Iraq: A Political Storm Blows
At the centre of the storm is Muqtada al Sadr, a highly political Shia cleric
Since July 2022, Iraq has been facing a political storm that shows little sign of easing up. At the centre of the storm is Muqtada al Sadr, scion of a revered family, and an eminent and highly political Shia cleric. His rivals known as the Coordination Framework include politicians from the party of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Hashd al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran ex-paramilitary network now integrated into the security forces.
The past months have been marked by demonstrations, armed clashes, seizure of government establishments, and over 30 deaths. Iraq has been plagued by political discord and instability since the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his execution.
Elections were held several months early in October 2021 following mass protests by young and mostly Shiite demonstrators demanding the overthrow of the political system. They were met with brutal repression with nearly 600 killed , and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to step down.
The 2021 elections saw Muqtada al Sadr's party improve its position from 54 to 73 seats in the 329 member Parliament while the Iran backed parties came down to 16 from 48. Muqtada had never projected himself as a Prime Ministerial candidate. But the absence of an absolute majority in Parliament prevented him from naming his own candidate as PM while isolating his Iran backed rivals.
Muqtada's support base is enormous, comprising millions of impoverished supporters respectful of his lineage; his resistance to Iraq's occupation and declared determination to eradicate injustice. They accept his projection of himself as someone who is determined to reform the existing corrupt political system. This is a guise used by him to back the Tishreen [October] Movement for months until Iran called on him to withdraw this support. He also has his own militia Saraya al-Salam to counter the pro Iran militias.
In Iraq traditional elites have always ruled by consensus but following the results of the elections rival Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni politicians had been unable to agree on key government appointments. The failure to agree on a Prime Minister and the continuing squabbles led Muqtada to announce on July 15 that he had withdrawn from politics to protest corruption and also said that he would not participate in future elections. Coinciding with his announcement his entire parliamentary bloc of 73 resigned.
Muqtada's supporters had started to sit in protest outside the Parliament in Baghdad's Green Zone. This is a heavily fortified area in the heart of the capital that houses government buildings, foreign embassies and Iraq's parliament. They had been chanting slogans against the Coordination Framework and the former PM Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement.
Apprehending that the Coordination Framework would form a new government Muqtada al Sadr called on his supporters to storm the Parliament building. With the Sadrists gone the Coordination Framework was reported to be considering naming former cabinet minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister.
This angered the Sadrists who said al Sudani was a replica of al Maliki and they continued their occupation of Parliament. Thousands of foot soldiers for the cleric's rivals, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leaders of armed groups linked to Iran gathered too, protesting what they described as a "political coup" by Muqtada al Sadr .
In what was seen as a defiant show of his strength Muqtada had called on his followers to hold Friday prayers inside the normally forbidden area known as the Green Zone. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis participated in the mass prayer.
Finally on August 29, Muqtada al-Sadr said he was stepping down from politics. He said he was closing all his institutions except his father's shrine, the historical monument institution and the al-Sadr family's museum. But at the same time he kept insisting that there should be early elections again and called on all the political parties to step aside.
He had also put forward the demand that all those who had been in government earlier should not be allowed to participate as candidates. He gave a deadline of a week to the Supreme Judicial Council to dismiss parliament but the Council said that while it agreed with al-Sadr's criticism of the system's "failure to elect a president of the republic, a prime minister and the absence of a government formed within the constitutional timeframe" it had no authority to dismiss Parliament.
On his demand for fresh elections, the Coordination Framework had issued a statement that it supported any constitutional way to resolve the political crises and realise the interests of the people, including through early elections. But it wanted a national consensus on the question and the provision of a safe environment without disrupting the functioning of constitutional institutions, a clear reference to the occupation of Parliament by the Sadrists.
The two sides also had differences regarding the electoral law that would govern the elections. Al Sadr wanted the fresh elections to be held under the existing law with Iraq divided into 83 electoral districts. This benefitted parties with a strong grassroots base like that of al Sadr. The Coordination Framework wanted the law to be amended but with nothing really spelt out.
Immediately after Muqtada Sadr announced on August 29, 2022 that he was withdrawing from politics the situation exploded. While he had in the past always spoken of negotiations and talks as the way to resolve problems, his latest statement of ending his role in politics was seen by many as a signal to his supporters to do what they wished. He had been active on Twitter praising his supporters for the street demonstrations that they were holding.
Baghdad and Basra were two cities that witnessed major armed clashes between the Sadrists and the Iran backed militias as well as the armed forces. Sadr's followers tried to storm government buildings. By nightfall they were driving through Baghdad in pickup trucks brandishing machine guns and bazookas.
Armed men believed to be members of pro-Iranian militia opened fire on Sadrist demonstrators who threw stones. At least 30 people were killed.Sadrists attacked the offices of the rival Shiite factions in a number of places across Iraq.
But the sudden upsurge of violence which started on Monday August 29, suddenly stopped after 24 hours. Sadr called for calm. His armed supporters and unarmed followers began leaving the streets, and the army lifted an overnight curfew.
Observers believe that two factors contributed. The first was the behind the scenes signals from the offices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq who had remained silent, that he could publicly denounce the violence to which al Sadr was a party.
The second factor might have been implicit criticism of Muqtada Sadr by Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri. Al-Haeri, a top ranking Iraqi-born Shi'ite cleric who had lived in Iran for decades, announced he was retiring from public life and shutting down his office. He had denounced those causing rifts among Shiites, a clear reference to Al Sadr.
He also called on his own followers and Al Sadr to seek future guidance on religious matters from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Al Haeri's criticism, largely believed to be at the behest of the Iranians, had reportedly made Al Sadr furious particularly as Muqtada's father had named Al Haeri as his son's mentor.
So what comes next?
It is highly unlikely that any talks will result in a solution acceptable to the two rival factions. At one time, when Islamic State was active in Iraq, the Iran backed militias, supervised by assassinated Iranian General Soleimani, were looked upon as allies. But of late, with the Islamic State mostly uprooted, there has been growing distaste for Iran and its proxies with the neighbouring country being seen as a bully trying to interfere in Iraq's affairs. Al Sadr who had earlier opposed the American presence in Iraq has also been increasingly critical of Iran.
The continuing political impasse is also something the Iranians would not be comfortable with. For Iran, at this juncture, the best bet would be to persuade their proxies to approve of fresh elections; seek an accommodation with al Sadr on the electoral law; and agree to a consensus candidate.
But there has been a comment that the control that Iran exercised over its proxies is no longer as effective as when Soleimani was alive. Iran itself is concerned about its own security given the recent assassinations of its officials including senior members of the Revolutionary Guards.
For any talks between the rival factions to provide an effective and acceptable solution it might be necessary for both Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to coordinate and literally dictate what the rivals should do. Otherwise the mess, the related violence and absence of effective governance will just continue. And with the economy in doldrums it is the ordinary Iraqi whose suffering will increase.