Iraq’s Political Crisis: A Country Adrift in Chaos

Developments in Iraq over the last two months have delivered disturbing indicators of political chaos as the country’s elites continue to fail to reach acceptable compromises on a number of serious issues. An escalating confrontation between the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, and a rival Shia coalition, the Coordination Framework (CF), has dragged Iraq into turmoil that is threatening to turn into a full intra-Shia war that would undermine the country’s stability and security, as well as the welfare of its long-suffering people.

How We Got Here

One can only speculate on Sadr’s intentions when, on June 12, he ordered his movement’s 73 lawmakers to resign from parliament. The MPs themselves appear to have been surprised by the move, and to have had little choice but to abide by his command. Whatever Sadr’s intentions, he probably did not expect their resignation to be so quickly accepted by Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi; nor did he anticipate the CF’s rapid work in requesting that parliament swear in replacement MPs in order to render the resignations irreversible. When, nearly a year ago, Sadr announced his movement’s withdrawal from the country’s October 2021 parliamentary elections, friend and foe alike pleaded with him to reconsider. He did eventually reverse his decision to boycott the elections, and ended up beating his rivals at the ballot box by a large margin. But when Sadr demanded the resignation of his party’s MPs this June, even his partners, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunni coalition, Sovereignty Alliance, hesitated to dissuade him from his decision, perhaps because they were taken aback by such a sudden move.

In announcing this action, Sadr insisted on a “national majority” government as the only path to reforming a political system that is currently based in a sectarian system of consociationalism. The CF retorted that such a government would exclude major Shia forces, including the Islamic Dawa Party and the political wings of armed militia groups, would render Iraq’s Shia parties essentially a junior partner to the country’s Sunnis and Kurds, and would threaten both Shia interests and the gains they have made since 2003. While Sadr’s position certainly sounded nationalist when compared to the CF’s sectarian arguments, behind all the rhetoric was a fight about power, privileges, and control over resources, not to mention personal animosities, especially a long-standing one between Sadr and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads the country’s State of Law Coalition.

While Sadr’s position certainly sounded nationalist when compared to the CF’s sectarian arguments, behind all the rhetoric was a fight about power, privileges, and control over resources, not to mention personal animosities.

One reason behind Sadr’s move to have his party’s MPs resign may be the fact that despite his movement’s great success in the elections of October 2021, Sadr’s attempt to form a majority government with the KDP and the Sovereignty Alliance was checkmated by a constitutional sleight of hand. In response to a question submitted by the CF, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court issued an opinion requiring a parliamentary quorum of two thirds in order to proceed with the nomination of a president and, subsequently, a prime minister. This ruling provided the CF with a key tool to frustrate Sadr’s efforts, which it twice did by convincing more than one third of the country’s MPs to boycott parliamentary sessions, thereby preventing the formation of a quorum that would have allowed a vote to proceed. In essence, the CF shut down the political process, which angered Sadr, frustrated his allies, and caused the country as a whole great distress.

Once Sadr had withdrawn his MPs, parliament—again at the request of the CF—moved quickly to swear in new ones, which gave the CF a total of 130 seats. Sadr’s political archnemesis Nouri al-Maliki was one of the biggest winners in this shake-up, which saw his coalition’s share of seats rise from 33 to 37, effectively confirming al-Maliki’s leadership role in the CF. Given the consequences of his withdrawal, Sadr may have regretted his decision in the end. Although initially he counseled his followers to be patient, posts on unofficial Sadr-related media outlets and tweets by his official spokesperson, Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi, made clear that Sadr had no intention of slipping into the political twilight. But the CF decided to twist the knife that Sadr had essentially plunged into his own chest. After some haggling, the CF nominated as prime minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani, a former Islamic Dawa Party stalwart, former State of Law MP, and a pillar of the country’s political establishment who boasts multiple ministerial posts on his curriculum vitae.

Other factors further complicated the aftermath of Sadr’s move. An acrimonious and prolonged standoff between Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), over the nomination of a president allowed the country’s two Shia camps to exploit this Kurdish division to their advantage. While Sadr gained the KDP’s backing by in return supporting their presidential nominee, Rêber Ahmed, the CF secured the support of the PUK by standing behind the nomination of incumbent president, Barham Salih. In truth, only the Sunnis remained a reasonably cohesive force during this period under the leadership of Mohammed al-Halbousi.

