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The ongoing intra-Shia conflict is among the most acute political crises in Iraq since 2014. At the heart of the dispute stands Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the rival Coordination Framework, comprised of six Shia factions. After Sadr had 73 of his allied members of parliament resign in June, the Coordination Framework took advantage and filled their seats. It put forward Mohammed al-Sudani, former human rights minister and a member of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party, for the post of prime minister and sought on July 30 to elect the president to begin government formation. However, Sadr thwarted the effort, ordering his supporters to storm the Iraqi Parliament twice. The Iraqi Parliament, where a sit-in of Sadr supporters continues, has become the epicenter of the intra-Shia power struggle, perpetuating the country’s political crisis.
The Coordination Framework mobilized thousands of its supporters to mount counterprotests, framing those by Sadr’s supporters as a coup. Coordination Framework supporters headed to the Green Zone, but Iraqi security forces prevented them from getting inside. Fearing to be cast as pro-Sadr, the government and the army put out statements reaffirming their “equal distance” from all Iraqi political groups. Despite the double standard by security forces – allowing Sadr supporters to enter the Green Zone and occupy the Parliament twice – their function as an arbiter or last resort between the rival camps probably averted major bloodshed.
Although the Coordination Framework asked its supporters to withdraw from the Green Zone, the gridlock continues mostly because Sadr refuses to back off from maximalist demands and hold talks with the Coordination Framework unless it subscribes to his ostensibly reformist agenda and expels his old foe, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, from the bloc. So, in addition to a power struggle, at the heart of this conflict is a personal rivalry between Sadr and Maliki. This was exacerbated by a series of leaked recordings of Maliki allegedly bashing Sadr and threatening that he would confront him and his party. Maliki also allegedly lambasted his own allies, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces and its commanders, as “cowards.” Thus far, the bloc has retained unity despite the consternation the recordings caused.
Push for De-escalation
Recognizing the delicacy of the situation, accentuated by international scrutiny and reactions, elements from both Shia and non-Shia factions in Iraq have largely focused on de-escalation and for the most part refrained from making statements that might aggravate the situation. This neutral stance aims to mitigate the risks that could plunge the country into intracommunal civil conflict with serious implications for stability and security in the broader region. Any violent conflict in Iraq could provide breathing space for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other jihadist factions to regroup and destabilize the country and spark a new wave of refugees. Therefore, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Kingdom, in various inflections, urged dialogue and called for peaceful conflict resolution. A spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, called on Iraqis to “work peacefully and respectfully within the country’s constitution and legal mechanisms.” And Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic advisor to the UAE’s president, stated that Iraq’s stability is tantamount to the stability of the region. The United States, the U.K., and other Western countries also emphasized the importance of stability while reaffirming support for peaceful demonstrations.
Shia parties, including members of the Coordination Framework, also called for a peaceful resolution. The leader of the Fatah Coalition, Hadi al-Amiri, who commands the Popular Mobilization Forces, asked his supporters not to join the counterprotest against Sadr, a call likely informed by equal measures of goodwill and calculation. Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Wisdom Movement, did take part in the protests aimed at countering the sit-in by Sadr’s supporters but urged restraint. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi warned of dire consequences for Iraq if the political tensions persist.
Sunni parties from the Sovereignty bloc that had aligned with Sadr also urged dialogue to ease tensions. But, like Sadr, they indicated that it is time for a change of the political system through a new national compact. Although this stance underscored the political alliance they have maintained with Sadr since the run-up to the 2021 elections, the Sunni parties are advocating for an inclusive, evolutionary process rather than Sadr’s more revolutionary stance. Speaker of the Parliament Mohammed Halbousi, leader of the Sunni Sovereignty bloc who in large part owes his position to the alliance with Sadr, in a move both necessary and expedient, postponed additional parliamentary sessions until the sit-in is concluded and a political solution is found between Sadr and the Coordination Framework.
Despite a contentious relationship with Baghdad, Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani offered Erbil as a mediator for negotiations between rival Shia groups. The Kurds are worried the political conflict in Baghdad could turn violent. An estimated 2 million internally displaced people and refugees from Iraq and Syria have put Iraq’s Kurdish region under significant financial and social strain, and violence could displace more people. In addition, Sadr’s demand to change the constitution and dissolve the post-2003 political system it enshrined is viewed as a threat to the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government as a federal entity.
