Iraq's Sadr remains a force to be reckoned with - opinion

Sixty protesters were injured in clashes with security forces. Three days earlier a mass protest outside parliament by Sadr supporters ended only after Sadr tweeted a request to them to disperse.

 SUPPORTERS OF Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold up a banner depicting former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a protest against corruption, inside the Parliament in Baghdad, on July 30.  (photo credit: AHMED SAAD/REUTERS)
SUPPORTERS OF Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold up a banner depicting former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a protest against corruption, inside the Parliament in Baghdad, on July 30.
(photo credit: AHMED SAAD/REUTERS)

On July 30, hundreds of supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s leading political figures, breached the parliament building in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, forced their way inside, and started a coordinated sit-in to protest the recent nomination of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani for the premiership.

Sixty protesters were injured in clashes with security forces. Three days earlier a mass protest outside parliament by Sadr supporters ended only after Sadr tweeted a request to them to disperse.

Iraq has been in a political crisis ever since the general election last October. Months of discussion and negotiation between the various political groupings have failed to result in the election of a president or prime minister, the essential precursors under the Iraqi system for the formation of a government.

Constitutionally, the president, whose duty is to task the future prime minister with forming the new government, must be elected within 30 days of the election of the speaker of parliament. Sunni lawyer Mohammed al-Halbousi was elected speaker on January 9, but the required election of a president within 30 days never happened. Having a newly elected speaker and no president violates the constitution, but that seems a minor matter, given the political deadlock.

On July 17, the febrile political atmosphere was rendered even more critical when an Iraqi journalist named Ali Fadel released on social media a set of secret recordings. In them, a onetime prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, apparently gives vent to a succession of insults and accusations against Sadr.

 Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest against corruption, inside the parliament in Baghdad, Iraq July 30, 2022. (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS) Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest against corruption, inside the parliament in Baghdad, Iraq July 30, 2022. (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)

As background, it is useful to know that Sadr, although a Shi’ite, leads a popular movement opposed to Iran’s excessive control of Iraqi affairs, while Maliki is a leading figure in a major Shia parliamentary grouping called the Coordination Framework, which is very much beholden to Iran.

The venom of Maliki’s apparent verbal onslaught against Sadr shook the nation. The percentage of voters who believed Maliki’s rapid denial of ever saying the words attributed to him, and his assertion that the recordings were fake, is not known. What is certain, however, is that the recordings, genuine or false, removed Maliki’s chance of a return as prime minister Sadr himself dismissed them as of no consequence.

In the recordings Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014, apparently reveals a British plot to use Sadr as a disposable puppet in a scheme designed to hand Iraq over to Sunni control.

“That project exists,” Maliki seemingly says, “but I am fighting it, and it is to be fought politically and militarily.”

He apparently proceeds to cut Sadr to ribbons. “Moqtada is a murderer... the kidnappings, the car bombs... he is a coward, a traitor, an ignoramus who knows nothing.”

Sadr's history in government 

In Iraq’s October 2021 general election the bloc led by Sadr won 74 seats, making it the largest grouping in the 329-seat parliament. But on June 13, following months of ineffective negotiations and a total failure to nominate people to fill the high offices of state or to form a government, Sadr ordered the members of his bloc to resign from parliament.

Under Iraqi law, if an MP resigns, the second-placed candidate in the election takes the empty seat. The process of filling the vacated seats led to a new wave of intense debate and protests, but finally the pro-Iran Coordination Framework became the majority bloc in parliament. It then nominated Sudani as prime minister.

A succession of Iran-backed groups and militias welcomed the nomination; the Sadrist reaction was posted on a Facebook site. Dubbing Sudani as nothing more than a facade for Maliki, Sadr was virtually declaring that as prime minister he would be Maliki’s puppet. Two days later, on July 27, the country’s political crisis reached a boiling point, and Sadr supporters stormed the Iraqi parliament, protesting against Sudani’s nomination – a riot instantly quelled by a tweet from Sadr.

In the run-up to the election, Sadr had committed himself to forming a “national majority government” representing different sects and ethnicities, including Sunni and Kurdish groups but sidelining the pro-Iran Coordination Framework. This commitment put Sadr at odds with the Fatah alliance, the political wing of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces militia. Some pro-Iran militia groups warned of intensified violence if Sunni and Kurdish groups joined a Sadr government.

What if he had succeeded?

If Sadr’s “national majority government” had succeeded, it would finally have put paid to Iraq’s so-called muhasasa political system, imposed on the country after the US-led invasion in 2003. Akin in some respects to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing structure – itself a continual source of political instability – muhasasa is an attempt to provide proportional representation in public office among Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups, including Shia, Sunni and Kurdish. Many Iraqis believed from the start that the system was deeply flawed. It was soon widely perceived as underpinning the corruption, collusion and patronage networks that characterized public life in Iraq, and became the target of popular protests. Overturning muhasasa would have markedly reduced Iran’s political influence in Iraq. If Sadr ever achieves political power, it may yet come to pass.

Did Sadr shoot himself in the foot by ordering the resignation of his 74 parliamentary followers in June? Many of his vacated seats were filled by members of the Coordination Framework, and it might seem as though he had handed his political opponents the power to form a government.

However, the recent mass political protests by Sadrists clearly demonstrate that Sadr is far from a spent force. It is obvious that with or without his parliamentary majority, Sadr, with his vast supporter-base, remains a force to be reckoned with, and will have to be take into account if Iraq’s political turmoil is ever to be resolved.

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com