Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraq: Catastrophic Scenarios

Iraq: Catastrophic Scenarios
Iraqi children play next to a poster of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Sadr City in Baghdad on October 17, 2021, where the Sadrist movement have made remarkable progress. Led by the highly influential Sadr, the movement won 70 seats in parliament, according to preliminary electoral commission results. It has thus expanded its influence from 54 seats in the outgoing parliament, and is staking its claim as the largest bloc in the house. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Hussein Al-Zoubi

Three catastrophic scenarios are no longer ruled out in Iraq, a country that appears to be in the process of a new path.

This new reality started to form ever since the Iraqi voter turned the table on the political forces with armed militias that do not conceal their loyalty to Iran, but rather openly declare it, to the point where they were labelled as “loyalist forces”.

These forces include the Fatah Alliance, the political front for the militias of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Corps, the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, and the Al-Nujaba. In addition, the list includes the Dawa Party, which ran in the elections on the State of Law Coalition and was the most fortunate among the losers concerning the number of obtained seats.

The features of the new reality became more apparent with the alliances that began to form after approving the election results. Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Shiite Sadrist bloc, allied with the Progress Party and Al-Azm, which are the largest among the Sunni blocs. Also, The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani, joined them.

This alliance was confirmed during the election of Parliament Speaker Muhammad al-Halbousi, leader of the Progress Party, with the support of the Sadrist movement, despite the “losing Shiites” rejecting him.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s assertion also confirmed this alliance that he was proceeding with the formation of a political majority government called a “national majority government”, which the “losing Shiites” – who joined the “Coordination Framework”, led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – considered a crack in “the Shiite House”, and some of them described what happened as a “Sunni coup”.

Before the Bleak Scenarios

The losing political forces, especially the armed ones, did not believe that the Iraqi voter would punish them, despite their weapons, for 18 years of rule, during which they set Iraq back decades, as they ruled by force of arms that were religious and ideological with loyalties that crossed the borders.

But the voter was able to turn the table, which is entirely new to those armed groups. It started with questioning the elections’ integrity, which the losing forces could not prove. Their leaders’ initial reaction was statements that the election results “threaten civil peace”.

Then it was followed by a field action by closing the entrances to the Green Zone, where government headquarters and embassies are located. When that didn’t work, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is close to the Sadrist movement, became a target of an assassination attempt by drones.

At that time, fingers were pointed at the “losing” factions because they had previously carried out military drone manoeuvres, which could carry out this type of operation, as well as their demand for his dismissal on charges of his complicity with the United States President Donald Trump to kill Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The attempt was not the most significant event, despite its connotations in Iraq. Still, targeting Kadhimi meant the possibility of targeting Muqtada al-Sadr himself, which prompted the Iranian “actor” to intervene urgently. In this context, Reuters says: “According to militia officials, Iraqi politicians close to the militias, and Western diplomats, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard [Corps], rushed to Baghdad to deliver a message to the pro-Iranian militias: Accept the result”.

“During a terse meeting at the office of a veteran Iran-backed politician in Baghdad, Qaani berated the two leaders of major Iran-backed militia groups, accusing them of mismanaging the fallout from the election. The meeting was described by one of the militia officials, who was very well informed about the encounter and the two politicians closely affiliated with the militias and who were briefed on the meeting.

Qaani, accompanied by a small delegation, told both militia heads to get their supporters and militants under control”, Reuters added.

The report quoted a militia official as saying that “the Iranians were furious“, adding that an Iranian official asked: “Do you want a Shiite civil war?” According to the agency’s sources, Qaani told the groups he met to stop fueling unrest in Iraq.

The Iranians succeeded in calming the Iraqi arena. The Shiite duo, the Sadrist movement and the Coordinating Framework entered into rounds of negotiations. However, they did not lead to a consensus among them. At the same time, the political opponents, from Sunnis and Kurds, had accomplished their understandings among themselves and between themselves and the Sadrists.

Iran – which usually intervenes in assembling the “Shiite House” – remained silent and seemed busy with the Vienna negotiations. At that time, suggestions began to emerge that dissolving the armed militias run by Iran might be part of the ongoing negotiations in Vienna regarding the Iranian nuclear file.

