Iraq's political impasse and the battle for a new regime
The ruling consensus on the formation of an Iraqi government from 2018 until 2022 sacrificed what was left of ideas like a citizenship-based social-political contract and "individual political freedoms". Instead, ever-widening sectarian divisions continued to sow chaos and torpedo aspirations for political consciousness to play any role in the country, in place of which arms were increasingly endorsed as the only guarantor of a temporary and fragile stability.
This consensus ultimately led to the mass uprising known as the 2019 Tishreen protest movement - which could have succeeded in forging a new political system, were it not for the Sadrists' success in infiltrating its ranks.
The current crisis in Iraq cannot be understood without understanding Iraq's Shia-Shia divisions and the declining faith in the idea of "hybrid sectarian harmony".
The fragility of Shi'ite cohesion was clear at the 2018 legislative elections: internal divisions revealed growing aspirations for sole power and control of Iraqi wealth – entailing the removal of competitors. Militarisation and arms proliferation were growing apace. The most dangerous tool being groomed for managing political rivalries, however, was the rage and frustration of Iraq's youth.
"The fragility of Shi'ite cohesion was clear: internal divisions revealed growing aspirations for sole power and control of Iraqi wealth – entailing the removal of competitors"
In the 2018 elections, different Shi'ite groups tried to gain an absolute majority to allow them to discard the old power-sharing structure of the Muhasasa system (the post-2003 ethno-sectarian power-sharing-quota arrangement) – which provided Shia representation within the framework of the state.
Its destruction would allow for a new formula based on handing power to the parliamentary majority. Broad sectarian representation would be replaced with exclusive sectarian representation, while maintaining the entrenched "theo-kleptocratic" system which oversaw the mutual management of corruption.
Unifying power and looming dictatorship
However, it was the early elections in 2021 which removed the remaining pluralism (within each ethno-sectarian group) and allowed the concentration of power within homogenous blocs which refused to share it with groups with a lower vote-share.
In this way, the Sadrist bloc became representative of the Shias, the Sovereignty-Progress Alliance of the Sunnis, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Kurds. Rival forces were sidelined to reach a more stable Muhasasa government which still represented the sects and ethnicities of the three Iraqi regions (north, west and south). More entrenched regional division appears the likely result, as does the slide towards dictatorship.
The Kurds have been trying mostly peaceful methods to achieve their dream of a Kurdish state (in northern Iraq), while the Sunnis, though their armed insurgency failed, are edging closer to establishing of a Sunni region (in western Iraq). Simultaneously, intra-Shia conflict over the central authority in Baghdad is intensifying, as the Sadrist bloc seeks total control of a future Shia region. To this end, it needs to overcome the obstacle of the pro-Iran Shia groups.
"intra-Shia conflict over the central authority in Baghdad is intensifying, as the Sadrist bloc seeks total control of a future Shia region. To this end, it needs to overcome the obstacle of the pro-Iran Shia groups"
The former Muhasasa regime had fought IS expansion by enabling the growth of parastatal sectarian, clan and ethnic militias. By empowering new armed Shi'ite factions to act as protective auxiliaries to the state, the government had angered the Sadrists who saw themselves as "exclusive guardians of the Shi'ite community".
Therefore, the Sadrists had refrained from joining the fight against IS, devoting their energy instead into building their political, military and economic clout. Sadr's opponents also gained strength, like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (the most prominent force in the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)), whose popularity skyrocketed following their success on the battlefield against IS in Syria and Iraq.
The 2019 Tishreen protests
The Tishreen protests undermined the PMF's efforts to capitalise on their strong performance against IS to project themselves as a preferable alternative to the current system, when the protest movement toppled the government entirely in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Sadrists have played contradictory roles to preserve the political system. There was the Sadrist's "reform" project and alliance with the communists in 2014 and their support for the protests in 2019, before they switched sides to suppress it in 2021. In 2022 they are promoting their isolationist vision of "absolute Sadrist power".
"The Sadrists were able to penetrate the protest movement and exploit the explosion of popular resentment through possessing one of the greatest of tools when it comes to flexible manoeuvring: Moqtada al-Sadr himself"
The Sadrists were able to penetrate the protests and exploit the explosion of popular resentment through the remarkable qualities of Muqtada al-Sadr himself. Sadr has the ability to switch roles, fluidly alter political positions and swap alliances at the drop of a hat when politically expedient.
