Intelligence Brief: Iraq’s Political Instability

Over a month after supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr invaded the Green Zone in Baghdad and staged a sit-in and protest in the parliament, Iraq is no nearer to resolving its eleven-month old political crisis. Violence has continued throughout Iraq (the bloodiest week in Iraq in over three years) and talks to bring about either new elections or some new government have made little headway. In a turn of events that is not currently explainable, Muqtada al-Sadr has declared that he is withdrawing from politics and that his followers should look to either Iran’s Supreme Leader or other Iranian-affiliated clerics for religious guidance. Despite the fact that al-Sadr was a major force pushing back against the largely Iranian-aligned Coordination Framework, his apparent withdrawal from politics has not led to a way ahead for Iraq to form a long-term working government or go, again, to the polls. The country continues to stumble on with little direction, and those with weapons and those with access to oil revenues to feed their patronage networks continue to dominate domestic politics.

A month ago, it seemed that Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers might have been able to create enough leverage through occupation of the Iraqi parliament to force snap elections, changes to the constitution, or capitulation by some parties allowing them to form a non-interim government. Instead, the situation stalemated and then escalated with more violence among various sectarian groups and particularly between al-Sadr’s followers and armed militias who belonged to some of the elements of other Shiite parties associated with the Coordination Framework. Al-Sadr and his supporters are not strangers to violence against domestic or foreign enemies.

What happened next can only be seen as unexpected and unexplained. Instead of continuing the fight on the streets or in the Iraqi halls of government, Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics and told his followers to look to Iranian clerics, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamanei, for spiritual leadership.

At the same time, al-Sadr ordered his forces to stop fighting in Baghdad but also called Iraqi interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to dismiss the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) chief Faleh al-Fayyadh, remove all PMU headquarters from the Green Zone, and dismantle the Iran-linked resistance factions. Attempts by the current interim government to coax al-Sadr to the table to discuss what next – including questions of near-term elections to try to break the governance log-jam – have so far been unsuccessful. Neither al-Sadr nor any representative of his has attended either of the two rounds of talks called by Prime Minister al-Kadhimi this past week.

The violence has subsided for the time being, but it could be rekindled at any moment. The groups that gathered under Prime Minister al-Kadhimi’s aegis this week talked about near-term elections, something that had been part of al-Sadr’s demands over the past month. However, he also wanted near-term elections held under different election rules. These rules would have to be written by an Iraqi parliament currently incapable of meeting, let alone agreeing on something as consequential as new voting laws. Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni political parties remain on the sidelines, not wanting to get caught up in the rivalry among various Shiite political parties and their armed militias. A repeat of the October 2019 popular protests is also unlikely at this point given the violence that was used to put them down last time. The way ahead for Iraqi domestic politics remains unclear, but the oil keeps flowing because it provides funds for political patronage networks and the basic functioning of the economy.

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