The protesters were mainly supporters of the populist Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, who was once believed to be the likeliest to form a coalition government after winning the largest bloc of seats in parliament following elections in October.
However, negotiations were complicated, as always. Al-Sadr, known for taking sudden and radical decisions that appeal mainly to his angry supporters, suddenly announced that he was requesting that all the MPs in his party should resign from parliament. When the second largest Shiite bloc, known to be close to Iran, came forward and started working on appointing a prime minister, Sadr supporters took to the streets again, occupied parliament, and declared they would never allow a new premier to be named.
There has already been a long constitutional and legal debate on who has the right to form a government in Iraq, based on the parliamentarian system there. Sadr and his supporters insist that they alone have the sole right to form the government as the winners of the largest bloc of seats. But his Shiite rivals have a different legal interpretation, arguing that the parties that together manage to form the largest bloc can appoint the government.
It has always taken months of covert deals among Iraq’s political elite as well as intervention by key regional and international players to reach an agreement on the nominated prime minister who will form the government. Yet this time, the delay has lasted longer than usual, and many experts on Iraq seriously fear that the current, absurd state of chaos will grow out of hand, so that the fighting will not be among the key sects in Iraq, mainly Shiite, Sunni and Kurds, but also within each. This would be the nightmare scenario and a quick end for recent triumphs the country has achieved on the road to restoring relative stability and mending its ties with its neighbours and the rest of the world.
Since the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in April 2003, former US president George W Bush believed that dividing government and top positions like war spoils among Iraqi sects and ethnicities would bring peace to Iraq, replacing the dictatorship headed by late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. This was a recipe for disaster. It did not work in Lebanon, and it was unlikely to work in Iraq. Coming up with a system where the president has to be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the speaker of parliament a Sunni, was the beginning of the official adoption of a sectarian system in Iraq.
Saddam was no doubt a dictator who committed fatal mistakes that tragically hurt his country and his people, particularly from 1990 onwards, following his decision to invade and occupy neighbouring Kuwait. However, what cannot be denied is that, at least officially, he adopted a rhetoric aimed at creating an Iraqi identity that transcends sectarian loyalties and keeping the country intact.
Many experts remain puzzled, unable to understand what Bush had in mind when he decided to invade Iraq and destroy its army, one of the key symbols of national unity. The only direct and immediate result was a simple Iranian takeover, benefiting from the long-standing relations Iran had developed with Shiite figures and militias that fought against Hussein.
When other neighbouring Arab countries ignored Iraq, fearing the state of chaos and insecurity that existed right after US occupation, it was Iran that went in to fill the gap, providing generous assistance, whether directly or through hundreds of thousands of Iraqi pilgrims who flooded to visit Shiite holy sites in Najaf and Karbalaa. Tehran makes no secret of its direct ties to Shiite militias in Iraq, and the well-known commander of Iran’s famous Quds Brigade, Qassem Suleimani, was assassinated by US drones on Iraq’s soil.
However, Iranian ambitions in Iraq did not go as smoothly as Tehran expected. Even among Shiites, many remained loyal to their Iraqi identity, unwilling to accept Iran’s dominance over Iraqi affairs. Al-Sadr is also a regular visitor to Tehran, but he was keen to keep his distance, unlike other Iraqi parties that receive direct funding and military training from Iran. He also presented himself as a fiery anti-US figure, ordering his fighters at one point to fight against US troops to force them out of the country.
When popular protests broke out in Iraq in late 2019, the political elite failed to understand the message coming from the streets. Indeed the protests demanding an end to corruption, sectarianism and Iranian dominance managed to bring down former prime minister Adel Al-Mahdi, replacing him with the current Premier Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Yet when elections were held 10 months ago, the ruling elite were back to their traditional infighting, fuelled by regional powers that seek to dominate Iraq.
Although he was not an elected prime minister, Al-Kadhimi managed to achieve a degree of stability in Iraq and fulfilled his main pledge to hold elections. Equally important, he was determined to restore Iraq’s ties with its neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and revived a joint alliance that gathered Egypt and Jordan together with his country. Khadimi’s success in restoring Iraq’s role was a key reason he was invited to take part in the recent summit held in Jeddah between US President Joe Biden and the leaders of nine Arab nations: the six Gulf Cooperation Council members, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. All these triumphs are in jeopardy now, and requires all parties concerned – Iraqi, regional and international – to do what it takes to form a stable government most focused on the needs of the Iraqi people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.