Antichrist at the Center of the Chaos in Iraq

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Once more, and ten months after Iraq’s last general election, controversial Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters are at the centre of a politically motivated storm that threatens to degenerate into Shia-on-Shia political violence.

Since ordering his deputies to relinquish their parliamentary presence and cede their position in the Iraqi legislature to their rivals, Sadr has been behind the storming of parliament and its subsequent occupation twice in the space of a single week, paralysing official business in the capital and amping up tensions between rival and heavily armed Shia groups.

The cleric’s moves can be interpreted as his attempt to sow chaos in the country unless his demands of a “national unity” government – with Sadr himself behind the scenes pulling the strings – are met by other pro-Iran factions.

“Sadr and his supporters are at the centre of a politically motivated storm that threatens to degenerate into Shia-on-Shia political violence”

Sadr’s bid for power

But it is not only Sadr’s supporters who have taken to participating in demonstrations, as competing factions also descend on the streetsto oppose them, mostly from the more establishment Shia groups represented by the Coordination Framework.

The Coordination Framework is comprised of parties representing the political interests of a number of Iran-sponsored Shia militant groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl ul-Haq, as well as former prime ministers like Nouri al-Maliki, known for his proximity to Tehran and currently embroiled in a scandal of his own where he threatened civil war.

Each of these factions has its own interests in securing ever-increasing numbers of parliamentary positions as well as government and ministerial posts that will give them access to vast budgets in a country renowned for its crippling levels of corruption.

Unusual sweltering summer heat – undoubtedly exacerbated by the climate crisis – has done little to blunt public demonstrations across Iraq from these rival political factions even as it causes tempers to flare.

The Iraqi capital Baghdad has seen almost daily temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius, while the southern oil-rich city of Basra near the Shatt al-Arab waterway has suffered a scorching 53 degrees, with the added humidity intensifying the stifling conditions faced by Iraqis.

Still, the rival camps have squared off against one another in cities and towns across central and southern Iraq in what some fear may lead to an unintentional outbreak of violence that could spiral out of control.

While a senior Sadrist official called on protesters last week to vacate the parliament building, he also added that demonstrations and sit-ins would continue in central Baghdad until the group’s demands were met.

Sadr has been careful to articulate a narrative and discourse of fighting corruption for years, something that he knows is a major gripe amongst the vast majority of the Iraqi electorate.

Since the end of the war against the Islamic State (IS) group in 2017, Sadr has positioned himself and his loyalists as the anti-corruption movement, frequently blasting the political process and its main figures, particularly long-time rival Maliki.Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr storm the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone for the second time in a week on 30 July 2022. [Getty]

His criticisms were of such ferocity that he once even pledged to never commit to trying to secure the position of prime minister as he claimed the system was so corrupt that it first needed reform. However, in what was deemed as a cynical ploy for power, the cleric announced a U-turn in 2020, vying for the role of prime minister at the next election.

While the cleric’s bloc emerged as the nominal winner in 2021’s election, he was still far short of a majority and therefore proceeded to cut deals with both the Sunni Arab Taqaddum party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the most dominant party in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Although Taqaddum’s candidate for parliamentary speaker, its leader Mohammed al-Halbousi, was sworn in early this year, the KDP failed to get several of its candidates for the office of president voted in, triggering the latest political crisis.

“Sadr has continued to forge ahead with his ambitions of being the power behind Iraq’s major political institutions without taking an official executive role for himself to remain unscathed should any government fail”

Rather than find a solution for his allies, Sadr has left them to fend for themselves by abandoning his small parliamentary majority and leaving them to forge new alliances – if they can.

Instead, Sadr has continued to forge ahead with his ambitions of being the power behind Iraq’s major political institutions without taking an official executive role for himself to remain unscathed should any government fail.

Effectively Sadr wants to set himself up as the Iraqi version of Iran’s supreme leaders, copying the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s model that was achieved via revolution in 1979.

To achieve those ends, Sadr has now officially called for early elections. However, while at face value this may appear to be a democratic way of solving the impasse, it risks much in a country where Iraqis have lost faith in the political process.

But the Sadrists have gone one step further than simply calling for early elections, as they have simultaneously called for the immediate dissolution of parliament in preparation for what they say is necessary to get Iraq’s democracy on track.

However, such a move will further cause divisions between the cleric and his reluctant allies in Erbil as well as the Sunnis of Taqaddum – after all, they signed up for his political programme only to be abandoned and now even the speaker’s seat will be lost if parliament is dissolved.

This will be unlikely to sit well, particularly with Halbousi who will not be keen to lose his already precarious seat as Iraq’s most influential Sunni politician. This could force Halbousi even closer to the Coordination Framework and cutting a new deal with them so that a new government can be more easily formed without the Sadrists.

The call to dissolve parliament will also show potential allies of the Sadrists how mercurial the Shia cleric’s politicking can be, making Sadr appear to be an unreliable ally who should be avoided at all costs.Iraqis are desperate for security and stability in their political system. [Getty]

Added to this is the fact that almost three out of every five Iraqis boycotted last October’s vote, demonstrating the plummeting levels of trust and faith in a political process deemed only to serve Iraq’s elites rather than the people.

Should another election take place, it is likely that the turnout will be even lower, as voters will simply look at the results of last year’s elections, note that nothing has been achieved in almost a year, and be further dejected from participation.

This could have potentially fatal consequences for Iraq’s highly flawed democracy, already on life support after almost two decades of existence without having attained even a level of security that former dictator Saddam Hussein achieved under crushing international sanctions.

“Almost three out of every five Iraqis boycotted last October’s vote, demonstrating the plummeting levels of trust and faith in a political process deemed only to serve Iraq’s elites rather than the people”

The above is why there has been a growing sentiment of nostalgia for the former strongman’s regime for almost a decade.

This is a complicated issue, as there are now many young voters who never lived under Saddam Hussein or were still young children, yet have a rose-tinted perception of his regime purely because government jobs were available and, generally, there was no violence.

In the hierarchy of needs, Iraqis are desperate for security and stability over which politician is ruling over them, and therefore they are unlikely to lend their legitimacy to a system that has consistently failed to provide either, posing a severe threat to the future of democracy in the war-torn country.

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