Heading west from Baghdad, the capital’s bumpy roads turn into a well-lit, smoothly paved three-lane highway rarely seen in Iraq. Every so often, billboards adorned with slick pictures of Mohammed al-Halbousi credit Iraq’s recently deposed speaker of parliament with the reconstruction of Anbar, his home province.
“Halbousi restored the prestige of the Sunnis and of the province,” said Hamed Albu Alwan, a tribal elder who supports him. Outside the entrance to his spacious diwan (where tribal gatherings take place) in Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, workers toiled away in the midday sun as they covered the road with a fresh layer of shiny asphalt. “If we had three to four leaders like him, Iraq could become a normal country again,” the sheikh said.
Anbar saw some of the fiercest fighting in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion and again a decade later, when the war against the Islamic State ravaged its cities. But in contrast to other Sunni areas that suffered a similar fate, Iraq’s westernmost province has seen remarkable development in recent years. This reconstruction boom, some of it financed by the U.S. government as part of a U.N. reconstruction program, has coincided with the extraordinary ascent of the most powerful Sunni politician since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
Within just four years of entering politics in 2014, the now 42-year-old Halbousi rose from a little-known businessman to speaker of parliament, the most senior Sunni post in Shiite-majority Iraq. Halbousi held that position since 2018 until recently, making him the only Iraqi politician to serve more than one term since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But his success in consolidating power has fomented a backlash among Sunnis and Shiites alike.
Last Tuesday, Iraq’s federal court issued a ruling terminating Halbousi’s membership of parliament, the culmination of months of power struggle between the speaker and a growing lineup of rivals. Halbousi was found guilty of forgery in a case filed by former member of parliament Laith al-Dulaimi, who accused Halbousi of using a fake resignation letter to blackmail him.
“He has begun to enslave the MPs,” Laith al-Dulaimi told Foreign Policy when he filed the case in early 2023. Dulaimi said that ahead of the 2021 parliamentary election, Halbousi forced him and others to sign blank letters, which he used when they deviated from the party line. “He targets any voice that challenges him. All the authority, all the money must be for him only.” In a statement, Halbousi’s party alleged political targeting and called the court decision a “flagrant violation of the constitution.”
The court case was just one of several, simultaneous efforts to depose Halbousi amid a myriad of grievances documented by Foreign Policy. In wide-ranging interviews, seven tribal leaders, nine politicians, eight officials and three members of civil society paint a picture of pervasive state capture at the hands of a politician whom almost all of the interviewees allege has built a political and economic empire through embezzlement of public funds and the use of force.
Halbousi stands accused of throwing rivals into jail, punishing critics with arrest warrants under Iraq’s sweeping anti-defamation laws, and disqualifying rivals from elections by abusing harsh de-Baathification provisions that forbid members of the former regime from participating in the political process, according to interviews and documents seen by Foreign Policy. Halbousi and his office have not replied to repeated requests for interviews.
Taken individually, none of the tactics in Halbousi’s arsenal are particularly unusual. To the contrary, they largely follow a well-worn playbook that has become the defining legacy of the U.S.-led invasion. Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt nations, where officials tend to exploit their positions for the sake of self-enrichment and to build patronage networks that will entrench them in the halls of power. But few Iraqi politicians, let alone a Sunni one, have mastered state capture quite as successfully.
Even though the role of the speaker is to head the parliament, Halbousi remained the de facto executive authority in Anbar long after he left his previous post as governor and has managed to establish what some describe as one-party rule in the province, with government posts, services, and success in elections contingent on support for his Progress Party.
“He intervenes in the process of replacing and changing security or administrative leaders and in the mechanisms of disbursing the budget and its projects,” said Salim al-Jabouri, a senior Sunni politician who served as speaker before Halbousi.
Interviewees, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, described three major alleged corruption schemes. Halbousi and his lieutenants are said to have monopolized the allocation of government contracts, channeling them to companies owned by relatives or loyalists in return for kickbacks. They also stand accused of diverting funds intended for beneficiaries of social security schemes, such as pensioners or victims of Islamic State, and illegally selling off public land to private investors.