Distancing himself from his own political movement by projecting himself as a "reformer and popular jurist", allowed him to quietly increase his influence and build power bases within the regime while at the same time appearing to support the protestors.
As the Tishreen protests grew though faced with brutal repression from the "government of militias", the Sadrists grew their political power in two ways. First, they protected the regime but blackmailed it in return for greater influence. Second, Sadr publicly distanced himself from the regime and adopted the protestors' demands. In this way, he secured his bloc with a foothold in the post-regime stage.
Removing the pro-Iran factions
Although the fall of the "government of militias" could have evoked a glimmer of hope, what came next was no better. The Sadrists' price for protecting the regime was the formation of Mustafa al-Kadhimi's temporary government (which was subservient to Sadr). The Sadrists then tightened control on remaining key positions of the state to ready themselves for the outcome of the protests: the early elections in October 2021. Sadr's efforts were rewarded, they became them the biggest force in parliament.
The Sadrists planned from the beginning, by passing the "Multiple Constituencies Law", to crush their competitors and allies alike. They used their channels to quietly urge a boycott of the elections in constituencies where their PMF or Tishreen rivals were active, while encouraging Sadrist supporters to vote.
"The danger of the Sadrists lies in that they are an armed, populist, isolationist, religiously dogmatic, and multi-layered organisation led by formidable centres of power"
This tactic was also followed by the State of Law Coalition who became the second biggest bloc after the Sadrists, also benefitting from PMF losses and from having invested in the clientelist and nepotistic networks of ex-PM Nouri al-Maliki. The Sunni Sovereignty-Progress Alliance and the Kurdistan Democratic Party adopted the same tactic in their constituencies.
At the same time as Iraq’s Shi'ite old guard crumbed, so did its traditional Sunni powers. The influence of the ageing Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) was fading, and rising to take their place were new Sunni movements which had seized opportunities to embed themselves in the corrupt heart of the Shi'ite-dominated political system.
The new political system
The danger of the Sadrists lies in that they are an armed, populist, isolationist, religiously dogmatic, and multi-layered organisation led by formidable centres of power which don't believe in power-sharing, except within limits to preserve a veneer of balance.
PMF affiliates in the "Coordination Framework" (a Shi'ite umbrella group of overtly pro-Iran parties) were shocked to find their popularity had been illusory at the 2021 elections, and declared the elections rigged. However the UN Security Council affirming that the Electoral Commission's procedures had been valid, leaving the losing blocs powerless to resist the Sadrist ascent. Iran also pressured them to accept the results and seek Shia-Shia dialogue.
"The looming confrontation is an existential battle for Tehran - if it loses Iraq, its formidable influence in the region may start to tumble faster than anyone could have expected"
Sliding towards armed conflict
Iraq's Shi'ite forces are used to violent exchanges as one political method of managing power. But this time, the risk of an outbreak of intra-Shia violence - postponed since 2018 - may well go beyond the game of localised clashes and tend towards an all-out war between the Sadrists and factions affiliated with the pro-Iran PMF.
Delaying the slide into war are regional and international obstacles: the Ukraine crisis, Iranian nuclear talks, and the disruption of energy supplies to global markets. Additionally there are the rapidly shifting power dynamics in South-West Asia, as China's influence grows. However, none of this has stopped signs of an alarming acceleration towards an armed solution in Iraq.
The armed pro-Iran Shia factions fear Sadr will launch a brutal war against them resulting in their elimination - they know that Sadr's forces could easily wipe them out. This would mean the eradication of Iran's influence in Iraq, and herald the strengthening of American influence, which would likely see pressure being put on Baghdad to adopt the Abraham Accords and normalise relations with Israel. Therefore, the looming confrontation is an existential battle for Tehran - if it loses Iraq, its formidable influence in the region may start to tumble faster than anyone could have expected.
Safaa Khalaf is an Iraqi investigative journalist and researcher in the field of sociology and crisis analysis. He is winner of the 2017 Naseej Prize for diversity and cultural pluralism, presented by the French Agency for the Development of Media (CFI), and was shortlisted for the Thomson Reuters Foundation's 2018 Kurt Schork Memorial Prize. He is winner of the Investigative category's 2022 European Union Press Freedom (Samir Kassir Award). He was also a researcher with the London School of Economics (LSE) between 2019-2022 on the Iraq protests.
Follow him on Twitter: @safaakhalaf1
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko.
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