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US nemesis Muqtada al-Sadr throws Iraqi parliament into the air

US nemesis Muqtada al-Sadr throws Iraqi parliament into the air

The radical Shi'a cleric has found a way to potentially spoil the system imposed by Washington two decades ago. What now?

Analysis | Middle East

Iraq is now in the eighth month of a political crisis triggered by the attempt of a Shi’a leader, Moqtada Sadr, to shatter the political paradigm that has prevailed since the second Gulf War. 

This prolonged confrontation between a radical preacher, his Sunni and Kurdish tactical allies, and the rest of Iraq’s political parties — which reached a crescendo last week when he and his allies quit the parliament — threatens to tear the country apart.

When the United States occupied Iraq in 2003, it took dramatic steps that recast the post-Saddam state. As L. Paul Bremer, the management consultant installed by the Bush administration as ruler of Iraq, instructed his staff prior to his arrival in Baghdad, “It is desirable that my arrival in Iraq be marked by clear, public and decisive steps. These should reinforce our overall policy messages and reassure Iraqis that we are determined to extirpate Saddamism.” 

These clear, public and decisive steps included the dispersal of tens of thousands of instantly unemployed soldiers and civil servants throughout Iraq, the dispossession of many Sunni Iraqis, and the establishment of a political system based on sectarian identity, rather than policy orientation. A disinterested Washington establishment believed— or pretended to believe — George W. Bush’s claim the “mission” was “accomplished” by the defeat of an army that for the most part had dissolved in advance of the U.S. entry into Baghdad.

Bremer therefore was unconstrained by either a functioning interagency system back home or knowledge of Iraqi society, politics, or history on the ground. Saddamism, whatever he meant by that, was just a figment of his imagination.

The initial results of Bremer’s decisive steps became clear early on. Seeding Iraqi cities with young men and angry ex-officers fueled an insurgency that evolved into a full-blown civil war. The “extirpation” of Saddamism took the form of de-Baathification, an absurd riff on post World War de-Nazification of a vanquished Germany. In the Iraqi case, it instantly eradicated whatever administrative capacity the Iraqi state still possessed, forcing the population to rely on entrepreneurs — warlords — who provided security and public goods on a sectarian basis. 

The final blow, Bremer’s allocation of ministerial responsibility and political leadership according to sectarian affiliation, took longer to hobble Iraq’s post-invasion workings. This sectarian quota system, which derived not from Iraq’s traditional politics, but rather from Lebanon’s, is at the root of Iraq’s current crisis.

The problem with this political arrangement is that it incentivizes participants to form governing cartels that extract resources from the state, which they use for personal enrichment and patronage networks that keep them in power. It also incentivizes participants to perpetuate sectarian criteria for political organization and access to state funds. For the political leadership, this is a wonderful thing. The only public good one needs to deliver is sectarian identity and the flow of funds that follow from it. Policy making is not a requirement, let alone implementing policy. 

Furthermore, in the case of the Shi’a parties, for example, social services, health care, municipal infrastructure can all be starved for funding by leaders who tell their constituents that money must be diverted to the battle against Sunni revanchism and Kurdish separatism. The common interest of Iraqi political parties in sustaining this system of sectarian apportionment, known as muhasasa ta’ifiya, is deep and self-perpetuating. Hence the frequent formation of consensus governments following national elections. Under this apportionment system, only a fool would choose to be in the opposition.

When elections were held last fall, the usual wash-rinse-repeat cycle did not happen. Muqtada al-Sadr, a Trumpian Shi’a cleric, wild card of Iraqi politics, and chief of a cult-like social movement, declared that his large share of parliamentary seats entitled him to form a majority government with a Kurdish and Sunni party. 

His agenda sent tremors for two reasons. First, of course, was the threat to the interests of the parties that would be pushed into the opposition. They would, in effect, be cut off from the state resources that enabled them to survive and prosper. And the transformation of the system from sectarian apportionment to conventional parliamentary politics would compel them to compete for voters on the basis of their ability to deliver the goods. 

