Political Crisis in Iraq: Assault on the Iraqi Parliament and Impossibility of Forming a National Government

Yoselina Guevara López
Protesters try to remove concrete barriers and cross the bridge towards the Green Zone area in Baghdad, Iraq. 30 July, 2022. | Image: The Cradle

This Saturday, July 30, for the second time in the same week, hundreds of followers of the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr stormed the Iraqi Parliament confronting the security forces, who repressed them with tear gas and then left the place. The protest is taking place due to the appointment of the new prime minister, Mohammed Shiya Al-Sudani and already had a first assault on July 28. Also on Sunday, July 31, the protesters decided to stay overnight and remain inside the government compound. These events are catapulting the country into a political crisis due to the power struggle between the two main Shiite groups: the coalition of the so-called “Coordination Framework”, supported by Iran, and the movement led by Al-Sadr which is in fact opposed to foreign interference (Iranian and American); they have not managed to establish an agreement for the formation of the government.

Causes of the political crisis

Iraq’s last parliamentary elections were held on October 10, 2021, to which about 25 million voters were called to elect 329 parliamentary seats among 3,449 candidates; the turnout, according to Iraq’s Supreme Electoral Commission, was 41%.

The results of the elections gave as the winner of the elections the movement of Muqtada Al-Sadr whose main proposal was to break with the system of religious and ethnic distribution of positions, introduced after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and with the tradition that all the Shiite forces were part of a “consensus government”.

Despite Al-Sadr’s electoral victory, with which he won 73 seats out of 329, he fell short of the two-thirds “supermajority” required by Iraqi law to elect a president. For this reason his attempt to form a “national majority” government representing the various ethnic groups with Kurds and Sunni Muslims, but which would inevitably have marginalized the other Shiite parties linked to Iran, did not work.

In the face of this failure Al-Sadr noted in a televised speech in late June “if the permanence of the Sadrist bloc (in Parliament) is an obstacle to the formation of the government, then all the lawmakers of the bloc are honorably ready to resign.” Following Al-Sadr’s statements, the resignation of the parliamentary representatives of his bloc became effective, allowing 64 new legislators to be sworn in, making the pro-Iranian, anti-Al-Sadr bloc the largest in the Parliament. It should be noted that Iraqi law stipulates that in case of resignation of a deputy, the candidate who came second in the elections will occupy the vacant seat; in other words, the swearing in of these 64 new legislators would be within the law.

Having a majority in Parliament, the opposition to Al-Sadr recently appointed as new prime minister Mohammed Shiya Al-Sudani, a former minister and provincial governor, accused of corruption by his opponents, considered too close to Tehran, and whose appointment has become the central reason for the protests of Al-Sadr’s supporters.

The decision of the legislators belonging to Al Sadr’s movement to resign now risks becoming a dangerous boomerang for stability if his millions of supporters decide to challenge the legitimacy of his opponents in the streets, plunging the country into the chaos of a possible civil war.

Who is Muqtada Al-Sadr?

There is no doubt that Al-Sadr is a charismatic leader, who enjoys the respect and loyalty of hundreds of followers. Born in Najaf (Iraq) into a very influential Shiite family, he had to face Saddam Hussein’s persecution of Shiite opponents as a child. His family suffered the assassination of several members during Hussein’s regime, including two brothers of Muqtada Al-Sadr; his relative Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1980; his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, who was brutally tortured and executed.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, led the Iraqi insurgency, which he called resistance, against the US military presence. His armed wing, the Mahdi Army, maintained strong relations with Iran, but between 2005 and 2008 members of these militias were accused and charged with committing serious atrocities against the Sunni community, especially in Baghdad.

A few years later, Al-Sadr began his metamorphosis, until in 2013, he publicly supported the cause of the mostly Sunni Arab demonstrators, who paralyzed the entire center-west of Iraq in open opposition to the sectarian policies adopted by the former Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, close to Tehran.

In 2014, the relentless Isis offensive in Iraq led Al-Sadr to change the name of his “Mahdi Army” to “Peace Brigades”. This period saw the growing rift between Al-Sadr and Iran, in fact there are indications that Sadrist militiamen did not actively collaborate with pro-Iranian fighters and the Iraqi army against Isis. It is possible that this was more than for an ideological or religious reason, for an economic factor as Al-Sadr’s soldiers received neither funding, nor political support, nor even weapons from the Iranian government; which may have marked the break with Tehran.

In 2016, Al-Sadr’s movement grew stronger and began a rapprochement with the Iraqi communists, whom until a few years ago he had labeled as a group of “infidels”. It was Al-Sadr who led a large popular protest against corruption, culminating in the occupation of the Baghdad Parliament for a few days; the latter was a peaceful action in which there were no clashes with security forces. But his links with communists and liberals were at the time rejected by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme spiritual leader.

Muqtada Al-Sadr has proven to be openly anti-American, and was even described by the White House as the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability and security. As we have previously pointed out, his government program is centered precisely on the war against corruption and poverty, combined with a fierce nationalism aimed at countering foreign interference in Iraq, both from the United States and Iran.

What can happen in Iraq? There is no precise prognosis, in fact there are individual military uprisings in support of Al-Sadr, but one must wait for the next few hours to know if they really have the strength they would need to stage a coup, and if this would truly be accepted in this troubled region without foreign intervention. The outlook in Baghdad is as uncertain as the arrival of sandstorms in the desert.

Yoselina Guevara L.(@lopez_yoselina)is an international policy political analyst, correspondent and recipient of the Simón Bolívar 2022 National Journalism Award (Opinion) and Anibal Nazoa 2021 (Venezuela).