The Coordination Framework is by no means a coherent singular entity, and bickering among its multiple factions, all of which were chafing against the heavy-handedness of al-Maliki, produced confusing strategies.

The CF, meanwhile, is by no means a coherent singular entity, and bickering among its multiple factions, all of which were chafing against the heavy-handedness of al-Maliki, produced confusing strategies. Foolishly, instead of working to win the KDP and al-Halbousi to their side, the CF tried to intimidate them into abeyance by welcoming a Federal Supreme Court ruling annulling the legality of Kurdish contracts with oil companies and by accusing the KDP of dealing with Israel. They also accused al-Halbousi of being subservient to the UAE and other Gulf states and tried to whip up Sunni opposition in his home base of Anbar Province. None of these threats ended up achieving the CF’s goals, however, as the KDP and the Sovereignty Alliance maintained their relationship with Sadr. And although Iran stayed behind the scenes, the commander of the country’s Quds Force military unit, Esmail Qaani, was often in Baghdad at the time, demonstrating the Islamic Republic’s confidence that wherever the chips may fall, Iran will still have a major say in Iraq’s affairs as long as its Shia religious parties, under various guises and names, control the state.

Revolution or the Establishment

Sadr was undoubtedly alarmed by a political situation that was rapidly shifting in favor of the CF, as well as by the—in his view—dangerous possibility of a government that did not include any members of his movement. For a leader who had come so close to realizing his ambition of becoming the supreme political arbiter of Iraq, a show of power was needed. But this power would not come from parliament, but rather from the hordes of fervent followers who have always been Sadr’s greatest source of strength. Sadr, a firebrand cleric and a successful populist, used his words to inspire and mobilize angry masses of the poor, the jobless, and the dispossessed. On Saturday, July 30 large crowds first stormed the Green Zone, the inner sanctum of Iraqi politics and political institutions, before rushing into the parliament. Scenes from inside the parliament were festive and jubilant. For Sadr and his impassioned followers, this was a revolution against the status quo, one that held the promise of eradicating corruption and rooting out those responsible, of upholding social justice, of governance with righteousness, and of a bright future for the youth. The crowd’s chants proclaimed Sadr the leader of Iraq.

In a stirring address on Sunday, July 31, Sadr called the protests “a peaceful, spontaneous revolution that liberated the Green Zone” and proclaimed the event a “golden opportunity for all who have been burned by the flames of oppression, terrorism, corruption, occupation, and allegiance to foreigners.”[1] He went on to call it a “great opportunity for radical change in the political system, the constitution, and elections.” He then closed by exhorting Iraqis to support the revolutionary reformists “not under my banner or leadership but under the banner of Iraq and the will of its people.” Such powerful language only increased his base’s devotion, driving even more protesters to join the mob already occupying the parliament. Sadr’s call even gained support beyond just his followers, as many disaffected Iraqis—and especially Shia—approved of his call for reform, if not of his tactics. The fact that Sadr and his lieutenants have been part of the political system for the past 19 years and have both participated in parliament and headed key ministries did not matter to his devotees. In the eyes of those who stormed the parliament, the movement’s leaders are part of the revolution.

The fact that Sadr and his lieutenants have been part of the political system for the past 19 years and have both participated in parliament and headed key ministries did not matter to his devotees.

In contrast, the CF represents the political establishment. The CF released a statement, saying, “We stand with the people in defending the rights of citizens and the legitimacy of the state, the political process, and the constitution.”[2] In effect, the CF sought to maintain a status quo that had already lost credibility with a vast majority of the population, particularly with the Shia constituency that it was seeking to reach. And a counter-protest organized by the CF on August 1 failed to gain momentum and soon fizzled out.

But Sadr’s radical demands also threatened to alienate his allies among the nation’s Sunnis and Kurds, who are just as invested in the existing political system as is the CF. For these groups, reform is a good thing, but revolution is not. The mounting threat of chaos, systemic breakdown, and intra-Shia armed conflict was all too real. The President of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, appealed for calm and national dialogue, while President Barham Salih, Speaker al-Halbousi, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi also called for de-escalation and dialogue. Within days, even leaders within the CF such as Ammar al-Hakim and Hadi al-Amiri were also calling for restraint and dialogue. However, on August 3 Sadr doubled down, urging his supporters to continue occupying the parliament, rejecting calls for dialogue, and insisting that the government “dissolve parliament and hold early elections.”

