National day celebrations have become a crucial element in the ongoing construction of Saudi Arabia’s national narrative, highlighting the centrality of the ruling family and its legacy in the establishment of the state.
On August 29, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, arguably the most powerful political and religious leader in Iraq, declared his retirement from politics. His announcement transformed what had largely been peaceful – if highly disruptive – demonstrations outside Iraq’s Parliament into a violent mob, where in an escalatory move his supporters stormed government buildings and tore down the walls of the presidential palace. To support the demonstrators, after government troops began using live fire, Sadr sent his ill-equipped and ill-prepared militia groups to the Green Zone. But Sadr’s rival, the Coordination Framework, which controls the more powerful and well-prepared Popular Mobilization Forces, was quick to act and used violence to thwart his scheme, namely the total control of the Green Zone. As a result, the clashes killed 30 people and wounded over 300 others, mostly Sadr supporters. Forced to de-escalate to save face, Sadr turned his back on both the peaceful and violent theaters, ending the nearly two-month occupation of the Iraqi Parliament.
There are political, religious, and psychological reasons for Sadr’s meltdown. Politically, he was seemingly frustrated and had lost patience with the extended government formation negotiations. And his sit-in protests did not yield the desired results and came under serious internal and external pressure. Meanwhile, Sadr’s religious credentials were dealt a blow when his father’s appointed successor, Iraqi Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, based in Iran, resigned and called on his supporters to throw their allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A combination of these factors seemingly conspired as a powerful psychological motive for Sadr to abruptly retire from politics. This may have just been rhetorical, as he called for the removal of the commander of the powerful Popular Mobilization Forces subsequently. In this case, it was violence that further chipped away at Sadr’s political capital in favor of his rivals.
Sadr’s supporters have previously stormed and ransacked the headquarters and offices of his rivals with impunity. This could have emboldened Sadrists to seek to take on the Coordination Framework offices and leaders in the Green Zone as an attempt to end the political stalemate. But Sadr seemingly underestimated the political and military capabilities of his rivals and their determination to use violence when their survival was at stake.
Faced with tremendous pressure from Najaf and significant military power, Sadr had to plea for truce. In a televised address, Sadr angrily condemned the clashes, saying that those who die in such a war would not enter paradise. He ordered his supporters to leave within an hour, ending what might have become a full implosion of the Iraqi state. Sadr’s decision was a responsible move to end the violence, but leaving the battlefront was tantamount to ceding more power to his rival groups, and it disappointed his supporters, once again demonstrating his erratic behavior and impulsiveness when it comes to politics.
Sadr thus far has been able to afford to make mistakes and not suffer serious political consequences, mostly because of his ardently loyal base. It is possible his social capital, which is his strongest asset, could become frayed and his base become less responsive to his calls. However, the bigger problem is that he has made political miscalculations – particularly having his supporters in Parliament resign their seats – that his rivals are using adroitly and preventing him from correcting.
Now overconfident as a result of Sadr’s mistakes, the Coordination Framework has vowed to form the new government. Yet it’s unclear if Sadr’s mistakes have been helpful in altering the political climate in favor of the Coordination Framework. This is mostly due to a legal trap the Coordination Framework set for Sadr to frustrate his efforts to form the government – regarding a two-thirds quorum to elect the new president. That has become a double-edged sword. It prevented the formation of Sadr’s majoritarian government in alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Sunnis. But it may also become a hurdle for the Coordination Framework’s efforts to rally 220 members of parliament to begin the government formation process. This is likely to remain a challenge even after the coalition added more than 60 members of parliament to its ranks following the resignation of Sadr’s supporters in June.
National and External Actors
The Sunnis and Kurds, bruised by earlier accusations of having taken sides in the intra-Shia dispute, have largely stayed out of the conflict and have tried to strike a balanced position between the two Shia camps. After the October 2021 parliamentary elections, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and some powerful Sunni factions sided with Sadr in his efforts to form the government. There is a belief among some observers that the Kurdish and Sunni alliance with Sadr heightened tensions among Shia factions and further polarized an already divided Shia house. Some even go so far as to assert that such maneuvering by Kurds and Sunnis rendered an intra-Shia deal impossible.
