He blamed his opponents for disapproving the nomination of his cousin, Jaafar, for the position of prime minister, knowing that Jaafar is “the son of their religious reference and their martyr, and they rejected him.”
Sadr also attacked the politicians and their blocs who betrayed him without naming them.
Sadr denied his previous statement about withdrawing from the parliament for not wanting to join the corrupt, saying some parties are under the illusion that his decision meant handing Iraq to the corrupt.
He asserted that the decision must submit to the people’s will and determination.
Earlier, pictures and banners were hung on several streets and central and southern cities in Baghdad with the phrase “be fully prepared.”
Sadr justified his participation in the October 2021 elections, saying that “our return to the elections was for two important things: to confront normalization with Israel, which was criminalized, and against obscenity [homosexuality], so let’s see what they do.”
“Will they enact a new and detailed law, especially with the escalation of Western colonial pressures against those who oppose it?” wondered Sadr.
“Will they continue to form a government from fraudulent elections?”
Meanwhile, political observers fear that the delay in forming the cabinet may justify protests by Sadr supporters and may include an operation to storm the Green Zone, especially after several top Sadrist leaders supported Sadr’s steps.
The government formation did not witness any positive progress after Sadr withdrew, and the Coordination Framework became the biggest parliamentary bloc.
The Framework forces disagreed over the positions of prime minister and first deputy speaker, coupled with another disagreement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union regarding nominating a President.
A parliament dissolution and early elections are possible if the Sadrist demonstrations erupt, which the Tishreen Movement is expected to join.
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has always been unpredictable, but his order to his followers to walk out of Iraq’s parliament after winning a majority of seats seems bewildering, writes Salah Nasrawi
Since his mass “Sadrist Trend” movement emerged as the largest vote-getter in Iraq’s parliamentary elections more than eight months ago, speculation surrounding the powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has been nothing if not spectacular.
Some have claimed that Al-Sadr was poised to become the country’s key political power broker and its kingmaker. Others have said that he would be Iraq’s saviour from unruly Shia militias. Yet others have praised his victory as an opportunity for the US and regional allies to join the anti-Iran camp.
On 12 June, however, Al-Sadr surprised his supporters and detractors alike by directing lawmakers loyal to him in the Iraqi parliament to resign amid a prolonged political impasse over the formation of the country’s next government.
Iraq’s parliament last week swore in new lawmakers to replace the Al-Sadr’s bloc legislators who collectively quit the 329-member assembly. Only 64 new members took the oath while nine others have yet to join.
There has always been something mercurial about Al-Sadr’s tactics in steering his way through Iraq’s messy politics. He has outmanoeuvred other Shia leaders by placing himself in a position of power and reinventing himself not just as a Shia warlord, but also as a popular leader with a messianic national mission.
None of this is new. But his decision to order the mass resignation of his MPs has set off a new round of guessing at what Al-Sadr’s objectives are and conjectures about how to fit him into Iraq’s chaotic political system.
He has also promised that a new government led by his faction would follow a non-aligned line in foreign policy, signalling his intention to stifle Iran’s influence in Iraq and enhancing the country’s national sovereignty.
In order to achieve his goals, Al-Sadr broke away from the main Shia parties and allied himself with a major Sunni bloc in parliament led by Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi and a Kurdish bloc headed by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barzani.
To many observers, had this been followed through it would have brought about a drastic change in Iraq’s politics and sounded the death knell of the entrenched forces in government that have overseen instability, endemic dysfunction, and deeply entrenched corruption in the country.
Al-Sadr’s later order to his 74 parliamentary followers, more than a fifth of the total number of MPs, to resign and his decision to suspend his participation in the political process has driven Iraq into a period of political uncertainty.
Many have asked why Al-Sadr lobbed a political hand grenade into the raging disputes in Iraq, igniting a fresh battle in the two-decade crisis when his election victory had seemingly played to his advantage and speculation was rife that he would now pounce on his opponents.
For many Iraq watchers, Al-Sadr’s decision to call it quits seemed bizarre, with some even seeing it as insane. Indeed, even many of his supporters, who did not believe that he would give up and expected him to fight more dirtily instead, were shocked at the move and began to doubt his grasp on reason.
