19.09.2022 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iraq Slides Ever Closer to Chaos and the Abyss


Ayed al-Hilali, one of the leaders of the Coordination Framework Alliance (CFA), in an interview with Shafak News, said his supporters were determined to form a new government in Iraq. He categorically rejected Imam Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for the current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Qazimi and his cabinet to retain the authority to oversee new parliamentary elections. “The al-Qazimi government has no authority and cannot oversee the holding of early elections,” the politician pointed out. According to him, “the decision to change Mustafa al-Qazimi’s cabinet has already been made and will not be withdrawn.”

If this Alliance manages to form a new government in a country where it has been absent for about 11 months, it will be a strong blow to al-Sadr and his policies seeking absolute power. Al-Sadr is known for his ambition to become the “father” of Iraq and its consummate leader. He has worked hard for 18 years to secure a clear parliamentary majority, which he did in the last election last November. Since then, however, he has made a series of decisions that have proved to be strategic blunders and have not brought him success. His over-ambitious plans are perceived by all his competitors as a strategic threat and a desire to become another dictator. He makes no secret of his intentions to use popular support to seize legislative, executive and then judicial power. In other words, to become Iraq’s supreme authority, to fundamentally “shake up” the country’s system of government and eliminate his historical rivals. To achieve these goals, the Imam entered into a temporary alliance with those Sunni and Kurdish parties that won a majority of seats in the National Assembly (parliament). But despite all his great efforts, he has reached an impasse in his politics, faced with the prospect of either making a temporary compromise with his rivals or retreating into permanent opposition.

In any case, it can be argued that, despite achieving much until recently, al-Sadr had failed to completely crush the already established system of power and also underestimated the power of the external factors. At this stage, he decided to make a new rather strong and unexpected move, which put his rivals into a kind of stupor.   On August 29, 2022, al-Sadr announced his “retirement” from politics, but did not call on his followers to give up their occupation of the parliamentary area in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone. In fact, this statement was taken by his supporters as a signal for more escalation, which was immediately followed by a violent invasion of government agencies and palaces inside the Green Zone. Protesters even attempted to walk across a suspension bridge into the Al-Jadriya area, a stronghold of their opponents. But the poorly trained fighters of the Saraya al-Salam military organization were no match for the well-trained and armed Fasa’il units loyal to the Coordination Framework Alliance and established there.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr was under intense pressure, both directly and indirectly, from other Shiite factors, including from centers of power in Najaf, Qom, Tehran and beyond. This culminated in a seemingly emotional and impulsive decision by the Imam to abandon confrontation and peaceful protests altogether. And he was helped in this by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who quietly stopped the violence, cleared Baghdad’s Green Zone and the rest of Iraq’s cities of conflicting militias. The Rudaf website, citing a knowledgeable source, reveals the background to this: “Al-Sistani’s office was closely following what was happening and studying which practical steps were most appropriate to take. The situation was very sensitive. Al-Sistani does not accept the shedding of Iraqi blood. At the same time, he does not want to be involved in the political conflict between the parties because he refuses to support one party over the other.” That is why al-Sistani sent a verbal message without written permission through his channels and through some people in his trusted inner circle, who then passed it on to Muqtada al-Sadr, indicating that what is happening now in Iraq – in terms of fighting – could lead to a devastating civil war that is damaging to the people and the state. A clear and precise end must therefore be put to what has happened. The website notes that the message was clear, and al-Sadr knew he “had to do something and quickly in order to implement the message. Otherwise, he would endanger himself and lose his position. That is why he ordered his supporters during his press conference to withdraw from the Green Zone.”

The religious authorities in Najaf know that al-Sadr has armed militias and a wide audience that supports him without question or objection. That is why they are cautious in their dealings with him. However, this does not mean that they obey him or that they cannot resist him. They have a legal legitimacy that al-Sadr does not have, as he is not a mujtahid but inherited his social and political leadership from his father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr.

For his part, al-Sadr realized that any attempt to maneuver within al-Sistani’s message could push the religious authority, followed by most Shiites around the world, into declaring a clear position that could become very damaging to al-Sadr and directly affect his political leadership and popularity. In these circumstances, the quite intelligent al-Sadr chose to “bow to the storm” and make the following decision: “I am now criticizing the Sadrist movement’s revolution because it deviated from its peacefulness and chose violence.” He also noted that “shedding the blood of the Iraqi people is forbidden.  If the movement does not withdraw even from the sit-in in front of parliament within an hour, I will disavow it.” This statement by al-Sadr, which may have worried parts of his party and was seen by some as a retreat from his intransigent stance against the hostile forces, was, experts believe, a simple reshuffle, another maneuver and an attempt to win favor with al-Sistani office and show that he is listening to the orders of the religious authorities of Najaf.