They also see a dictatorship in the making, whereby Sadr, in charge of a majority government, would engulf and devour all the other players. Whether or not these fears are valid, Sadr, a fanatical Shi’a Islamist, does seem perversely in tune with many Iraqis of diverse ethnic or sectarian roots, who have moved past these identity markers as walls between communities. But, as in the United states, there is a “representation gap,” where the elites who dominate electoral politics are further to the Right or Left of their voters. In Iraq, this has driven turnout to record lows.

Second, Sadr’s maneuver aimed to split the Shi’a front. Until now, the Shi’a parties had marched more or less under a common banner. There was at least one major exception, during the premiership of Nuri al-Maliki in 2008, when the military was dispatched to Basra, in southern Iraq, to suppress a challenge from none other than Sadr’s militia.

As in Lebanon, Shi’a unity in Iraq was never foreordained. Maliki emerged as a player within the Dawa party, which had a long history of resistance to Saddam and the strong support of Iran. Many Shi’a revere the Ayatollah Sistani in the holy city of Najaf. The Badr Party, which is also closely aligned with Iran, has a significant body of supporters. Sadr’s Mahdi Army, renamed The Peace Companies in 2018, is fervently dedicated to Sadr. And there is a congeries of Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) including Kata’eb Hizballah and Asa’eb Ahl al Haq, which are also linked to Iran. 

Despite differing agendas, degrees of proximity to Iran, attitudes toward the U.S., or other divisive issues, the Shi’a political groups tended to coalesce in the government formation process. Iran favored this pattern and strongly encouraged it because it facilitated Tehran’s influence over the largest portion of Iraq’s electorate.

Sadr‘s gambit entailed a coalition of his party, Sunnis following Mohammad Halbousi of Anbar province, and Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party. Together they had the votes to force the Coordination Framework, a coalition of Maliki’s party, Haider al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, the PMF’s, and an assortment of smaller players into opposition. 

But Sadr ran into two obstacles. First was simply the Framework’s unwillingness to roll over. In part this was due to Iranian pressure, and in part because they equated opposition status with existential loss. Then the Supreme Court voted to apply Article 70 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the presidency of a newly formed government must be approved by two thirds of the Consultative Assembly, or parliament. Since Sadr’s coalition, as strong as it was, could not muster two-thirds of the parliamentary vote, it couldn’t appoint a president and therefore couldn’t form a government

Sadr has dealt with this seemingly fatal setback by having his own party’s representatives resign during the current recess, bringing the formation process to a halt.

At this stage, no one is quite sure what happens next. In one scenario, Sadr acknowledges defeat and accedes to participation in a consensus government, perhaps keeping his powder dry until the next election. A new president is appointed, who in turn appoints a weak prime minister from outside the political sphere. This description fits the existing prime minister, Mustafa al-Khadimi and his predecessor, Adel Abd al Mahdi.

In another, grimmer scenario, Sadr does not reinstate Sadrist representatives in parliament, thereby hamstringing the legislative process, and, instead, sends his armed followers into the street to force systemic change. This would be especially perilous because it would likely coincide with a resurgence of the massive Tishreen demonstrations of 2019, which the Sadrists helped suppress. On Sunday, June 19, it was 118 Fahrenheit in Baghdad. Electricity is only intermittently available. Tempers will be short. The conditions for violence are palpable.

As tension suffuses this interval, observers ask what Sadr’s ploy means for the United States, which has a small number of troops in Iraq, but provides vital support for key components of Iraq’s armed forces, while trying to stanch pervasive Iranian influence throughout Iraq. Some observers draw comfort from Sadr’s apparent defiance of Iran, seeing him as a sign of Iran’s diminishing role in Iraq and as a tacit ally.  There might be some truth to this. But his willingness to run counter to Iran’s preferences does not qualify him as a member of some anti-Iran coalition.

To see his objectives, to the degree they are discernible, as concerned with U.S interests would be wrong. He is playing his own distinctly Iraqi game. There is an irony embedded in these developments, however, which a senior U.S. official privately framed in this way: It was about time that Iraqis jettisoned the Muhasasa system with which the U.S. saddled Iraq two decades ago. That it was Muqtada al-Sadr, a bone deep adversary of the United States, to make the move,  raises deep ambivalence.

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks after preliminary results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced in Najaf, Iraq October 11, 2021. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani|
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