On 30 July, hundreds of pro-Sadr demonstrators stormed the Iraqi House of Representatives (HoR), in an attempt to stage an open sit-in inside it, objecting to the Coordination Framework (CF) forces’ nomination of Muhammad Shia as-Sudani as prime minister. This sit-in was preceded by protests in front of the HoR and in the Green Zone that houses the premises of diplomatic missions, resulting in 60 casualties, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health.
On the first day of protests, 27 July 2022, the protesters withdrew after Muqtada as-Sadr addressed protesters on his Twitter account, saying, “Your message has been delivered, dear ones. You frightened the degenerates.” There have been several official calls denouncing the demonstrations but the protests were reignited.
As such, Parliament sessions were suspended and there have been growing calls for holding a dialogue between the various political parties, which raised several questions about the indications of these events and the possible paths they may give rise to in the coming period.
Messages and Indications of Protests
• These protests are not the first in the history of Iraq. In October 2019, there have been protests objecting to the political situation in the country, the corruption of the political class that runs the state, the lack of consensus over a quota system for government formation, and management of the state through the hegemony of competing parties, based on partisan priorities relating to the continuation of special interests, rather than the interests of the state and the Iraqi people.
• These protests come in response to the CF nomination of Muhammad Shia’ as- Sudani as a prime minister, amid refrainment of most of FC leadership from candidacy, including primarily Haider al-Abadi, Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, and Falih Al-Fayyadh. Ultimately, as-Sudani was nominated for the position. The opposing forces objected to the nomination of as-Sudani for having close links with Nouri al-Maliki, who is considered one of the most corrupt figures in Iraq, as has been evidenced by recent leaks of the Iraqi-American journalist Ali Fadel, which included direct accusations against al-Maliki and most of his allies. Noteworthy, as-Sudani was a former leader of the Dawa Party. Over the past years, he held several ministerial portfolios representing the State of Law Coalition led by al-Maliki. As such, a government headed by as-Sudani will be largely subject to Iranian influence.
• The storming of the Parliament comes as a response to the CF forces’ choice of a prime minister close to al-Maliki. Recent leaks revealed his hostility to the Sadrist movement. Preemptively, as-Sadr pushed protesters to the streets to preclude the formation of a government affiliated with al-Maliki. Notably, the leaks uncovered al-Maliki’s willingness to use military force against the Sadrist movement; so, any government close to him will work to dismantle Sadr’s influence on state institutions.
• As-Sadr sends the message that no prime minister shall be chosen without his approval and consent. The upcoming entitlements will not pass without as-Sadr’s approval or involvement. Additionally, he wants to make it clear that withdrawal of the Sadrist bloc from the Iraqi Parliament does not necessarily mean its withdrawal from the political process.
• Beyond that, as-Sadr’s messages reveal his intentions not to withdraw from the political scene and the possibility of his intervention at any time, perhaps waiting for the decisive moment to intervene, whether through the mass public or political interference (i.e. participation in the government as an opposition force or the participation of members close to him).
• The recent developments of storming Parliament and leaks of al-Maliki reveal the impossibility of forming a government headed by as-Sudani, which means pressures could be exerted to nominate another figure from the FC that is accepted by as-Sadr movement, particularly given al-Maliki’s reduced chances for being nominated and the calls for holding him accountable against the backdrop of the recent leaks attributed to him, which include committing offences criminalized under the law.
These complex and intertwined developments may give rise to several possible paths in Iraq, which are detailed as follows:
I- Selection of a Prime Minister that Enjoys General Acceptance. Perhaps a figure that evokes general consensus and that is approved by Muqtada al-Sadr could be chosen, particularly since the CO forces, including primarily the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri and the National Iraqi Alliance led by Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim and Haider al-Abadi, didn’t consent to the appointment of as-Sudani as a prime minister and called for containing the Sadrist movement by nominating a figure it approves.
Iran realizes that the Sadrist movement gains ground in Iraq and that escalation of conflicts will not play in its hands. So, building consensus among the Shiite parties remains critical, particularly given the fact that Muqtada as-Sadr is capable of mobilizing Kurdish and Sunni parties in the event of nomination of any figure that doesn’t enjoy his approval. Together, Kurdish and Sunni blocs can capitalize on the crippled third to preclude the formation of a government by as-Sudani, in the same way the FC used this third to prevent the formation of a government by the Tripartite Alliance led by the Sadrist movement.
Among the names nominated for the premiership were Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, Mustafa al-Kazemi, the current prime minister, Asaad al-Eidani, Governor of Basra, parliamentarian Ali Yousef Shukri, and Haider Al-Abadi. Haider al-Abadi is perhaps the candidate with the best chances. He allied with the Sadrist movement during his term as a prime minister between 2014 and 2018, is antagonistic to al-Maliki, and enjoys some popular support, which ensures that premiership will not go to any of as-Sadr’s rivalries.
