Iraq is once again pushed into a new crisis. The current power struggle is fierce. It is solely taking place among the frail Shia elites in the country. Old wounds are emerging. Battlegrounds are agog with a strong feeling of revenge and hatred. The government of the day is helpless. And the new chaos reminds the international community of bloody years between 2003 and 2012 in the US-controlled Iraq when rebels fought against the occupying forces.
Sadly, Baghdad has not been able to experience a permanent political establishment since the general election of October 2021. The main reason is that no single political party could cross the majority mark in that election. Nevertheless, the present intra-Shia turmoil in this country is unique. Seemingly, the saga in this war-ravaged nation is once again echoing the crisis when Iran and the US vied for power in Iraq.
What is the crisis all about? Today the cynosure of the escalating political crisis in Iraq is none other than the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Political analysts say that it is the longest political deadlock since 2003 wherein prominent Shia leaders are bitterly fighting for their dominance in the government formation. The parliamentary election took place in Iraq in the month of October last year. The party of al-Sadr won 74 seats, the maximum by any single political outfit. But it fell short of 91 seats to have a clear majority in the 329-member parliament to form the next government in Baghdad. In the October election the Iran-backed Shia party’s share dropped from 48 to 17.
After failing to overturn the results in the court, the rival Shia groups almost stalled al-Sadr’s efforts to form a new government. In fact, al-Sadr wanted all his Kurdish and Sunni Arab allies but not those which are pro-Iran. Al-Sadr wants to stay away from the pro-Iranian groups. He is trying to build up a new nationalist dialogue in the country. But it is really difficult as the Iranian zealots are closely watching the current developments.
Al-Sadr’s sudden announcement to quit Iraqi politics has enraged his supporters. Although the cleric had made similar vows in the past also, he did not keep his words. Experts opine that his move is a desperate and dangerous attempt to maintain his power and galvanise the power base in already crumbled power corridors of Iraqi politics.
As the protests turned violent, there were rumours that pro-Iranian militias might attack the demonstrators, some of them taking shelter in the autonomous Kurdistan region. This is certainly escalating the crisis but the Kurdish groups are trying to build a consensus among the rival groups.
Many say that al-Sadr does not have any leverage now. And he is simply appealing to the emotions of his followers. He is trying to further strengthen the personality cult amid the crisis. Abbas Kadhim, the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative rightly, said, “He is telling his followers that okay I was defeated but it is up to you to turn me into a victorious player by doing whatever it takes. Or you could say, we give up. We lost.” His followers are willing to do anything to maintain the image, status and power position of al-Sadr in Iraq. This scene is potentially dangerous for a country like Iraq.
Meanwhile, the UN mission in Iraq has termed the protests as “extremely dangerous escalation”. Also, it urged all the protesters to vacate all the government premises so that the caretaker government of the country can start functioning. Around the same time, al-Sadr asked his supporters to leave the Green Zone of the capital city. This could be a new tactic for the cleric to prepare for the next level of street fight with his rivals. But his followers are not going to leave the public squares any sooner. And it will escalate tension in the emerging political landscape of the country.
The current political stalemate is effectively deflecting attention from the country’s long-standing economic challenges. The ongoing Russia-Ukrainian war has impacted the Iraq crisis resolution. This has indeed paralysed many of the nations, including Europe, especially in West Asia. Since the February 24 Russia-Ukrainian war, food prices have soared globally. At this time, when skyrocketing crude prices have strengthened the national economy.
From the current stalemate, it has emerged that al-Sadr has proved his inability to govern, or he has retreated to make a new comeback. But one thing is certain: His actions demonstrate that he is not responsible. It has been observed that whenever he is close to power, he throws tantrums. He threatens either to quit or leave the country. This is how he tries to confuse the Iraqi public. And he wants to bolster his might by resorting to new tactics.
Some say that even if the current deadlock comes to an end, it may certainly leave its fissures behind for the future. The warning signal that is emerging from the streets of Baghdad is that it is better for al-Sadr to be peaceful rather than pushing his followers to the brink of fresh violence. It would certainly help the populist cleric to remain relevant in the much-divided Iraqi political spectrum, despite all the pressures from the US and neighbouring Iran.
This is Iraq’s longest political impasse since the American invasion of the country in 2003 after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. This ominous escalation has catapulted the oil-rich nation even deeper into a serious chaos. If it continues, Iraq’s years of tumultuous transition to civil governance may soon disappear. With all his clout, al-Sadr can play the role of a peacemaker so as to pull back all his supporters from the road to violence.
Today Iraq demands peace. And the world can’t afford to have another crisis in West Asia when the region is already troubled by the neighbouring Syrian civil war since 2011, and another one in Libya, besides the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And above all, the Ukrainian crisis is deepening while altering the existing global order. So, keeping all these in mind, al-Sadr should not turn into a “will-o-the-wisp”, rather he should realise his organisational strength to bring back order in Iraq. What Iraq needs today is a stable political establishment. Baghdad can’t bear a simmering crisis. Al-Sadr, the rest of the Shia leaders and all the other political players in Iraq must remember that violence and chaos only emboldens Iran to make further inroads into their country.
(Dr Makhan Saikia has taught political science and international relations for over a decade in institutions of national and international repute after specialisation in globalisation and governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is the chief editor of the Journal of Global Studies, an international research journal)