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Iraq: An Existential Struggle Nearing its Final Chapter

Iraq: An Existential Struggle
Supporters of Moqtada Sadr take part in the weekly Friday prayers outside the parliament building in the Green Zone of the capital Baghdad, as they continue to protest against the nomination of a rival Shiite faction for the position of prime minister, on August 19, 2022. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Hussein Ali Al Zoubi

“The Shiite-Shiite tension has reached its climax. A civil war may erupt in Iraq as a result of any individual violent incidents,” former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned recently. This statement coincided with reports of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi regarding the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s entry into the country as part of a plot to assassinate Muqtada al-Sadr.

The intense polarisation within the Shiite house, the country’s de facto ruler, reached its penultimate chapter. The last chapter seems to be a military confrontation between the two main poles; the Sadrist movement and the Coordination Framework. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement, is capable of mobilising the most significant number of Shiites. On the other hand, the Coordination Framework includes the main Shiite political forces. The most prominent of these forces are the State of Law Coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki; the Fatah Alliance, the political front of the Badr Organization militia; and the al-Sadiqon bloc, the political component of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia. The Framework includes political forces and other armed factions, most notably the Hezbollah Brigades. Most Framework forces, especially the armed ones, do not hide their loyalty to Iran. Instead, some openly say they are legitimately mandated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the current Wali al-Faqih.

After al-Sadr won the parliamentary elections, the unprecedented dispute between the two sides began to escalate when he announced his intention to form a majority government through an alliance with the Kurdish Sunni forces. Al-Sadr refused to ally with the Shiite forces that have ruled the country since 2003, as they failed to run the country, broadened corruption, and made Iraq an Iranian subordinate. Paradoxically, the Sadrist movement was an active part of these consensus governments based on sectarian quotas, something al-Sadr did not deny. He did, however, see an alliance outside sectarian quotas as a start to reforming the country — a reform that ends the consensus government tradition in which all forces participate, and therefore deprives the elections of their actual value and abolishes the opposition principle, just as it disrupts the concept of accountability.

The lack of accountability is one of the leading causes of the crisis, as al-Sadr pledged to hold those responsible for corruption, including those in his movement, accountable. This, too, meant holding the Framework’s leaders accountable since they were ruling the country. Additionally, al-Sadr pledged to tackle sensitive issues, including holding to account those responsible for the fall of three Iraqi provinces – including Mosul – to ISIS. This issue is directly related to Nouri al-Maliki, who was prime minister and commander-in-chief of the army at that time.

Al-Sadr also called for regulating arms and integrating the factions into the army, removing tools of power and the fait accompli serving only specific political segments. While the factions execute foreign missions under Iranian supervision, they consider themselves part of the ‘axis of resistance,’ which, for example, fought alongside the Syrian regime, Tehran’s ally. Thus, the factions’ loss of their weapons equals Iran’s loss of its military arm in Iraq, a bridge to the rest of the region. This makes the conflict between the two parties an existential conflict, a conflict revealed by leaks attributed to Nouri al-Maliki, in which he refers to his relationship with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the possibility of overthrowing al-Sadr and militias staging a military coup.

In contrast to the Sadrist movement’s approach, Coordination Framework leaders considered the movement, as well as the Sunnis and the Kurds, accomplices in the failure that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime. To polarise the street, the Framework raised the slogan “Protecting the largest component; the Shiite component,” especially after al-Sadr formed the Tripartite Alliance comprising the Sadrist movement, the Sovereignty Alliance (Sunni), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. However, this attempt did not succeed, as the street seemed to welcome al-Sadr’s approach. According to al-Sadr’s accusations, the Framework targeted areas in Kurdistan and the Sunni-majority Anbar Governorate with missiles, in addition to the Headquarters of the Kurdish party and the Sovereignty Alliance in Baghdad, in an attempt to dismantle the Tripartite Alliance.

The Framework, which failed to mobilise the street and dismantle the coalition, secured a blocking third in Parliament. This one-third prevented the Tripartite Alliance from forming a government. It needed a two-thirds parliamentary majority to constitute a quorum for the election of a president to assign government formation to the largest bloc. This situation followed a legal controversy regarding the order of the procedure, settled by the Federal Supreme Court, which was accused of favouring the Framework.

Al-Sadr, who won the elections and gained 74 seats, found himself unable to form a government. His electoral victory lost its effect, which prompted him to request his bloc’s members to withdraw from Parliament and give the Framework a deadline of 40 days to form a government; after the members of Parliament who withdrew were replaced by others from the Framework forces.

