BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr gathered on a recent Friday evening in Tahrir Square, central Baghdad, to show their support.
They were there to praise the Shiite cleric, who has become a key power broker since May elections, for the way he has gone about selecting his preferred candidates for the ministries responsible for the country’s security.
Men and women waved Iraqi flags and banners reading “our neighbors are our friends, not our masters,” a reference to Iran’s political and military interference in Iraq.
Most recently this has been through Tehran’s efforts to impose its own candidates to run the ministries of interior and defense.
At the same time, hundreds of miles to the south, another demonstration took place in Basra. Crowds gathered to protest against attempts by Shiite political parties to elect a new governor to replace the current one.
As’ad Al-Eidani won a seat in parliament during the election and aligned himself with pro-Iran factions. But he wants to keep hold of the powerful provincial position, especially if he is unable to gain a cabinet post.
The protesters had responded to Al-Eidani’s call for support and tried to raid the provincial council building as local leaders met inside to decide on his replacement. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown and riot police responded with tear gas and live bullets, allowing the council members to leave with no vote having taken place.
It was the latest protest to hit Basra in 2018, where local and national level political tensions have spilled over into violence in the province. Basra remains desperately impoverished despite being the country’s main oil-producing hub.
The two scenes in Baghdad and Basra encapsulated the tensions that engulfed Iraq in 2018 - a year in which there was a sea change in Iraq’s political dynamic that overspilled into violence on the streets of Basra. The main battle lines shifted from between the government and extremist militants feeding on disenfranchised Sunnis, to between two Shiite political factions, one pro Iran and the other anti.
A fresh start
Little more than a year ago, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi declared victory over Daesh after three years of battles against Iraqi security forces backed by the Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and the US-led international military coalition.
Territories held by the militants in the north and west were liberated and the number of bombings in Baghdad and other provinces significantly declined. But what came next was a succession of political crises that exposed the vulnerabilities of Iraq’s political system.
“We can certainly define 2018 as the year of political crisis,” Abdulwahid Tuama, an Iraqi political analyst told Arab News.
“As soon as the war against Daesh came to an end by the end of 2017, the political crises began to follow one after the other.”
Shiites, who bore the brunt of the war after tens of thousands volunteered to fight, have been acting as if they were “the actual winners.”
They filled a political vacuum left when Sunni forces melted and let down their constituents during the 2014 Daesh invasion and Kurds in the north were left weakened by a failed independence bid, Tuama said.
New young forces emerged after 2014 under the command of Shiites to help win back Daesh-held areas - but this only served to set up the next power struggle.
“The first sign of the post-Daesh period is the transformation of the nature of the political conflict in Iraq from a Shiite-Sunni conflict into a Shiite-Shiite conflict,” Abbass Al-Yassiri, the head of the Baghdad-based Ishan Center for Political Studies told Arab News.
“Defeating Daesh has redrawn the map of the national powers as Shiites have emerged as the biggest winners while Sunnis and Kurds withdrew into the shadows.
“The fragmentation of the Sunni and Kurdish political forces have forced them to join the powerful Shiite forces to grant them room in the Iraqi political scene.”
The absence of political competition encouraged Shiite leaders to run separate lists for the parliamentary elections for the first time since 2005.
Three main alliances were formed.
Sairoon, was sponsored by Sadr, whose followers once fought American forces in the country before he switched to opposing Iran.
Al-Fattah was led by Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of Badr Organization, the most powerful Shiite armed faction, which is supported by Tehran.
Confident of a second term, Al-Abadi, put together the Al-Nassir coalition.
The three coalitions reflected the military alliances created on the ground during the battle against Daesh. Emboldened by their role and military successes, the Iranian-backed forces came together under Amiri’s Fattah list.
“They (Shiite parties) wanted to know the area of influence each of them held, so they were not keen to run for elections in one big electoral coalition,” a prominent Shiite leader told Arab News.
“They have been saying, that they want to ally with each other, but actually they do not.
“They seek to weaken each other to make it easy to subject the loser to the laws of the winner.”
