Iraqi Shias at a crossroads

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 7 Dec 2021

The October elections in Iraq have split the country’s Shia political establishment with possibly detrimental results, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqi Shias at a crossroads
Iraqi security forces inspect the site of an explosion in Basra (photo: AP)

As Iraq geared up for national elections last summer and the world began watching to see which direction the Iraqis would take their country, the focal point remained Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who was seen as a nationalist leader whose victory would come at the expense of pro-Iran Shia factions.

Al-Sadr had remained popular among millions of Iraqi Shias disgruntled by Iraq’s broken political system and endemic corruption, high unemployment, dire public services and foreign interference.

In the run up to the 10 October elections, Al-Sadr’s bloc campaigned on the slogan “Voting for the Sadrists will bring you hope.” He promised sweeping reforms of government, fighting against graft, providing public services and standing up to foreign influence.

Policymakers in the US, Europe and the Arab world did not hide their preference for a victory by Al-Sadr’s bloc in the elections, hoping that it would help to counterweigh Iran-backed political groups and their militias and curtail the Islamic Republic’s influence in Iraq.

But while the debate remained focused on Al-Sadr vis-a-vis Iran and its proxies, little attention was given to the question of what a Shia-Shia divide could mean to the community’s empowerment and to Iraq’s stability if the conventional wisdom was turned on its head by one side claiming victory.

As his political faction emerged as the biggest winner in Iraq’s October elections, Al-Sadr insisted that the bloc had won a parliamentary majority and would designate the next prime minister and form Iraq’s next government.

Al-Sadr, whose Sadrist Movement won 73 out of the Iraqi parliament’s 329 seats, has also insisted that the dysfunctional quota-based political system introduced after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 should be abandoned and “a national majority government” be installed instead.

A distant second in the Shia camp with 17 seats in parliament was the Fatah Alliance, the political arm of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) and dozens of affiliated militias. Their leaders have dismissed the election results, which saw them sharply down from their 48 seats in the outgoing parliament, as “fraud.”

The outcome has left the two groups at loggerheads. While Fatah joined other Shia factions in calling for a broad-based bloc that would form the new government, Al-Sadr has vowed that he will not return to such an alliance, which he has derided as “a mix by herb vendors.”

Meanwhile, the deadlock persists, dashing hopes of the early formation of a new Iraqi government that many hoped would clear the way for Iraq’s political system to regain some level of efficiency after a protracted crisis.

A glimpse of hope appeared last week when Al-Sadr travelled from his headquarters in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf to Baghdad for a meeting with leaders of the “Co-ordination Framework,” an umbrella group of Shia parties contesting the election results.

Neither side disclosed any details of the discussions or reported any breakthroughs. Yet, the sit-down meeting was seen as an important first step in testing the water ahead of the endorsement of the Supreme Federal Court (SFC), the final step in the election process.    

After the meeting, Al-Sadr said that he still wants to have free rein to form and run a government of his choice. “Neither eastern nor western – a national majority government,” he wrote on Twitter.

Iraqi militia supporters who have denounced the elections, however, are continuing their street protests, while their leaders have gone to the SFC to try to stop the approval of the results and seek a full recount of the votes.   

While the two sides continue to stick to their views, efforts are reportedly under way to hold a second round of negotiations in Najaf in another bid to bridge the gap. No concrete date has been fixed for the meeting and no list of participants has been disclosed.

Shia parties have dominated Iraqi politics for nearly two decades. The overthrow of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003 empowered Iraq’s Shia majority, who have since formed governments based on proportional representation with Shias at the helm.

This post-Saddam dynamics has made the nation’s multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian politics more unstable and less predictable. As a result, there have been ever-greater challenges within each election cycle to establish a governing coalition based on power-sharing.

The Iraqi Shias’ rise has stoked rivalries between competing factions hailing from different political, social, economic and tribal backgrounds. What has kept the Shias glued together have been fears of upsetting their newly acquired political power.

After half a dozen elections, some Shia factions have remained relevant thanks to political manoeuvering, while others have faded away and new ones have joined the arena. But a gap has emerged between minority vocal religious groups and the silent secular Shia majority.

The rise of the pro-Iran militias amid the surge of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq in 2014-2015 and their bid for power has changed the Shia political landscape in Iraq dramatically and intensified the internecine power struggle.

The rift was deepened by the popular uprising in 2019, when mostly Shia-populated areas of Iraq revolted against the Shia ruling class, accusing it of rampant corruption, inefficiency and dependence on Iran.

Nevertheless, despite the widening rifts, the leaders of Iraq’s Shia groups have remained adamant about keeping the community’s hold on the government and maintaining access to benefits derived from power.

Yet, the current row has deepened the divide within the Shia community and raised fears that things could spiral out of control or lead to a Shia-Shia Civil War.

Many dismiss this doomsday scenario as far-fetched and argue that the Shia rivals will eventually seek to resolve their disputes by horse-trading and will return to the usual rules of power-sharing in forming the new government.

What is more likely, however, is that this will be another protracted process as efforts continue to build a Shia coalition, choose a new prime minister, and sell the deal to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurdish parties.

Under Iraq’s post-Saddam Constitution, at least 165, or 51 per cent, of the parliament’s 329 members have to endorse any deal. The formation of Iraq’s governments has always involved complex negotiations on the multi-confessional and multi-ethnic levels.

As has happened in the past over the posts of the country’s president (usually a Kurd), and speaker of parliament (a Sunni) and the distribution of key portfolios in the cabinet, there will be efforts to iron out differences between the three communities as part of the package presented to parliament.

Ultimately, Iraq’s political flux is not just a domestic issue, but is one that also matters deeply for Iran, Iraq’s neighbours, and, indeed, the United States. As indirect nuclear talks between Iran and the United States falter and a deadline for US combat troops to withdraw from Iraq nears, rising tensions could overshadow the political process in Iraq.

Inevitably, with the SFC endorsement day now so close, the question is how Iraq’s Shia parties will resolve the gridlock. What is at stake is not a distribution of seats in the government, but the balance of power between the Shia players and the future dynamics of Iraqi Shia politics in view of the community’s ascendancy.

Perhaps Al-Sadr is the winner in this game. He may have showed his ability to mobilise his supporters en masse, flooding Baghdad’s streets against his rivals. He may also have quietly come to dominate the apparatus of the Iraqi state, and he is the preference of the United States and its allies.

But the Shia militias that have been institutionalised within Iraq’s security forces and have succeeded in infiltrating government departments and the national economy and have considerable Iranian support will remain a force to be reckoned with. It is unlikely that they will give up without a fight.

For these reasons, the assumption that Iraqi politics will shift away from ethno-sectarianism to a non-communal framework after the October elections and that Al-Sadr will emerge as a Shia strongman who is Iraq’s best hope to stand up to Iran will finally be proved to be flawed.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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