MEI: Iraq’s crisis of elite, consensus-based politics turns deadly
Shafaq News/ Nearly one year after Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary elections, the government has yet to be formed. The government formation power struggle pits the Sadrist Movement, led by populist Shi’a cleric Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, against the Coordination Framework (CF), a loose association of Shi’a parties, united mostly by their opposition to the Sadrist Movement. Central to the dispute are longstanding political rivalries and personal feuds in competition over government postings. Upon Sadr’s instructions, Sadrist MPs resigned from parliament in June after opponents’ efforts and a judicial decision thwarted his attempts to form a national majority government. Sadr’s supporters staged a nearly month-long sit-in that eventually ended when they stormed another government building in the Green Zone and armed groups aligned with the CF fired on protesters and clashed with Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist Movement’s armed wing. The clashes left more than 30 dead and in the aftermath, Sadr announced his “resignation” from politics. Political downtime observed during the Arba’een religious pilgrimage ended on Sept. 17 and negotiations have since recommenced. Despite the ongoing national dialogue (which the Sadrists have declined to join thus far), deadlock continues and many fear future violence unless both camps can agree on mutually acceptable concessions.
The following piece explores the perspectives of members of the CF and their supporters toward the government formation crisis. As a loose assemblage of Shi’a parties, the CF is split between "hardliners" and "moderates" over the government formation process and approach to dealing with Sadr in particular and over political issues more broadly. Directing political maneuvers as a cohesive unit is therefore difficult. CF members report that this frustrates Iran and transnational Shi’a actors that prefer a unified “Shi’a house.” Members of the CF generally see the Aug. 29 clashes as a “loss” for the Sadrists and a “win” for the CF. They paint themselves, in contrast to Sadr, as the rational actor acting in accordance with the law.
After a generally poor performance in the October 2021 elections (save for former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition), the CF parties protested the results, alleging fraud. Efforts then transitioned to blocking Sadr’s attempt to form a political majority government. When the Sadrist MPs resigned from parliament in June, they were replaced by the second runner-up in the elections, which in many cases saw CF MPs acquiring more seats. The CF moved quickly to announce Mohammed al-Sudani, a former minister and former governor of Maysan Province, as its nominee for prime minister. Critics of the CF note the noncongruence of its stances before and after the Sadrist MPs’ resignations — only once it secured more seats did the CF move forward on government formation. Fraud allegations therefore appear tied to whether election outcomes benefit them or not, and are not necessarily about the existence of fraud itself.
Sadr’s decision to order his MPs to resign was the first major miscalculation this summer. In turn, the CF’s efforts to quickly push ahead with government formation efforts, as if one of the biggest political players in Iraq would be fine watching from the sidelines, was the second.
Following these miscalculations, tensions between the two camps continued to rise throughout July and August. In addition to storming parliament, at the end of July the Sadrists also stormed the political offices of Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma Movement in Baghdad and Diyala provinces. The escalation appears to have been in retaliation for a TV interview in which Hakim criticized the Sadrist Movement. In interviews with CF members, they also claimed that this was a test case against the “militarily weakest” CF member to gauge reaction.
During the Sadrists’ sit-in at parliament, CF supporters also set up their own rival protest camp outside the Green Zone to push for the swift formation of a new government. The author’s visit to the protest site on Aug. 12 revealed it to be smaller and less organized than the Sadrists’ camp — an indication of Sadrists’ greater capacity to mobilize supporters. But the political nature of both protest sites was readily apparent. When asked about the situation at the CF-aligned protest site, a federal police officer told the author, “I’m tired of this. We’ve all had enough of both of these protest camps.”
The CF itself is split on the best approach for dealing with Sadr. Some advocate for a more moderate position toward containing him by activating various political channels both inside and outside Iraq. Hardliners say no, Sadr left us, and we need to push back so he “learns his lesson,” as one member of the CF explained to the author. CF actors embracing a more “moderate position” toward the crisis include Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization, Ammar Hakim, and former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, among others. Hardliners include Sadr’s long-time political foe Maliki, previous leaders of Sadrist splinter groups now leading their own organizations, such as Qais al-Khazali of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and others.
