On July 27, several hundred supporters of the Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, stormed the parliamentary building in the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. They carried the national flag and danced and sang in the hallowed precincts of Iraq’s democracy, expressing their disenchantment at the state of their country’s politics. The placards they carried said: “We reject the whole political process” and “We obey the Sayyid” – a reference to al-Sadr’s affiliation with the family of the holy prophet. In interviews to media persons, the agitators condemned the “corrupt officials” ruling their country.
Muqtada al-Sadr brought an end to this two-hour show of force by tweeting: “Revolution of reform and rejection of injustice and corruption: your message has been heard. You have terrorised the corrupt.” This brief occupation of the parliamentary premises was followed by the announcement of an open-ended sit-in from July 30 – now, not only are the parliamentary precincts occupied by al-Sadr’s followers, but the latter have also set up tents and food stalls within the Green Zone, indicating plans for a prolonged occupation.
Muqtada al-Sadr has used the breakdown of the parliamentary system to demand that the assembly be dissolved and fresh elections held. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has called for a national dialogue, but as of now there are no signs of any party indicating any degree of accommodativeness.
The occupation of the parliament building and the surrounding areas marks the culmination of popular anger at the political paralysis that has defined Iraqi affairs over the ten months since general elections were held in October last year.
The elections set the stage for this paralysis in the national political order. In a 329-member House, the results gave 73 seats to the coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr, compared to the 54 seats it had held earlier. Later, it pulled in 17 other MPs and became the largest bloc in parliament with 90 seats.
Its principal rival, the Fatah, drawing its candidates from the pro-Iran militia, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), emerged as the biggest loser; it got a paltry 17 seats compared to the 48 it had earlier. Al-Sadr’s other rival, the ‘State of Law’ coalition, led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, got 33 seats.
There was a further complication: the October elections had done away with the earlier proportional representational voting system with transferrable votes in favour of the “first-past-the-post-system”. This led to the usual mismatch between popular votes obtained versus seats gained. Thus, al-Sadr’s 73 seats were based on a popular vote of 885,000, while his two Shia rivals, who got just 50 seats between them, had obtained 970,000 votes.
The problem that emerged immediately was that al-Sadr refused to become part of the earlier political order in which alliances were shaped and power was distributed on ethno-sectarian basis – the muhasasa (‘apportionment’) system in which offices and state largesse were distributed on ethno-sectarian basis among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Al-Sadr now insisted that he would lead a “national majority government” made up of a coalition of Shia, Sunni and Kurd supporters, which would place his Shia rivals – the Fatah and the State of Law – in the opposition, depriving them of power and wealth.
The latter, not surprisingly, sought a “unity government”, based on all Shia parties joining together to retain power. Thus, al-Sadr’s approach not only pitted him against his domestic Shia rivals, but it also brought a worried Iran into the picture – Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs has been based on successive governments in Iraq being affiliated with and dependent on its backing.
This Iranian support has been both political and military. Iran has not only supported individual Shia politicians and groups with funds, it had also helped organise the formidable Popular Mobilisation Forces in 2014. This brought together about 70 Shia militias, with about 60,000 fighters, under one leadership. The PMF were the principal force to confront the Daesh militants in 2014-18. However, after Daesh’s defeat, the PMF have refused to demobilise, nor have they integrated themselves into the regular Iraqi armed forces. What they have achieved is a semi-formal status among the country’s security forces, which provides them with $2 billion annually from the national budget.
Through February this year, the head of Iran’s Al Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, visited Iraq several times to persuade al-Sadr to accept Shia political unity, even delivering a message from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to this effect. A source in al-Sadr’s office told a commentator that Qaani had given a message regarding “the necessity of preserving the Shiite house,” and that Khamenei’s message had spoken of “prohibiting division within the Shiite house.” He was however firmly rebuffed by al-Sadr who tweeted: “Neither Eastern nor Western – a national majority government” – ironically recalling the same language of national independence that Ayatollah Khamenei had used during the Iranian revolution.