Being virtually in control of key posts in Iraq’s federal government and in local administration and the security forces and in command of one of the country’s key paramilitary group, the Peace Brigades, Al-Sadr has long been one of the most powerful political figures in the country.
Moreover, he has been basking in the glow of the regional and international media, which has described him as Iraq’s best hope for much-touted government reforms and as a nationalist leader able to confront Iran’s increasing influence in the country.
As the biggest winner in Iraq’s 2021 parliamentary elections and with a comfortable majority in parliament with the support of the two powerful Kurdish and Sunni blocs, nothing seemed to stand in Al-Sadr’s way or stop his faction from leading the “national majority” government he had aspired to.
Yet, in the political poker game with his tricky and tough Iraqi Shia opponents, Al-Sadr showed impatience in playing by the rules in order to veer right and still win instead of leaving the game.
There are several explanations as to why Al-Sadr acted in the way that he did.
One explanation says that Al-Sadr underestimated his rivals in the “Coordination Framework” alliance that groups all the Iran-backed factions in the Iraqi parliament together and in the resilience this showed in stalling his efforts to form a new government.
Another explanation says that Al-Sadr showed signs of overreaching himself in his bids to build his “national majority” coalition with Barzani’s KDP and the Sunni alliance led by Parliamentary Speaker Al-Halbousi without attending to the complicating factors created by the post-US invasion power-sharing system in Iraq.
While Al-Sadr may have underestimated the communal ambitions and agendas of his Kurdish and Sunni partners, such as power and oil-sharing, which could have overburdened any Sadrist-led government, he could also have miscalculated internal divisions within the two communities that could blow up or be exploited by his Shia opponents.
A third explanation says that despite being touted as a vehement opponent to Iranian influence in Iraq, Al-Sadr has lacked the energy and grip to upend Iran’s power in the country. As a result, his many times promised call for the expulsion of the influence of the Islamic Republic from Iraq has remained undelivered.
Last week, Al-Sadr took many inside and outside Iraq by surprise when he denied charges that Tehran had influenced his decision to order his supporters to quit the parliament. The unsolicited remarks were seen as an attempt to exonerate Iran of interfering in Iraq’s politics.
Whatever lies behind Al-Sadr’s moves, the Shia cleric has landed in an unenviable position and now faces some hard choices in dealing with the aftermath of his retreat from Iraq’s political process.
He must now weigh the pros and cons of his next steps as Iraq faces the prospect of further uncertainty.
An alternative would be to support proposals for new elections to end the stalemate and engineer a way back into power. However, there is no guarantee that this time Al-Sadr would secure another comfortable parliamentary majority amid speculation that his popularity has waned following his mishandling of the crisis.
A third option would be to mobilise his followers into carrying out street protests that would exploit the rage over embedded government dysfunction and unbridled corruption. Discontent is building across the country as Iraqis suffer from a summer of drought, sandstorms, electricity cuts, amid worsening public services.
These have been made worse by food price rises, a surge in Covid-19 cases, and outbreaks of deadly nose-bleed fever and cholera.
Here is where Al-Sadr’s mystery ends and his tactless power game begins. Al-Sadr should realise that this is a high-stakes game that could keep him as a spoiler who has the capacity to destabilise the political order but not the ability to acquire the national power he aspires to.
Given Iraq’s high level of political fragility and conflict, all these options are likely to fail to break the deadlock. They are more likely to increase the political instability and social unrest, or even lead to a new outbreak of violent conflict, if the dysfunctions in the country’s political system remain unaddressed.
“It is shameful for the people that their president is a supporter of normalization and is not patriotic but rather subservient to the West or the East.”
ERBIL (Kurdistan24) – Sadrist Movement leader Muqtada al-Sadr strongly criticized Iraqi President Barham Salih on Tuesday for not signing the new anti-normalization law passed by the country’s parliament.
“It is very shameful that the so-called President of the Republic of Iraq refused to sign the law,” Sadr tweeted on Tuesday. “It is shameful for the people that their president is a supporter of normalization and is not patriotic but rather subservient to the West or the East.”
“I am innocent of this crime before God and the Iraqi people,” he added. “I regret his candidacy for the presidency before and after.”
In late May, Iraqi lawmakers passed a bill that criminalizes any normalization of ties with Israel.
