Muhasasa Ta’ifiya and its Others: Domination and Contestation in Iraq’s political field

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Toby Dodge, London School of Economics [1]

The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 saw the country’s political and economic system completely transformed under U.S. domination. The year-long rule of America’s imperial viceroy, Paul Bremer III, saw incoherent attempts at imposing a new neo-liberal order but also, as Shamiran Mako argues, the demonization of a section of its population (Dodge 2010, Dodge 2012). In an attempt to achieve the goal of a neo-liberal transformation, the Ba‘ath Party was disestablished, the civil service was brutally purged, and Iraq’s armed forces and security services were dissolved, only to be hastily rebuilt in the face of violent resistance (Dodge 2012, 53-74, 116-120). This attempted transformation of the country drove Iraq into an extended civil war that Iraq Body Count has described as “ceaseless violence”, a conflict that has seen a conservatively estimated 183,249 to 205,785 civilians murdered (2019). The U.S. project in Iraq also saw the drafting of a new constitution anointed by national referendum and five national elections – two in 2005, then three in 2010, 2014, and 2018 respectively.

Against this background of a radical, violent, and incompetently imposed transformation and intense politically motivated violence, the post-2003 ruling elite, brought back to Iraq and imposed on the country through U.S. force of arms, has remained remarkably stable.  A comparatively small number of individuals, political parties, and movements, in spite of having profound disagreements, deploying violence against each other and facing sustained challenge, have remained near to or at the center of the country’s ruling elite.  This ruling elite is popularly and correctly blamed for the systemic corruption that has come to dominate Iraq; it is held responsible for the weakness of state institutions and their inability to delivery basic government services to the majority of the population. Over a decade and a half since regime change, how can the stability of the ruling elite and the system that it sits on top of, the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya , be explained?

Seeking to understand Iraq’s political system.

Any analysis of Iraq’s current political system and the elite at its core, would have to assess the role that high levels of violence have played in its imposition and perpetuation.  It would also have to examine the political economy of the Iraqi state, how money and rents have been used to secure domination. The power of ideology – the use of ethno-sectarian rhetoric to justify the role of key political parties, electoral mobilization and government formation – would also have to be at the center of any explanation.

Two works on Lebanon can perhaps indicate how these different analytical threads could be brought together in one overarching framework. Michael Johnson, deploying a Marxian approach, examines the ways that both street-level violence and cascading dyads of patron-client relationships structured Lebanon’s pre-civil war system. This approach, both structuralist but also instrumental, combines the political economy of neo-patrimonialism with the coercive disciplining of seemingly everyday thuggery to detail how the Lebanese system functioned (Johnson 1986). From a different theoretical perspective, Salloukh, Barakat, al-Habbal, Khattab, and Mikaelian, deploy a Foucauldian frame, detailing “a holistic political, economic, and ideological system” (Salloukh et. al. 2015). They uncover a genealogy of institutionalization, which delivers social reproduction and material domination and imposes a very specific type of national imaginary. Both Johnson and Salloukh identify the system’s ultimate aim as “manufacturing docile sectarian subjects” (Salloukh et. al. 2015, 160, 170, 188). However, as these works point out, the Lebanese system took more than 180 years to impose its disciplinary power across society.  The Iraqi system, by contrast, was violently and exogenously imposed 16 years ago and has been subject to sustained contestation ever since.  As the protests of 2011, the mass movement of 2015, the elections of 2018, and the mass protests of 2019 indicate, the system has yet to gain sustainable domination over the population as a whole.  Both Johnson and Salloukh’s approach capture a mature and coherent system of domination, whereas the Iraqi system is still under construction (Salloukh 2019).

Against this empirical background, Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the war of position and the maneuver within an on-going struggle for hegemony or Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of the struggle for domination within the political field may be more applicable to contemporary Iraq. There are interesting commonalities but also differences between Bourdieu and Gramsci’s work (Burawoy 2012). This paper seeks to apply a Bourdieusian approach to understanding the struggle to impose the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya, Iraq’s political system, on its population and the resulting contestation. The ‘thinking tools’, developed by Bourdieu – especially the notion of political field, and economic, symbolic, and coercive capital – allow for the Iraqi system to be analytically disaggregated, to move beyond a reductive but also Orientalist sectarian narrative, to examine how a new governing elite, in alliance with the US, has imposed a system of rule on Iraq’s population through the deployment of economic and coercive but also ideational power.