By the time Sadrist supporters stormed the presidential palace on Aug. 29, the situation had shifted. A political party official within the CF alleged that there was growing consensus that Sadr had taken things too far, requiring escalatory measures. He described “a conspiracy” and “big plan supported by the Sadrists” to take over. “The Sadrists tried to take over the governmental palace just like Trump’s supporters did,” the official smirked. But “Saraya al-Salam lost quickly and left within hours.” He said Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani does not intervene in political disputes but did send an indirect message to Sadr asking “What is this?,” although the reason for Sadr’s call to withdraw was the “reality on the battlefield.”
CF members presented themselves as the “winners” following the clashes. Sadr and Saraya al-Salam are “in a weak position after their defeat,” one political party member said.
When asked about the role of armed groups shooting unarmed protesters, the official avoided the topic, instead claiming, “all Sadrist protesters were actually Saraya al-Salam.” However, the author’s observations from two visits to the parliament protest sites in August (before the clashes erupted on Aug. 29) does not support this claim. While Saraya al-Salam maintained a clear presence, other participants were obviously civilians.
Downplaying internal CF divisions
The CF is frequently criticized for being divided and lacking a common vision other than blocking Sadr. In interviews, different party representatives within the CF separately denied there were any major splits, or at least described disagreements as natural yet cordial ones between “brothers” navigating the best path forward together. Those CF officials who spoke on condition of anonymity offered more realistic and nuanced perspectives, acknowledging that splits do exist and attributed them to several factors. First, the biggest common thread linking the groups within the CF together is opposition to Sadr’s political majority government or any government that would defuse their power, but beyond that, they acknowledged that they have many differences. Second, “all armies in the world come back from war to deal with their differences,” an official explained in reference to the return of Popular Mobilization Forces fighters after ISIS’s defeat. The splits within the CF can therefore in part be explained by a political power struggle as groups seek to capitalize on gains, and minimize losses, in the “post-ISIS” era.
The role of Iran and transnational Sh’ia actors
All dominant Shi’a political parties, including the Sadrist Movement (even if Sadr’s ties are currently strained), have relations with Iran due to geographical, trade, religious, security, and other national and subnational interests. However, some political parties and groups are obviously closer, especially to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), than others, and some armed wings even receive direct funding and training from the IRGC.
According to an Iraqi expert on Iranian affairs who is close to the CF, high-level positions at Iranian embassies in the region are often staffed by IRGC affiliates because, Iraq and Lebanon, for example, are important countries for their portfolios and are therefore prioritized by the IRGC. As one party official in the CF who is knowledgeable about government formation efforts told the author, “Even [Prime Minister Mustafa] al-Kadhimi has good relations with the IRGC” since he took office. “Every prime minister needs to be able to balance relationships with regional and international counterparts,” he said.
According to interviews with CF members, continued intra-Shi’a conflict would be destabilizing for Iraq and is not in Iran’s interest. Tehran would prefer a government led by a large unified Shi’a coalition and the Sadrist “political majority” project was a threat to that, several CF officials separately explained. Still, as one CF party official told the author before the clashes at the end of August, Iran itself is split on what approach is best to deal with Sadr and this is reflected in the divisions within the CF between the moderates and hardliners.
The political conflict in Iraq is becoming increasingly internalized — it’s a twisted story of domestic rivalries, personal feuds, and competition over government postings. Regional and international considerations remain important, however, and transnational Shi’a actors in particular have frequently tried to maintain the order and unity of the Shi’a house over the years.
According to an interview with one Iraqi official, different actors have tried to mend the relationship between Maliki and Sadr, including representatives from Lebanese Hezbollah in the months preceding the summer crisis. Similarly, during the author’s interview with a Hezbollah MP in Lebanon last April (who personally is not involved in negotiations but was familiar with the broader situation), the MP said that intra-Shi’a cohesion is a priority for the region in general and for Iran specifically, and that any efforts to undermine this cohesion are a “conspiracy” led by outside actors.
Mohammed al-Sudani’s nomination
The CF’s move to quickly announce Sudani as its candidate for prime minister after the new MPs were sworn in reportedly took the Sadrists by surprise. Sudani is perceived by Sadr loyalists as doing Maliki’s bidding.
