For the past month, there have been bitter political disputes in Iraq that have divided and polarized different communities, making it impossible to elect representatives to the country’s highest bodies. These divisions have deeply engrained themselves into the different strata of the society through social media, creating disputes and barriers not only between communities but also between ordinary Iraqis, preventing them from achieving social cohesion, partnership in governance, and socioeconomic integration. As a result, Iraqis experience high levels of hopelessness and frustration with their state. The current Iraqi government has little chance of addressing the current challenges and problems. The low voter turnout in the last Iraqi elections in October 2021, especially among the younger population, is a clear indication that people no longer trust the current state institutions and political parties.
Emboldened by visible weaknesses in the ranks of his competitors, as well as covert support from the non-Shiite population and external actors, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his party have led Iraq into a new phase of the country’s transition process. After winning an overwhelming majority in the last elections, he once again challenged the entire system of government, exposing its key structural weaknesses and driving the political dynamic into a new impasse. In this process, the Sadrists (pro-Sadr individuals) do not recognize the current “democratic” system, disregard existing state institutions, and have proven that Iraq is unmanageable under the existing “order” imposed on the country by US occupation authorities.
The destructive political dynamic concerning security in the Middle East and Iraq has kept the country on a downward spiral for nearly two decades, but now the nation has reached another dangerous milestone and another point of no return. In the eyes of the Iraqi people, as Shafaq News rightly noted, the 2005 Constitution is “no longer worth its ink,” the Council of Representatives (the parliament) is no longer worth its name, and the executive and judicial branches are nothing more than instruments of the political forces and do not implement the will of the people. Without “oversight,” Iraq will fail as a state if it has not already failed.
But all is not well in the pro-Sadr camp either. Al-Sadr himself is known for his insatiable desire to become the father of Iraq and its unsurpassed leader, a kind of a new dictator, like Saddam Hussein. He has worked hard for 18 years and recruited various allies to achieve a clear parliamentary majority, which he won in the last election. Since then, however, experts say he has made a series of decisions that have proven to be clear strategic miscalculations. The cleric’s overly ambitious plans are perceived by his competitors as a strategic threat to their immediate interests. He makes no secret of his intentions to use popular support to take over first the legislative, then the executive, and finally the judicial branch. In other words, he wants to become the supreme power in Iraq (de facto Wali al-Faqih), radically transform the country’s system of government, and eliminate his historical and future rivals. To achieve these goals, al-Sadr has succeeded in forging a temporary alliance with those Sunni and Kurdish parties that have won the most seats in parliament. However, despite his efforts, his policies faltered as he faced the choice of either reaching a compromise with his rivals or going into opposition. In either case, it can be said that he could have achieved a lot, but instead, he chose to go into opposition and reject the entire system of government and actively oppose it.
The Sadrists now face two difficult, unshakable, and overwhelming challenges that will defeat them sooner or later. The first is the already established mechanism of state power, domestic politics, and security that in some way or other governs Iraq today. These include the 2005 constitution, state institutions, diverse and intransigent political forces, and a variety of armed state and non-state actors. No single party can bring about change, abolish the constitution, and take over state institutions. Those days are over. When it comes to revising the 2005 constitution or redistributing power, there is no trust or mutual agreement between any two political parties in Iraq; there are differences even among members of a single coalition. It can be said that the Kurds will never agree to a hasty and ill-conceived amendment to the constitution for fear of losing their influence not only in Iraq but also in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The second is the collective Shiite universe, which has a major influence on the direction of power in Iraq. This includes Iraqi Shiite politicians and public figures, the Marja’yah (regions) of the cities of An-Najaf and Qom, the state of Iran, and the Shiites in Lebanon, as well as Shiite communities in a number of Arab states. This Shiite “universe” has been struggling for five centuries to seize and consolidate power in Iran and Iraq, and therefore will not allow any group or party to loosen its grip or threaten its rule. The common desire is to expand the borders of this Shiite “universe” and strengthen its power in the countries where it already exists.
The secret of the Sadrists’ tenacity in pursuing their course lies primarily in the collective inaction of other national and international actors. The Sadrists’ main rivals lacked leadership and lost because they had no ideas on how to deal with the post-election problems. They succeeded in blocking the Sadrists’ path to forming a new government, but they also failed to accelerate the formation of a consensus government after the Sadrists left the void. The coordination structure has failed to reach out not only to al-Sadr himself but also to his Sunni and Kurdish coalition partners and attract them to their ranks.
It is only natural that the current crisis will inevitably end sooner or later, with or without violence. Violence and wars between the Shiites have been successfully prevented so far, but they are easily provoked if the conflict is allowed to escalate. One way or another, the Sadrists will have to compromise and accept the same old political system in order to move forward in the search for a solution. They could, for example, win back their 73 seats in parliament or agree with their rivals on a road map for early elections or even on a possible revision of the 2005 constitution. All of these decisions will undoubtedly include the mandatory resumption of the work of the now-suspended parliament, which should be accompanied by the return of the Sadrists to the highest body of power and the preservation of al-Sadr’s face, which is very important in the east.
Iran will ultimately play an important role in reconciliation and convincing all parties to find a compromise and establish normal political power in the country. So far, the Iranians have been patient and have merely observed the upheavals in Iraq, but when the time comes, they will have every opportunity to make political progress, although it is not clear in whose interest, theirs or the Iraqis’?
The Iranians are best suited for the role of a mediator, even though they are partially involved in the conflict because they oppose al-Sadr and support the party of the coordination structure. It is well known that in Iraq they have numerous political, legal, and financial leverage and other means to sharply threaten recalcitrant parties on both sides. The Iranians can, and many experts agree on this, force the coordination system to compromise, remove their most recalcitrant leaders from the coalition, and promise change or offer benefits and new opportunities to the Sadrists, both the rank and file and their leaders.
As for the Sadrists, it is fair to say that they bit the bullet and fully committed to the fight, even though they knew they were unlikely to win a complete victory. Nevertheless, they have already changed Iraq forever. Their current mindset is still one of determination and non-negotiation. But they are also known as pragmatic politicians. In the past, they have compromised, backed down, and changed course when necessary. That does not mean they will give up their ambitions to take over the entire system of government, for which they are willing to pay a high price, but that is for the future, not for this time. Apparently, al-Sadr and his team will still compromise this time and make some alliances with other political forces.