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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Al-Sadr’s Time Limit: Bumpy Roads on the Iraqi Horizons

Al-Sadr's Time Limit
Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric, gives a news conference in the central holy shrine city of Najaf, on November 18, 2021. Ali NAJAFI/ AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

Heat has returned to the Iraqi political scene after the 40-day time limit given by the Sadrist movement’s leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, to his opponents in the Shiite Coordination Framework to form the government has ended.

While the Framework insists on forming a consensus government that includes all Shiite forces, Sadr wants to form a national majority government through his alliance with the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

As soon as Sadr’s deadline expired, the Coordination Framework presented an initiative known in the media as “nine by nine.” The Framework insisted on forming a consensual government within the Shiite house as it is the most significant component.

The initiative encouraged the independent MPs to nominate a candidate for prime minister with competence, integrity, acceptability, impartiality and all the required qualifications, with the support of all blocs representing the Shiite component.

The additional task of the initiative is to resolve the three presidencies’ issues through understanding and communication among all of the components. Everyone should comply with the concept of majority participation and opposition monitoring, provided that all presidencies go through one path, the willing majority that everyone is assured of.

The initiative included an agreement that states rejecting any candidate from the other components does not mean clashing with the entity but instead allowing this component to present other options.

Sadr, in an indirect rejection of the Framework’s proposal, responded with another initiative in which he called on independent MPs to form a government that does not involve ministers from his movement.

The 40-day time limit was not free of movement and attempts to strike opponents politically, militarily and economically.

Opponents of the Coordination Framework accuse it of dismantling the Triple alliance led by Sadr by carrying out armed operations such as targeting the HQs of Sunni and Kurdish parties allied with Sadr. Those attacks targeted positions in Baghdad and Al-Anbar, the stronghold of Parliament Speaker allied with Sadr, Muhammad al-Halbousi.

This is also evident in the frequent military parades of factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Al-Anbar. These factions are politically affiliated with parties allied with the Coordination Framework. Their parades aim to intimidate the MPs in the Sovereignty Alliance and force them to switch their alliances, thus causing the Triple Alliance to lose seats in Parliament.

Military and Economic Pressures

Military attempts did not stop there; The bombing of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the stronghold of the KDP, with 11 missiles, which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed responsibility for, carries more than one message. In this context, Kurdish journalist Ali Nimer told Fanack: “Although the declared Iranian objective is an alleged Israeli presence in Kurdistan, it directly threatens the KDP, which is not singing to the pro-Iranian Shiite tune.” This interpretation is likely because Iran calls for a consensual government in Iraq, which the Coordination Framework led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the initially pro-Iran armed factions want.

Nimer’s view agreed with the researcher in political affairs, Dr Hudhayfa al-Mashhadani. In an interview with Fanack, Mashhadani said that the Iranian threat was evident through the recent targeting of the Korokosk Oil Refinery with six missiles. This refinery is one of the most important refineries in northwest Irbil.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council held the militias Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the 30th Brigade of the Popular Mobilisation Forces responsible for the attacks.

According to Mashhadani, the military aspect is inseparable from the economic aspect while addressing the pressure being exerted on Kurdistan, which constitutes an ideal state of stability, at least compared to the economic, societal and security disasters that befall the southern and central Iraqi cities as a result of corruption and arms chaos.

“The objective is to strike the stability of the north militarily and economically by destabilising the oil sector, which is one of the Iraqi economy pillars, especially with the surge in oil prices caused by the war in Ukraine. With this approach, the ruling KDP is being pushed towards recalculating its political alliances,” Mashhadani added.

In this context, the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq issued a ruling declaring the unconstitutionality of the Oil and Gas Law of the Kurdistan Regional Government, issued in 2007, and its abolition for violating the provisions of constitutional articles, as well as obligating the region to hand over oil production to the federal government.

The decision that preceded Sadr’s deadline dictated forcing the KRG to hand over “all petroleum production in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and other regions from which the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources extracted natural resources to the federal government represented by the Federal Ministry of Oil, and enabling it to use its constitutional powers regarding oil exploration, extraction and export.”