Following two readings of the bill by the members of parliament, the proposed law was unanimously approved by 275 lawmakers out of the parliament’s 329 members.
The law mandates the punishment of any person or entity seeking to normalize or establish ties with Israel, according to a copy of the legislation seen by Kurdistan 24.
In a tweet he shared following parliament’s vote on the law, Sadr, who pushed for the legislation, called on Iraqis to publicly celebrate the bill’s passing.
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the fall of 2020, Sadr has repeatedly warned against establishing ties with Israel.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Tuesday harshly criticized Iraqi President Barham Salih for withholding from signing the legislation criminalizing ties with Israel in a move that is seen as a blow to Salih’s second-term candidacy.
In a harsh tone, Sadr in a tweet said it is “very, very shameful that the so-called President of the Republic of Iraq (Barham) … refuses to sign the law” criminalizing relations with Israel.
Sadr at the time called on the Iraqi people to take to the streets in celebration of what he called a “great achievement.”
The law must be signed by the president, according to the Iraqi constitution. However, if he fails to do so then it would nonetheless take effect within 15 days.
The passage of the bill put Salih in a puzzle that came amid severe political tensions that have engulfed Iraq. The current president is running for a second term for the post.
“I absolve myself of his crime in front of God and the Iraqi people,” Sadr added saying he “regrets” Salih’s previous and subsequent candidacy for the presidency post.
The normalization of ties with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords is a US-led joint Middle East peace initiative. Four countries – the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain, and Morocco – have announced normalization agreements with Israel, with America’s support.
With the swearing in of new lawmakers on June 23 after walkout of Sadrist bloc’s 73 MPs from the Iraqi parliament, a large part of the political tension that followed Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to quit the parliament calmed down. The extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament,…
AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): With the swearing in of new lawmakers on June 23 after walkout of Sadrist bloc’s 73 MPs from the Iraqi parliament, a large part of the political tension that followed Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to quit the parliament calmed down. The extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament, which was attended by 202 out of a total of 329 members of parliament, made it clear that the scenario of the return of Sadrists to parliament is unlikely, and now the focus is on the future of forming a new government in negotiations among different political factions.
After the oath of new MPs, according to the preliminary estimates, the Shiite Coordination Framework (SCF) 120 representatives and possible addition of Azm bloc, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Babylon Movement, and the independents, would reach 176 seats. This large number would grant the SCF a leading role. To put it differently, the role of al-Sadr in the government formation is now played by the all-Shiite coalition.
However, a look at the weight of the political parties in the parliament gives us the conclusion that it is not certain that a government led by the SCF can come to existence. This is because there is a quorum of two-third presence of lawmakers for parliament session to elect a president and the former allies of al-Sadr, including Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sovereignty Coalition led by parliament speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi and the prominent businessman Khamis Khanjar, have the capability to block the sessions for president election.
However, not all ways for forming a cabinet are blocked, and developments indicate a gap within the Sovereignty Coalition and possible change in favor of formation of a government favorable to the SCF. In the past few days, the media outlets reported the emergence of a dispute between al-Sadr and Massoud Barzani, the head of KDP, and the talks between the Barzanis and the Coordination Framework.
KDP, the main loser of gamble of coalition with al-Sadr
The struggle of Barzani’s for fast, comprehensive, and intensive negotiations with other parties after al-Sadr walkout is more driven by wrong policies and actions of the KDP after the October elections than a will to take the initiative. Even months before the general elections, Barzani had talked behind the scenes with al-Sadr and al-Halbousi about a post-election alliance.
Following the release of the final results of the October 10 elections, KDP, inattentive of the will of other Kurdish parties, immediately joined al-Sadr’s project to form a national majority government. Barzani made his first mistake from the very beginning by not talking to other Kurdish parties.
In the second step, the KDP, putting all of its eggs in the single basket of coalition with al-Sadr, pushed to monopolize the Kurdish shares in Baghdad posts altogether. With the help of its allies, it appointed its member Shakhawan Abdullah as the second deputy speaker of Iraqi parliament. Then it named its member for the Iraqi president post, which had been traditionally held by the rival PUK. Therefore, its second mistake was to insist on ouster of President Barham Salih without any negotiation with its powerful rival PUK.
