Iraq’s new prime minister-designate: Who is Mohammed al-Sudani?

Al-Sudani nominated by Iraq’s new president, but the move will be fiercely opposed by supporters of the powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Mohammed Shia al-Sudani adressing a conference in Iraq.
Al-Sudani has been nominated by the Iran-backed Shia Coordination Framework for prime minister post, he has also been vehemently rejected by powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr [File: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Baghdad, Iraq – The election of Abdul Latif Rashid as Iraq’s new president ends months of political deadlock, and attention now turns to the formation of a government – which politicians have been unable to do since the general election last October.

After his election by parliament on Thursday, Rashid immediately named Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as Iraq’s prime minister-designate.

Al-Sudani had been nominated for the role by the Iran-backed Shia Coordination Framework, now the largest parliamentary bloc.

But he has been vehemently rejected by powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr – whose bloc was the biggest winner in last year’s election but later withdrew from the parliament due to its inability to form a government.

Al-Sudani’s nomination by the Coordination Framework on July 25 had sparked some of the largest protests in the capital Baghdad since last year’s election, with al-Sadr supporters breaching the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and storming the country’s parliament to demand the withdrawal of al-Sudani’s nomination.

He now has 30 days to form a government that can command a parliamentary majority, but his nomination by Rachid is set to prompt more unrest.

Who is al-Sudani?

Al-Sudani was born in southern Iraq in 1970. When he was 10 years old, his father was executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime on charges of belonging to the Iran-backed Islamic Dawa Party.

He later joined the Shia uprisings in 1991 in the hope of toppling Hussein. Throughout this period, when many fled Iraq to seek refuge in other countries, al-Sudani remained in the country.

“Those who stayed in Iraq had a better understanding of Iraq’s realities, and [if appointed], he would be the first Iraqi who stayed [under those circumstances] who might be given this opportunity,” said Mohanad Adnan, an Iraq-based political analyst.

Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that deposed Hussein, al-Sudani took up various positions in local and central governments.

In 2004, following the invasion, he became the mayor of Amarah city, and then the governor of his home province Maysan.

Later, he served in several ministries in Nouri al-Maliki’s and Haider al-Abadi’s governments, including as minister of human rights from 2010 to 2014, and as minister of labour and social affairs from 2014 to 2018.

In 2020, following the mass demonstrations that aimed at systematic change in Iraqi politics, al-Sudani resigned from the Dawa Party, whose general secretary, al-Maliki, has been beset by allegations of corruption.

Exactly what drove him to leave Islamic Dawa Party was not clear, yet many have said that it was mostly due to his desire to further his political career instead of abandoning the Dawa Party’s ideological stance altogether.

“The [public] mood was that Iraq wanted an independent [prime minister candidate] so he resigned from the Dawa Party to make himself available as an independent,” said Mohanad Adnan. “He didn’t want to risk his political future but also position himself for the premiership.”

As the Iraqi parliament scrambled to find a successor to former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi after he resigned from his post in late 2019 following a bloody mass demonstration, al-Sudani was considered alongside the then-caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Yet, having failed to meet protesters’ demands for a candidate that was from outside the governing elite, al-Sudani withdrew his bid for prime ministership.

Al-Sadr’s opposition

Al-Sudani is now the leader of the political party Euphrates Movement, which secured three seats in parliament in last year’s election, and he later entered the Shia Coordination Framework – al-Sadr’s biggest rival bloc in parliament.

In June, al-Sadr’s 73 legislators quit their seats in a move likely designed to put pressure on his rivals to form a new government, but it led to the Coordination Framework becoming the largest parliamentary bloc and al-Sudani’s nomination.

On August 29, al-Sadr announced he was quitting politics for good and said all instituions linked to his party would be closed. His supporters again stormed parliament and at least 30 people were killed in fighting between al-Sadr supporters and rivals.

Demonstrators that breached the parliament in July and August said they are protesting against corruption, the ruling elite, and foreign influence – chanting against Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of corruption and mismanagement, as well as al-Sudani.

As a longtime foe of al-Maliki, al-Sadr sees the former prime minister as the shadow master of al-Sudani, an associate professor at Sam Houston State University, Zeinab Shuker, told Al Jazeera.

“Since al-Sadrists view al-Sudani as al-Maliki’s man, they expect al-Sudani to promote al-Maliki’s agenda to target the interests of Sadrists within the state and its institutions, and – by extension – the very survival of the Sadrist movement, which depends on its access to the rentier resources of the state to ensure the continuation of its legitimacy,” Shuker said.

Harith Hasan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Malcolm H Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, said that one of the things to watch going forward was al-Sudani’s “ability to convince others – primarily al-Sadr – that he is no longer al-Maliki’s guy”.

Mohanad Adnan said al-Sudani’s performances in his ministerial roles have generally been well-received by many other legislators in parliament and said his “depth of experience as a minister is likely unmatched” in the current parliament.

He had worked as minister during some of the harshest economic conditions for Iraq: from 2014 to 2018 when he served in Haidar al-Abadi’s government as minister of labour and social affairs, the global oil price was at some of its lowest, and the government had to take harsh, unpopular economic decisions that kept the country afloat.

Yet the current Iraqi political system is all but defunct: an economy that is too dependent on the oil industry and a political system that struggles to shift away from the post-2003 ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangement.

Al-Sudani’s past record, no matter how effective it might look, would not change this increasingly failing system, according to some analysts.

“If we accept the [dysfunctional political hybrid and rentier system] and that the current macro and institutional limited capacity are a product of the oil-dependent economic system, then a true change must happen in the economic system first,” said Shuker.

“Yet al-Sudani doesn’t have an alternative economic or political policy.”

However, for others, al-Sudani’s economic and political achievements are less of an asset in the current political standoff than his position as a moderate candidate who does not flagrantly favour one side over another.

Hamzeh Hadad, a visiting fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera that al-Sudani “could prove to be the most suitable candidate” as he has less “political baggage” than other candidates for prime minister considered by the Coordination Framework, such as al-Maliki or al-Abadi.

“A middle-ground prime minister would have the best chance of implementing domestic and foreign policy effectively.”

Source: Al Jazeera