Given the stakes, and despite the claims that the Kurds have exacerbated the intra-Shia feud, there is a genuine effort by the Kurdistan Regional Government to ease tensions in Baghdad. KRG President Nechirvan Barzani has offered to hold a national dialogue in Erbil in effort to end the gridlock. Thus far his calls have fallen on deaf ears. Barzani is expected to visit Baghdad and then, along with Sunni Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Halbousi, visit Sadr in Najaf to propose an initiative to help pull the country out of the dangerous impasse. It’s not clear if Barzani’s efforts will succeed, but it shows the concerns the Kurds have regarding potential blowback to the Kurdish region should a full-scale intra-Shia conflict ensue. The war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has been instructive for the Kurds. Over one million internally displaced people and refugees escaped from Iraq to the Kurdish region placing enormous security, economic, social, demographic, and political costs on the KRG. Kurdish policymakers fear a worse outcome if the political crisis escalates out of control.
The United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Gulf Arab countries are taking a “wait and see” approach to avoid exacerbating the conflict. Although, these actors may prefer Sadr comes out on top, they have expressed no direct support for him because his rivals could easily manipulate such statements to their advantage and accuse him of links to regional and international powers. Therefore, these countries have called for a national dialogue to resolve the political crisis and reemphasized the importance of Iraqi unity and stability.
However, Iran’s efforts have mostly focused on ensuring the Coordination Framework remains unified and equipped to outmaneuver Sadr. Nonetheless, Tehran also has a vested interest in the stability of Iraq because a Shia civil war could undo decades of political and military investment and flood Iran with millions of refugees. Even sustained instability and violence short of full civil strife could create a level of unpredictability that Iran would likely view as putting at risk the stout influence it has established in Iraq over the past two decades. Despite the divergence of external actors’ visions regarding Iraq, the stability of Iraq is the common denominator that brings them uncomfortably together.
Although tensions have slightly eased, the situation is still ripe for the resumption of hostilities. The evacuation of the Green Zone could provide breathing room for the rival groups to recalibrate. It could also provide an opportunity for the Parliament to meet to discuss ways out of the current stalemate.
One possible outcome could be an agreement among the political blocs to craft a new election law, set a date for new elections without attempting to form a new government, and have the Parliament dissolve itself. The current caretaker government could supervise the next elections. This would allow the Sadrists to reinject themselves into the formal process. Yet, this would not guarantee an escape from future gridlock. Sadr could also reinject himself, returning with his maximalist demands and efforts to marginalize his rivals. But all of this would depend on how Sadr might fare if new elections are held, and if he takes part.
In the last elections, Sadr’s candidates only garnered 8% of the vote, while his rivals received nearly 16%, however they took fewer parliamentary seats because they fielded multiple candidates in each electoral district. These votes were dispersed among the candidates, which ultimately gave an advantage to Sadr, who had only one or two candidates per district. With these lessons learned, Sadr’s rivals could impose similar discipline, garner more seats, and pose a greater electoral challenge to the Sadrists in a new poll.
More daunting for the short term, it is hard to see Sadr’s bitter rivals in the Coordination Framework offering such a compromise to Sadr, absent significant pressure to do so. They are full of confidence in their political maneuvers and backed by armed elements unintimidated by Sadr’s control of the streets. Sadr’s miscalculations have reversed their fortunes and put them – unexpectedly – in the political driver’s seat. While a messy compromise calling for new elections might materialize down the road, the dynamic in the intermediate term is likely to include further Sadr-led efforts to recoup his squandered political advantage, countered – in Parliament and the streets – by his newly empowered Shia rivals, determined to keep him boxed in. That is not a dynamic that offers much immediate promise of well-reasoned, balanced concessions. One longer-term caution might be appropriate: Sadr rivals and skeptics have pointed out his mistakes and shortcomings to conclude many times over the past 20 years that a loss of political influence is inevitable. But he continues to control a powerful constituency that obeys his directions, and he has proved adept at sensing the political zeitgeist in Iraq and cynically, but effectively, repackaging it to shore up his influence.
is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a political analyst who researches and writes on security, political, and energy issues in the Middle East, focusing on Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf, and the Levant. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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