CF officials therefore sought to clarify and defend the circumstances surrounding Sudani’s nomination during interviews. Several political party members said that there was a CF selection committee and he was chosen as the best candidate by consensus. Moreover, they say no one has yet to present valid reasons why he should not be a nominee for prime minister. “If someone has concerns, those should be presented publicly within parliament, and to date, no one has made a credible case for rejecting his nomination,” one official said. Another added, “Iraq doesn’t stop for Sadr, government formation continues.” However, when pressed, the CF hardliner acknowledged that if serious, formal objections to Sudani were to be raised, “Iraq won’t stop for Sudani either.”
For now, the CF seems to be moving ahead with government formation plans with Sudani, even if some “moderate” actors within the CF are allegedly questioning the wisdom of doing so as “provocative toward Sadr” and may consider other candidates. One CF party official cautioned against moving quickly and that without further talks with prominent Kurdish and Sunni counterparts, notably Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani and Sunni lawmaker and speaker of parliament Mohammad al-Halbousi, this could not only spark a potential backlash but also may result in the formation of a weak government. One representative questioned whether “Barzani and Halbousi had really left Sadr or not” despite media reports otherwise. An official also lamented that the dominant Kurdish parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have yet to agree on a candidate for president. Iraq’s parliament must elect a president before it can elect a prime minister.
“The logical and rational actor”
In general, CF officials portrayed themselves during interviews as the logical and rational actor, acting in accordance with Iraqi law and recent court decisions, and commanding the respect of the international community. “The UN, and apparently from what we’ve heard from others, even the U.S. embassy supports the CF’s position after Sadr’s actions,” Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq political spokesperson Mahmoud al-Rubaie told the author in mid-August, before the clashes. The U.S. State Department issued terrorist designations against Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and its leaders in January 2020.
In contrast to how they described themselves, some CF officials painted Sadr as an ambitious, power-hungry, often erratic actor who wants to control everything. One official alleged that this was “making problems inside of Sadr’s leadership, who were not comfortable with what was going on, feeling like they hadn’t achieved anything,” and needed to do a “review” of the situation.
They complained that the Sadrists’ month-long occupation of parliament and the violence that erupted in the Green Zone obstructed the government from “providing for the Iraqi people,” and from passing the budget. “He does not have the religious credentials to be a marja’a and replace Ayatollah Sistani, but he wants to be the top leader in Iraq. He wants to be the Iraqi equivalent of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah,” one official told me. Many CF members agreed that one of the biggest obstacles to a political settlement was Sadr’s alleged intransigence. They said that the CF may be willing to make some concessions to overcome the political impasse, but doubted that Sadr would if Maliki were still playing a prominent role. “The Maliki leaks changed everything for Sadr,” one official said.
When asked about the national dialogue efforts (announced by Prime Minister Kadhimi and CF leaders at various times over the past month) and whether they would include all political parties represented in parliament, including independents and emerging parties born out of the Tishreen movement, almost everyone said yes. “This is an issue about government formation so anyone with a representative in parliament can be involved in this,” said Hisham Rikabi, Maliki’s press secretary. Thus far, however, national dialogue efforts have reportedly been confined to the dominant ruling elite. The third national dialogue session is set for Sept. 26.
Continued political deadlock
“The situation remains as is; this could last weeks, months,” lamented one CF political party official, speaking about the deadlocked government formation process.
One CF political party official familiar with the negotiations suggested what he saw as three potential options for resolving the government formation crisis: “The CF convinces the Sadrist MPs to return to parliament, the CF endorses another nominee for prime minister, or Ameri is able to come to some sort of understanding with Sadr,” he said. But the hardliners in the Sadrist and CF camps are yet to be convinced.
There are many moving parts and the future is unknown. On Sept. 28 the Federal Supreme Court is set to hold a hearing that will investigate the constitutionality of the Sadrist exit from parliament.
Large demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the Tishreen protests are planned for Oct. 1 by protesters and change movements that often refer to themselves as “the third way” — neither aligned with the Sadrists, nor the CF. Political party members of the CF said they are likewise awaiting to see what will unfold during these protests, especially whether the Sadrists will join and whether there is more violence on the horizon.