- On October 10, 2021, parliamentary elections were held in Iraq about six months before schedule in response to protestors’ demands. Winning 73 out of 329 seats, the Sadrist movement, the party of influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, settled for victory. Although failing to claim enough seats in parliament, Al-Sadr rejected any compromise with Iran-backed Shi’ite factions to form a coalition government. He announced his dedication to forming a majority government
- The election results stirred up violent protests and led to months of political deadlock in which no government could be agreed upon. In parliament, Al-Sadr’s party and its allies formed the “Coalition for Saving the Homeland” and could secure a simple majority of 167 seats with which it was able to select the speaker of the parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi.
- On March 31, 2022, Al-Sadr officially withdrew his party from the ambition to form a government and issued a 40-day ultimatum for his rivals, the Iranian-backed block of the “Coordination Framework Alliance,” to do so. However, disagreement about candidates for the presidency failed this endeavour, and the deadlock extended.
- On June 12, 2022, Al-Sadr ordered his lawmakers to resign from parliament in response to his inability to gather enough parliamentarians for the two-thirds majority needed to elect the new president, a prerequisite to forming the government. The seats released by this move were quickly claimed by Al-Sadr’s political rivals. Declaring a necessity for his party to return to the legislative process, Al-Sadr called for a dissolution of the parliament and renewed elections.
- With the Sadrists’ demands not having been adhered to, Al-Sadr issued an ultimatum to his political rivals and former allies in parliament. With this deadline running out, Al-Sadr ordered his supporters to storm the parliament and the Supreme Judiciary Council on August 22, 2022 and underscored his demands for the dissolution of parliament and an overhaul of leading political personnel. The storming conforms with a series of demonstrations, including earlier storming and sit-ins during 2022.
- Shortly before the recent violent uprisings, grand ayatollah Kadhim al-Hairi, a close confidant to Al-Sadr’s father and religious guardian of the Sadrist movement who enjoys popularity among many Sadrists, announced his retirement. In a statement, he also denounced the Sadr family for dividing the Iraqi society and recommended his followers to turn towards Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, as a new religious guardian. The message marked a severe hit for Al-Sadr as someone dependent on religious guardianship, and someone who has spoken out against close ties with Iran.
- Following Al-Hairi’s retirement message and months of political deadlock, Al-Sadr announced on Monday, August 29, that he would resign from Iraqi politics and close all his party’s offices. This encouraged great numbers of armed supporters to storm the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad where the presidential palace, the parliament, and several embassies are located. During this protest, the two rival factions, Al-Sadr’s followers and supporters of the coordination framework, exchanged fire amongst each other and with Iraqi security forces. The unrest included the shelling and storming of government buildings, leaving at least thirty people dead and more than 400 wounded.
- On August 30, 2022, Al-Sadr called upon his followers to quit the demonstrations and leave the government quarter. His appeal was broadcasted on National TV, and within a short time, the fighting stopped.
- The protest also spread to other Iraqi cities, including Nassirija and Hilla. Amid the fighting, neighbouring countries and foreign embassies issued warnings, including travel warnings to their citizens. Iran even closed its frequented border with Iraq. Meanwhile, the Iraqi military issued a nationwide curfew.
The Main Theme: A Divided Country
Iraq is branded with problems of sweeping divide. Several fault lines reveal the illnesses which the country suffers from. Symptoms of these include foremost an all-encompassing underlying disenchantment with the political class. Considering the significance of the recent elections, the record-low turnout of only 41 %, is noteworthy as it signifies this very distrust. The turnout mirrors the people’s frustration about the apparent flaws. Some even argue that Al-Sadr’s victory itself is more a product of deep-rooted frustration than of confirmation of his populist stances.
Second, besides the already low level of trust in the political system and its elite, the divide is augmented by sectarian governance. Within the cluster of political parties especially the divide between Shi’ite factions along the fault line of Iranian support deadlocks Iraqi politics. While followers of the Sadrist movement, for example, condemn harmonisation with the neighbouring country and disapprove of political influence from the Islamic republic, the Islamic Dawa Party, led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, is backed by Iran.
This very circumstance has brought two rivalling political blocs forward. Both are led by either of the strongest Shi’ite voices in parliament and are supported by lawmakers of different sectarian groups. First, the “Coalition for Saving the Homeland” includes the Sadrist movement, two Sunni groups and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Second, the “Coordination Framework” consists of several Shi’ite parties inviting Iranian influence in Iraq, as well as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The latter bloc is led by Nouri al-Maliki and can be described as a political offshoot of the powerful Popular Mobilisation Force, an Iranian-backed militia blamed for severe attacks in the last couple of years. The respective leaders of the two blocks, Al-Sadr and Maliki, share a strong political enmity.
