Thousands of followers of the influential populist Shia cleric stormed Iraq’s parliament. Just as quickly the protesters dispersed at his command. Mass mobilization and control is a well-worn strategy of Muqtada al-Sadr, a charismatic figure who has emerged as a powerful force in Iraq’s fractured political landscape with a nationalist, anti-Iranian agenda. are There was an uproar in parliament on Wednesday after Sadr’s Tehran-backed political rival, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, named a pro-Iranian politician as Iraq’s new leader.
A look at how Iraq got to this point:
What is the cause of political paralysis?
Iraq is still unable to form a new government nearly 10 months after national elections. This is the longest since the 2003 US invasion that reshuffled the political order.
The prolonged stalemate has exacerbated an already critical situation, with no clear way out. Iran, meanwhile, is working behind the scenes to unite 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 sectarian violence.
This paralysis—driven largely by the personal vendettas of elites—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 protests were intended as a cautionary message to Sadr’s opponents that they cannot be ignored as they try to form a government without him.
What moves have these powerful players made?
Both al-Sadr and al-Maliki are powerful in their respective positions.
Although al-Sadr’s coalition won the most seats in October’s parliamentary elections, the warring political parties failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to elect a president – a key step before electing a prime minister.
After negotiations stalled, al-Sadr withdrew his bloc from parliament and announced he was withdrawing from talks to form a government.
Seemingly able to summon his followers at the snap of a finger, Sadr can bring the country to a standstill. Since his withdrawal from the talks, street protests in the capital, Baghdad, have been expected.
Al-Maliki heads the Coordination Framework Coalition, a group led by Shiite Iran-backed parties. After their major obstruction was over, the Framework replaced Sadr’s resigned MPs. Although the move was legal, it was also provocative, requiring a majority in Parliament for the framework.
On Monday, the coalition announced former Iraqi Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Mohammad al-Sudani as its candidate for prime minister. He is seen by al-Sadr loyalists as a figurehead through whom al-Maliki can exert control.
Al-Maliki wanted the position of prime minister himself, but audio recordings were leaked in which he allegedly cursed and criticized al-Sadr and even his Shiite allies. Which effectively sunk his candidacy.
What role does religious fervor play?
To mobilize his followers, al-Sadr used al-Sudani’s nomination as well as rising religious fervor ahead of the important Muslim festival of Ashura. It marks the assassination of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, and Shiites typically march in their thousands to commemorate the holiday, with emotions running high in the days that follow.
Wednesday’s protest at Parliament was unique for another reason: riot police did not intervene, and there was little violence.
Toby Dodge, an associate fellow at Chatham House, saw it as a sign that neither side wanted bloodshed.
“There were three big messages: This is theater, there was no violence yesterday and it was intentional on both sides,” Dodge said. “This is a fight within the elite. It has nothing to do with the rest of society. The elite has lost its legitimacy in society.
Even if the al-Maliki and al-Sadr camps manage to resolve their differences, there is a third major player in Iraqi politics: the Kurds.
The two main Kurdish parties – the KDP and the PUK – are also deeply divided. They will first have to agree on a candidate for the presidency of Iraq. The KDP previously allied with al-Sadr, while the PUK belongs to al-Maliki’s framework faction.
How can fights continue outside Parliament?
Neither al-Sadr nor al-Maliki’s factions can afford to be excluded from the political process, as both have much to lose.
Both sides have civil servants in Iraq’s state institutions, deployed to do their bidding by stifling situational decision-making and creating bureaucratic obstacles.
When his eight-year term as prime minister ended in 2014, al-Maliki created an all-encompassing deep state by appointing civil servants to key institutions, including the judiciary. Meanwhile, al-Sadr instituted a parallel deep state with key appointments that peaked in 2018.
For this reason. Framework 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 proceed without the cleric’s agreement.
Both sides have also lost some popular support after massive anti-government protests in 2019 that were crushed by security forces left 600 dead and thousands injured.
This effect was evident in the October 2021 elections. Despite winning the most seats, Sadr’s total number of votes was several thousand less than the previous voting. The turnout was only 43 percent.
What is Iranian character?
Despite the results, Framework has signaled its readiness to move forward with government formation. Framework member lawmaker Mohamed Sadoon called Wednesday’s protest an attempted coup but said it would not stop unity efforts.
“We will not allow this. We are in the process of forming a government and we have enough numbers to elect a president and vote for the next government.
Communications and messaging from the coalition indicate it is preparing for destabilization.
“They don’t expect quiet on the streets, and they’re preparing for it,” said Hamdi al-Malik, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute.
Al-Sudani’s swift nomination is evidence of Iran’s efforts to bring Shia parties into a coalition. It marked a dramatic turnaround since the election, when Iranian-backed parties lost two-thirds of their seats.
Ismail Ghani, the commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, which is part of the Revolutionary Guard and answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made several visits to Baghdad in recent months.
According to officials close to the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity about the talks.
According to an official, Ghani was in the capital during Wednesday’s protests and urged faction leaders not to provoke Sadr.
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