Observers questioned the true intentions of the Federal Court regarding the decision, mainly because of the timing of issuing the decision on the one hand and the judiciary’s submission to the influence of political forces, especially those affiliated with the Coordination Framework.

The Kurdistan region had begun to sell oil independently from the federal government. This happened after a stifling financial crisis due to the collapse of oil prices during the Islamic State’s invasion of areas in Iraq and disputes with Baghdad, which prompted the latter to stop paying salaries to the region’s employees.

Yesterday’s Opponents to the Fore

Al-Sadr's Time Limit
Iraq’s former Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi speaks during a press conference on May 4, 2012 in Istanbul. BULENT KILIC / AFP

The Sunni bloc in Iraq is the most fragile, as its political forces are not equipped with arms as the Shiite political forces. There is no autonomous region that threatens secession. There is not a single Marja’ that can match Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This arena is also exhausted on the economic and social level due to ISIS’ invasion of it and then the Shiite militias under the pretext of the Islamic State’s presence.

The accusation of terrorism has become a ready-made charge that can be attached to the people of those areas. All this made the political forces affiliated with it more vulnerable to targeting than others, intending to rip the triple alliance from its Sunni component, led by Halbousi.

The attempt this time to dismantle what has become known as the “Sunni House” through the sudden return of political figures who had been at the forefront of the political scene for years and then were excluded on charges related to terrorism.

Among the most prominent is Ali al-Sulaiman, known as the Emir of Dulaim, which is the largest tribe in Iraq and has clan extensions in the Gulf states. Sulaiman was an ally of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki until 2010. This alliance collapsed, and Sulaiman turned into an opponent accused by the Maliki government of terrorism.

However, Suleiman suddenly returned to Baghdad and said that “the judiciary did him justice.” In contrast, media sources said that Nuri al-Maliki hosted Ali al-Suleiman, which was denied by the Media Office Director of the President of the State of Law Coalition, Hisham al-Rikabi, in a tweet that read: “The information about the presence of Ali Hatem Suleiman, hosted by al-Maliki, is incorrect.”

This sudden return was not limited to Suleiman, as the Sunni leader and former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi preceded him in returning and settling his case with the judiciary, despite issuing sentences against him according to the Iraqi Terrorism Law.

The former deputy and Sunni leader, Ahmed al-Alwani, was also pardoned after being sentenced to death after being convicted of the deliberate killing of two Iraqi soldiers at the end of 2013.

At the same time, expectations indicate the possibility of the return of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who is also being pursued in terrorism-related cases. In this context, the former deputy in the Iraqi Parliament and the head of the legal committee in the Parliament (Shiite), Faiq Sheikh Ali, revealed that the sentences issued against Hashemi were fabricated and that the Iraqi government should apologise to him.

According to Mashhadani, the sudden return of these figures suggests an Iranian attempt to bring forth personalities and push them to be part of the so-called “Sunnis of Iran” so that these figures compete with the political bloc allied with Sadr led by Halbousi and Khamis al-Khanjar, which controls the Sunni arena.

Mashhadani based his opinion on the tweet of Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, in which he said after his return: “After Anbar suffered from extremism and terrorism and turned into a stage of domination, dictatorship, muzzling and corruption, we announce from Baghdad that these actions will face a reaction that the advocates of normalisation and partition agendas will not expect. Whoever stole the rights of the component, and whoever claims leadership should understand, this is the last chance.” This tweet, according to Mashhadani, is intended for Halbousi and his allies, who have a presence in the western provinces with the Sunni majority.

But the question is, where is Iraq heading after all this blockage? In his attempt to answer, Mashhadani throws the ball into the Sadrist movement’s court, as he sees that the issue depends on Sadr’s ability to face the pressures he is subjected to from Iran’s allies, the extent of his ability to contain his disintegrating allies and gain more, especially from independents, and his ability to achieve a parliamentary quorum.

Otherwise, Mashhadani says the country will face a societal explosion, a possibility that is not excluded in light of the economic hardship, hence repeating the 2017 scene, or will go through with the elections. Many of the political forces at the forefront of the scene will be outside the political game if that happens.