In Iraq’s parliamentary elections last October, the Sadrist Movement led by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as the largest bloc with 73 seats. Its closest Shia competitor, the State of Law coalition headed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, won 33. Fatah, a broad coalition that comprises several Iran-affiliated outfits operating within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), garnered a meager 17 seats. To be sure, no one could doubt that Sadr was the Shia victor by an overwhelming margin. This has thrown Iraqi politics into a spin, with Maliki and the Fatah alliance trying to play an inordinate role in forming Iraq’s putative cabinet, electing a president, and running the government.
Shia Spoiler or Protector?
Owing to ambiguities in the Iraqi constitution pertaining to who forms a government, and to a 2010 Constitutional Court definition of what constitutes the largest parliamentary bloc, Sadr’s movement is not necessarily the prima facie party that would be tasked with forming a government. The Sadrists would have to form alliances with other parties to build an absolute parliamentary majority of 165 seats (out of 329) that can nominate and give confidence to a prime minister-designate and a government. Sadr proceeded to enter into an alliance with the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Sovereignty Coalition, a broad Sunni bloc headed by Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi. Together, the three announced the establishment of the Save the Homeland coalition, to secure a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic national majority that can support the formation of a Sadrist-led new government.
Infuriated by their exclusion by Sadr, the remaining Shia parties coalesced as the Coordinating Framework (CF) whose tactics have shifted over the last six months. In the weeks after the elections, the losing Shia parties denounced the results as fraudulent and tried to have them overturned. After the formation of the CF, they claimed that they held a parliamentary majority but could not prove it. They generally pursue a sectarian rhetoric and have argued that Sadr’s proposed national majority government—dependent as it would be on the Save the Homeland tripartite coalition and excluding the CF—marginalizes the demographic majoritarian nature of Iraq’s Shia and thus denies the Shia their rightful political role. They arouse sectarian passions by sowing fears that a divided Shia front will strip the community of what they deem are its hard-earned gains.
The Coordinating Framework parties arouse sectarian passions by sowing fears that a divided Shia front will strip the community of what they deem are its hard-earned gains.
They have used this narrative to fan fears of Shia disenfranchisement, ignoring the fact that Sadr’s own Shia party is by far the largest bloc in parliament and in the Save the Homeland coalition. They have even hinted at possible civil conflict should they be excluded from power. Reaching out to smaller Sunni and Kurdish parties, they declared themselves to be the “obstructive third” and indeed managed to abort two parliamentary sessions to elect a president. However, realizing that the title could hurt them, they rebranded to the more positive sounding “guarantor third,” promoting themselves as the sole guarantors of the rights of the Shia to political dominance. (In this, they borrowed Lebanese Hezbollah’s vernacular where the party used a constitutional provision that guarantees the right of one-third of the cabinet to override the will of the majority.)
These scare tactics failed to impress Sadr or his Kurdish and Sunni allies. Unable to defeat Sadr or avoid dealing with him, the CF is attempting to contain him by repeatedly calling on him to return to the proverbial “Shia house” under a united banner and to form with them a true Shia majority. On the latter count, they are preaching to the converted. Sadr also believes in Shia political dominance and the sect’s right to rule, but he wants to be its uncontested political and temporal leader and, by extension, that of Iraq. This is precisely what the CF, including Maliki and the PMF groups, want to thwart. The PMF groups in the Coordinating Framework also fear veiled threats by Sadr to bring all their weapons under state control. He is also said to have invited some elements within the CF to join his Save the Homeland coalition and a national majority government but as junior partners, not as equals, and the invitation specifically excluded former Premier Maliki. Allegedly, a few were tempted to bolt, but the CF received orders from high authorities in Tehran to hold together and not break rank.
Competing Political Agendas
The differences between Moqtada al-Sadr and his Shia rivals in the Coordinating Framework can well be explained by the desire of both groups to seize the instruments of executive power, control the state’s resources, and determine its policies. But there is more than ambition, greed, and personal rivalry: there are also real political differences between Sadr’s proposition and that of the CF. The differences are captured by two slogans. The first is that of “national majority,” a term repeatedly used by Sadr to denote a broad coalition composed of a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic alliance (Save the Homeland) in which he has a decisive majority as befits the Shia community. Subsequently, a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic counter-alliance would form the opposition. This is by no means a new concept; in fact, it was promoted by none other than Nouri al-Maliki in 2016 and again in 2018 as the solution to the country’s dysfunctional political system. This would be a departure from the consensus governments that have governed since 2003, in which everyone participated. While it will still be based on ethno-sectarian power-sharing, it will adhere less to strict muhasasa, a division of spoils among all groups, and could chart a new, healthier path for Iraqi politics.
Sadr espouses advancing a “national majority,” a term he repeatedly uses to denote a broad coalition composed of a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic alliance in which he has a decisive majority as befits the Shia community.
