by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 6, Muharram, 1444)
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament building on July 30 and have vowed to remain there until their demands are met. Scion of the well-known Sadr family of religious scholars, Muqtada has emerged as a mercurial character in Iraqi politics. This was the second time in three days that his supporters occupied the parliament building in Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” after breaching security barriers.
“The demonstrators announce a sit-in until further notice,” Sadr’s movement said in a brief statement to journalists carried by the Iraqi News Agency (INA). Security forces were unable to stem the people’s tide despite firing tear gas and water cannons at them. The health ministry said at least 100 protesters and 25 security personnel were hurt.
Appeals for calm by the Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance in parliament, and Ammar Hakim, scion of another well-known Iraqi religious family and head of the National Wisdom Movement, went unheeded. Calls for dialogue between the Coordination Framework and the Sadr movement have not made any headway either, primarily because Muqtada al Sadr has rejected the nomination of Mohammed al-Sudani for prime minister. He demands fresh elections in the country. Parliamentary elections were held on October 10, 2021 which resulted in the current political deadlock.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance had secured 73 seats in the 329-member parliament, increasing their previous total of 54 seats. While this was the largest number of seats of any political alliance, it fell far short of forming a government.
In typical Byzantine style, talks to form alliances began. Muqtada al-Sadr turned to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani and parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Sovereignty Alliance, a Sunni political bloc, securing the support of an absolute majority of 186 out of 329 MPs. This was in January 2022.
Despite securing a majority in parliament, the odd assortment of political groupings failed to agree on a candidate for prime minister. Deep distrust and back-stabbings prevented the alliance from reaching an agreement.
Muqtada’s first mistake was to join hands with Barzani, a shifty character who has not hesitated to make an unholy alliance with the zionists. Some Iraqi political parties accuse the zionists of training Kurdish militants. Barzani also sells oil to the Israelis that most Iraqis view as a clear betrayal of Iraqi interests.
The Sadrists did not support their Kurdish allies on a number of issues deepening distrust. When alliances are formed not to advance a common agenda but to keep one’s opponents out of power, chaos is bound to follow.
While the political impasse continued, on June 12, 2022, Muqtada al-Sadr suddenly announced the resignation of all 73 members of his alliance from Iraq’s parliament. He said that he wanted to break the political impasse and for other political parties to nominate a prime minister and form a government.
The Sadrists’ resignation opened the way for runner-ups of the October election to become members of parliament. At least 53 out of the 73 seats went to the Coordination Framework. This is broadly the State of Law bloc of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. They have a 122 MP plurality, which gave them a clear path to governance.
On June 23, the Iraqi parliament met. It accepted the resignations of the Sadrist bloc’s 73 MPs and opened the way for parliament to replace them with runner-ups in the October 2021 elections.
This should have ended the political crisis and the Coordination Framework should have formed a new government. Not so fast; Muqtada was not done yet. He is not only opposed to the nomination of Mohammad al-Sudani as prime minister but he also insists fresh elections should be held. His ambition is to become the president of Iraq.
While he has the street power—as is evident from his followers occupying the parliament building by breaching security barriers—he cannot gain enough seats in parliament. Muqtada is averse to forming alliances with other parties which would require compromises, hence the political impasse.
Unfortunately, Iraq is a deeply divided society, politically, socially, ethnically and religiously. With each group insisting on maximalist demands and refusing to build consensus to make the system work, the country is at an impasse. Since 2003, when Saddam Hussain’s regime was overthrown, the country has had five elections. They have not led to stability because of deep divisions.
The elections in October 2021 were originally slated to be held in 2022. Muqtada insisted they be brought forward. He led mass protest movement starting in 2019 calling for economic reforms, better public services and an effective fight against unemployment and corruption in state institutions. These were legitimate demands but given the fractured nature of Iraqi politics, no progress has been made despite early elections last October.
The Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, the political arm of Hashd al-Shabi (the popular mobilisation units or PMU) resistance coalition secured only 17 seats compared to the 48 it had held in the outgoing parliament. Former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki and his State of Law Alliance won 33 seats.
As the political impasse continues, the people of Iraq suffer. Will Muqtada al-Sadr take that into consideration in his decision-making or continue with his agitational politics that are unlikely to yield any different electoral results than in the past?