The storming of parliament on Wednesday came after al-Sadr’s Tehran-backed political rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, nominated a pro-Iranian politician to be Iraq’s new leader .
A glimpse of how Iraq got here:
WHAT LED TO POLITICAL PARALYSIS?
Nearly 10 months after holding national elections, Iraq has been unable to form a new government. It is the longest period since the 2003 US invasion which restored political order.
The continuing stalemate has brought the already fragile state to a standstill, with no clear way out. Iran, meanwhile, is working behind the scenes to bring together a fragmented Shia Muslim elite, with the potential to upset the delicate political balance with the United States and usher in a new era of interfaith violence.
This paralysis – driven in large part by elite personal vendettas – has turned Iraq’s political system into a high-stakes game of chess with destabilizing consequences. Ordinary Iraqis have no choice but to watch.
Wednesday’s protest was intended to warn opponents of al-Sadr that he could not be ignored as they attempted to form a government without him.
WHAT MOVEMENTS DID THESE POWERFUL PLAYERS MAKE?
Al-Sadr and al-Maliki are both powerful.
Although al-Sadr’s alliance won the most seats in October’s parliamentary elections, bickering political parties failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to choose a president – a milestone important before the Prime Minister can be selected.
After negotiations stalled, al-Sadr withdrew his bloc from parliament and announced he was quitting talks on forming a government.
Able to summon his followers in the blink of an eye, al-Sadr can paralyze the country. Expectations of street protests have swirled in the capital of Baghdad since he left the talks.
Al-Maliki heads the Coordinating Framework alliance, a group led by Iran-backed Shiite parties. Their main obstacle having disappeared, the Cadre replaced the deputies who resigned from al-Sadr. While this decision was legal, it was also provocative, giving the Cadre the necessary majority in parliament.
On Monday, the alliance announced Mohammed al-Sudani, Iraq’s former labor and social affairs minister, as its candidate for prime minister. He is seen by al-Sadr loyalists as a figure through which al-Maliki can exercise control.
Al-Maliki had himself wanted the premiership, but audio recordings have been leaked in which he allegedly curses and criticizes al-Sadr and even his own Shiite allies. This effectively sank his candidacy.
WHAT ROLE DOES RELIGIOUS FERVOUR PLAY?
Galvanizing his supporters, al-Sadr exploited anger over al-Sudani’s appointment as well as growing religious fervor ahead of the important Muslim holiday of Ashura. It marks the murder of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, and Shiites usually march in their thousands to commemorate the holiday, with strong emotions in the days leading up to it.
Wednesday’s demonstration in parliament was unique for another reason: riot police did not intervene and there was little violence.
Toby Dodge, a Chatham House partner, saw this as a sign that neither side wanted the bloodshed to escalate.
“There were three big messages: This is theater, there was no violence yesterday, and it’s deliberate on both sides,” Dodge said. “It’s a fight within the elite; it has nothing to do with the rest of society. This elite has lost its legitimacy in society.
Even if the al-Maliki and al-Sadr camps manage to settle their differences, there is a third major player in Iraqi politics: the Kurds.
The two main Kurdish parties – the PDK and the PUK – are also deeply divided. They should first agree on a candidate for the Iraqi presidency. The KDP had previously allied itself with al-Sadr, while the PUK belongs to al-Maliki’s Framework faction.
HOW COULD THE BATTLES CONTINUE OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT?
Neither the al-Sadr factions nor the al-Maliki factions can afford to be excluded from the political process, as both have much to lose.
Both sides have officials entrenched in the institutions of the Iraqi state, deployed to do as they please when circumstances require by interrupting decision-making and creating bureaucratic obstructions.
At the end of his eight-year term as prime minister in 2014, al-Maliki built a pervasive deep state by installing officials in key institutions, including the judiciary. Meanwhile, al-Sadr has implanted a parallel deep state with key appointments that peaked in 2018.
Because of this. the Cadre knows that even without a presence in parliament, al-Sadr will wield significant power in the state, as well as on the streets, if al-Maliki’s supporters choose to move forward without the deal of the religious.
Both sides also lost some popular support following massive protests in 2019 against the government that were put down by security forces that left 600 people dead and thousands injured.
This impact was clear in the October 2021 elections. Although he won the largest share of seats, al-Sadr’s vote tally was several thousand fewer than in the previous ballot. Turnout was only 43%.
WHAT IS THE IRANIAN ROLE?
Despite the consequences, the Cadre has signaled that he is ready to move forward with the formation of a government. Framework lawmaker Mohammed Sadoun described Wednesday’s protest as a coup attempt, but said it would not deter the alliance’s efforts.
“We will not allow it. We are involved in the process of forming a government and there are enough of us to elect the president and vote for the next government,” he said.
Communication and messages from the alliance show that it is preparing for instability.
“They don’t expect the streets to be quiet, and they’re preparing for it,” said Hamdi al-Malik, associate researcher at the Washington Institute.
The relatively quick appointment of al-Sudani testifies to Iran’s efforts to bring the Shiite parties into the alliance. It marked a dramatic turnaround from the election, when Iran-backed parties lost two-thirds of their seats.
Esmail Ghaani, commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, which is part of the Revolutionary Guards and answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made numerous trips to Baghdad in recent months.
His mission has been to help the parties stay together and agree on a candidate for prime minister, according to officials close to the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.
Ghaani was in the capital during the protests on Wednesday and urged faction leaders not to provoke al-Sadr, according to one of the officials.