In the third step, the KDP insisted on forming a national majority government even despite the parliament failed to reach its quorum to elect the candidate presented by the Kurdish party. Its third mistake, actually, was its decline to negotiate with the PUK and the SCF.
Barzani’s biggest mistake, however, was betting on coalition with al-Sadr. He acted so naively and oddly as if he never knew al-Sadr’s way of deciding and acting erratically. He acted as if he did not know that al-Sadr could make a dramatic shift any moment. So, the KDP, which put all of its focus and potentials on alliance with al-Sadr, incurred the biggest loss and shock after al-Sadr left the political process. The Kurdish party is now the most isolated among other parties as it refused serious dialogue with its Kurdish rivals and the SCF.
Although the Barzanis are still weighty in the Iraqi equations as their alliance with the Sunni-majority Sovereignty Coalition prevails, the problem is that there is no guarantee about continuation of this alliance and Sunni stay out of a cabinet led by the Shiites.
KDP and alliance with the SCF
Although the KDP is the main loser of Sadrist departure from the political process, since al-Sadr’s televised address of June 9 about readiness for collective resignation, the Kurdish party said it was preparing to adjust to the new political reality and as the first step it formed a negotiation committee comprised of Fuad Hussein, Benkin Rikani, and Shakhawan Abdullah– three of whom with friendly ties to the SCF.
Before the parliament’s emergency session to replace the resigned Sadrist MPs, the KDP negotiators talked to the Coordination Framework representatives and set the party’s conditions. The presence of the KDP in the new session of the parliament showed that apparently initial agreements have been reached between this party and the SCF, something mentioned by Shakhawan Abdullah, who is also the head of the KDP’s MPs in the parliament.
According to Abdullah, the two sides reached an understanding before the recent parliament session and set to publish a statement after the session in which the KDP’s conditions are emphasized. The conditions for participation in the next government included Barzani’s “partnership, balance, and consensus” principles and solutions to Kurdistan region’s gas and oil, and security cases.
Following the remarks, Fatah coalition’s spokesman Ahmad al-Asadi said that the parliamentary factions agreed to forming a government based on the three principles, confirming the comments made by Shakhawan. Al-Asadi said that the national unity government will address all the issues with of the autonomous Kurdistan region.
This activism demonstrates the fact that KDP and Barzani himself have concluded that they have made strategic mistakes post-election and not only see a slimmer chance of securing the post of Iraq president but also should be careful not to be sidelined from the power structure. They now have many demands but less power to act. In such circumstances, even their minimum share is a positive gain for them.
The 73 had resigned collectively earlier this month amid a prolonged political impasse over the formation of the country’s next government. The unprecedented walkout, based on a request from Sadr, threw Iraq into further uncertainty, reshuffling the political deck following the October 10 elections, which gave him the biggest bloc in parliament.
Although he emerged as a winner, Sadr had been locked in a power struggle with internal Shia rivals backed by Iran and was unable to cobble together a coalition that can form a majority government.
According to Iraqi laws, if any seat in parliament becomes vacant, the candidate who obtained the second highest number of votes in their electoral district would replace them. In this case, it made Sadr’s opponents from the so-called Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shia parties and their allies, the majority with around 122 seats.
It puts Sadr out of parliament for the first time since 2005, and allows pro-Iranian factions to determine the make-up of the next government.
“Today, the first step has been completed, which is the replacement deputies taking the oath,” said MP Muhammad Saadoun Sayhod, from the Rule of Law coalition represented in the Framework.
There was no immediate reaction from Sadr to the swearing in of new MPs. There remain concerns the political deadlock could lead to renewed protests and street clashes between supporters of Sadr and their Shia rivals.
Even though parliament is in recess, lawmakers mostly from the Framework alliance called for an extraordinary session Thursday to vote on the new members. Sixty-four MPs were sworn in, while nine other replacements did not attend.
On Wednesday, Sadr accused Iranian proxies of political meddling. He also accused them of applying pressure against newly-elected political independents and allies of his Sadrist bloc.
He called on parliamentarians not to succumb to pressure.
“I call on blocs to stand bravely for the sake of reform and saving the nation and not to give in to sectarian pressures, as they are bubbles which will disappear,” he said in a statement.
