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Shiite Polarization: Positions Governing Developments in Iraq

Tensions in Iraq have heightened dramatically over the past few weeks, the most flagrant manifestation of which was Muqtada Al-Sadr’s announcement of withdrawal from politics and focusing on his clerical role. Al-Sadr’s loyalists refused to accept his decision, claiming there were ulterior motives. As such, they stormed the Green Zone and the Presidential Palace. 

Al-Sadr’s loyalists had earlier blockaded the premises of the Federal Supreme Court and the Supreme Judicial Council before they withdrew. Meanwhile, some forces of Saraya Al-Salam, the military wing of the Sadrist movement, entered Baghdad under the pretext of protecting the protestors, for fear of harassment from groups of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

Clashes started with groups affiliated with the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq party (two fanatical factions linked to Iran), and the PMF opening fire on the forces of Saraya Al-Salam and the Sadrist movement’s protestors. Forces of Saraya Al-Salam responded militarily, which gave rise to clashes with heavy, medium, and light weapons in and around the Green Zone on the evening of 29 August and the morning of 30 August. These clashes claimed the lives of 33 people besides hundred injuries. In several governorates, particularly in Maysan and Basra, Al-Sadr’s loyalists set fire to the premises of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq which provoked military confrontations between the two sides. Meanwhile, Iran closed its land borders with Iraq and suspended flights, concurrently with the intensification of violence.

Dominant Iranian Position

The Iranian position was instrumental in heightening tensions in Iraq over the past days, associated with the four visits of General Esmail Qaani commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to Baghdad in August, in which he met with most Shiite leaders, primarily leaders of the Coordination Framework (CF). He also visited Kurdistan and met with the leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in an attempt to reconcile the situation and formulate a solid alliance of these forces. In his last tour, Esmail Qaani tried to meet Muqtada Al-Sadr or any of the leaders of the Sadrist movement, but Al-Sadr totally rejected so that he does not seem in line with the Iranian position, supporting the CF.

Iran countered Al-Sadr through two axes. First, it sought building understandings with the CF after preparing the ground with the Sunni bloc. In this vein, Qaani met with Mohamed Al-Halbousi, following a meeting with leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, in which it was agreed that a Parliamentary session be held to nominate Al-Sudani a President, the CF make concessions that the Kurdistan Democratic Party needs, and the Kurdish parties agree on sharing power. Seemingly, this was almost at hand and following that a government was to be formed according to the existing Shiite formula with the CF constituting a majority and the political system in Iraq remaining as is linked to Iran, with the Sadrist movement kept away from the political scene.  

The second axis which Iran worked on was related to Kadhim Al-Haaeri, a prominent Shiite leader in Qom who has long served as a key marja’ for Sadrists. He was a student of Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr and Sayyid Muhammad Al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada Al-Sadr. After the death of Baqir Al-Sadr and Sayyid Al-Sadr, Sadrists emulated Al-Haaeri, considering him as their grand marja’. In a statement attributed to him, Al-Haaeri announced abandoning the Shiite marja’ asking his followers and Sadrists to emulate Khamenei as the grand marja’ rather than any supreme marja’ from Iraq (i.e. Ayatollah Ali Sistani). Al-Haaeri criticized Muqtada Al-Sadr, pointing out that he does not have the academic degrees that qualify him to be senior cleric or to lead the Shiite community.

Government Position

Mustafa Al-Kazemi’s position has been interpreted as an attempt to avoid clashes with any of the conflicting parties. Al-Kazemi wagers on maintaining good relations with both of them, in the hope that the situation would calm down and he retains candidacy to head the government in a time it’s difficult to develop consensus on a Prime Minister that enjoys the consent of all major parties.