Democratic progress or political apathy
The 2018 electoral campaigns were the most expensive and bitter since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein. Allegations of sex scandals and threats were used as tools to exclude some candidates and discredit their electoral lists.
Abadi and his candidates along with women were the most targeted.
The fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion were held on May 12, with more than 7,000 candidates taking part. There were no security violations across the country on polling day, but the even bigger surprise was the lack of participation, especially in Shiite-areas. The turnout was 44 percent, the lowest since 2005.
The results put Sairoon in first place, Fattah second and Nassir in third.
Abadi, and his Islamic Dawaa Party, were the biggest losers and it was a bitter defeat for him to swallow. Abadi had restored a relative balance between the two main external powers vying for influence in Iraq - the US and Iran. He successfully invested funds provided by Washington and its allies into the Army and Counter Terrorism Service while also making use of Iranian support and funding for the armed Shiite factions, which represented the back bone of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) fighting Daesh.
His success in leading the country through one of its many dark periods and backing from the US still left him in the strongest position for prime minister.
Amiri, on the other hand, emerged as a representative of the Iranian-backed forces.
“The actual conflict was between the US and Iran not Abadi and Amiri,” Tuama, said.
“Iranians saw Abadi as the man of the US who they can’t trust, so they had to clip his wings.”
The surprise was the big win for Sadr.
Abadi launched an investigation into allegations of fraud, which found “large manipulations” took place in favor of some lists and candidates. The special committee he set up recommended suspending members of the Independent High Electoral Commission and a manual re-count of votes.
At the same time tensions started to increase between Sadr and the Iran-backed faction Assaib Ahl Al-Haq. As the winners and losers exchanged accusations of fraud and intimidation, a huge explosion hit an impoverished Shiite district of the capital on June 6, killing 32, and injuring scores more. All the victims were Sadrists. The investigation found the bomb had targeted a weapons store belonging to Sadr’s Brigades of Peace.
In the private offices of many Shiite leaders, the fingers of blame pointed at Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Five days later, a large fire broke out at a warehouse in east Baghdad, where the electoral commission had stored ballot boxes and electoral equipment. The blaze destroyed many votes, hindering the re-count in part of Baghdad, where most of the fraud allegations were made.
Accusations of who started the blaze were again directed to Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
“All the Shiite leaders and their international backers (Iran and US) were worried and they had to decide either to cancel the election results or continue monitoring the skirmishes between Sadrists and Assaib and risk the outbreak of fighting at any moment,” a prominent Shiite leader told Arab News.
“Chaos was the alternative in both cases, so going with the partial manual re-counting of votes, seemed a great deal.”
In the end, the manual re-count did not change the results.
Summer of protest
As soon as initial results were announced in June, the winners started frantic negotiations to form new alliances to reach a majority in the 329-seat parliament. The biggest alliance can nominate the prime minister and form a government.
The Shiite forces and their Sunni and Kurdish allies split into two camps, one led by Sadr and the other by Amiri. Although both managed to attract most of the parliamentary blocs, neither succeeded in collecting the necessary 166 seats.
As tensions between political rivals in Baghdad escalated, people in Basra suffered through temperatures of 50C with no mains electricity. The already widespread outages became worse when Iran stopped exporting power to Iraq because of new US financial sanctions.
Mass demonstrations took place in Basra in July against the outages and a break down in other basic services including clean water. The protests expanded to target the lack of jobs and high level of poverty.
Iraq’s economy relies entirely on the revenues from Basra’s oil. The province, which is home to dozens of local and international oil-related companies, puts out 3.5 million barrels per day.
Protesters targeted local governmental buildings in the city center, and the oil fields nearby.
Some Iranian-backed factions such as Assaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah-Iraqannounced their support for the demonstrations, which spread to other parts of the province.
Many tribes joined, and cut off roads leading to the oil sites and prevented the arrival of staff.
By the end of the second week of July, at least eight demonstrators had been killed and scores wounded, including security personnel.
Government and political party buildings were set on fire, as the demonstrations spread to other Shiite provinces.
“There were multiple players trying to achieve different goals … the demonstrations were ridden by several Shiite political forces,” Tuama, said.