Iraq’s divided politics
Al-Sadr has put together a coalition that includes his Sairoun coalition, with 73 seats; the Taqaddum (‘Progress Party’), a Sunni group from Anbar province, headed by Mohammed al-Halbousi, with 37 seats; and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Mustafa Barzani, with 31 seats.
Al-Sadr is opposed by the Coordination Framework (CF), which is made up of Shia groups hostile to him – mainly the ‘State of Law’ coalition headed by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, with 33 seats, and the Fatah Alliance, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, with 17 seats. The CF also includes some sections of the Sunni Azm party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the major Kurdish party, based in Sulaimanya, which has 29 members. The PUK has traditionally been led by the Talabani family, long-standing rivals of the Barzanis in Arbil.
In the face of attempts by al-Sadr to pull other Shia groups into his coalition, while excluding Nouri al-Maliki’s group, Qaani is believed to have advised the CF to maintain its unity, sitting in the opposition as a group, if necessary. It is reported he told Barzani that going with al-Sadr without the other Shia parties “would endanger Iran’s national security”, leaving unsaid what actions Iran might take to preserve its interests.
Almost all Iraqi groups are experiencing internal pressures. Last year, the so-called “Shrine Militia” within the PMF (i.e., fighters who were not Iran-sponsored but had joined the PMF in 2014 in response to the call from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to fight Daesh) left the PMF coalition and now oppose it. The remaining PMF fighters were the main force that in 2019 attacked demonstrators who were seeking better living conditions. The militants are accused of causing the deaths of about 600 agitators and injuries to several thousand. This may have caused serious disenchantment among Iraqi voters towards the PMF, which possibly led to Fatah’s poor election results and the anger towards Iran among some of them.
Having learnt nothing from their dismal electoral performance, throughout January, PMF elements sought to intimidate their rivals through widespread attacks on diverse targets – Kurdish politicians in Baghdad, the headquarters of the Sunni Taqaddum party, and a rocket attack on the US embassy in the Green Zone. As Cathrin Schaer has noted, “they all did something to offend the losers” in the last elections.
Frustration at the divisions among the Shias, which has prevented government formation, has led some Iraqi politicians to scapegoat their rivals; an MP with Nouri al-Maliki’s party, Alia Nassif, has said that she holds “Sunnis and Kurds accountable for creating a rift between the Shiites,” and warned that as the divide increases, “fire will catch them.”
Despite this intimidation, in March, al-Sadr’s cross-sectarian coalition – now named Enqadh Watan (‘Save the Homeland’) – had 162 seats, just three seats short of the simple majority mark in the 329-member House. With 45 independents in parliament, it would not have been difficult for al-Sadr to form a government. Al-Sadr was expected to nominate his cousin, Jaafar al-Sadr, the Iraqi ambassador to the UK, as prime minister.
The Kurdish divide
The obstacles that emerged were from Iraq’s constitution and the unexpected divide in Kurdish politics. The constitution requires that the parliament first elect a president with a two-thirds majority. The president will then nominate a prime minister from inside or outside the House to form a government and prove his majority within 30 days of the nomination.
Iraqi convention since 2005 has been to have a Kurdish president. In terms of arrangements worked out between the two Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, the latter will provide the president, while the former will head the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Arbil. On this basis, the incumbent President, Barham Salih, like his two predecessors, is from the PUK, while KDP’s Nechirvan Barzani is the President of the KRG.
In line with this precedent, the PUK have put up Barham Salih as their presidential candidate. In a surprising move, the KDP have also put up a candidate – their first choice was the former finance and foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, but he was ruled out by the Supreme Court on February 13 due to allegations of corruption; he was replaced by Rebar Ahmed Barzani.
