ouster; more too young as to have no real memory of his rule. While religious and ethnic nationalist political leaders distracted their constituents from their own failings by saying that at least the Baathist-era was over, such deflection has stopped working.

There was a sense of both urgency and emergency when Iraqi leaders met to select Mustafa al-Kadhimi as an interim leader. Kadhimi was politically independent and a technocrat who had done important work at the intelligence service during the fight against the Islamic State. People believed him to be competent, effective, and a bridge-builder.

He disappointed them. Rather than use the moral authority of the moment to drive reform, political factions co-opted Kadhimi whose ambition for a second term and alleged business interests trumped his mandate to reform or nationalist commitment to Iraq.

Mohammad Shia al-Sudani is now prime minister. He proved himself an effective administrator during his previous service in Iraq and avoided the stink of corruption that surrounded Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and so many others in the Maliki administration. Even though Sudani has the political backing Kadhimi never did, it is doubtful he can overcome the entrenched interests that Kadhimi failed to tackle. Meanwhile, Iraqis grow more frustrated.

In 2019, Iraqis were willing to give reform a chance. In 2023 or after, they may conclude they cannot work within the system. Whereas in 2019, Abdul-Mahdi lost his position, if there is a Tishreen 2.0 Uprising, then the casualty will be the entire political class.

The question Iraqis and Iraqi politicians should now ask is, if the political class continues to loot the country and resist reform, where will the politicians flee to escape the revolution?

That Iraqi politicians keep a foot outside Iraq is an open secret. When the United States returned sovereignty to Iraq, former administrator L. Paul Bremer installed Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. Allawi was a man of great ambition and very much favored by the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, but he was also fundamentally lazy. He much preferred to campaign among Americans and the British than in the streets of Iraqi cities or villages. During the Maliki era, Iraqis told a joke about how Maliki confiscated Allawi’s green zone pass but Allawi did not notice for seven months, since he was so busy in London. This may be unfair to Allawi; he would just as likely split his time in Amman, where many other former Baathists reside.

As for former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, London would be the choice. Surprisingly, Kadhimi may favor Beirut over the British capital.

Dubai would compete with London and Beirut as a safe-haven for the corrupt and unwanted. Speaker Mohammed Halbousi would chose Dubai, especially given the patronage he has received from the United Arab Emirates.

Given the instability in Tehran and the possibility that the Islamic Republic in Iran could fall before Iraq, many pro-Iranian figures may look at Dubai as Plan B. Qais al-Khazali, the virulently anti-Western, pro-Iranian head of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, will likely head to Dubai having kissed and made up with Emirati leaders in recent years.

The fall of Iran would also affect retirement plans for Badr Corps chief Hadi Amiri. He might be too much a target for Beirut. Hezbollah would not want competition, and Lebanese society is too corrupt and Machiavellian for Amiri to be sure his bodyguards and protectors would not turn on him. For this reason, some Iraqis believe that Amiri would be more likely to flee to Qatar. Khamis al-Khanjar, sanctioned alongside Khazali in December 2019, would likely join Amiri in Doha.

While Maliki returned to Iraq from Syria, the decade of civil war has taken its toll on the idea of Damascus as a retirement destination. Many Iraqis suspect he will retire to his village outside Karbala, where he may feel protected because of the money he has channeled there and the number of residents he employed.

Whatever happens in Tehran, Muqtada al-Sadr would likely retire to Qom, where he has family. Ironically, he would likely go there via the private jet Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman gifted him.

Kurdish leaders might also seek to flee via private jet. They have already had a dry run: When the Islamic State approached the Kurdish capital Erbil, many top Barzanis and family members scrambled to get seats on flights leaving Erbil International Airport. To this day, the Barzanis keep the manifests of those flights secret to avoid the embarrassment of top leaders and generals fleeing in the face of danger. While Masoud Barzani’s father chose Iran as the destination for his flight upon the collapse of the Kurdish revolution, Masoud would likely make Istanbul his new home. His nationalist rhetoric is a thing of the past; he has effectively transformed Iraqi Kurdistan into a Turkish satrapy. Eldest son Masrour would try to flee to America. After all, he has systematically pestered every director of Central Intelligence first for residency and then for citizenship. Whether the United States would accept him given alleged human rights violations, however, is another question. He may end up instead living in his father’s gatehouse.

Importantly, Sudani is the one man with nowhere to go. He only has an Iraqi passport. While the threat of a renewed uprising is real, Sudani has an incentive to succeed where others have not. Let us hope he can avoid a Tishreen Uprising version 2.0 because if it comes, it will be far bloodier than the first one.

Author Biography: Dr. Michael Rubin, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). Dr. Rubin has a PhD and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.

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Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).