In all likelihood, al-Sadr likely underestimated both the complexity of the Iraqi political system and the overwhelming hegemony of the “Shiite universe” in Iraqi politics, which ultimately prevented him from achieving his ultimate goal, namely dominating power in Iraq. He also overestimated both his own abilities and those of his followers in an attempt to act riskily and thereby try to outmaneuver Iran and Iraqi opponents. Consequently, his choice of the path so far has proved not only difficult, but also misguided and has not yet won him an ultimate victory. Al-Sadr’s opponents, on the other hand, underestimated his ability to think outside the box and act outside the state system to bring the country to its knees. The Coordination Framework Alliance has managed to stay united and stonewall the Sadrists both inside and outside parliament, yet it has not offered any acceptable alternative of its own. Members of the Alliance celebrated prematurely after the Sadrists walked out of parliament, took their time and failed to hasten the formation of a new government. They have failed to win over either the Kurds or the Sunnis to their side, or to gain more sympathy among the Shiites. Now they seem to have become overconfident again after the Sadrists left Baghdad’s Green Zone. They refused to recognize al-Sadr’s initiative to end the violence and began to provoke him in every way, considering him, as they say in Iraq, a “dead donkey.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi state institutions have, at best, become incompetent observers and, at worst, are accused of complacency or even of escalating the conflict. Iraqi non-Shiite actors and the international community have also become little more than concerned and frustrated observers who do not know how to constructively engage all parties in resolving the power crisis. After all, where Shiite leaders cannot lead Iraqis, there is a limit to what other parties and leaders can do, especially world powers and the UN, and international partners other than Iran and the Shiite religious centers located there.

If one were to attempt and predict the country’s future, it would look bleak, for the stubbornness of its rivals could lead Iraq to irreversible failure. Shiites may tolerate a limited degree of violence, but a threshold has already been reached beyond which the country could simply collapse. However, there are ways to avoid all this. In the short term, the parties involved have a narrow window of opportunity to develop a plan for a long-term solution. It can be assumed that in the period leading up to the pilgrimage of the holy holiday of Arba’een (September 16), politicians and the military are forced to rest and reflect, as no significant acts of violence are expected. Judging by the exchange of strongly worded statements, the same actors could resume their activities and in more dramatic forms after Arba’een, pushing Iraq into the abyss.

Sooner or later, the Sadrists will realize that seizing all power is not a viable option, and the extra-constitutional path to domination in Iraq will not pay off. Their only way back to legitimacy is to allow parliament to meet, pass a law on new elections and agree to self-dissolution. Conversely, the Coordination Framework Alliance must also recognize that it cannot get away with ignoring the interests of other existing parties, let alone eliminating the opposition as a way to solve the severe crisis. In other words, this is why mutual compromise and the resolution of difficult issues at the negotiating table are necessary.

Non-Shiite (Kurdish, Sunni, Yazidi) parties and international stakeholders are best advised to press the two rivals to agree on a compromise. Kurds and Sunnis in particular should not rush to join parliament to form a government, which so far has been at the expense of the Sadrists. Instead, they should make their participation contingent on achieving lasting peace and stabilizing Iraq. The world powers and the UN should continue to engage constructively with all parties, focusing on Iraq’s stability, legitimacy and state functionality. This is especially true of the United States, which has unreasonably invaded Iraq, destroyed the state structure, sowed discord and disputes between tribal communities, and created hitherto unprecedented hatred between Shiites and Sunnis. Now Washington, which talks a lot about friendly relations with Baghdad, should right the wrongs of its previous Iraqi policy and pursue a course of helping to strengthen state authority and state structures.

Iran and Iran-based Shiite power center must realize that recent events in Iraq have increased anti-Iranian sentiment amongst Shiites, and further violence could eventually alienate them from Iran. Tehran, which possesses many factors of influence on Iraqi parties and their leaders, can and should play a constructive role in persuading all sides to reach a compromise. Although the Iranian authorities are very partial to the Iraqi conflict, supporting the Coordination Framework Alliance and a number of other parties friendly to them, they are in a good position to force a compromise from their Iraqi allies. It is common knowledge that the CFA is clearly divided into hawks and moderates, with no single leader. While the CFA agrees that al-Sadr should be stopped, collectively the alliance members have failed to agree on the best way forward.

Whether the Shiite and other parties and their leaders can show political intelligence or conventional worldly wisdom and try to keep Iraq from falling into the political abyss is the mother of all questions at the moment. And how Iraqis deal with this difficult situation will determine the future of the state itself and, most importantly, the future of the younger generation, which has been entering politics very actively.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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