Bourdieu’s definition of the political field is especially useful for understanding Iraq’s political system (Zubaida 1989, 145-150, Zubaida 1991, 207). For Bourdieu, the political field is not simply the state. The state is disaggregated into an “ensemble of administrative or bureaucratic fields.” These are multiple sites of contestation where there is a struggle for “the monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence, i.e., the power to constitute and to impose as universal and universally applicable within a given ‘nation’ …” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 20, Bourdieu 2014, 20). This disaggregation of the state captures the reality of Iraq’s current political struggle, where dominion over the political field and the state within it continues to be contested at a number of levels.

Bourdieu sees competition between individuals and organizations as being conducted with and through resources he labels capitals. He certainly recognizes the power of money, which he describes as economic capital and the utility of violence, coercive capital.  However, he expands his notion of power within a struggle for domination to include a number of other capitals including social and symbolic (Bourdieu 1986). Social capital comes from the resources gained through organizing an extended group or network (Bourdieu 1986). In Iraq’s political field, groups like the Sadrists have solidified their social capital, whereas the demonstrators who brought people onto the streets of Basra in 2018 and Baghdad and across the south of Iraq in October 2019 have more fluid, if not ephemeral, social capital.

Symbolic capital and its application, symbolic violence, is used by elites in order to naturalize their domination of the field, to have the social categories that advance their own power seen as the natural order of things. It is the symbolic capital wielded by Iraq’s new governing elite from 2003 onwards that persuaded a section of society that the country would benefit from recognizing ethnic and religious division as the key organizing trope for post-regime change politics.

The political field is the site where political parties, professional politicians, and, in Iraq’s case, those wielding coercive capital, struggle against each other for domination (Davis 2010, 206).  The aim is to deploy coercive, economic, social, and symbolic capital to impose a vision and mobilize the population behind it within the political field (Bourdieu 2005, 36-39).

The struggle for domination in Iraq’s political field

Symbolic violence

Ideationally, the principle vision that dominated Iraq’s political field after 2003, the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya or sectarian apportionment system, was largely developed in exile in the early 1990s and brought back by the US-aligned formerly exiled politicians after the Ba‘athist regime had been removed. The reordering and division of Iraq’s political field along identitarian lines was agreed to by a group of exiled politicians at a conference held in Salah al-Din, an area of northern Iraq outside Baghdad’s rule, in October 1992.  Positions in the newly formed Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella organization created to bring the opposition groups together and give them social capital in planning for a post-Saddam future, were distributed amongst the exiled Shi’a, Kurdish, and Sunni political parties in proportion to a “virtual census”, the purported size of each ethnic and religious group in Iraq (Nawar 2003, al-Bayati 2011, 889, 906, 949, 953). At the center of this exogenous vision of Iraq’s political field was the assertion of religious and ethnic identities, primarily, Shi‘a, Sunni, and Kurd, but also Christian, Turkoman and Assyrian, as the only units through which Iraq could be conceived, its politics organized, and Iraqis successfully interpellated by the system (Althusser 1984, 44, 47, Hall 1995, 102, 108). In an act of symbolic violence, other categories – nationalist, regional, or class, for example – were rejected from within this principle of vision and division.

The seven major parties that dominated Iraqi politics after 2003, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Iraqi National Council, the Iraqi National Accord, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Islamic Party, and the Iraqi Islamic Party, all signed off on the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya principle vision before the invasion. They used this principle vision to institutionalize their place at the center of Iraq’s political field. It provided the rules for competition within the field but also the basis for the symbolic capital they were fighting over. The Muhasasa Ta’ifiya principle of vision and division was deployed to completely restructure Iraq’s political field. It was institutionalized through the formation of its first governing body, the Iraq Governing Council, and its sectarian mathematics were deployed to form each government of national unity after elections in 2005, 2010, 2014, and 2018. The sectarian principle of vision and division at the core of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya was also used to justify the civil war that dominated the country from 2004 to 2008.

