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Another fracture in the Shiite bloc drags Iraq into the precipice

Supporters of populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are putting Iraq's fragile state on the ropes
Milicias Bagdad

AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE  -   Armed members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade), the military wing affiliated with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, take aim during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Baghdad's Green Zone on 30 August 2022

The sharp division between Shiite factions is blocking governance and pushing Iraq into a new armed conflict.

The probability of a new armed conflict in Iraq is high. Polarisation has reached unprecedented heights, almost unheard of in years, following the unsuccessful elections in October 2021. This time, however, political violence is not a phenomenon that pits different sects and communities against each other, Sunni against Shia or Sunni against Kurdish, as has been the case in the past. This time, the clashes are taking place within the Shia community, the majority in a vast country of more than 40 million inhabitants, which is strategically key due to its geographic position and vast oil reserves.

The Shiite sector has experienced a split that is impeding Iraq's governability and irreversibly bogging it down. Two entities stand above the rest: the personalist Sairoon (in English, Forward) platform, built around the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and thus known as the Sadrist Movement, and the Coordination Framework, a homogeneous coalition of pro-Iranian formations including State of Law, headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who served in office for more than eight years. Irreconcilable, the two rival each other for power. So much so that there is no clear way out of the crisis. In the absence of dialogue, the power of force prevails.

Manifestación Irak
REUTERS/WISSAM AL-OKAILI  -   Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr gather during a sit-in at the parliament building, amid a political crisis, in Baghdad, Iraq 1 August 2022

It is true that fractures in the Shia sector are not new. Since 2007, clashes between al-Sadr supporters and the various pro-Iranian movements have been commonplace. The starting positions are in fact similar. But they differ on one decisive point: their position vis-à-vis Iran, their regional neighbour, also Shia-majority, with whom the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein fought a bloody war in the 1980s. One faction, that of the cleric al-Sadr, disavows any influence from Tehran as a matter of sovereignty; the other unreservedly subscribes to its interests. This is the main sticking point, if not the only one.

The crisis, however, has other nuances. It is not only limited to inter-communal Shia rivalry, but is also explained by an almost generalised dissatisfaction with the system. Iraqis have lost what little trust they barely retained in political formations. The establishment is gangrenetising the institutions through corrupt practices and endless sectarian disputes, as the prestigious Ali Allawi, the former Finance Minister, warned in his recent resignation. Meanwhile, citizens are left with minimal public services. Only oil revenues sustain the country.

Al Kazemi Al Sadr
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -  Combination of images of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi

In 2019, Iraqis flooded the streets in a series of mass protests that lasted until last year. Spurred by the rise of secular Iraqi nationalism, the rallies called for an end to foreign interventionism in Iraqi politics, in particular an end to stifling Iranian tutelage, but also an end to systematic corruption and a revival of the flagging economy. Another demand was to dismantle the institutional architecture designed after the US invasion, which distributed power in sectarian quotas. The authorities' response was to violently repress the protests.

The consistency of the mobilisations led to the fall of the then Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. He was replaced by Mustafa al-Kazemi, a moderate Shiite who had previously headed the intelligence services. Kazemi proposed an early election which, after a series of complications, was finally set for October 2021. It was at that moment that the counter was set in motion that would lead months later to the deaths of at least 30 people in the heart of Baghdad after a series of armed clashes between rival militias. That countdown has left a country on the brink of the abyss.

Elections: the catalyst for the crisis

The Sadrist Movement won the elections, amassing 73 of the 329 seats in parliament, dealing a severe blow to pro-Iranian parties. It is true that the elections registered the lowest turnout in the country's history, but the victory was resounding, with a difference of 40 seats over Nuri al-Maliki's party. An uncontested result. Initially, the cleric's formation was expected to form a government with the Sunni and Kurdish platforms, but his pro-Iranian rivals blocked the confluence and intensified their accusations of treason. The move, they argued, violated the will of the Shia majority.

Mustafa al Kazemi
REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA  -  Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi

In retaliation, al-Sadr called on all his deputies to resign en masse. The gambit did not work because, instead of calling for his immediate return to parliament, the Shia parties quickly placed their pawns in place and moved to appoint an alternative Prime Minister. Mohamed Shia al-Sudani, a minister in al-Maliki's cabinet, was chosen to fill the post, something the cleric could not allow. He incited his supporters to take to the streets.

