Podcast (Audio only)

Feisal al-Istrabadi, founding director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University-Bloomington and former Deputy Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations, spoke about the erosion of the “exclusive elite pact” in Iraq and its implications for the future of Iraqi politics.

On September 25, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center held a meeting on “Iraq: 2014 and Beyond” with Istrabadi. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Istrabadi began his presentation by defining Iraq’s “exclusive elite pact,” which is the manner in which governmental positions are distributed according to the three ethnic groups in Iraq: the Kurds, the Shi’i Arabs, and the Sunni Arabs. According to this “sectarian spoils allocation system,” the president of Iraq is Kurdish, the prime minister is Shi’i, and the speaker of parliament (an unimportant position according to Istrabadi) is Sunni. 

Istrabadi discussed how Sunnis are dissatisfied with their position in the exclusive elite pact. As a minority, the current power structure does not allow for any growth of Sunni power. He explained that Sunnis have, therefore, decided to shift away from Iraqi federalism and instead establish regional states within governorates as their strategy to gain more power. Istrabadi pointed out that three Sunni governorates have attempted to do this. He believes the Sunni trend toward such regionalism will continue and will lead to further unrest in the country. The current violence, Istrabadi said, is an indication of a potential new civil war in which the Shi’a will fight to keep the government centralized and the Sunnis will fight to decentralize it. Conversely, Istrabadi pointed out, the first civil war was fought because the Shi’a wanted to establish a regional model within Iraq.

In addition, Istrabadi talked about the growing power of the executive branch, particularly the prime minister, over the other branches in Iraq’s government. He said that parliament has been slowly stripped of its functions. Parliament does not, for example, have the right to propose legislation, and can only vote on legislation proposed by the executive branch. Additionally, independent commissions that are constitutionally required to report to the parliament, such as the Central Bank of Iraq, actually report to the prime minister directly.

Istrabadi also discussed U.S. policy options regarding the 2014 parliamentary elections. He said that the United States has three options: support the end of Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure as prime minister, let Iraq sort it out on its own, or support Maliki’s third term. He indicated that the United States will likely look to secure a third term for Maliki. Istrabadi noted the U.S. government should be aware of the significance of visits to Irbil by tribal sheikh delegations from the Ninawa province to discuss their integration with the Kurdistan Regional Government. He suggested that U.S. policymakers should consider the implications of a religiously and culturally diverse Republic of Northern Iraq.

Istrabadi concluded by discussing the effects of Iraq’s sectarian power shift on Syria’s civil war. He suggested that the Alawis learn from the Sunnis’ experience in Iraq—recognizing that Sunnis no longer have power in Iraq and that there is no future for power-sharing between the majority and minorities in Syria.

By Julia Craig Romano, Middle East Program


The full transcript of Feisal Istrabadi's presentation is below.



  • Feisal al-Istrabadi

    Director, Center for the Study of the Middle East, and Professor of the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy, Maurer School of Law and the School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University