The KDP’s argument is that the PUK is much-diminished in influence and appeal among the Kurds, particularly after the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani, in October 2017. The KDP is clearly seeking to take advantage of divisions within the PUK – that is, the rising influence of the late Talabani’s brother-in-law, Latif Rashid, a former central minister. He is said to enjoy the support of Talabani’s widow and has his own set of political ties within and outside Iraq, and thus, can challenge Salih’s standing in PUK circles.
The first round of presidential elections could not take place on February 7 due to criticisms of Zebari’s nomination. The second attempt on March 26 also failed as 126 members, mostly from the CF bloc, boycotted the session and denied the House of the required quorum for the election process.
This divide between the two principal Kurdish parties, in tandem with the al-Sadr versus Coordination Framework division among the Shia parties, has paralysed Iraq’s political process – until the country has a president, elected with a two-thirds majority, it cannot have a prime minister. The failure to elect the president has also prevented government formation by al-Sadr’s nominee, Jaafar al-Sadr.
The KDP-PUK divide has been exacerbated by Iran’s allegations that the Arbil authorities are hosting a “cove” of Israeli spies: on March 13, there were several missile attacks in the region, which Iran claimed had been directed at these spy centres. Al-Sadr’s associates have viewed these attacks as attempts to influence Iraqi politics. His office said the attacks “threaten the security and sovereignty of the homeland,” while pro-Iran militants praised the attacks and even warned that more attacks would follow.
Resignation and after
Obviously frustrated by the unending political impasse, al-Sadr came up with an unexpected initiative: on June 12, he directed his members of parliament to resign from the House. Immediately thereafter, his 73 members formally submitted their resignations to the speaker. This was followed by the quick implementation of the Iraqi law which states that after a member resigns, he/she will be replaced by the candidate who was placed second in the same electoral circle.
Subsequently, 64 new members took oath of office immediately, of whom at least 40 boosted the member numbers of parties belonging to the Coordination Framework. The principal beneficiaries were: the Fatah alliance, which gained 12 members and reached a total of 29; former prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s group, which gained 7 members; and the State of Law, which gained 4 members. The CF now has 130 members, but needs to attract 90 more supporters.
This is a daunting task since the KDP and the Sunni Taqaddum groups – so far allied with al-Sadr – are likely to make significant demands on the CF as the price for their support. The KDP, for instance, has insisted on the restoration of full control of the KRG on the region’s oil and gas, a provincial law that was recently overturned by the country’s Supreme Court.
As the country plunges into uncertainty, with talk of PMF cadres clashing with al-Sadr’s militants on the streets, two events are further complicating the political scenario. Beginning July 13, a series of voice recordings, with inflammatory remarks allegedly by Nouri al-Maliki, were released in public. A person sounding like Al-Maliki was clearly heard making threats of armed action against Muqtada al-Sadr, noting that “we have tanks, armoured vehicles and drones.” He warned of a “fierce war” and that his Bani Maliki tribe “will fight against his enemies.” He recalled the attack on al-Sadr’s forces in Basrah in 2007-08, during his prime ministership, signalling that such an attack on al-Sadr, now based in Najaf, could take place.
He is also heard making derogatory remarks against Sunnis, Kurds and the seminary of Sistani in Najaf – in short, all the enemies who ended his prime ministership in September 2014. Al-Maliki has denied that the purported remarks are his and has demanded that the perpetrators of the leaks be “hunted down.”
The second development was the decision of the CF on July 25 to nominate Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as its prime ministerial candidate. He has held several ministerial portfolios earlier, including those of Migration and Agriculture. The CF committee looked to select a nominee who would be from the next generation of politicians (i.e., post-2003), would be acceptable at home, regionally and globally, and who would have good relations with the al-Sadr group.
The last condition was clearly not very helpful as al-Sadr’s supporters stormed parliament two days later, making it clear that the cleric from Najaf would not be placated.