First, al-Sadr's supporters stormed Baghdad's Green Zone, which houses most of the international embassies and diplomatic missions, the parliament and the Supreme Court. They then blocked access to the compound and prevented the institutions from functioning. And finally, in a show of force, they occupied the parliament building. The Shiite cleric's followers brought the country to a standstill. But Al-Sadr, possessing a quasi-hypnotic power over his rank and file, went too far. What at first proved to be a peaceful expression of protest soon took on violent overtones.

In the end, Baghdad became a battleground. The Saraya al-Salam militia, led by the cleric, clashed with the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs), which had been commanded from Tehran. The Iraqi Security Forces, under Prime Minister al-Kazemia, avoided entering the fray and limited their action to a curfew. They did not mobilise. Not even when missiles crossed the skies over the Green Zone, which is supposed to be under tight security measures.

Muqtada al Sadr
AP/ANMAR KHALIL  -  Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr delivering a televised speech in the central Iraqi city of Najaf

In view of the deadly results of his tirades, and rebuked by his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Kazem Hairi, who urged his followers to build bridges with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reacted by demanding that his followers put an end to the violence and then announcing his definitive resignation from politics. But some scepticism still emanates from his statements. This is by no means the first time he has said he is quitting politics. He first did so in 2008 to study in Iran on Hairi's side, and again in 2014. If this were to happen, the Iraqi political landscape would change completely.

But he is unlikely to step aside because, as has been demonstrated, he has massive support from the street, from all parts of the country, perhaps like no other Iraqi political leader with the exception of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is silent on the latest developments. In Iraq, whoever controls the Shiites controls virtually all of them. Al-Sadr, whose family was severely repressed during Saddam's regime because of its Shia status, and who stood unreservedly against the US occupation, is now also against Iranian influence in Iraq. The cleric with a strong populist rhetoric is the spearhead against the political elite despite the fact that many of his allies have held government posts.

In a desperate attempt to unblock the situation, al-Kazemi has proposed forming a national dialogue that would bring together the demands of the main political forces in the legislature. The acting head of government, who has the backing of the West, has always been a weak figure, lacking the strength to push for major transformations. For his part, the speaker of parliament has distanced himself from his statements. Mohamed al-Halbusi, elected in January, called for the dissolution of the House and the calling of early general and regional elections.

Muqtada al Sadr Ali Jamenei
AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR  -   A handout photo provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sept. 10, 2019, shows Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) speaking with Iraqi cleric, politician and Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr during an Ashura commemoration ceremony in the capital Tehran

Pro-Iranian circles want to avoid a repeat election at all costs. The outlook for them is bleak after last October's landslide and projections for the future are no better. The institutions have also spoken out. Under pressure from al-Sadr's supporters, the Supreme Court, the country's highest court, has also flatly refused to dissolve parliament, arguing that it does not have constitutional prerogatives.

US vs. Iran

Iraq is not America's priority at the moment. Even less so in a context marked domestically by inflation, the energy crisis and the mid-term elections in November, in which the Democrats are gambling on maintaining their majority in both Houses. Externally, Washington has progressively disengaged from the Arab sphere, limiting itself to reinforcing the bloc against Iran and Israel's position despite the resounding attempts to reissue the Iranian nuclear deal. Baghdad has dropped completely off the radar.

Joe Biden Al Kazemi
AP/SUSAN WALSH  -  President Joe Biden, right, listens as Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, left, speaks during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 26, 2021

Iran has pursued the opposite strategy. The ayatollahs' regime controls the Framework for Coordination, so its weakening to the detriment of al-Sadr's rise affects it, and it is redoubling its efforts. Iran's supporters on Iraqi soil include Qais Khazali, a former al-Sadr ally who has become al-Sadr's fiercest opponent. Then there is the figure of al-Maliki, strangely close to the US and Iran, who seeks to regain power on the back of his State of Law formation, the third largest force in terms of seats. But it is Hadi al-Amiri who is seen as Iran's strongman in Iraq. He was loyal to the Islamic Republic even during the war between the two (1980-1988), and today leads the Badr militia and the Fatah coalition, another member of the Framework for Coordination.

"The general feeling among Iraqi officials and foreign diplomats in Baghdad is that both Washington and Tehran exercise a veto over the Iraqi executive," writes Council of Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot."Whoever runs the country needs the support of both, a difficult task given their long-standing enmity". Despite the stalemate, neither political leader nor militiaman is betting on a definitive change to the status quo because that would mean irretrievably losing their privileges. Who else would the country's resources fall into?