Sept 2022

Avoiding the abyss

As economic and environmental crises bite and rival religious groups push the country into ever deeper chaos, Richard Gregson pinpoints a potential light at the end of the tunnel

Political turmoil in Iraq has taken on a serious new dimension. Mobs owing allegiance to the populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed Parliament towards the end of July, and later on August 22. They surrounded the Supreme Judicial Council, demanding the dissolution of Parliament, formation of an interim government and fresh elections. These have been the chaotic scenes witnessed over the past two months.

Al-Sadr had given the judiciary an ultimatum: they had one week to dissolve Parliament. But the Supreme Judicial Council and the Federal Supreme Court have stated that they lack the authority to do so and have suspended court sessions in protest. Things have somewhat cooled down after the agitators withdrew their protest the next day,heeding saner voices at home andsharp criticism from the UN.

Mohammed Salih al-Iraqi, al-Sadr’s aide, said in a statement that the sit-in was to ‘encourage the SJC to hold the corrupt accountable but, to avoid bringing harm to the people, we advise the protesters to withdraw’. After the protesters did indeed withdraw their sit-in, the SJC said in a statement that it would resume its court sessions. But the political deadlock remains unresolved.

Post-Saddam, Iraq has lurched from one crisis to another since the US-led alliance deposed the dictator in 2003. With armed factions and terror groups in perennial feud with each other, many taking up arms against the US and Iraq armed forces, the country has remained in constant turmoil. Corruption pervades the upper echelons of the parties that have been in power. Militiasof political formations representing different denominations – Shias, Arab Muslim Sunnis and Kurds – enjoy quasi-official status. These, as well as terrorist groups like ISIS, have been at the root of the instability and mayhem witnessed after the American invasion.

INCITING UNREST: Populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement

Although the Iraqi people got rid of a dictator, in return they got death, destruction, a ravaged economy and US-appointed politicians who have literally looted the country. Iraq is divided along religious and ethnic lines, with various political players resorting to bombings and killings to settle scores. Innocent people lose their lives, but the powerful culprits are rarely brought to justice.

The elections held in October last year haveled to an unprecedented political deadlock as the Iraqi Parliament has since failed to form a government. The bloc of Shia cleric and leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, had won 73 seats, making it the single largest group in the 329-seat Parliament. According to the Iraqi constitution, however, a two-thirds vote was required to elect a president, who would then initiate the government-formation process.

Last October’s elections have led to an unprecedented political deadlock

Al-Sadr wanted to form a national majority government with Sunnis and Kurds. He was not prepared to include the rival pro-Iran Shia Coordination Framework (CF) in the coalition, which has nominated former Prime Minister Mohammad Nouri al-Maliki as its prime ministerial candidate,with whom al-Sadr doesn’t see eye to eye. The Sadrists and their allies, therefore, could not muster a two-thirds majority to elect the president, leading to a continuing stalemate in forming a government.

As Iraq is Shia-dominated, Iran naturally wields influence in the country, through the CF in particular. For Iran, Iraq is a strategic asset and commercial gateway to West Asia that helps it overcome some of the harsh sanctions it is currently facing. The American have their own influence among Sunni and Kurd parties, and even the Shia faction led by Nouri al-Maliki. So do the Saudis.

However,al-Sadr broke away from Iranian patronage and has been pursuing a nationalist line. He wants all foreign interference in Iraq to end and has considerable support, especially among impoverished people in the south, who also approve of his anti-corruption crusade. A religious hardliner, he has built a larger-than-life image of himself by leading his movement without assigning himself any formal post in the party or government. But he is ashrewd tactician, who has placed his own people in different government bodies and important positions. His approach to politics ispragmatic: he wants to share power with ethnic and religious minorities, which is essential for national unity of Iraq.

Excluding any of the major Shia factions from government could lead to a civil war

The situation in Iraq has been volatile in the aftermath of the October elections.Violent clashes in Baghdad following the election. There was an assassination attempt on the caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Fighting again broke out between pro-Iran Shia factions and Sadrist militias in February. Five people were killed in targeted attacks and Iran and its Iraqi proxies unleashed rocket strikes against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Then, in July, Shia militias were once again on the verge of violent confrontation, when pro-Iran factions organised a counter-demonstration against a Sadrist sit-in outside the Parliament building.

Things had come to a head in June when al-Sadr ordered all 73members of the Sadrist bloc in Parliament to resign. He wanted the immediate dissolution of Parliament, formation of an interim government and new elections to be held. Having won a sizeable number of seats – in contrast to the miserable performance of rival Shia groups – he was confident of improving on his previous electoral victory.But the opposition, wary of an election, took the opportunity to consolidate its position in the house by co-opting new members, replacing the Sadrists. They made use of a loophole in the law that if an MP resigns, the second-placed candidate in the election would fill the vacancy. The vacant seats were gobbled up mostly by the CF and other parties, which opened up the possibility of forming a government without the Sadrists.

This angered al-Sadr, so he gave the call to occupy Parliament. Although his supporters have vacated the Parliament building, they have been continuing their sit-in in the Green Zone, and on August 22 extended it to the headquarters of the judiciary. Top judges were threatened that if they did not dissolve Parliament in a week, they would face the wrath of the masses.Insisting that it does not have such powers, the judiciary has suspended all work in view of the threats.

Amid appeals to withdraw the protest from the Speaker and other Iraqi politicians, the UN, while asserting that the right to peaceful protest is an essential element of democracy, said in a statement: ‘Equally important is the assertion of constitutional compliance and respect for state institutions. State institutions must operate unimpeded in service of the Iraqi people, including the SJC [Supreme Judicial Council].’

RAY OF HOPE: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is an influential figure in Iraq

Given the fractured ethno-religious politics of Iraq, excluding any of the major Shia factions from government could lead to a civil war. So far, things are under control, though the interim government, led by the consensus caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is hamstrung with limited powers and isunable to effectively attend to the problems the country is facing. The people are suffering growing unemployment, inflation and consecutive droughts that have devastated agriculture and the fishing industry. State institutions are paralysed and the petroleum sector, contributing more than 40 per cent of GDP and 85per cent of the annual government budget, is in the doldrums.

One ray of hope is the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been silent on the political crisis so far. Clerics at the seminary he presides over in the holy city of Najaf say he does not want to appear to be taking sides. In fact, the Grand Ayatollah has rarely intervened in political matters. The 92-year old Marjaiya, as he is reverently called, has not been meeting politicians. He is wary of politics but if he does intervene, he can be really effective. A 2019 sermon he deliveredled to the  resignation of then Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, amid mass anti-government protests.

Al-Sistani has always called on Iraqis to avoid the ‘abyss of chaos and political obstruction’. He believes that Islam ordains clerics to generally stay away from ruling a country. His sermons often highlight a strong Iraqi identity rooted in democratic values that bind the country’s religious diversity.

Let us hope that politicians who are playing the religion card see reason and work towards resolving the present imbroglio, democratically and peacefully.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada