Iraq: endless political crisis benefits no one but elites
Almost a year since its election, Iraq remains deadlocked over the formation of a government. Supporters of populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party came first in the election, protested following his announcement of his withdrawal from politics. Violent clashes with supporters of rival parties left at least 30 dead. Lurking in the background is Iran, which persistently manipulates Iraqi politics; al-Sadr’s campaign had opposed Iran’s influence. Left behind in the manoeuvring are the many young people whose protests calling for a new, non-sectarian form of government that can deliver jobs and public services and tackle corruption have been violently repressed. Their demands have never been more relevant.
Almost a year on from its last election – and almost three years since a protest movement arose to demand radical change that was brutally crushed – Iraq remains stuck in a political quagmire. Recent weeks have seen stalemate lead to violence.
On one side of the political divide is the Sadrist Movement, led by Muqtada al-Sadr. In the October 2021 election it came first, winning 73 of the Council of Representatives’ 329 seats.
On the other side is the Coordination Framework, an alliance of parties brought together in the wake of the election by their opposition to al-Sadr.
Iraq’s politics are broadly sectarian, but both the Sadrists and Coordination Framework draw their support from Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority. Iraq also has Sunni Muslim, Kurdish and secular parties. The current political system, put in place by the USA after its 2003 invasion, requires the cooperation of various sectarian groups.
But one thing has come to matter even more than religion in Iraq’s politics: its neighbour, Iran. An overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, Iran has filled the gap left by the USA when it completed its withdrawal in 2011, becoming the power behind the throne as part of its broader battle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia, a mostly Sunni Muslim country.
The issue of Iran was what divided Iraq’s Shia parties at the last election. The Coordination Framework parties support and are backed by Iran. Al-Sadr’s election campaign was strongly nationalist, based on a call for all foreign forces, particularly Iran, to leave Iraq. He positioned himself as an outsider, even though his party held key ministerial posts in the government. He also had to downplay his own past connections to Iran.
Al-Sadr went into the election with the expressed aim of forming a majority government. While opposition to Iran helped him gain votes and cost other Shia parties support, he still fell far short of that aim. His party then tried to form a coalition government with Sunni and Kurdish parties, excluding pro-Iran parties.
Iran’s interests would be best served if the Sadrist Movement and Coordination Framework worked together in a coalition government similar to previous administrations, with Kurdish and Sunni politicians also playing a role. Such an arrangement would reproduce the fragmented and fractious governance that provides plenty of opportunities for corruption and patronage and helps maintain Iran’s influence.
Thwarted within parliament, Al-Sadr appealed to street pressure, relying on his grassroots supporters – mostly working-class Shia people attracted by his anti-Iran, apparently anti-establishment message. They have repeatedly shown themselves willing to mobilise at their leader’s call.
On 13 June, Al-Sadr ordered his 73 members of parliament to resign. Through this dramatic act he communicated that he was done with attempts at parliamentary manoeuvring – it was time for popular revolt to try to force another election.
The 73 Sadrist members of parliament were, under the rules, replaced by the runners-up in their constituencies. As a result, the Coordination Framework parties saw their parliamentary numbers rise by 40 seats to 130.
But when the Coordination Framework nominated its candidate, Mohammed al-Sudani, for prime minister, hundreds of al-Sadr supporters stormed parliament. On 27 July, they breached the barriers of the supposedly secure Green Zone of the capital, Baghdad, only dispersing when al-Sadr, having made clear he backed them, ordered them to retreat.
They broke into parliament again later that week, staging a sit-in that forced the cancellation of a parliamentary session. Following this, Coordination Framework supporters also took to the streets of Baghdad and other cities.
Violence was averted on that occasion, but it came the following month. In yet another moment of political theatre, on 29 August al-Sadr announced he was quitting politics and closing all organisations connected with his movement. It’s hard to know how credible his announcement was: there have been seven previous occasions when the unpredictable al-Sadr announced he was leaving politics.
This time it might be for real, as he has lost a key supporter. In Iran, Shia politicians need the blessing of a religious leader, and for al-Sadr this was his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri. But on 28 August al-Haeri suddenly announced his retirement as a religious authority – an unusual move, since ayatollahs normally continue until death. Further, al-Haeri asked his followers to switch their allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Al-Sadr suggested al-Haeri had been leaned on by Iran, but his move had consequences: it prompted what is either Al-Sadr’s withdrawal or a tactical retreat.
What happened next made clear that many of al-Sadr’s supporters won’t simply switch their allegiance to Iran. The announcement prompted them to once again storm the Green Zone and occupy key sites, including government headquarters. And this time there was violence. As the army largely stood back, Sadrists fought with Coordination Framework supporters, and those involved soon graduated from throwing rocks to gunfire and explosives. At least 30 people were killed and over 700 injured. A curfew was imposed, first in Baghdad and then nationwide, and the border with Iran was closed.