That may have prompted those factions, according to their opponents, to escalate the situation, targeting the headquarters of the allied Sunni and Kurdish parties in Baghdad with grenades, as well as targeting the house of the representative of the Progress and Al-Azm coalition, Abdul Karim Abtan in the Saidiya neighbourhood, southwest of Baghdad, threatening him in order to make him abandon the alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Bleak Scenarios

Iraq: Catastrophic Scenarios
Supporters of the pro-Iran Hashed al-Shaabi alliance, rest in front of posters of killed protesters as well as a portrait of slain leader slain Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (2-L), outside the capital Baghdad’s Green Zone area, on October 20, 2021. Iraq’s October 10 elections reinforced the parliamentary strength of Shiite preacher Moqtada Sadr and saw a sharp decline in that of his adversaries, the pro-Iran Hashed al-Shaabi alliance, according to preliminary results. Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP

The Iraqi affairs researcher, Muayyad al-Tamimi, was frustrated during his conversation with Fanack in his vision of what is to come. Although he believes that the Iraqi’s chances are slim in overcoming the current crossroads, he does not rule out the worst scenarios: “The assassination of Muqtada al-Sadr and blaming the Sunnis for his blood, and thus the outbreak of a civil war. Then the militia’s weapons will become a necessity.”

However, he believes that advocates of uncontrolled weapons in Iraq have other means, such as targeting a Shiite shrine and holding the “Islamic State” responsible. It is ready to carry out such an order and thus blame the Sunnis and repeat the scenario of the Al-Askari Shrine bombing in Samarra in 2007, which caused a sectarian war.

The second scenario is a repetition of the Yemeni experience, whereby militias invade Iraqi areas and impose de-facto authority, similar to what the Houthi militias did in Yemen. This scenario was called for in a leaked audio recording of the leader of the Badr Corps militia, Jabbar al-Maamouri, who says: “The only solution is for Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, Qais al-Khazali and Akram al-Kaabi to wear the military uniform and establish an operations chamber, set an emergency government headed by Maliki and isolate the south, because what happened (meaning the Sunni alliance with the Shiite Sadrist movement) is a Sunni coup represented by the normalisation project (with Israel), led by Massoud Barzani (president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq) and Muhammad al-Halbousi (the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament), and Muqtada’s card is temporary”.

Maamouri calls on those he mentioned to “turn the tables before others take over security matters.

Maamouri’s call was preceded by a similar call to Sadiq al-Musawi, a businessman close to the Popular Mobilisation, in a tweet on Twitter, in which he said: “Voices in the south call for the withdrawal of the Popular Mobilisation from the rest of Iraq and use it as a force to separate the south from the rest of Iraq to stand against the coup in the parliament, which poses a threat to the country, especially the south”.

The other scenario that Tamimi fears is that the militias deployed in the northern and western regions (with a Sunni majority) of Iraq, under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State, would announce their withdrawal and leave the arena for the remaining ISIS elements, or that an extremist faction would emerge, with an ISIS attitude, to incite sectarian polarisation and rejuvenate the militias, which have been cast out more than ever before.

In this context, the losing candidate from the “Hoquq” bloc, Abbas al-Ardawi, called during a TV program to withdraw these militias from Ramadi and leave them to ISIS. Here, Tamimi comments: “I hope that they withdraw from those areas because they are not fighting ISIS, which no longer has a presence, but rather they practice sectarianism and hooliganism on the people”.

Alia Nassif, a leader in the State of Law bloc, resorts to a more direct sectarian discourse, saying: “I hold our partners from the Sunni component responsible for their contribution to creating a rift within the Shiite component (meaning the Sunni alliance with the Shiite Sadrist movement), and this rift may cause blood. And if there is blood between the Shiite duo, the fire will turn against you”.

The threat of Abu Ali al-Askari, a spokesman for the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, was no less evident than what Alia Nassif said, as he tweeted: “The intervention of the Sunni and Kurdish parties in favour of a certain party (the Sadrist bloc) from the largest component (the Shiites), will cause instability. And if they get the gains they covet, they will be temporary and will turn into a disaster for them, and everyone will lose”.

The Iraqi scene, according to Tamimi, remains open to all possibilities, perhaps in an expedited manner. Still, he believes that the only solution is a popular revolution led by Iraqis away from sectarian labels, sweeping all political forces and building a state of citizenship.

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