The Framework was forced to return to yesterday’s enemies, the Kurds and the Sunnis, to form a government. However, they maintained their alliance with al-Sadr and requested the Framework reach an understanding with him first. After the deadline’s expiration, Sadr’s supporters took to the street and took control of Parliament, demanding its dissolution and early parliamentary elections. The Framework did not reject al-Sadr’s proposal to dissolve Parliament. It did, however, stipulate the convening of Parliament, the formation of a government, the amendment of the electoral law and the change of the Electoral Commission, which al-Sadr rejected. Subsequently, a war of demonstrations between the two parties and a show of force broke out in the street, giving rise to fears of friction that might ignite into war. Starting with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, calls for dialogue emerged, to which the political parties, however, did not respond.

Iraq: An Existential Struggle
Supporters of Iraq’s Coordination Framework gather during a sit-in on a bridge leading to the capital Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone on August 15, 2022. Opponents of populist Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr launched their own Baghdad sit-in, nearly two weeks after Sadr supporters stormed parliament and began an open-ended protest first inside, then outside the legislature. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

The escalating propaganda in the two parties’ media outlets and strong-worded tweets dominated the scene and increased fears of generating unimaginable consequences, especially after al-Sadr called for demonstrations in all of Iraq on Saturday, 20 August 2022. On the other hand, the Framework began mobilising its supporters to protest, prompting al-Sadr to postpone the demonstration until further notice. Al-Sadr said, “If you are betting on civil war, then I am betting on preserving civil peace. Iraqi blood is precious, more precious than anything else. I announce the postponement of Saturday’s demonstration until further notice to thwart your evil plans so that your corruption will not be fed with the blood of Iraqis and the leaders of corruption do not continue wreaking havoc on earth.”

At the time, observers saw this postponement as a pacifying opportunity. It also granted Hadi al-Amiri, one of the leaders of the Coordination Framework, more time to complete his tours of the Kurdistan region to hold talks with Masoud Barzani, an ally of al-Sadr, in hopes of reaching a solution.

Hours after al-Sadr announced the postponement, the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades issued an escalating statement threatening to take to the street. The statement declared: “For public interest, and so that matters do not slip into what the enemy and its agents want, and to bury the sedition that may ravage Iraq and its people, for the fatwas of our reverent scholars that confirmed and necessitated cutting off the roads against the oppressors, whatever they claim, and to which group they belong, we will take decisions aimed at protecting societal peace, following the mandate to repel evil away from our dear people.”

Ironically, the statement affirmed “respect for the judicial authority, invoking the constitution and presenting the principle of reconciliation and peaceful solutions, as an alternative to escalation with threats.”

In this context, a researcher in Iraqi political affairs, Yahya al-Kubaisi, said in an interview: “We are facing two paths that can only lead to a collision. For this, a political agreement is necessary, as the constitution can no longer offer a solution. We cannot rely on force to find a solution because there is a relative parity arms-wise instead of street-wise. This is where the danger lies. Therefore, it is necessary to search for another vision outside the constitutional framework and a coup against the political system using the street.”

Al-Kubaisi concludes that the solution “lies in a political agreement that includes a complete package of measures that will eventually lead to the dissolution of Parliament and holding early elections.” Al-Kubaisi added: “The constitution has no meaning in Iraq. Deals and transactions rule. When the Framework reaches a successful deal, the constitution will be forgotten. It is naive for any party to exercise power over another with the constitution or the masses because only arms will decide the matter.”

However, political researcher Abdel Wahid al-Mayahi, in his interview with Fanack, rules out a military confrontation between the two parties, believing that Iran will not allow al-Sadr to complete his project. Also, Tehran will not allow al-Sadr to slip into a military confrontation. If this happens, he will lose, even if Tehran is forced to assassinate him, according to al-Mayahi.

“Iran will not accept, as long as it can, for Iraq to even be neutral. It wants it as a subordinate, and so far, it has the tools to achieve this subordination. How could we otherwise interpret statements by Qais Khazali, one of the Framework’s leaders and the Asa’ib militia’s leader, when the Framework announced nominating Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani to head the government?” al-Mayahi told Fanack. In this context, Khazali said: “The brothers in the Islamic Republic are satisfied with Mr Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani.”

Al-Mayahi believes that “if Iran fails to settle matters according to its interests in Iraq, the international forces will seek to prevent the country from slipping into chaos, at least at this stage. Since Iraq is a major source of oil, chaos means that the global market will be affected, as it already is by the war in Ukraine. The militias that previously threatened the Gulf states with drones could turn the threats into actions that would also affect energy sources, especially gas.”

Al-Mayahi does not rule out that al-Sadr’s announcement to postpone the demonstrations was a response to Iranian and international pressures. He also does not rule out that the Coordination Framework’s sudden acceptance of al-Kadhimi’s invitation to dialogue is for the same reason. However, the Sadrist movement has, until now, not made any statement in this regard.

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