The nation- wide anti -establishment protests that had started in Iraq in October 2019 have still not abated. The movement has suffered a fracture primarily because of the machinations of Moqtada Al Sadr. When the movement started thousands of his supporters joined the non Sadrist protestors calling for the Prime Minister—-to step down.
But after the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani in early January 2020, possibly sensing an opportunity to increase his influence and power, al Sadr adopted and on again off again approach towards the demonstrations. He first told his supporters to keep away from the anti government protests. Sadr’s followers, who had earlier protected the protestors from the security forces, left the protest camps and targeted the non Sadrists.
The attacks against the non Sadrists even occurred in Najaf the home of Grand Ayatollah Sistani where eight protestors were killed. Sistan in a Friday sermon condemned the security forces for failing to protect the protesters.
Shortly after Sadr told his protestors to rejoin the protestors but to cleanse them of alcohol and other vices. The camps however remained divided with the non Sadrists no longer trusting Moqtada and declaring that he was out to kill them. In Baghdad the two factions who had earlier made Tahrir square a headquarters for the protests were now divided with the Sadrists occupying a Turkish restaurant and manning checkpoints and the other protestors congregating at the Freedom Monument with the Tahrir square becoming the demarcation point.
While Moqtada al Sadr appeared determined to ensure that his political power, within the existing system, increased, the non Sadrists remained determined that they would be content with nothing but the overthrow of the system; that they would not accept any Prime Minister from within the existing elite; and that they wanted an end to the “muhasasa”, the system introduced after the US-led invasion in 2003 that provides proportional government representation to Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups.
The latest casualty of their determination and of the self interest of the existing elite in Parliament, was Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, the person chosen by President Barham Salih to be the new Prime Minister in place of caretaker PM Mahdi, who had resigned on December 1,2019 after Ayatollah Sistani endorsed the demands of the protestors. A former exile Allawi had joined the secular Iraqiya party- with a membership of Sunnis, Shias, Christians and women- set up by his cousing Iyad Allawi, who was the interim prime minister in 2004. Though the party had few seats in Parliament and despite its secular nature and his endorsement by Sadr and a grouping of Iran-backed parties, the anti-government demonstrators rejected the choice on the grounds that Allawi was too close to the elite that they were trying to get rid of.
In a televised speech after his nomination Allawi said if he won the vote of confidence in Parliament his government’s first act would be to investigate the killing of protesters and bring the perpetrators to justice. He also promised to hold an early election free from “the influence of money, weapons, and foreign interference”. Allawi also planned to have a cabinet of independent individuals and technocrats who could address some of the protestors demands and undertake reforms to end the political crisis—an approach that would adversely affect members of the elite in Parliament.
In discussions with the other parties in Parliament he insisted that he would select his own ministers much to the chagrin of the Kurdish and Sunni parties who voiced threats of a boycott. There was also some concern that his choice of the cabinet had been influenced by Moqtada al-Sadr, whose endorsement of Allawi was coupled with his threat that he would call a “million-strong” rally to pressure parliament to approve Allawi’s cabinet. Despite this Allawi lost the vote of confidence twice and rather than try again resigned on March 1st 2020 leaving a vacuum that the President would have to fill by naming another person –with some observers saying he would like to name intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kazimi.
Caretaker PM Mahdi had been supported by an alliance between rival factions — Saeroon, lead by Moqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Ameri. But neither bloc had been able to select a consensus candidate to become the new Prime Minister. Moqtada al Sadr’s endorsement of Allawi came after discussions in Iran where he was studying at Qom. With the death of their mentor, Iranian General Soleimani, there had been dismay and disarray among the Shia militias.
A concerned Iran had turned to its proxy, Lebanon based Hezbollah to manage the Shia militias. Iran and Hezbollah officials instructed pro-Iran militia leaders to put aside their differences with Sadr. The two sides had clashed in parliament in an intra-Shi’ite power struggle. The militia leaders met Moqtada al Sadr and entered into an agreement with him—the price being that he would have the freedom to choose the next government and be able to block the Iran-backed parties’ preferences.
The task of sustaining the morale of the Shias and protecting Iran’s interests was undertaken by Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, the Hezbollah representative in Iraq, who organized a meeting of the militias and urged them to present a united front in picking a new Iraqi prime minister. Kawtharani had persuaded Moqtada al-Sadr, to support Allawi and Sadr agreed a development welcomed by Iran and accepted by the militia-linked parties it backed.
The assassination of Soleimani and the Iranian retaliation had caused concern among Iraqis that being seen to be adhering to the Iranian agenda could cost their country which could be subjected to US sanctions. This sentiment was particularly noticeable in the youth including Shias. Anti American marches had taken place with the marchers holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”. While the Iraqi Parliament had adopted a non binding resolution calling for the departure of American troops, there was one leader, Masrour Barzani,the President of Iraqi Kurdistan who had been arguing that the Americans needed to find a way to maintain a troop presence in Iraq.
The rationale behind his urging was that the U.S. killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had not affected the group’s ability to operate and that the organization was “regrouping” and mounting attacks in northern and western Iraq. There had been sporadic attacks in Iraq with rockets hitting an Iraqi base in the province of Kirkuk where US troops are stationed and the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. The U.S. State Department said it had designated Ahmad al-Hamidawi Secretary General of Kataib Hezbollah as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist , holding the group responsible for the attacks.
So what could be the likely outcome of the current impasse. While the protestors have been demanding a complete reform of the system, the chaos that would be associated with such a strategy would not be to the liking of Ayatollah Sistani who-while not in favour of the Iranian system of clerics interfering in politics- has the clout to call on the protestors to ease up to keep Iraq viable. Iran is quite preoccupied with the coronavirus and its economy while thumbing its nuclear nose at the USA.
The elections have seen the conservatives come to power and they would definitely like their man to succeed the old and ailing Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq-something that they have not been able to do so far. Moqtada al Sadr has been playing all sides—but it is unlikely that he could combine a religious and political role for himself as long as Sistani is alive. But with Sistani’s approval he could suggest a name, unlinked to Iran, not too cosy with America, that could bring all the parties in Parliament on board without overtly threating their space like Allawi would have.
It is now a game of wait and see and it would be at least a month before there is any chance of a new government being established. In most likelihood it will take much longer given the political performance of the past months.