To counter this, the Coordinating Framework is calling for a consensus government in which all participate. More pointedly, it fiercely promotes the “Shia house,” a term coined soon after 2003 to unite all the sect’s political groups under one umbrella and give them the decisive voice in the affairs of state. It is particularly galling and threatening to the CF that the majority of the Sunni groups have been able to unite under the aegis of Speaker Halbousi’s Sovereignty bloc, reinforcing the need for Shia solidarity. The CF holds an uncompromising sectarian view of politics in which demographic majority is identical to political majority. Naturally, this demographic majority is embodied in the Shia religious parties that comprise the CF. It should be noted, however, that Shia solidarity is also Iran’s agenda, enabling it to control the Shia political scene more easily. Intra-Shia political fractures challenge Iran’s ability to maneuver and control the Shia groups. Moqtada al-Sadr’s refusal to be drawn back into an all-inclusive Shia embrace is thus a dangerous precedent that the CF opposes.
It should be noted that Shia solidarity is also Iran’s agenda, enabling it to control the Shia political scene more easily.
On the first day of Ramadan, Muqtada al-Sadr threw down the gauntlet. While still holding firm to his position as leader of the largest Shia bloc in parliament, which enables him to form a national majority cabinet, he gave the CF 40 days (until after the Muslim Eid al-Fitr) to show that it can form a government. His challenge was clear: since the CF claims that it is the largest Shia bloc, then it should form a government without him. If it succeeds, he will go into opposition. If it doesn’t, it should concede defeat. In other words, he called the CF’s bluff. Thrown off balance by this challenge, the CF responded by claiming that it did not want to delay the political process and wanted an all-inclusive Shia alliance that included Sadr. So far, Sadr has stood firm. He has refused to meet with anyone from CF since his 40-day declaration and has reiterated his commitment to a national majority government. His allies in Save the Homeland have confirmed their support and commitment to the coalition while CF’s efforts to form a rival coalition have yet to bear fruit.
Possible Solutions to the Impasse
All political forces in Iraq are dug in. Given the current unwillingness of either side to compromise, it is difficult to predict what will happen at the end of the 40-day period. Local dynamics on several fronts, as well as regional developments, will come into play. Iraqi citizens are understandably frustrated, even angry. This is not what they expected when they called for early elections. Protests in the south may erupt again. For all his bravado, Muqtada al-Sadr knows he cannot alienate the other Shia groups; he cannot wholly antagonize Iran, which wants to see a united Shia front. At the same time, he needs to keep his eye on his Sunni and Kurdish allies, who may want Shia reconciliation but not necessarily a full-blown Shia takeover that dilutes their influence. They too have had their share of unpleasant encounters with the PMF recently. The CF is also in a dilemma; it can neither beat Sadr nor join him and has not been able to form a solid alliance with other parties. If Sadr has not broken CF’s back, he has certainly bloodied its nose.
It is highly unlikely that Moqtada al-Sadr will buckle under CF, Iranian, or other pressure, relinquish his ascendancy, and return to the Shia fold as one among equals. There are other possible scenarios for ending the deadlock:
- New elections: a new parliamentary election could be called. This will require parliament to dissolve itself, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The winning parties—the Sadrists, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Speaker Halbousi’s Taqaddum, and even some smaller parties—will oppose the proposal vehemently. Public anger at the frivolity of such a decision will be an additional deterrent.
- A change of opinion within the CF: The CF, with a nod from Iran, could agree to go into opposition, with the goal of harassing and toppling the Save the Homeland government formed. The CF, including Nouri al-Maliki, has already floated this possibility on condition that it gains leadership of parliamentary committees, but this scenario is unlikely.
- Defection from the CF: Some members of the Coordinating Framework could defect and join the Save the Homeland government under Sadr’s shadow. This also is unlikely, because the defection will permanently tarnish those defectors or groups in the eyes of other CF members and put them at the mercy of Sadr.
- Striking a bargain: The most realistic scenario is that a bargain will be struck, possibly with Iranian mediation, whereby Sadr retains his primacy over Shia groups but makes concessions to the CF in the naming of the new prime minister, offering significant ministries and senior parliamentary positions, and perhaps providing assurances on the future status of the PMF. This will be a face-saving solution both for the CF and for Sadr and will be proclaimed as a win–win situation. Such a resolution will probably entail at least some of the CF members going into opposition, along with smaller Sunni and Kurdish parties.
More than six months have passed since elections were held in October 2021. The cynicism about the political process and distrust in the established parties exhibited by Iraqi citizens during those elections will only deepen and expand if Iraqi politicians don’t soon overcome their bickering and acrimony and accept compromises that pave the way to a new government. Iraq has indeed waited long for its unresponsive political elites to commit to a practical path toward good governance, political stability, and economic development.