And then al-Sadr ordered his supporters to leave the Green Zone, and they complied and went home. An escalation of conflict had been averted. But al-Sadr’s supporters had proved their continuing loyalty to him, and he his power over them. Apart from an outbreak of violence in Basra in Iraq’s oil-rich south on 1 September, in which four more people were killed, an uneasy calm has since prevailed – perhaps due to the intervention of another elderly cleric with ties to Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Inclusive dialogue and broad-based consultations are needed to develop a new governance system that can tackle corruption, make public services work and create jobs.
But further protests by Sadrists are likely. Al-Sadr’s followers have little trust in parliament and politicians. Any further protests by Sadrists will bring a response by Iran’s supporters, and in recent days security has been tightened accordingly.
Meanwhile, although the Coordination Framework’s parliamentary numbers have been boosted by the resignation of Sadrist members, there is still disagreement over the appointment of the next prime minister. Members of the alliance are divided over whether to stick with their original candidate, back the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, or put forward another name. On 7 September, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to dissolve parliament, a key Sadrist demand in the push for a new election, saying it was up to parliament to decide whether to dissolve itself.
Beyond the circus
But for many Iraqis, all this is just trivial political theatre. Those unimpressed by the current spectacle include the many young people who took to the streets in the 2019 Tishreen (‘October’) protest movement. Sixty per cent of Iraq’s population is aged under 25, and an estimated 35 per cent of them are unemployed. They are also excluded from the formal political arena: you have to be at least 28 to stand in an election.
The Tishreen movement took to the streets to demand jobs, better public services and an end to corruption. It brought people together across sectarian lines and demanded an alternative to politics organised on faith grounds. It also questioned Iran’s involvement in Iraq. This focus was the basis for al-Sadr’s initial attempts to co-opt the movement, before he backtracked. Tishreen’s demand for non-sectarian politics made it a threat to the whole political establishment, al-Sadr included.
The government’s response to this threat was lethal violence on a large scale. On several occasions security forces fired live ammunition directly into crowds and rooftop snipers targeted protesters. Many of those killed were shot in the head or chest, indicating deliberate killing. Armoured vehicles ran over protesters. Armed Iran-backed militia groups – a continuing powerful force in Iraq – were allowed to act with impunity. Many high school and university students were among those killed. Over several months of protests at least 600 people were killed. There has been no attempt to hold senior officials responsible for the killings.
The unrest led to a change of prime minister and the early election of 2021. The protest movement was divided on whether to participate in this. Some new, secular parties formed and ran – in the face of considerable threats – and picked up seats, although not enough to form a decisive bloc. Disaffection was best communicated by a record low turnout of around 40 per cent.
Those involved in Tishreen are clear that this year’s Sadrist protests are very different to theirs. Three years on, they feel nothing has been resolved and they remain denied any real say. New elections may well result – but for many young people they can’t solve the problem.
This was communicated through a protest held in Baghdad on 2 September. This was quite different to those that took place in August. Thousands took to the streets in a non-partisan march that echoed the demands of 2019: an end to rule by politicians controlled by Iran, the replacement of the existing political elite and justice for those killed in the Tishreen protests.
Current speculation centres on the possibility of an alliance between the Sadrist and Tishreen movements. If it happened, it would likely tip the balance. But it seems unlikely: their agendas are vastly different, and for all that al-Sadr positions as a disruptor, he doesn’t want to change the political system, just put himself at its head. Besides, many of those involved in Tishreen can’t forget that al-Sadr was part of a government that turned its guns on their friends.
True dialogue needed
Meanwhile, problems continue to mount up. In August, finance minister Ali Allawi quit. His resignation letter offered a damning indictment of what he called the ‘vast octopus of corruption and defeat’ in a state ‘effectively captured by political parties and special interest groups’. Untangling this was beyond his, and the government’s, capabilities, because a system designed to ensure managed political competition has instead become one of collusion among elites who agree on the carve-up of the state for their benefit.
Globally soaring oil prices have produced no economic boon for Iraq’s people – they have only enabled more corruption. Economic solutions remain on pause pending a resolution to the political deadlock. People continue to live with daily power outages and water shortages. Drought is causing the Tigris, one of Iraq’s two great, symbolic rivers, to dry up.
The demands of the Tishreen movement are even more valid three years on: not for a fresh election and leadership change, but for a new non-sectarian system of governance, free of Iran’s baleful influence, with militias brought under control and space for a fresh generation of leaders to emerge.
Inclusive dialogue and broad-based consultations are needed to develop a new governance system that can tackle corruption, make public services work and create jobs. Conversations among elites and a continuation of politics as usual aren’t going to solve Iraq’s problems.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government and political parties should commit to a broad-based and inclusive dialogue towards wide-ranging political reform.
The government should ensure that those responsible for the killings of protesters are held to account.
Supporters of rival parties should refrain from using violence.
Cover photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images