Economic Capital

Economically, at the height of occupation, America’s ability to wield economic capital was greater than any other competitor in the political field, having spent US$200 billion on reconstruction alone. However, the formation of the Iraq Governing Council and then governments of national unity after each election allowed the seven dominant political parties to colonize the institutions of the state, giving them access to its economic capital.

The first outcome of this was a rapid expansion of the public sector payroll. Under the terms of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya , party bosses were given responsibility for appointing government minsters. These party functionaries directly controlled the resources of their ministries for the duration of each government. Each party would exploit these resources to gain economic capital for their struggle to dominate the political field. The parties would issue a Tazkiyya or letter of recommendation to their followers. This would allow them to get jobs in the ministries they controlled (Bahadur 2005, Herring and Rangwala 2006, 131). As a result, access to government employment, still dominant in the Iraqi job market, is only guaranteed by pledging allegiance to one of the political parties controlling the ministries and promoting the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya. This use of economic capital interpellated Iraqis as sectarian subjects. The extent of this practice can be seen in the rapid growth of the state payroll, which expanded from 850,000 employees a year after regime change to between seven and nine million in 2016 (al-Mawlawi 2018, Arango 2016, Chulov 2016, Morris 2016).

The second transformation of Iraq’s political economy delivered by the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya was even more destructive. One recent study estimates that as much as 25 percent of public funds in Iraq are lost to financial corruption (Abdullah 2018). As the majority of academic and journalistic writing on this issue suggest, this theft certainly funds personal enrichment, tying members of the ruling elite together, creating a community of complicity at the center of government. However, more importantly, it provides the economic capital to maintain the system, financing the parties operating budgets, giving them the economic and the social capital needed to dominate the political field (Ismael and Ismael 2015, 116, 122). Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, the most senior government figure responsible for pursuing corruption from 2008 to 2011, identified the government’s contracting process as “the father of all corruption issues in Iraq” (Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction 2011, 8). Contracts are frequently awarded to or through companies run by or very close to senior Iraqi politicians.  The companies are then paid handsomely but complaints about poor or non-existent delivery are ignored as the same politicians who ensured they won the contracts in the first place protect the companies from which they and their parties financially benefit.   

Access to corruption is shared amongst these party elites through Muhasasa Ta’ifiya and the subsidiary Wikala system. This not only divides ministerial positions between senior members of the victorious parities, but the Wikala system sees the power to appoint positions at the top of the civil service, the ‘private grades’ containing the Director Generals that run each ministry, given to party bosses.  In the aftermath of the 2018 election, for example, the awarding of approximately 500 senior civil service jobs, spread across all ministries, was part of the government formation negotiations. Party aligned Director Generals, appointed under Wikala, allow the resources from contract corruption across all ministries to reach the parties that make up the ruling elite (Author interviews 2019).

Coercive capital

The US, in theory, should have had the predominant coercive capital in Iraq, with its troop numbers ranging from 150,000 during the invasion to 171,000 at the height of its military engagement in 2007 (Dodge 2012). However, the collapse of the Ba‘athist state’s military forces was compounded by the American decision to quickly disband the Iraqi army at the start of its occupation. This allowed numerous players within Iraq’s political field to deploy coercive capital in the struggle for domination. This drove a spiral of competitive violence from 2004 onwards, as coercive capital became a central unit of currency in the political field. Mass terrorist attacks, utilizing suicide and car bombs, were deployed in the name of a militant, violent, and sectarian Sunni political Islamism (Hafez 2007, 52). In parallel and in reaction to this, a mass campaign of terror was launched against the Sunni section of Baghdad’s population. Key political parties who held institutional capital, especially in the Ministry of Health and Interior, supported this campaign of sectarian violence.  Both state and militias forces deployed coercive capital to transform the demography of Baghdad, reducing the numbers of Sunnis in central areas, thus violently imposing the principle vision of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya, whilst attempting to coercively create docile sectarian subjects (Dodge 2012, 54-70).