Although both groups battle for power, neither could manage to gain the 220 seats needed to elect the president. Their disagreement on fundamental questions, such as Iranian influence, rules out a compromise between the blocs. These circumstances created a political deadlock which has now been lasting for about ten months. The deadlock signifies another symptom of the contested divide, yet neither of the powerful players is willing to overcome it by political means, such as a deal between the major political players.
The malady of this intra-sectarian divide is exemplified by the latest nomination for the prime minister. With Al-Sadr’s lawmakers having left parliament on June 12, 2022, the coordination framework quickly nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as a candidate for the premiership. However, withdrawal from the parliament does not mean consensus, and the move was thus directly criticised by the followers of Al-Sadr who regard Sudani to be a puppet of Maliki. Instead, they called for re-elections.
In the past, Shias often cooperated when confronted with tough circumstances. The fight against ISIL, in which Shia militias aligned showcases such an overlap of interest and possible unity. However, the recent escalation of violence is a flashpoint and a new step of intra-sectarian rupture among the Shias.
The deeply entrenched divide becomes also visible in the relations within other sects like the Kurds. According to the Iraqi constitution, the president of the country necessarily must be a Kurd. Despite the fact that no bloc has so far been able to gather enough votes to elect a president anyway, the two biggest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan share a notorious antipathy and have, for example, battled about respective candidates, signifying further symptoms of the country’s divide.
Finally, the Sadrist movement does also show symptoms of divide within. Most recently, the influential and well-respected cleric Kazem Al-Hairieti retired with a message of critique in which he accused Al-Sadr and his followers to precipitate division among the Iraqi people and the Shias. The move unravelled dynamics within the Sadrist movement eventually leading to Al-Sadr’s announced withdrawal from politics on August 29, 2022. Either way, the move signals another line of divide in torn Iraq.
The multidimensional political divide in Iraq represents a symptom of the deep flaws of the ethno-sectarian apportionment system representing one of the many political blemishes that have been imposed on the country in the post-invasion time. Accordingly, political power is distributed based on sectarian belonging between the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds leading to people alienating from politics and denouncing an undermined democracy and lack of choice. The sectarian nature of this divide is also shown in the existence of sectarian militias, like Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, which developed in the course of the American invasion and played an enormous role in Iraq’s domestic politics ever since.
Furthermore, the ethno-sectarian political system is prone to structural corruption as the distribution of powerful and well-paid jobs is done at the highest political level as a tool to preserve sectarian power. This entrenched corruption causes the oil-rich state to not be able to provide basic needs to its citizens. The latter point is of extremely high relevance considering how Iraq slithers into economic hardship with unemployment soaring and a food crisis looming due to global repercussions on food prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Such economic problems add up to the structural economic issues that the country needs to deal with, like the unsustainable dependency on the oil sector or the suffering health sector.
Considering the all-encompassing theme of divide in the country, a consensus government in which politicians with different interests are given representation in the country’s leadership has usually been the norm. Although sluggishly accepted, it is yet disapproved of by many Iraqis as also the recent unrests show. The consensus system blurs the lines for politicians to either hold governmental responsibility or be members of the opposition. It, therefore, supports a kleptocratic system in which the powerful demand their piece of the pie without accepting to take responsibility.
Iraq’s structural illnesses, like extensive corruption, are therefore to be seen in tandem with the theme of sweeping divide. Together, both signal a deeply flawed system. The rejection of the consensus government is a main demand among the Sadrists and therefore also overshadows the recent uprisings.
Over the years a dysfunctional system has, therefore, gained traction that undermines democracy and supports violence and corruption. A mix of dangerous tensions has made Iraq turn into a powder keg. This situation has now culminated in another unrest headed by the followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr.
The Main Character: Muqtada Al Sadr
In this setting of structural problems and divide, Muqtada Al-Sadr manages to navigate. Al-Sadr is an influential Shia cleric who grew up in an Iraq ruled by Hussein’s Baath party. Both his father, as well as his father-in-law were grand ayatollahs who still enjoy great credibility posthumously, especially among poor Shias. Both were eventually killed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Thus, simply by virtue of his family, Al-Sadr enjoys influence in great parts of the Shia community.
During the turmoil following the American invasion, Al-Sadr emerged as a powerful figure fighting for the disenfranchised and suppressed Shias who have suffered under Hussein. Through a hybrid system of social service provision and his Mahdi army, a powerful Shi’ite militia, Al-Sadr challenged the US forces and Sunni militias, including Al Qaeda, and obtained further popularity. At the same time, Al-Sadr also sharpened his political profile and found allies among other Shi’ite groups.