A New Political System?
As much as Sadr’s demands to change the political system resonate with people, they have not come out of a contemplative and inclusive discourse among Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds to determine the best governance system to help Iraq to overcome political and economic turmoil. And Sadr has also yet to articulate his vision for governance and how to improve Iraq’s economy. If successful in establishing a new political system, critics worry it would be an imposition of authoritarian rule in a gambit to control state coffers.
Sadr’s authoritarian tendency has already spooked his former ally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rejected changing the constitution without an inclusive consultative process. For Kurds, the nightmare is a strong centralized Baghdad that could deprive them of their constitutional rights.
Even though Sadr claims he will restore legitimacy to state institutions, his actions and those of his followers have in effect debased the institutions he is allegedly seeking to protect. For example, at the protests at the Parliament building, Sadr’s followers have replaced the national flag with sectarian symbols, slaughtered cows, and trashed the premises. Even if these actions have been sanctioned at a higher level, they demean the very institution that is supposed to represent all Iraqis and legislate. Instead, he is using this critical institution to promote himself as the source of ultimate legitimacy.
Sadr’s rhetoric for a sovereign and independent Iraq has some appeal in the West, although his recent moves are prompting the political equivalent of buyers’ remorse. Some analysts have drawn comfort from describing him as anti-Iranian. But, like many other Shia leaders, it’s complicated. Taking his entire political career into account, Sadr has for the most part enjoyed a good – often beneficial – relationship with Tehran. When Maliki took on Sadr’s Mehdi Army and tried to kill him in 2008, Sadr fled to Iran. He has subsequently visited and studied in the country. Facile claims that Sadr could be a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq are problematic, given his extensive past ties and political debts. Some Western analysts are encouraged by what they see as some evolution in Sadr’s political thinking. They also tend to highlight his efforts and rhetoric in recent years aimed at countering what he has criticized as overbearing Iranian political influence in Iraq. His rhetoric for reform also has a degree of appeal, although most analysts discount its credibility to a significant degree because of Sadr’s often erratic leadership and reliance on nondemocratic rhetoric and exercises of power. Skeptics both in Iraq and in the West worry about the political and security turbulence that a precipitate change in constitutional regime could unleash in Iraq.
The persistence of political gridlock has put Iraq on the verge of violent conflict. The fluidity of Sadr’s demands – in tandem with his fixed demand ruling out any Maliki leadership role – has made finding a political solution difficult. As it stands now, Sadr is calling for dissolving the Parliament and holding early elections. But he also continues to call on people to join his “revolution.” Some analysts see this as politics disguised as brinksmanship and believe Sadr will eventually settle for a deal, but the risks of his political approach are significant in the volatile political landscape that constitutes Iraq.
Unless new and creative methods are found to lower tensions and manage the conflict, the situation will remain ripe for violence and instability. One avenue is for Sadr to abandon his maximalist stance and participate in an inclusive evolutionary model to address grievances and work to come to an acceptable political settlement with the Coordination Framework. Alternatively, the Coordination Framework could look for a way to give seats back to Sadr’s allies who resigned from Parliament. Though this would be legally questionable, it could provide a way to invite Sadr back into the formal political process. The third option would be to allow the current caretaker government to function with a closed Parliament for the time being, since Sadr will likely continue to obstruct activity without a political agreement. Finally, the caretaker government could amend the election law in preparation for snap elections (as demanded by Sadr) as a pathway to surmount the current political impasse. But there is no guarantee that new elections will produce a different political map to overcome the difficulties of government formation amid low turnout and intra-communal political fragmentation. Given those unappetizing options, the one involving the legally dubious but politically astute compromise allowing his forces back into Parliament (and a restart on government formation negotiations) might have the most to argue in its favor. But it is unclear if the contending parties in Iraq are able to get out of the corners they have painted themselves into and cut one of these political deals to end the current high-risk political jockeying.
is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is a TEDx speaker and former lecturer at the University of Kurdistan Hewler. He received his PhD from the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
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