From 2004 to 2012, the US struggled to recentralize coercive capital in the hands of their Iraqi allies who increasingly controlled the state, creating a security force that numbered 940,000 (Dodge 2012, 118). However, a large percentage of these forces collapsed in the face of Daesh’s 2011-2014 campaign (Dodge et. al. 2018, 15). In response, coercive capital once again became decentralized with the formation of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or popular mobilization forces. Tens of thousands of young Shi‘a men joined the force to defend Baghdad against the advance of Daesh. It was the coercive champions of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya’s principle vision, groups like Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Badr Organization, who now came to dominate the political field, arming and deploying these new recruits and, in the process, rapidly expanding their own coercive, social and symbolic capital. As a result, coercive capital in Iraq’s political field is now held by both centralized state forces and decentralized militias, both using it as a means to defend and expand the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya’s principle vision.  The militias, personified by Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, deploy covert coercive capital to enforce the symbolic violence of the system, violently disciplining society in the name of a radical Shi‘a Islamism.[2]

Opposition to the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya

A close examination of popular protest in post-2003 Iraq shows from at least 2009 demonstrators have steadily increased the social and symbolic capital that they can deploy in the political field. Before 2011, popular mobilization against the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya tended to be diffuse, mobilized by the government’s inability to deliver electricity and water during the hot summer months. From 2011 onwards however, protestors began to accrue social capital and use their mobilization to challenge the symbolic violence of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya. This reached a tipping point in the summer of 2015, when mass demonstrations against the government’s inability to deliver power supplies developed into a movement that coherently challenged the symbolic capital of the Muhasasa  system. Blaming it directly for post-2003 corruption and institutional incoherence, demonstrators chanted, “In the name of religion the thieves have robbed us” (Jabar 2018, 9). As the social capital of the demonstrators increased, their symbolic capital also cohered around a principle vision calling for a “civic state”.

The demonstrations in 2015 forced then prime minister Haider al-Abadi, to develop a potentially wide-ranging reform program. However, members of the wider ruling elite, their position, power, and privileges threatened by such a move, managed to block this. Since 2015, mass protest designed to force systemic reform have continued, in Basra in July and September 2018 and in Baghdad and across the south of Iraq in October 2019. Unlike 2015, these protests were much more diffuse, lacking the social capital of the 2015 movement. In Basra, demonstrators vented their frustration about the lack of government services, job opportunities, and development by burning the offices of the Shi‘a Islamist parties and the Iranian consulate.  The response was swift, with militias from the Hashd al-Shaabi deploying very high levels of coercive violence, imposing political passivity on the city through fear.

The extended demonstration in Baghdad and across the south of Iraq in October 2019 more closely resembled Basra in 2018 than they did Baghdad in 2015. Demonstrators again blamed the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya for the systemic corruption and economic stagnation that blighted their lives.  They called for the end to the system through the resignation of the government, the reform of electoral laws, then new national elections under United Nations supervision.  The ruling elite, apparently having learned the lessons of Basra in 2018, deployed overwhelming violence. Government forces used live ammunition to suppress demonstrations in Baghdad and major cities across southern Iraq, including Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, and Najaf. This was followed by mass arrests and a sustained campaign of press intimidation. After 10 days of protest and suppression, the death toll stood at over 150 (Human Rights Watch 2019 and Amnesty International 2019).

The demands of the protest movement from 2015 to 2019 are of significance because the vast majority of demonstrators in Baghdad and across the south were young Shi‘a. This exposed the limits of the Muhasasa principle vision to produce docile sectarian subjects within the political field. Instead, the protestors risked their lives to reject the symbolic violence underpinning the system and demanded its wholesale reform.

The popular protests that have lasted from 2015 until today clearly show that opposition to the Muhasasa system can mobilize both social and symbolic capital in their struggle to transform the political field. However, the coherent political movement of 2015 and the more organizationally diffuse protests of 2018 and 2019 have yet to pose a sustained challenge to the Muhasasa system for two reasons. Firstly, the demonstrators did not develop the levels of social capital needed to compete with the established parties within the political field. They also have little organized coercive capital and are thus exposed to extended state and militia led repression. This, in 2015, left them vulnerable to co-optation by Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which seized the symbolic capital and momentum developed by the movement and deployed it for its own electoral ends.