“The strongest message that was sent was … the Iraqi oil sector is within the range of the Iran-backed Shiite factions.”
Abadi sought to calm the demonstrators by offering to provide tens of thousands of jobs and release hundreds of millions of dollars to fund infrastructure projects in the southern provinces that had stalled since 2014 because of the sharp drop in oil prices and the costly war on Daesh.
The demonstrations were suspended “to give the government an opportunity to improve the basic services.”
Race to control parliament
The Federal Court ratified the results of the elections on Aug. 19.
Negotiations between the two sides, now known as Reform (led by Sadr) and Al-Binna (led by Amiri), made remarkable progress, to form the largest bloc and agree on government’s program.
They also agreed to nominate the Shiite veteran politician and former vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi as an independent candidate to be the prime minister, ending Abadi's hopes of a second term.
Without warning, the negotiations collapsed and the two sides announced they would work separately to form a government. Sadr’s arch foe, the former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who many blame for staking sectarian tensions when he was in power, was accused of sabotaging the deal.
“They were behaving like kids,” an Al-Binna’a negotiator told Arab News.
“Whenever we agree to announce our alliance, Maliki appears in one of the television channels to say something that provokes Sadr, and the latter turns against us.”
Four months after the election, parliament had still not convened and Iraqis became increasingly frustrated that the politicians were again failing to tackle the long list of problems affecting their daily lives.
There had been no real reconstruction in areas liberated from Daesh in the north and west and more than 1.5 million displaced people were still living in tents.
The money released by Abadi had still not reached local governments, especially in Basra, where the terrible state of water had led to 140,000 cases of poisoning.
Deadly protests erupted again in Basra, with government buildings and Shiite armed faction offices set ablaze. At least 10 protesters were killed.
On Sept. 7 the Iranian consulate building in southern Basra was set on fire by protesters chanting against Iran and its interference in Iraqi affairs.
The chaotic protests had dangerously escalated under unclear leadership and attempts to hijack them. With a lost purpose and lack of direction, local leaders and the tribes decided to withdraw.
“It was clear that things were heading towards chaos, and that big players were directing the events (in Basra),” a federal Iraqi intelligence officer told Arab News. “The demonstrations were completely derailed.”
“The investigations we conducted later revealed that several regional and international players were behind what happened in Basra in those days. Even the demonstrators, some of whom were killed, were shot purposely by snipers.”
A new government
To stop the escalation and under pressure from Shiite leaders and the US, Sadr and Amiri agreed to resume negotiations.
The two sides decided the only way forward was to join together under a single joint coalition.
By the end of September, they had agreed on a parliamentary speaker, a president and the prime minister.
Adel Abdul Mahdi presented his cabinet in early October to parliament for a vote, but a dispute erupted over the nominations over eight of the 22 candidates, including the proposed ministers of defense and interior.
Falih Al-Fayadh, the national security adviser, head of the national security apparatus, and the head of Popular Mobilization Units, is at the heart of the dispute. He is also, and one of Amiri’s key allies
Sadr considers Fayadh a man of Iran, so he vetoed his candidature to be the interior minister.
Binna’a’s leaders accuse Sadr of rejecting Fayadh because he turned against Abadi after the election. But even within Binaa there are many against his nomination.
“Sadr rejects Fayadh because he is Iran’s candidate,” a Binna’a negotiator told Arab News. “Iran wants to reward Fayadh for aborting Abadi’s attempts to retain his position by giving him the interior ministry.
“Iran also wants to ensure one of its allies controls the ministry of interior as it is one of the most important keys to control the security in Iraq.”
Iraq goes into 2019 once again in a political deadlock. More than six months after the election, five ministries, including interior and defense are still unfilled and the new prime minister is under increasing pressure.
Political uncertainty driven by external players like Iran and the US will continue to be a key feature, but hopefully for Iraqis, the country will edge away from violence and instability. Unfortunately, poverty, lack of electricity and clean water, and the unending corruption that drains the state coffers of one of the world’s biggest oil producers, will continue to hold back an improvement in Iraq’s daily lives.