Outlook for Iraq
Muqtada al-Sadr, by robustly pursuing the realisation of a cross-sectarian majority government, is clearly seeking to change the ethno-sectarian basis of Iraqi politics that was put in place during the US occupation from 2003. In the process, he is seeking to make his country truly independent and sovereign – free from the influence of both Iran and the US.
He has certain important advantages on his side that embolden him to pursue this agenda. First, he has strong political credentials in that he is a Shia cleric from a distinguished family – he is the son of Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a prominent religious personality who opposed Saddam Hussein and was executed in 1999, and is the nephew of another important cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was executed by Saddam in 1980. Muqtada is also married to a daughter of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr.
Second, unlike most Iraqi politicians, Muqtada stayed on in Iraq through Saddam’s rule. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, he gained popularity for his opposition to the US occupation and his fervent championing of Shia interests.
Third, though in 2008 he was forced to disarm the Mahdi Army headed by him under American and government pressure, he now has the ‘Sarayat al-Salam’ (‘Peace Companies’) militia under his command. This was revived in 2014 as a successor of the Mahdi army and today is competing with units of the PMF.
Fourth, al-Sadr, as a populist leader, is responsive to the popular mood in the country. This is one of deep disenchantment with the spoils-based political order; the pervasive perception of mainstream politicians as venal and corrupt, a desperate popular desire for peace and cross-sectarian unity, and widespread rejection of external influences, both from Iran and the US.
Al-Sadr’s avowed agenda captures all these aspirations, thus enabling him to actively challenge the leaders of other Shia groups and even reject the advice from the Supreme Leader in Tehran.
But al-Sadr has very powerful opponents ranged against him. Mainstream politicians who have gained wealth, influence and power over the last two decades have deeply entrenched support bases of their own in different parts of the country and, in some instances, are supported by battle-hardened militants who are committed to maintaining the political order in which they have thrived.
Iran, too, has very high stakes in the existing order. Its central concern is that al-Sadr’s “national majority government”, based on Sunni and Kurdish support, will dilute its own influence and open the doors for the penetration of American influence. The Iranians fear that the latter, with their resources, will have little difficulty in co-opting several Iraqi politicians into an anti-Iran front, thus depriving the Islamic Republic of a major regional base in its existential struggle with the US and Israel.
Where then does Iraq go from here? Quiet acceptance of the political status quo, which maintains the anti-Muqtada forces in power, is not an option for al-Sadr. Nor is prolonged street fighting – it will be destructive but, given the power of the PMF and the support they have from Iran, hardly likely to result in a triumph for al-Sadr.
The most likely option is a compromise: Iran may be expected to accept an al-Sadr-led government that includes most Shia groups, including the Fatah. The timely release of the tapes – in which al-Maliki has reviled most groups in the country, including the PMF, and threatened large-scale violence – would appear to have discredited him severely, certainly in terms of claims to join the next government.
There is, however, a problem in achieving such a compromise, which is al-Sadr’s persona as a maverick, one who acts impulsively, usually with theatrical gestures, for short-term advantage, but without taking long-term implications into account. This is revealed in the poorly thought-out resignation of his members from parliament and their replacement by those who are opposed to him. Thus, while the organised storming of parliament has affirmed al-Sadr’s widespread support, the resignation from parliament has closed the door on any compromise – without fresh elections, no political settlement now seems possible.
This creates new problems. Fresh elections will take several months to organise and, even then, might not deliver the decisive result that the country needs; Iraq is much too polarised on intra-sectarian and intra-ethnic basis for this to occur. In this situation, the interim government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi is likely to continue in office – struggling every day to maintain security and order, providing services and national development, managing the country’s recalcitrant politicians, and protecting the country from external interventions and machinations.
This is truly a daunting challenge. It signals that Iraq has a long way to go before it emerges from the present quagmire and obtains an order in which its politicians accept the need for mutual accommodation and respect for the laws, rules and norms of a democratic system.