According to the majority of interviewees, the Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terrorist Operations, worth around $800 million, appears to have been used to fuel Halbousi’s patronage network. “The fund is controlled by the speaker of parliament, Mohammed Al-Halbousi,” said an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of reprisals. “He has turned the fund into a way to buy the loyalty of the security forces. He gives them cars so he can call them and say, arrest this guy or that guy.”
Foreign Policy has reviewed documents that show the allocation of $4.6 million for the provision of vehicles to local security and intelligence organs. (Including $3.1 million for Anbar’s intelligence service and $1.5 million for Anbar’s branch of national security agency, despite the fact that money from the reconstruction fund is meant for the rebuilding of houses, bridges, and schools.)
Since he took power in October last year, Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani has begun to claw back Halbousi’s executive powers by dismissing his loyalists and investigating corruption allegations in Anbar. In June, al-Sudani dismissed the reconstruction fund’s manager due to allegations of fraud and corruption. Several low-level government officials, who have been taken into custody as part of a separate investigation into allegations of illegal sale of land in Anbar, reportedly confessed they were acting at Halbousi’s behest, according to a local sheikh and an official who spoke with the investigators.
An engineer by training and a former U.S. contractor, Halbousi is part of a new generation of Sunni leaders who built their political base with money. What has set him apart from the rest of the pack is his intellect, drive, and ability to strike deals at the right time. He took advantage of a series of crises that have buffeted Iraq over the recent decade, including the war with the Islamic State, the October 2019 demonstrations, and the U.S.-Iran tensions that turned Iraq into a battleground for a global power struggle.
When he first ran for parliament in 2014, the Sunni political establishment was in disarray, its constituents displaced, its land ravaged by war. Halbousi—a young, liberal, up-and-coming politician—successfully positioned himself as an antidote to Anbar’s downfall.
In 2017, he secured the support of Anbar’s provincial council and was appointed governor. The completion of hundreds of U.N. projects came in handy, allowing Halbousi to advertise himself as the man who could get things done. “He showed up just in time to cut the ribbon,” said one former governor, adding that many of the projects had kicked off well before Halbousi’s tenure.
Halbousi’s well-advertised though short stint as governor (he was in power only for a year) served him well as campaigning kicked off for the 2018 parliamentary election. He founded his own party, won six out of 329 seats and, facing some opposition among Sunnis, successfully courted the Shiite leaders who had emerged victors from the battlefield with the Islamic State to win the speakership.
“There was a leadership vacuum among the Sunnis. The Shia started build what they need. They chose the one who is weak, who will be close to them, the one who has no cause,” said a former speaker of Iraq’s parliament, who wished to remain anonymous.
In an anecdote that is often told during late-evening conversations at the residences of senior politicians to illustrate Shiite efforts to find a Sunni ally to do their bidding, Halbousi allegedly pledged support to the late paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis and Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani—both of whom were killed two years later in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad airport. In return for the speakership, Halbousi reportedly vowed to support the institutionalization of the paramilitaries, called the Popular Mobilization Forces, and safeguard their strategic presence in Sunni areas where they had fought the Islamic State.
Shortly after Halbousi assumed his new role as speaker, changing winds once again strengthened his hand. Mass protests erupted in 2019 across Iraq’s south, rattling the foundations of the post-2003 political order in what became known as the October Revolution. Throngs of Shiite youths took to the streets, demanding an end to corruption and the downfall of the ruling elite. While Shiite politicians focused on crushing the movement, Halbousi quietly broadened his remit, aided by the weakness of two successive governments that permitted encroachment on executive powers.
During Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s administration in particular, Halbousi extended his reach deep into the executive branch. Kadhimi gave Halbousi free rein to run affairs in Sunni areas, including the ability to control appointments to senior security and government posts in Anbar, such as the head of the police or the regional joint operations command, according to numerous sources.
“He was stronger than the Prime Minister,” said Khalid al-Obaidi, who served as Iraq’s defense minister between 2014 and 2016. “Anything Halbousi wanted to implement in Sunni governorates was implemented without Kadhimi’s interference.”
