FROM SADDAM TO SADR, WHAT’S NEXT FOR IRAQ?
June 25, 2022 | Expert Insights
Iraq has been mired in political turmoil since October 2021. On account of the 2019 protests that broke out in Baghdad square against governmental corruption, political sectarianism and inefficient public services, the parliamentary elections due in 2022 were moved up to that year. The October elections saw the Sadrist Movement win 73 of the Council of Representatives’ 329 seats. The party has been unable to form a government since. In a sharp turn of events on Sunday, the 73 Sadrist lawmakers resigned upon the order of their leader. With a deepening political crisis, will fresh elections be held or violence and instability continue to ensue in Iraq?
How Iran institutionalised its presence in Iraqi politics
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has paved its way into Iraq. Ayatollah Khomeine recruited exiled Shiites who took refuge in Iran and sent them to fight in the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Since the execution of Saddam Hussein, Iran filled in the power vacuum in Iraq through its paramilitary organs and drew on the surge of Shiite nationalism, which strongly appealed to and helped forge alliances with their then ostracised Shia brethren in Iraq. Iran has also managed to permeate Iraq’s government with political parties that have strong ties to Tehran.
Muqtada Al-Sadr is one of the most prominent political figures in Iraq, with his influence deeply entrenched in the country’s political structure. Sadrist have and do hold positions in important public offices. His bloc’s resignation shouldn’t be interpreted as his exit from politics. He amassed a large followership especially among the Shia underclass and capitalises on the legacy of his father the Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr. Known for his surprise and unpredictable manoeuvres, Sadr leveraged the 2019 protests and sought to “officially” join the elections to fight against institutionalised corruption and be a voice for the Shia minority.
However, his unsuccessful attempt to form a majority government sans pro-Tehran paramilitaries and shiite influence, was unprecedented in a national confessionalism style of government. The Speaker of the Council of Representatives announced the legislature would proceed with measures according to election law and parliamentary protocols to select a replacement, after the Sadr bloc’s en masse resignation and accused them of scapegoating due to their failure to form a coalition. This means filling the vacated seats, which will be inevitably occupied by Iran backed political parties with caretaker PM and president continuing to hold their positions.
Ironically, this appears to be exactly the outcome the wily leader of the Sadr bloc hoped for. This was exactly the type of parliament that sparked the 2019 protests. The 2018 parliament led by PM Abdul-Mahdi, of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SIIC) established in Iran in 1982, and an Irani-Shiite run parliament was tainted with the image of political corruption. As indicated in his latest tweet, the clerical leader intends to make political hay of the absence of Sadrists in the current government. Coupled by the rise of Iraqi nationalism and resentment for Tehran’s influence in Iraq, he can delegitimize the present shiite representation due to their ties to Iran.
Sadr’s resignation and cry against participation in corrupt politics should not be given as much weight. It was the exact same claim he made in 2019 after which Sadr announced his party would be contesting in the elections. Sadr’s staunch anti-American and anti-Iranian views, support for an Iraqi shiite representation and his latest move on the political theatre will make him appear to be a champion of democracy and the Iraqi people.
However, some people might view Sadr’s latest resignation manoeuver as a way of retaining influence without bearing responsibilities of dealing with the twin challenge of prolonged economic troubles and an unforgiving summer ahead- with a dwindling water supply and heat induced droughts.
- Deepening economic woes will continue to take a backseat in Iraqi politics. The Opposition is aware that it is short of impossible to form a government without Sadrists, in spite of its legitimacy and will tread carefully to retain its now limited influence.
- Tehran’s long held influence in Baghdad is being tested and slowly chipped away at by Sadr
- The lack of foreign intervention to resolve the deadlock in parliament as well as a free and fair election appear to be tell-tale signs of a burgeoning democracy in Iraq. However, with the country’s history of political instability, the power vacuum caused by the absence of a functioning government could be used as an opportunity by Tehran to indirectly fortify its influence in Iraq or by extremist elements to restore the power they once held in the Al-Anbar province.
- Fresh elections could be conducted since there’s a strong probability the public will oppose a Iran aligned Shiite running parliament (as seen in 2019 protests) and Sadr could also apply political pressure to ensure the same.