Munaf al-Musawi, a political analyst and director of the Baghdad Centre for Strategic Studies, said the fight for government posts will now begin. Once a government is formed, he said Sadr’s supporters could take to the streets, leading to clashes with Shia rivals.
Iraq’s election was held several months earlier than expected, in response to mass protests that broke out in late 2019 which saw tens of thousands rally against endemic corruption, poor services and unemployment.
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.
Sadr’s party was the biggest winner in an October general election, and its success had raised the possibility that he could sideline his Iranian-backed rivals who had dominated politics in Iraq for years.
But political disagreement among parties hindered parliament from electing a president and forming a government.
Even though his withdrawal is a setback, Sadr, a populist whose supporters fought US occupation forces after they overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, is able to mobilize popular support.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s Parliament is set to hold a session Thursday to vote in replacements for 73 lawmakers who resigned earlier this month. The collective walkout by followers of Iraq’s most influential Shiite politician threw Iraq into further uncertainty, deepening a months-long political crisis over government formation.
Al-Sadr, a maverick politician with a large following, emerged as the biggest winner in general elections held in October, but has been unable to cobble together a coalition that can form a majority government.
He has been locked in a power struggle with internal Shiite rivals backed by Iran, preventing the formation of a new government.
Two weeks ago, he ordered lawmakers from his parliamentary bloc to resign in a bid to break the eight-month impasse. The unprecedented move threw Iraq’s political landscape into disarray.
According to Iraqi laws, if any seat in parliament becomes vacant, the candidate who obtains the second-highest number of votes in their electoral district would replace them. In this case, it would make al-Sadr’s opponents from the so-called Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shiite parties and their allies, the majority. This would allow pro-Iranian factions to determine the makeup of the next government.
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold posters with his photo as they celebrate the passing of a law criminalizing the normalization of ties with Israel, in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Even though Parliament is in recess, lawmakers mostly from the Framework alliance called for an extraordinary session Thursday to vote on the new lawmakers.
On Wednesday, al-Sadr accused Iranian proxies of political meddling. He also accused them of applying pressure against newly elected political independents and allies of his Sadrist bloc.
He called on parliamentarians not to succumb to pressure.
“I call on blocs to stand bravely for the sake of reform and saving the nation, and not to give in to sectarian pressures, as they are bubbles which will disappear,” he said in a statement.
Munaf Al-Musawi, a political analyst and director of the Baghdad Center for Strategic Studies, said that the statement by al-Sadr against Iran’s proxies also sends a message to his former allies — Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Al-Halbusi — to avoid holding a parliament session.
He said if a session is held, the Coordination Framework and its allies would control parliament and Sadr’s allies would pay the price.
Lawmakers belonging to Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc prepare to attend a parliamentary session in Baghdad, Iraq, March 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
The June 12 decision by Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to renounce his electoral victory and collapse the government formation process is a gift to Iran. It is a blow to average Iraqis—who demonstrated in 2019 for the end of the sectarian political system and were killed for it—and a blow to the United States, which had a chance to help expunge much of the malign Iranian influence that has seeped into Iraq since the 2003 US invasion.
If Sadr cut Iran-aligned parties out of the Iraqi government, including Iraq’s internal policy forces, it would have been a major blow to Iran’s growing regional influence in the Middle East. Iran values a pliable Iraq more than anything else: the prospect of an unfriendly Iraqi government—or even a nationalistic Iraqi government—would have reoriented Tehran’s political and security efforts in the region. Some of the funds and the attention of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which flows to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and even the Gaza Strip, would then have to be redirected in an epic effort to negotiate a new relationship with Baghdad.
It would also have revolutionized Iraqi politics, where certain militias and their political allies in the government intimidate politicians who stray too far from the line. As it happens, Sadr is one of the very few Iraqi political leaders who is difficult to intimidate. His brand is that of the eternal outsider and opponent of the US invasion, Iran, corruption, and Iraqi elites. However, his real power is that he has had a militia of his own. Saraya al-Salam forms part of the Hashd al-Shaabi—until recently, it almost had the strength to match the Iran-backed portions of the group. Sadr, thus, has the muscle to force a decisive confrontation if he wants.