 Hamdi Alkhshali and Aqeel Najim, “Iraqi Protestors Break into Parliament Denouncing the Nomination of New Premier,” CNN, July 28, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/07/27/middleeast/iraq-protests-baghdad-green-zone-intl/index.html.
 Akeel Abbas, “Sadr Committed to Forming Iraq’s First Majority Government,” Al-Monitor, February 1, 2022, Sadr committed to forming Iraq's first majority government - Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East.
 Renad Mansour and Victoria Stewart-Jolley, “Explaining Iraq’s Election Results,” Chatham House, October 22, 2021, Kalam - Explaining Iraq’s election results (chathamhouse.org).
 For the background, see Steven Simon, “US Nemesis Muqtada al-Sadr Throws Iraqi Parliament into the Air,” Responsible Statecraft, June 22, 2022, US nemesis Muqtada al-Sadr throws Iraqi parliament into the air - Responsible Statecraft.
 Mustafa Saadoun, “Iranian Commander Lobbies Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr for ‘Inclusive’ Approach to Shiite Politics,” Al-Monitor, February 15, 2022, Iranian commander lobbies Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr for 'inclusive' approach to Shiite parties - Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East.
 Hassan Ali Ahmed, “Cross-sectarian Bloc Emerges in Iraq,” Al-Monitor, March 28, 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/03/cross-sectarian-bloc-emerges-iraq.
 Saadoun, “Iranian Commander Lobbies Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr.”
 Ranj Alaadin, “Muqtada al-Sadr’s Problematic Victory and the Future of Iraq,” Brookings, October 28, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/10/28/muqtada-al-sadrs-problematic-victory-and-the-future-of-iraq/.
 Shawn Yuan, “Iraq Faces Growing Violence as Political Rift Deepens,” Al-Jazeera, January 18, 2022, Iraq faces growing violence as political rift deepens | News | Al Jazeera.
 Cathrin Schaer, “Hope for Democracy in Iraq as Political Violence Escalates,” DW, January 18, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/new-iraqi-government-more-democracy-or-civil-war/a-60464202.
 Mina Aldroubi, Sinan Mahmoud and Robert Tollast, “Surge of Violence and Intimidation in Iraqi Politics: Will Full-scale Conflict Follow,” The National News, January 28, 2022, Surge of violence and intimidation in Iraqi politics: will full-scale conflict follow? (thenationalnews.com).
 Ahmed, “Cross-sectarian Bloc Emerges in Iraq.”
 Omar Sattar, “Battle Opens for Presidency in Iraq,” Al-Monitor, February 2, 2022, Battle opens for presidency in Iraq - Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East.
 Salah Nasrawi, “Iraq’s Endless Political Whirl,” Ahramonline, March 29, 2022, Analysis: Iraq’s endless political whirl - World - Al-Ahram Weekly - Ahram Online.
 Shelly Kettleson, “IRGC Attack Narratives Diverge as Iraq Strives for Unity,” Al-Monitor, March 15, 2022, IRGC attack narratives diverge as Iraq strives for unity - Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East.
 Hamzeh Hadad, “Deadlocked and Loaded: Iraq’s Political Inertia,” European Council on Foreign Relations,
 “How Sadr’s Shiite Rivals Became Largest Bloc in Iraq’s Parliament,” Al-Monitor, June 23, 2022, Explainer: How Sadr's Shiite rivals became largest bloc in Iraq's parliament - Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East.
 Mustafa Saadoon, “Inside the Escalating Intra-Shiite Confrontation in Iraq,” Amwaj, July 25, 2022, Inside the escalating intra-Shiite confrontation in Iraq | Amwaj.media.
 “Coordination Framework Establishes Committee to Select Next Iraqi Prime Minister,” Al-Monitor, July 23, 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/07/coordination-framework-establishes-committee-select-next-iraqi-prime-minister.
©2023 Trends Research & Advisory, All Rights Reserved.