Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 547, 1 September 2022

Iraq: Al-Sadr Withdraws, Protests Intensify
Rashmi Ramesh

In the news
On 29 August, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics and confirmed that all institutions linked to the Sadrist Movement would be shut down.  The announcement resulted in Sadr’s supporters storming the heavily fortified Green Zone and the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. The Sadrist Movement’s military wing Saraya al-Salam (the Peace Brigade) reportedly fired rocket-propelled grenades and fired used machine guns against the security forces and rival Shia groups. Al-Sadr announced a hunger strike after his withdrawal and said that he would continue until the use of force against his supporters persisted. 

On 30 August, al-Sadr addressed his supporters through a televised speech and asked them to end their protests. He said that the protest has “…lost its peaceful character…and the spilling of Iraqi blood is forbidden. There are uncontrolled militias, yes, but that does not mean the Sadrist Movement should also be uncontrolled.” Following the 60-minute deadline given by him, the protests reduced, and there was relative calm in Baghdad. 

Issues at large
First, the Sadrist movement. Muqtada al-Sadr a Shia scholar, cleric, and militia leader founded the Sadrist Movement after Saddam Hussein’s fall. He is a populist leader, drawing his support base from the working class and poorer sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq. A nationalist movement by origin, the Sadrist movement gains its popularity by seeking to detangle Iraq from American influence, Iran’s strong influence in political matters, and separating itself from the pro-Iran Shia factions.

Second, the political deadlock and instability. The Sadrist movement won 74 seats in the October 2021 elections, emerging as the largest faction in the 329-seat Parliament. He failed to secure a two-thirds majority and was unable to form the government, paving way for a political deadlock. After nearly eight months of failing to form the government, al-Sadr made his 74 legislators resign but warned of political pressure through possible mass demonstrations in support of his candidature. The protests now have prevented the parliament from convening and choosing the Prime Minister and President.

Third, the political situation since the war. The post-2003 political landscape of Iraq has been dominated by sectarian competition and rivalry between the Shias and Sunnis, with the increasing Shia-centric rebuilding. Political instability has been a recurring problem in the country, given the presence of numerous factions and their militias, rendering the Parliament without a majority for one political entity. Clearly, the 2005 constitution failed to create a representative and functioning government. The 2010 political deadlock that lasted for 290 days was the longest prior to the current deadlock. It also cemented Shia dominance in Iraqi politics and paved the way for more Iranian influence, as the majority of Sunni leaders and voters boycotted the election process. The massive protests in 2019 also have roots in political instability and its consequences.

In perspective
First, withdrawal as a last resort and pressure tactic. The Sadrists’ withdrawal from the Parliament, the threat of grouping the supporters against the rival Shia factions, the demonstrations and finally his withdrawal from politics are classic case of pressure tactics in place. The two-day deadly violence and subsequent end of protests following his televised address was a showcase of his prowess, his command over the population that supports him. His moves paid off when the Iraqi President Barham Saleh in his speech on 30 August, favoured a fresh election to form a government.

Second, fallout of the crisis. The current crisis threatens some of the progress achieved after the war and the fight against the Islamic State. Despite the relative calm in Baghdad, the existing tensions can quickly escalate in case of failure to reach an acceptable decision through a dialogue. The power struggle between the intra-Shiite is at its peak in Iraq and has a profound impact on Iran, who also a Shia majority state. The latter trains and supports militias and politically supports the Coordination Framework, the Sadrist Movements’ rival Shia coalition.

Third, the political crisis in the region. Political deadlocks, inability to form stable governments and demand for reforms is plaguing the Middle East. Israel is headed towards the fifth election in a span of four years after the Parliament was dissolved following the collapse of the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Neftali Bennett. Currently, Yair Lapid is the caretaker Prime Minister and until the elections are scheduled to be held in October. Lebanon is in the midst of a serious political and economic crisis, with the government formation process still being a point of disagreement between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michael Aoun. A section of the population in Palestine is rallying, demanding political reforms and a formation of a functioning cabinet, ending the one-man presidential rule by Mahmoud Abbas. With Iraq’s crisis escalating, the region suffers from another backslide.

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