In Iraq’s Political Stalemate, Sadr May Be in Charge

Iraq’s political deadlock has grown more intense and complex in recent months. The stalemate that has reigned since the re-election of Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi in January began with the Iraqi Parliament’s inability to elect a president who would in turn appoint a prime minister. But the impasse has since evolved, and is currently a struggle between two governing factions—the Sadrist bloc and its rival the Coordination Framework (CF)—over both the legitimacy of the current parliament and the possibility of holding new parliamentary elections—as the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has recently proposed. This jockeying for power and the undercutting of regular parliamentary processes has, in effect, put the fate of the entire political system at risk.

Storming the Parliament

In late July, followers of the Sadrist Movement, responding to Sadr’s call to action, marched on and then occupied the Iraqi Parliament and Baghdad’s Green Zone. This was not the first time the Sadrists had stormed the building—a similar move took place in 2016. And Iraq also witnessed another instance of a political movement bypassing governmental security checkpoints and advancing on government facilities in order to send a message when, in November 2021, some of Sadr’s current political rivals and Iran-affiliated groups within the CF advanced on the Green Zone. To be sure, the rivalry between these two blocs—the Sadrists and the CF—is at the center of the stalemate afflicting Iraq’s political landscape today.

The Sadrists may be orchestrating a powerful and rebellious demonstration in preparation for assuming a role of political opposition if the CF manages to gain approval for its nomination of Sudani.

The Sadrist Movement’s actions suggested two possible motivations. First, it may be declaring its opposition to the CF’s nomination of Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani for prime minister following the Sadrist movement’s en masse resignation from parliament in June. Second—and this is the more likely of the two—the Sadrists may be orchestrating a powerful and rebellious demonstration in preparation for assuming a role of political opposition if the CF manages to gain approval for its nomination of Sudani. Supporting the second possibility is the fact that, despite the CF’s ongoing efforts to form a new government led by Sudani, Sadr has called off the sit-in in parliament (though not in the Green Zone), suggesting that the move was more a show of force than an effort to win concessions. Sadr then called for new parliamentary elections, likely as a way of regaining some of the political clout that his movement lost when its MPs resigned in June.

Calling for Revolutionary Reform

Sadr is calling for radical change to be made to Iraq’s political system, and has long advocated for reform, even before the outbreak of the Tishreen (October) protest movement in 2019, which made similar calls. His ultimate move may therefore be to combine this political discourse of reform with his presumed opposition in parliament. This rhetorical stance is a well-calculated one since the majority of Iraqis are frustrated with the government’s shortcomings and its failure to achieve economic reform by tackling unemployment, improving public services, and addressing corruption.

Sadr has also managed to combine an anti-corruption rhetoric with other key messages, including promoting national unity against sectarianism, praising the Iraqi military and calling for the state’s unilateral control of armed force, and denouncing foreign intervention. He also regularly calls attention to his father’s assassination by the Baathist regime in 1999, a clear attempt to retain his influence over the hearts and minds of longtime loyalists. Importantly, despite heading a political movement that has been heavily involved in Iraq’s post-2003 political order, Sadr does not hesitate to call out governmental corruption and failures, thereby managing to present himself as a strong opponent of the existing political system.

Intra-Group Political Competition

Although some consider the current crisis to be determined solely by an intra-Shia political rivalry, it is worth noting that there are also divisions between Sunni and Kurdish political leaders. In the current political crisis, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has sided with the Sadrists, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has sided with CF. Most politicians gathered under the Sunni coalition Sovereignty Alliance sided with the Sadrists as well—although a few later joined the CF. The two leading disputes that have been preventing the formation of a government since the October 2021 parliamentary elections are the country’s intra-Shia and intra-Kurdish political rivalries.

Both the Sadrists and the KDP are finding opportunities in the current political circumstances, including in a major decrease in the influence, popularity, and electoral performance of their longtime rivals, the CF and the PUK.

Both the Sadrists and the KDP are finding opportunities in the current political circumstances, including in a major decrease in the influence, popularity, and electoral performance of their longtime rivals, the CF and the PUK. While Sadr wants to form a “national majority” government that would allow his political party to unilaterally control the Shia share of the country’s ethnic-sectarian quota system, CF forces demand the continuation of a consensus government that ensures the participation of all traditional political forces regardless of their electoral defeats or successes. In addition, Sadr wants an overarching influence in Iraqi politics, whereby he would be able to set the rules of the game without any interference, even if it means including some—though not all—CF parties in his circle. For instance, Sadr has announced that he would welcome the CF in his national majority government, as long as his longtime foe, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is excluded. This suggestion thus contradicts Sadr’s calls for overcoming the country’s ethnic-sectarian consensus system, and reflects his eagerness to further control and influence Iraq’s political landscape.

The Lasting Impact of Tishreen

Although the current political crisis has resulted from a clash of interests and agendas between the traditional forces that have made up Iraq’s post-2003 political order, it also stems from a deteriorating system that is desperately attempting to survive public anger and the challenge that was raised by the 2019 Tishreen protests.

The Tishreen protest movement drove Iraqi politics into an unending cycle of radical changes, including the 2019 resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the May 2020 formation of a caretaker government by current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the institution of electoral reforms to diversify voters’ options, and the rise of significant popular opposition to Iranian intervention in Iraqi politics.