In return, from 2015 to 2018, the movement benefitted from Sadr’s substantial reserves of coercive and social capital. Isam al-Khafaji argues that the political movement that came out of the 2015 protests movement, the Takaddum coalition, had the symbolic capital to challenge the Muhasasa system in the political field (2018). However, the social and symbolic capital that Takaddum had amassed largely came from the Iraqi Communist Party, which pushed for the movement’s co-optation/integration into Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance (Tahaluf al-Sairoon) in the 2018 elections. Given the history of Sadr’s own party and militia, it is of little surprise that this reduced the coherence of the movement’s symbolic capital and its ability to channel societal anger into a focused political movement with a coherent reform agenda.  Sadr’s inability to transform electoral success in 2018 into a meaningful program of governmental reform afterwards also undermined his movement’s symbolic capital and its ability to represent the alienated and angry young people involved in the protest movement.

The effects of this cooptation and the Sadrist movement’s role in government formation were felt in the protests in Basra in 2018 and the mass protests in Baghdad and across the south in 2019.  Neither the Iraqi Communist Party not the Sadrist movement played a significant role in the organization of either protest. In September 2018, Sadr issued a letter calling for the Basra protestors to de-mobilize in the face of very high levels of violence deployed by the militias against them.  In 2019, in the wake of government formation, the protestors no longer looked to the Sadrist movement as offering plausible anti-systemic symbolic capital.

Conclusions: the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya and its others

In the elections of May 2018, the anti-corruption pro-civic principle vision and its symbolic capital that had been pioneered by the 2015 protest movement was, to varying degrees, co-opted by all those competing for votes. However, the lowest voter turnout since regime change indicated that the dominant political parties did not have the social and symbolic power across Iraq’s political field to get the vote out. Those who could be convinced to vote were split between Sadr’s alliance, based on a populist but incoherent and contradictory commitment to reform, a coalition of Hash’d militias attempting to translate the coercive capital they had accrued during the fight against Daesh into dominance of the political field, and a third group representing the Shi‘a Islamist parties previously dominant in the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya.

Arguments that this election and the elongated government formation process in its wake represented a sustained challenge to the principle vision of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya belied the fact that yet another government of nation unity was created and the majority of ministerial posts distributed between the formally exiled parties who, in partnership with the US, had created the political system and have long dominated it. The selection of Adel Abdulmahdi as Prime Minister, one of the chief architects of the Muhasasa Ta’ifiya, chosen and increasingly directed by the Hash’d parties, goes a long way to exemplifying the durability of the elite’s domination of Iraq’s political field.

The widespread but organizationally diffuse protests of October 2019 certainly indicated a population alienated from its ruling elite and no longer mobilized by its symbolic capital.  Given that the symbolic capital of the ruling elite has failed, domination within the political field is now reliant on the overt coercive capital supplied by government forces but also, increasingly, the covert coercive capital deployed by groups within the Hashd al-Shaabi. The challenge posed by the protest movement’s social and symbolic capital will certainly continue, but until they can develop greater symbolic and social capital and hence assert their own autonomous position within Iraq’s political field, their role will continue to be contained by the overt and covert deployment of coercive capital by the Shi‘a Islamist groups who now dominate the political field.


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[1] This paper benefitted from discussions at the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies workshop,

‘Religion, Violence and the State in Iraq’, Brandeis University, 18 April, 2019.

Previous versions of this paper have also been presented at Sectarianism, Proxies & De-sectarianization (SEPAD) workshops on 11 September 2018 and 25 October 2019. Many thanks to Simon Mabon for organizing these. This paper has also greatly benefitted from extended discussions with Renad Mansour, Tariq Tell, and Bassel Salloukh.

[1] This paper benefitted from discussions at the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies workshop, ‘Religion, Violence and the State in Iraq’, Brandeis University, 18 April, 2019. Previous versions of this paper have also been presented at Sectarianism, Proxies & De-sectarianization (SEPAD) workshops on 11 September 2018 and 25 October 2019. Many thanks to Simon Mabon for organizing these. This paper has also greatly benefitted from extended discussions with Renad Mansour, Tariq Tell, and Bassel Salloukh.

[2] The murders of human rights activist Suad al-Ali and political activist Wissam Al Ghrawi in Basra in September and November 2018 and writer, Alaa Mashzoub, in Karbala in February, 2019, would be examples of this.