BAGHDAD – The Shia political scene in Iraq is witnessing a gradual shift in the balance of power and influence, andreligious leader Muqtada al-Sadr and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are the ones paying most of the price of this shift, as Iran seems to have decided to abandon them and look for replacements.
For years now, Sadr has monopolised the power and unique capabilities to overturn the political balances in the Shia arena, but his role seems to have shrunk during the current phase of political life in Iraq. Sadr spent months wavering between identifying with the demands of the protest movement that erupted in October 2019 and opposing them.
Sadr controls over 50 seats in parliament and usually has a say over who gets to become prime minister and who does not. But in the case of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the formation of his government, Sadr’s role was minimal
Another problem with Sadr is that his Shia partners have little confidence in his positions because they know that these positions can change in the blink of an eye.
Iran has in the past resorted to using Sadr as a political firefighterof sorts to absorb the anger of the Iraqi street against the successive governments that were controlled by Tehran’s allies in Iraq, but observers say that he can no longer play that role since he and his Sadrist movement have lost the trust of demonstrators and supporters from the poor and marginalised groups, who not long ago used to represent his strongest base
As for Maliki, he is still paying the price of losing the premiership in 2014 by continuing to lose the seats he used to control in parliament, while his political star continues to wane.
Between 2014 and 2018, when his colleague and rival in the Dawa Party, Haider al-Abadi, was in office as prime minister , Maliki lost about three quarters of his political weight. Still, Maliki remained influential enough during that period to almost topple Abadi’s entire government after he succeeded through parliament in bringing down some of its ministers.
Now in the era of Kadhimi’s government, Maliki seems to have lost all of his influence on the political scene in Iraq to the extent that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flatly ignored him during his last visit to Baghdad.
Iraqi politician Ghaleb Shabandar said that Maliki’s office leaked news of Maliki’s disappointment and anger at not being seen by Zarif. So the leader of the State of Law Coalition is hinting now that he will be boycotting Iran from now on, But Shabandar said that, in reality, it was Iran that had dropped Maliki given that he had lost his popularity.
It is true that the Sadrist members of parliament voted in favour of the decision obligating the previous government led by Adel Abdul-Mahdi to work on removing US forces from Iraq, but right now, anti-American rhetoric is not among the priorities of the two Shia leaders (Sadr and Maliki), who also prefer not to talk about Iraqi-Saudi relations.
Zarif’s visit lifted the veil on the second act in the drama of the transformation in Shia politics in Iraq. Instead of seeing Sadr and Maliki, the Iranian official chose to meet two other Shia political leaders, Hadi al-Amiri and Ammar al-Hakim.
Amiri’s newfound political weight comes from the fact that he leads Al-Fateh Alliance, a parliamentary bloc that includes political representatives of the most important Iraqi militias loyal to Iran.
When Iran wants to express its political positions inside Iraq, it turns to Al-Fateh Alliance, whose hardline rhetoric is in line with the vision of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) regarding the future of US forces in Iraq and the ongoing escalation against Saudi Arabia. Observers believe that, for Iran, Amiri is the natural replacement for Maliki.
Hakim, on the other hand, is a different story. The leader of the Al-Hikma Movement rocketed to fame and importance with Kadhimi’s appointment as prime minister. He personally backed Kadhimi’s nomination and spent hours convincing the other Shia forces to support him, arguing for “the necessity to protect the state from collapsing.”
In one way or another, influential Shia forces believe that Kadhimi is Hakim’s man. Not only did the latter fight tooth and nail for the former’s nomination, he also went so far as to engineer a parliamentary alliance of 42 MPs to back him up, especially after Sadr and Amri distanced themselves from Kadhimi’s appointment, and Maliki bluntly opposed it.
Unlike Amiri, Hakim wants to leave the issue of the presence of American forces on Iraq’s soil to the discretion of executive authorities and military leaders who are in a better position to determine Iraq’s security needs. With respect to relations with Saudi Arabia, the leader of Al-Hikma Movement is strongly in favour of strengthening Iraqi-Saudi relations in particular and opening up to the Gulf in general.
Observers believe that the rise of Amiri and Hakim at the expense of Sadr and Maliki in Iraqi Shia politics reflects Iran’s need to deal with clear political positions in Iraq regarding opposing or supporting the current government, the future of American forces in Iraq, and the file of relations with the Gulf states.
Indeed, both Amiri and Hakim provide clear positions on the main Iraqi files that occupy the minds of policymakers in Tehran, as the first stands clearly on the Iranian side, while the second supports a government that wants close relations with the Gulf states, the United States, and the West.
In light of the difficulties Tehran faces in dealing with the rest of the world, and the crisis of its chronic relations with the United States and many countries in the region, it must have come to the conclusion that dealing with Amiri and Hakim in Iraq will allow it to keep all of its channels open, as the need for any of them may suddenly arise.