Tehran may seek to mitigate the division between the Shiite forces, exerting pressure towards choosing a figure that strikes a chord and reaching a deal with the Kurds and Sunnis. In this vein, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, held a meeting with leaders of the CF and met the President of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Bafel Talabani to reconcile divergent views.
II- The recent developments may lead to the outbreak of a civil war, with the armament of the conflicting parties, the CF’s adherence to the nomination of as-Sudani as a prime minister, and each party sticking to their positions, which may result in the prolongation of the political crisis that has been going on for nine months, the faltering of the transitional phase, and the continuation of political tensions and turmoil for an indefinite period, particularly with as-Sudani being rejected by the Tishreen movement, comprising the 2019 Movement and the Sadrist movement.
Plainly, the Sadrist movement has a broad grass-roots base and is capable of mobilizing the street at any moment. So, the 2008 scenario may be repeated. Back then, an armed conflict broke out between the security forces led by then prime minister al-Maliki and al-Mahdi’s army, i.e. the military wing of the Sadrist movement.
If this happens, betting would be on the intervention of intermediaries to find a political solution that would lead to election or, even better, the Constitution could be amended before the elections, given the parliamentary bloc problematic affecting the appointment of the prime minister and forming the government. According to Article 76 of the Iraqi Constitution, “The President of the Republic shall charge the nominee of the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives with the formation of the Council of Ministers within fifteen days from the date of the election of the President of the Republic.”
Therefore, Article 76 mentioned the largest bloc in the Parliament “parliamentary bloc”, meaning the largest parliamentary bloc is not necessarily the majority bloc winning the elections. This constituted the base of government formation processes from 2006 to 2018.
Perhaps the contradiction between provisions is one of the reasons behind the continuous disagreements between the Iraqi forces over government formation. Article 45 of the new electoral law of 2020 stipulates that “no member of the Parliament, party, or bloc on an open winning electoral list has the right to move to a coalition, party, bloc, or another list except after the formation of the government, without prejudice to the right of open or single-name lists to create coalitions with other lists after the elections.”
On 22 December, the Federal Court sought issuing a court order, ruling that “the largest bloc in the Council be defined as being either the bloc formed after the election from a single electoral list or from two or more electoral lists that made it to the HoR and whose members took the constitutional oath.”
III- If the situation continues to complicate, there may be calls for re-election or early parliamentary elections, amid failure to build consensus over the government formation between the Sadrist movement and the FC forces. Till now, no solution has been produced that could push the political process forward.
Since the completion of the elections, there have been ongoing discord between the political forces, where the Shiite-Shiite dispute exacerbated, with the Sadrist movement obtaining the largest share of votes in the legislative elections. The Sadrist movement aspired to form a majority government that comprises the parties winning in the election. Towards that, it formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) that included the Sadrist Movement (73 seats), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (31 seats), and the Sovereignty Alliance (67 seats), accounting for more than half of the parliament members, i.e. 171 seats out of 329 seats.
The CF bloc, though, wanted to form a consensus government (a sectarian and partisan-based quota government). The CF Bloc comprised the State of Law Coalition headed by Nuri al-Maliki, the Fatah Movement headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the State Forces Coalition headed by Ammar al-Hakim, and the Victory Alliance headed by Haider al-Abadi.
In principle, as-Sadr rejects allying with al-Maliki. This has been evidenced in statements on his Twitter account on 25 January 2022: “I informed al-Amiri and al-Fayyad of my rejection of a coalition with al-Maliki.” The CF forces were hoping that that the Shiite forces would come together in one coalition, similar to what has been the case with former governments. The CF forces believe that the majority government that as-Sadr seeks forming will bring about divisions between the Shiite forces for the first time since the 2006 elections, causing them to be split between forces representing the government and others representing the opposition, which runs counter to the desire of the pro-Sadr regional powers. If the Shiite forces remain united, this will enable regional powers to implement their projects and achieve their goals in Iraq.
Over the past months, the pro-Iran forces have disrupted the political scene, where forces of the National Salvation Front and the CF forces exchanged accusations over the responsibility of each party for deepening the political crisis and crippling the election of a new president and formation of the government, given failure to meet the required legal quorum to electing the president (220 parliamentarians out of 329) through three failed attempts that exceeded the constitutional limit. The CF forces served as the crippling third party by co-opting several independent members of the Parliament, which enabled the CF to form a bloc of 110 parliamentarians. The NSF failed three times to ensure a constitutional quorum to enable the election of a new president. A prime minister was supposed to be chosen from the largest bloc of about 165 lawmakers but the Sadrist movement initiatives did not help make this possible, as it decided to withdraw from Parliament and announced its unwillingness to participate with the “corrupt forces” in forming the government.
In short, the political scene remains open to all scenarios. If the political parties didn’t make concessions in favor of the Iraqi state by setting private interests and the interests of foreign parties aside, the situation would deteriorate. A constitutional amendment on the political system or the formation of government can be relied upon to salvage the political process.