Although officially abandoned in 2008, Al-Sadr reanimated the Mahdi army under the new name “peace brigades” in 2014 to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The move exemplified Al-Sadr’s power and caused insecurities about the future of Iraq, including the possible resurgence of sectarian killings.
Besides fighting against occupants, Al-Sadr is also a nationalist who opposes Iranian influence in Iraq. This conviction has caused Al-Sadr also to create political enemies within the Shia community. Such include Iranian-backed parties and politicians, like former Prime Minister Al-Maliki or Qais al-Khazali, who heads the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia.
Within the many-faceted crisis in post-invasion Iraq, Al-Sadr, therefore, became a powerful leader with a large grassroot following of loyal supporters. Such a notion of “za’im,” roughly translating to uncontested leadership, is key to Al-Sadr’s ambition in general. Whether it be sectarian as a leader of the Shias, politically, or militarily as a leader of his militia. While Al-Sadr aims for political gains, his moves always need to be considered in the bigger picture of his ambitions, including him being the centre of a personality cult.
Throughout the years, a distinct and partially predictable modus operandi has developed according to which Al-Sadr acts and steers his supporters. To underscore his political goals, he has often resorted to the tactics of withdrawal and escalation to back up his demands, both of which often come aligned. For instance, just as in 2022, Al-Sadr already incited his supporters to storm the Green Zone in 2016 when his demands to form a technocratic government were not met. Likewise, in June, the Sadrist party cohesively withdrew from parliament causing the situation in the capital to escalate for the first time. Besides protests, Al-Sadr’s followers stormed the parliament expressing discontent with the political deadlock.
Following their leader, the Sadrists demand “radical change,” including a serious fight against corruption, a functional government, no influence from Iran, and economic opportunities. They, therefore, represent the spearhead of a citizen’s movement against the structurally flawed system that has been existing since the American invasion in 2003.
Conclusion: Al-Sadr’s Show of Power and an Alarming Outlook for Iraq
Considering the outlined historical, economic, and political context, the recent uprisings in Baghdad’s Green Zone are a demonstration of Al-Sadr’s power and his influence among his supporters. Accordingly, Al-Sadr’s original announcement to quit politics and his later interference to stop the violence should rather be seen as a clever calculation instead of an uncoordinated resignation.
Al-Sadr has long been attempting to attain power in Iraq’s political deadlock. As one of the most influential politicians in the country, Al-Sadr himself has been able to navigate through the ethno-sectarian chaos of Iraqi politics. The latest elections, which bestowed his Sadrist movement the biggest share of seats in parliament, confirmed Al-Sadr’s large support among the population.
When Al-Sadr ordered his followers to storm the parliament on August 22 for the first time, he aimed to flex his power to force parliament to make concessions to him, including its dissolution and renewed elections. However, with this first attempt failing, Al-Sadr went all out on the second. With only the power of a few words, Al-Sadr has proven that he can control the masses. His strong influence on his supporters, as well as their obedience, can bring unrest. However, Al-Sadr is also capable to bring them back in line when he calls for it.
The recent unrests in Baghdad are, therefore, a powerful message to all political players in Iraq, but especially to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite factions, exemplifying how Muqtada Al-Sadr is a force to be reckoned with. Al-Sadr has demonstrated that his words are no empty phrases. Quite the contrary, Al-Sadr has shown he does not even shy away from igniting violence and risking further escalating the political tensions that keep Iraq in suspense.
A reading of the recent event, thus, leads to the conclusion of the uprisings being a culmination of the problems that have been flourishing in Iraq. Al-Sadr is the central figure in this play of political tension as someone combining power, ambitions, and leadership. More than others, he has shown to be able to surf the political deadlock and cultivate political leverage through pure demonstrations of power and influence.
The uprising might not be new in its proceeding following the distinct modus operandi of Al-Sadr, still, it puts Iraq in a dangerous situation with an indeterminate outcome. The intensity of the violent outbreak in the capital has made clear how Al-Sadr is capable to hold the political scene hostage. Although he has officially resigned from parliamentary work, a return to politics as usual that not considers him is impossible.
Being a kind of outer parliamentary opposition, the Sadrists now present a strong voice in determining the future of the country. If the political elite does not want to risk further escalation, structural changes to the political system should genuinely be approached to overcome the political deadlock and improve the economic conditions. The ongoing political standoff, sectarian divide and blooming violence have put Iraq on the brink of a civil war. Considering that Al-Sadr’s followers are armed and willing to escalate, the unrest represents a serious foreshadowing of what could happen if popular grievances are not addressed.
Mats Radeck is currently a research intern at Beyond the Horizon ISSG. He follows a master’s program in International Studies with special focus on “Global Conflict in the Modern Era” at Leiden University.