Sadr’s steadfastness these past eight months since the October 2021 elections was shocking, particularly for a man whose political oscillations are an Iraqi watchword. He was being leaned on very heavily. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had urged Sadr to drop his project, to join with the Iran-aligned parties, and return to the rule of the great Shia political glob. His coalition partners, particularly the Kurdish Democratic Party’s (KDP) Masoud Barzani, were also under immense pressure. The forces opposing Sadr—primarily former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—had focused on stopping the nomination of the presidency, rigging a series of court decisions: raising the threshold for his election and then disqualifying the KDP’s candidate, Hoshyar Zebari.
To what precise extent Iran controls Iraq is one of the great policy questions of the region and the answer is, broadly, not as much as Iraq’s critics claim, with Sadr’s election being proof of that. But also proof of Iran’s influence is his order for the resignation of loyalist members of parliament. Iran has the most influence in behaviors that hamper the region, such as militias and ballistic missiles. The trouble for Iraqis is that these behaviors are precisely the ones that make Iraq impossible to change, whether to attract greater foreign investment, encourage its bourgeoning private sector, or simply reduce corruption from the top down. The Iranians and their political henchmen have private armies and courts and their government will, thus, elect a new people if they are pressed too far.
A vote for Sadr was a vote for change in Iraq—undisciplined, highly erratic change, certainly, but change, nonetheless. His victory was not a full endorsement of the October 2019 demonstrators, but also due to a reordering of the electoral system and thus ephemeral. His bloc gamed the elections best. But he had seized the mantle of the protestors even with partial consent.
His current strategy is risky: he will almost certainly be making a play for early elections, though it’s unclear how much better he could do than in October 2021. Sadr may be feeling stronger after some action in this parliamentary session, including passing a food security law that will appeal to the poor and an anti-normalization law to fend off critics from the Iran-backed parties. He may also want to bait Maliki and the opposition into forming a government, instead, and be saddled during a hot and underemployed summer in Iraq with sandstorms and power outages. But the opposition isn’t foolish and will likely accede to early elections after a period under the current government—if they are asked.
It was a mistake for the Joe Biden administration to keep Iraq at arm’s length these past months. The administration has deployed minor US officials and made anodyne statements about the will of the Iraqi people. That reflects conventional wisdom: that a more visible US presence can only arouse Shia opposition and harm those nationalistic Iraqis whose victory would help net-US interests. It isn’t popular for Sadr, after all, to have US Secretary of State Antony Blinken touring Baghdad and advocating on his behalf. But there is still room to compete with Iran, which now has the outcome it wants.
For example, the Biden administration should have done more to condemn the series of attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan this spring, including a barrage of a dozen missiles on March 13. This could have included at least sending a senior American official to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. They should also have expressed privately, at a high level, American unhappiness with the Iraqi courts stonewalling the choice of president on February 6. It is possible this happened, though, given the lack of high-level involvement or attention to this process, it is unlikely. Of course this would be portrayed as interference in Iraqi sovereignty, but compared to, for example, Iranian and Turkish violations of sovereignty, the bar is low. Many Iraqis understand this.
Above all, the Biden administration should have been down in the mud of Baghdad politics, just as the Iranians and the IRGC were, cajoling and demanding from political leaders to do more. Iran treats Iraq as a zero-sum political battleground of immense stakes, and so must America if it wants to help—Iraqi leaders can seem bemused when it doesn’t.
The difference between America’s strategic tools—its foreign and military aid to Iraq—and its tactical influence—the ability to sway decision-makers—is the greatest challenge to US policy In Iraq. Iran has poor strategic tools and its economic aid is negligible, though there is plenty of licit and illicit trade. Nevertheless, Iran’s tactical tools are immense, since its agents can and will threaten to kill individuals if they vote the wrong way—or say the wrong thing.
America’s profile is precisely in reverse. There is precious little personal incentive for individual ministers and politicians to accede to an American demand, especially if it infuriates the Iranians. America is resource-rich in strategic incentives for the nation, but very poor in its ability to make a single person’s life better. That leads to a collective-action problem, where it is better for the Iraqi state to cooperate with the US but for individual political leaders to help Iran—and, usually, the latter outweighs the former.
In any case, the United States was absent from the latest Iraqi political drama again, leaving its Arab allies adrift. That was a loss for Washington, but even more so a loss for Iraqis and the majority who voted for change.
Dr. Andrew L. Peek was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Iraq and Iran at the State Department from 2017-2019.