While the Iraqi Prime Minister announced the imposition of a curfew and a military and security siege on Baghdad, the resolution never came into effect. Forces of the PMF and Saraya Al-Salam affiliated with the Sadrist movement entered Baghdad with no resistance, in a clear proof that the state can’t stand in the face of these movements in all their diversity and that the government is not willing to engage in the clashes between them, leaving the scene for the two Shiite currents to confront each other away from it.

Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Position

Muqtada Al-Sadr realized that Iran had completely severed the link with him and that its moves weren’t only intended to besiege him or support the opposing current but to exclude him and dismantle the Sadrist bloc, whether at the political or military level or as a source of emulation. As such, when he announced withdrawal from politics, he made it clear that Sadrists used to emulate other sources based on the guidance of the senior leaders and the supreme Sadrist marja’ and that he has doubts over the statement of Kadhim Al-Haaeri, noting that it was dictated to him.

There has been information circulating in Iraq, for more than two years now, about Kadhim Al-Haeri’s suffering from Alzheimer which prevented him from doing his clerical work or attending any clerical event over the two years. As such, his resignation from his clerical role was perhaps an Iranian decision so that people won’t seek his stance on the Sadrist current movement, and ends up giving Iran what it needs.

By his exit from politics, Al-Sadr caused Iran to miss the opportunity and left it to his loyalists to decide their political position. He made them realize that he is coming under pressure at several levels, a message that his loyalists got, which prompted them to take the military action and mobilize the street to counter this position, reject Al-Sadr’s resignation, and underscore the Sadrist current will remain coherent. In reaction to this, Iran moved the PMF, which has an opposing position of the Sadrist current where Muqtada Al-Sadr demands that all the PMF forces be kept under the government’s control.

In effect, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s position, as evidenced by his statement in the press conference, represented a strategic development in the Iraqi crisis, where his call for his supporters to end demonstrations and withdraw from the Green Zone and his thanks to the PMF represented a major shift in his position. Undoubtedly, this development reveals Al-Sadr’s desire for pacification with Iran, his concern over the threats of Esmail Qaani, and his attempt to contain and besiege the Iranian position geared towards distracting and excluding the Sadrist movement. Seemingly, Al-Sadr is trying to bend to the storm temporarily and wait to decide how to deal with future developments.

Conclusion

Two potential scenarios dominate the Iraqi scene. The first scenario is that Iran will try to establish a quorum for the CF to hold a parliamentary session that gives rise to the nomination of the President. Constitutionally, the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq, which is dominated by pro-Iran Shiite judges, has complicated the idea of majority government formation, stating that “the quorum is achieved in the presence of two-thirds of the total number of members of the total parliament”, in an attempt to incapacitate the winning bloc, i.e. the Sadrist movement. If this requirement isn’t met, no President and prime minister would be named.

The second potential scenario is that the situation in Iraq remains as is, which would prompt all parties to seek pacification and halt military confrontations, a scenario that would give rise to discussions about whether the electoral system is good as is or needs modification and whether bargaining between the CF and the Sunni and Kurdish blocs to establish a quorum is possible, which would imply the need to make concessions to the Kurds as regards the export of oil, the disputed areas, and the implementation of Article 140 of the Constitution. In this case, the price of establishing a quorum would be costly, which raises doubts about the possibility of achieving this.

Clearly, the two conflicting parties will not engage in a comprehensive confrontation, as has been manifested in the speech of Muqtada Al-Sadr at the press conference, and will likely move to pacification but the state of tension between the two parties will continue. Events of the past days were demonstrative of the absence of groups that were active in last year’s protests and independent parliamentarians who failed to form a bloc that expresses their voice. If this is any indicator, it asserts the continuation of the Iraqi political system structure that has existed since the US occupation of Iraq.

Despite Al-Sadr’ withdrawal from political life, the Shiite-Shiite polarization will continue. Al-Sadr’s position will perhaps lead to a pacification and the return of the hegemony of Iran and CF over the political scene.

The Arabic version of this article was originally published on 31 August 2022.

Dr. Mohamed Megahed
Advisory Board Member

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