Iraqi news cycles over the past week have been replete with mention of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who started off his career in post-Saddam Iraq running sectarian death squads targeting Sunnis, before taking advantage of record low trust in Iraq’s “democracy” last year, leveraging his organised, grassroots voter base to maximise his hold on parliament.
However, and in an about-face that took many by surprise, last week the cleric ordered that all his 73 deputies should resign their seats in the Iraqi legislature, pointing to the fact that, eight months after the elections and despite having a plurality if not a majority of seats, “corruption” in the political process had prevented Sadr from forming a majority government.
Essentially, Sadr ceded the parliamentary battlefield to the Coordination Framework, an umbrella group of overtly pro-Iran parties – a group he blames for Iraq’s endemic corruption, subservience to foreign interests, and undermining Iraqi sovereignty.
The Sadrists likely believe this “protest” will make for a grand statement, galvanising support amongst their working class Shia base. In reality, Sadr’s display of annoyance at a political system that he himself has propped up will likely achieve nothing but ensure the perpetuation of a political process that has been boycotted by a majority of Iraqis.
“In reality, Sadr’s display of annoyance at a political system that he himself has propped up will likely achieve nothing but ensure the perpetuation of a political process that has been boycotted by a majority of Iraqis”
Sadr’s rise to parliamentary prominence
A large part of Sadr’s public relations campaign is to portray himself as an anti-establishment figure, even as he heavily relies on the establishment in Baghdad to legitimise himself and his militia activities.
While Sadr has been known to – very gently – criticise Iran and its meddling in Iraq’s sovereign affairs, he has, and for a long time, been supported by Tehran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Sadr is fully aware that Iraq lacks sovereignty. Rather, it is heavily under the thrall of Iran, and, despite parliament voting to expel American troops in the aftermath of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani’s assassination on the orders of President Donald Trump in early 2020, has been simply ignored by the United States which maintains a military presence to the present day.Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr protest for governmental reform and elimination of corruption on March 4, 2016 near Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone. [Getty]
Iraqi territory is also regularly invaded by neighbouring Turkey that complains that Iraq has done far too little to stem the activities of the Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK. Baghdad’s protests to Ankara are ignored, even as the Turkish military conducts numerous military operations in the Iraqi north.
Aside from his own awareness of these issues, Sadr is also undoubtedly aware that the Iraqi people themselves feel that their country enjoys no sovereignty.
Sadr has consistently sought to align himself with mass demonstration movements to protest against Iranian and US meddling, rife corruption and graft, and the ethno-sectarian quota muhasasa system that splits Iraq’s main political offices amongst Shia Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and that has bedevilled Iraqi politics since the illegal US invasion of 2003.
In fact, Sadr’s followers once stormed the Green Zone that houses major international embassies as well as serving as the centre of the Iraqi political establishment in 2016. Images went across the world of Sadrists sitting in lawmakers’ offices, waving the Iraqi flag, and holding mocking parliamentary sessions of their own.
The only time Sadr did not latch himself onto a mass movement was when a largely Shia Arab-led demonstration emerged in 2019, shaking the Shia Islamists who were comfortable in their new status as elites, at least with their own constituents.
However, when Shia anger erupted at both Iran and those viewed as its stooges in Baghdad, Sadr did not side with them. Rather, and according to NGOs and the US government, Sadr used deadly violence to suppress the protests, propping up the establishment he had long claimed to be in opposition to.
These actions and others – such as alleged massacres in 2020 – led to an all-time low turnout of just over 40 percent at the last parliamentary election in 2021. With most of Iraq refusing to turn out and engage in what was seen to be an electoral process that was decided by violence rather than ballot boxes, Sadr’s highly organised grassroots movement managed to push supporters to polling stations and ended up with the largest bloc in parliament.
“With most of Iraq refusing to turn out and engage in what was seen to be an electoral process that was decided by violence rather than ballot boxes, Sadr’s highly organised grassroots movement managed to push supporters to polling stations and ended up with the largest bloc in parliament”
Making way for Iran’s allies
Last October, Sadr hailed the election result as a “victory for reform over corruption” and promised to form a majority government rather than engaging in the usual horse trading and political haggling that Iraqi politics has been known for since 2003.
For many Iraqis, this would have been seen as a welcome step, as it would mean that a government could enact a legislative agenda rather than being at the mercy of yet another weak coalition government that achieved nothing but deepening the mire of corruption Iraq is now infamous for.
Sadr swiftly made an alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – the leading Kurdish party in Iraqi Kurdistan – and the Sunni Progress Party led by incumbent Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. While still short of a parliamentary majority, the tripartite alliance was strong enough to get Halbousi re-elected to his speakership, but failed dismally at getting in any of their preferred candidates for the post of president, leaving the formation of the next Iraqi government in absolute chaos for the past eight months.
Arguably, Sadr could have boycotted parliamentary sessions and perhaps called for early elections. However, he did not do so as the already historic low turnout at the last election would likely take yet another nosedive, further delegitimising not only his platform, but the entire political process.
The New Arab
Instead, he took the mercurial decision to abandon parliament, leaving his Kurdish and Sunni allies in the lurch and forcing them to negotiate with the Coordination Framework.
This could be because Sadr has previously found much success by pulling on other levers of power, including the use of his substantial (and illegal under the Iraqi constitution) Shia militias. He has also found great success by whipping up anti-government sentiment on the street, something he looks to be agitating towards currently.
Whatever his rationale, Sadr has now paved the way for his supposed enemies in the Coordination Framework to assume the seats his deputies vacated. This is because Iraqi electoral law allows for the candidate with the second-largest number of votes to assume a seat in which an elected incumbent resigns from. This could lead to the Coordination Framework gaining at least 100 seats – almost 30 more than Sadr used to control.
“Far from reforming the political process as he promised, Sadr’s decision may well have condemned it to another term of coalition rule, deepening the political malaise rather than treating it”
It therefore seems likely that Sadr aims to take his fight to the streets, creating yet more instability and chaos in a political system already beset by both. The cleric would seemingly prefer easier wins in the court of public opinion rather than engaging in the established political framework.
While this may appear to be an intelligent move, it arguably further undermines the legitimacy of the political process that Sadr hopes to exert total control over. It is also very unlikely that the Coordination Framework, in cooperation with Iran and with the United States, will not simply seek to increase its legitimacy by appealing, once more, to foreign powers.
Therefore, it would appear that, far from reforming the political process as he promised, Sadr’s decision may well have condemned it to another term of coalition rule, deepening the political malaise rather than treating it.