Paths to a Resolution

Despite Sadr’s entrenched stance, there have been glimmers of de-escalation. Sadrist supporters have vacated the parliament but remain in the Green Zone. Calls for dialogue from the CF have increased, and pressure to de-escalate has also come from the international community. Iran especially has a strong interest in coordinating Shia reconciliation in Iraq. Meanwhile, the CF has appointed Hadi al-Amiri, the CF leader closest to Sadr, as their envoy to try to negotiate. And although Sadr has so far rejected talks, there is a strong possibility that he will meet with al-Amiri at his base in al-Hannana Mosque in the coming days.

While Sadr has certainly made a splash with his move to have his supporters occupy the parliament, his vision for reform lacks specificity.

At play in all this mayhem are a mix of clashing personal ambitions as well as radically different visions for the future of Iraq’s political system. One view espoused by the members of the CF and by most of the country’s established political parties is that the current system of consensus, dealmaking, and apportioning benefits has served them well and should therefore continue, though perhaps with slight modifications. The other view, which Sadr—who has also benefitted from the current system but has larger ambitions—embraces, is that political change in Iraq must be radical and swift, and must, if need be, break everything that stands in its path. A majority government—with Sadr himself in the lead—was one tool that he tried to use to change the system. But this attempt was thwarted by what were, in Sadr’s view, illegitimate means, leading him to believe that the wholesale trashing of the system was the only alternative. While Sadr has certainly made a splash with his move to have his supporters occupy the parliament, his vision for reform lacks specificity. How should the electoral system change to better ensure fair representation? What amendments to the constitution would lead to better governance? How, with corruption endemic, can corrupt politicians be expelled from the government? What should be done with armed groups that are outside the control of the state, especially when Sadr himself controls a sizable militia? Sadr has so far failed to offer answers to these and other questions.

Possible Scenarios

Following these momentous events in Iraqi political history, it is unclear what the future will hold. An armed confrontation is still possible; but there are also signs that tentative talks may, by slow degrees, develop into a broader dialogue. If a dialogue is indeed held, several issues are important to keep in mind. Negotiations will undoubtedly be both prolonged and difficult. Meanwhile, new elections would require amendments to the country’s electoral law and a revision of Federal Supreme Court rulings affecting previous interpretations of constitutional articles. Elections would also require months of preparation—the October 2021 elections, for example, required 19 months to coordinate. Keeping these considerations in mind, it is possible to imagine a number of potential scenarios for how things will develop:

First, the current parliament and caretaker government would continue to govern while parties negotiate a new political pact, followed by new elections. This would be a prolonged process, since elections would not be possible until late 2023 at best. However, the CF’s current position is that it will not hold talks unless Prime Minister al-Kadhimi is removed from office. In addition, Sadr would almost certainly not be willing to allow the parliament to conduct business for more than a year in the absence of his MPs. These obstacles would therefore be difficult to overcome.

Second, the current parliament would stay in place while talks proceed, but a new consensus prime minister would be nominated—with Sadr’s approval—to head a transitional government charged with organizing elections. Sadr, however, has insisted that parliament be dissolved before he agrees to hold talks, making this possibility unlikely.

Third, parliament would be immediately dissolved and a new transitional government appointed to conduct essential state business and prepare for elections. This is Sadr’s preferred option, but it would mean that Iraq would be left without a parliament to legislate a new electoral law, to allocate funds for elections, or to confirm members of the country’s High Electoral Commission. Moreover, it is not at all likely that the CF and other parties would agree to dissolve parliament and thereby lose their recent political gains.

Sadr’s preferred option is dissolving parliament and appointing a transitional government to conduct essential state business and prepare for elections. This is unlikely to be accepted by the rival Coordination Framework.

Fourth, an unlikely but not impossible scenario would involve the restoration of Sadrist MPs to their parliamentary seats via some creative ruling from the Federal Supreme Court. A transitional government could then be appointed to conduct essential business and prepare for elections.

Finally, negotiations may break down altogether due to a lack of consensus, political will, or trust. This would be the worst possible outcome to the predicament in which Iraq now finds itself, as it would raise the likelihood of armed conflict and offer no real path out of the current crisis.

Given the currently stormy environment, other outcomes may indeed emerge. But for now nothing is certain except that the path ahead will be difficult and dangerous. The best and most plausible outcome at this point is that the country will remain adrift for an extended period. The worst, however, is that Iraq will find itself headed toward increased instability and unquantifiable dangers.


[1] Source is in Arabic.

[2] Source is in Arabic.