The more power that Halbousi consolidated, the more he deviated from customary principles of power sharing that govern Iraq and Anbar’s tribal society. “He uses money and power. You’re either with him or against him, there’s no middle ground for solutions,” said Sattar al-Jumeili, the leader of the Jumeili tribe, which used to constitute the majority of the local council in Halbousi’s hometown of Garmah before he oversaw a vote to dissolve the councils in 2019.
Halbousi hails from a relatively insignificant tribe in Anbar, an anomaly that he has skillfully overcome by striking deals with Shiite politicians and by courting Gulf countries that see him as a useful partner to further their geopolitical interests. “The man is reliable, and I believe there’s consensus on this in the region,” said one Arab diplomat in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At home, however, many Sunnis feel that Halbousi has sold their cause for the sake of remaining in power. Despite his long tenure as the head of the legislature, critics say he has not tackled a list of long-running Sunni grievances, such as the abolition of the de-Baathification process and better representation of Sunnis in government and the security apparatus. “He has failed to lead the Sunnis,” said the former speaker of parliament. “He’s behaving like a party boss, not like a speaker.”
Senior Sunni politicians lament that under Halbousi’s leadership, the country’s legislative branch had become less effective, thus eroding the foundations of Iraq’s fragile democracy. “It’s not in our interest for Halbousi to represent the Iraqi parliament. Right now, parliament has no value,” said al-Obaidi, who currently serves on the parliament’s security and defense committee. “The parliament committees are all idle,” he said, adding that their heads have been chosen based on loyalty rather than competence. Two former speakers agreed that the parliament isn’t functioning.
At the beginning of this year, a campaign to unseat Halbousi started to gain momentum in Anbar. On a Friday in May, thousands of men gathered on a sprawling, dusty field near Fallujah to attend a rally organized by Halbousi’s opponents. The so-called United Anbar alliance is spearheaded by a motley of former Sunni governors, ministers, and tribal leaders, and it’s reportedly backed by Shiite politicians who sought to weaken Halbousi’s base in his home province.
Standing atop a stage, a number of officials took turns addressing the crowd. “It is the mistake of those who think that they are the master of Fallujah,” said Jamal al-Karbouli, the leader of the alliance, drawing a parallel between Halbousi’s rule and the U.S. occupation, which the city famously resisted. “We are here today to correct the course and launch a project to restore the rights of Fallujah.”
Karbouli, a political and business heavyweight, helped Halbousi get a foothold in politics back in 2014, only to watch his protégé rebel against him. In 2021, Karbouli was arrested and tortured by an anti-corruption squad used by Kadhimi’s government to go after political opponents. Karbouli and others believe the arrest happened on Halbousi’s orders.
“They disappeared me for five months, with Kadhimi’s agreement, so that Halbousi could win,” Karbouli told Foreign Policy. Karbouli was released without charges shortly after that year’s parliamentary elections.
Karbouli’s arrest is just one example of what some describe as a systemic campaign to crush opposition that has earned Halbousi monikers such as “dictator” or “the new Saddam.” Activists and civilians in Anbar have faced increased intimidation and threats for criticizing authorities on social media. Tribal sheikhs who complained about land grabs or marginalization were summoned by the police chief or charged under archaic Baath-era defamation laws.
But Halbousi’s eventual downfall wasn’t the product of popular discontent in his home province or among Iraq’s Sunnis. In a move that would have sidelined his former Shiite backers, Halbousi agreed in 2021 to form a majority government with populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The alliance was seen as an unprecedented effort by a Sunni to usurp Shiite majority rule by fomenting intra-Shiite rivalries.
Months of political deadlock were ultimately settled through a brief but violent confrontation between rival Shiite factions, which left Sadr defeated and shut out of the political process. Halbousi quickly pivoted back to the Coordination Framework, the Shiite alliance that then formed the ruling coalition. A year on, Halbousi’s turncoat brand of politics appears to have caught up with him.
“He crossed a red line,” said the Arab diplomat. “It was the first time a Sunni tried to divide the Shia. This has not been forgotten.”
Reporting for this story was done as part of research for the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics Middle East Center.