Finance Minister Allawi’s letter of resignation focused on rampant corruption among political elites, foreign intervention, and the seizure of comprehensive state intersections by political parties and interest groups, which led to the deterioration of the post-2003 political order’s functionality.

On August 17, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Ali Allawi handed in his 10-page-long resignation letter following al-Kadhimi’s failed attempts to keep him in the cabinet. The event signaled a major crisis within the Iraqi government, and not just between traditional political forces such as the Sadrists and the CF. Allawi’s letter focused on rampant corruption among political elites, foreign intervention, and the seizure of comprehensive state intersections by political parties and interest groups, which led to the deterioration of the post-2003 political order’s functionality. Perhaps not coincidently, Sadr told his supporters to postpone protests that were scheduled for August 20, which led to speculation that Allawi may be a potential candidate for prime minister in a future government. However, this conjecture was short-lived since on August 21 Sadr’s spokesperson Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi tweeted that Allawi was “corrupt” and that he should not be given another chance to govern.

Regardless of the intention behind Allawi’s resignation, his letter denouncing the entire functionality and legitimacy of Iraq’s current political system is yet another reflection of the Tishreen movement’s calls to reinvent the entire system, rather than merely amending a few laws in the shadow of influence of the same old political forces. Allawi’s letter is an acknowledgement from within the core of the sectarian system of its very inability to survive, both in terms of political institutions and linked interest groups.

Regional and International Concerns

Meanwhile, Iran’s stance regarding the current political stalemate is clear. Unofficially, Iran wants to maintain influence over domestic Iraqi politics through its proxy parties and militias. But officially, it claims to support a unified Shia bloc in alignment with Sunni and Kurdish partners. However, it is worth noting that Iran’s involvement in the current political crisis is not as prominent as it has been in similar situations in the past. One potential reason for this change could be the absence of a figure as influential as the late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, who enjoyed a strong network of influence and relations across a wide spectrum of Iraqi political and religious leaders, and who managed to effectively pursue Tehran’s interests in Iraq. Following Soleimani’s assassination by US drone strike in January 2020, a substantial gap has formed as regards Iranian influence in Iraq, a gap that his successor, Esmail Qaani, does not seem able to fill.

It will be more challenging for political parties in Iraq to maintain their affiliation with Tehran’s interests following the major increase in rhetoric against Iranian intervention following the start of the Tishreen protest movement. Perhaps the most important reason for Iran’s diminished role in Iraq, however, is the fact that Tehran’s current focus is on talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which according to some media sources is potentially close to reaching an agreement.

Meanwhile, partners from across the Arab world, including Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, are most likely keen on seeing a government led by current caretaker Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, who has improved relations with other Arab states through trade and security cooperation. And al-Kadhimi for a while did represent the possibility of a potential future government supported by Sadr. However, it is unclear where that relationship now stands.

The West’s various approaches to Iraq have also changed since al-Kadhimi took office in May 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, is arguably in favor of retaining al-Kadhimi as prime minister, and in support of whatever roadmap he represents, which was made clear by Macron’s display of warm relations during his August 2021 visit to Iraq to join the Baghdad Conference, part of an arguably long-term attempt to take advantage of declining US influence and to compete with a growing Chinese presence in the region.

Despite Sadr’s history of anti-Americanism, he is surprisingly being portrayed by western media outlets as the United States’ “best hope” to counter Iranian influence and to enact change in Iraq. If interests continue to align, Sadr may end up being America’s next ally in the country. Such a development would not be surprising. After all, during the early stages of the US invasion Sadr was a vocal opponent of the Iraqi Shia religious establishment led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, although he now appears to be reconsidering his position, having recently announced that he would visit al-Sistani during the celebration of Ashura. The wide spectrum of positions Sadr has espoused over the years thus opens the floor for speculation about possible partnerships and alliances that may have not been predicted in the past.

Sadr is Central

Although Iraq’s political stalemate involves various political parties, it is mainly an intra-Shia elitist political rivalry. And as such, the course of events in Iraq are heavily reliant on whatever moves Muqtada al-Sadr may have in mind. As unsustainable and unrealistic as this claim may sound, it is indeed a reality, one that is shaped by the powerful support that Sadr’s base provides, support that derives from his family’s religious influence and from his image as someone who both fought the American occupation and later became a representative of Iraq’s reform revolution.

The clock is ticking on the survival of Iraq’s sectarian political system and Sadr is aiming to exploit current public anger and frustration by ensuring that he holds influence—or at least a continued presence—in some sort of transitionary period, the details of which are still unclear. In short, Sadr wants something beyond a parliamentary majority, government formation, or control over the nomination of prime minister. He wants to control Iraqi politics, which is why he seeks to exploit his role as both a cleric and political leader. His supporters’ new sit-in outside of the Supreme Judicial Council and the Federal Supreme Court in Baghdad and their demand that the judiciary dissolve the country’s parliament are clear indications that he is headed in that direction. Sadr knows that Iraq’s political system is facing its final days, and he wants to be a participant in its demolition so that he can buy his way into the new era.