JEDDAH: Fears are growing of civil unrest in Iraq amid a deadlock in forming a government eight months after parliamentary elections in which Iran- backed parties suffered heavy losses.
The political stalemate has left the caretaker government unable to address challenges including a food crisis caused by severe drought and the war in Ukraine.
Investments to upgrade water infrastructure have been paused and there is mounting public anger over unemployment, water shortages and soaring food prices.
The UN envoy for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, warned Iraqi political leaders that “the streets are about to boil over” and said national interests were “taking a backseat to short-sighted considerations of control over resources.”
The main winner of last October’s elections was the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. His Iran-backed Shiite rivals lost about two-thirds of their seats and have rejected the election results.
The wrangling to form a government pits Al-Sadr and his Kurdish and Sunni allies on one side against the Coordination Framework, a coalition of Iran-backed Shiite parties and their allies, on the other. In the middle are the independents, themselves divided amid attempts by rival factions to lure them to either side.
“It’s not about power, it’s about survival,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq-based fellow with the Century Foundation. There has been lengthy political wrangling before among rival groups in Iraq over choosing a new president and prime minister, but the current stalemate is the longest yet.
Al-Sadr has been unable to organize enough members in parliament to obtain the two-thirds majority required to elect Iraq’s next president — a necessary step ahead of naming the next prime minister and selecting a Cabinet.
Analysts say Iran has not been able to negotiate an agreement between rival Shiite factions previously played by Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force warlord who was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport in January 2020. At least three trips to Iraq by Soleimani’s successor to mediate among Shiites have failed to produce a breakthrough.
Tehran has cut 5 million cubic meters of gas exports to Baghdad, because Iraq has not paid for previous supplies. Iraq’s Electricity Minister Adel Karim said last month he had no idea how Iraq would pay the nearly $1.7 billion in arrears before the scorching summer months.
Hopes are also receding that independent members of parliament — parties drawn from the 2019 protest movement — could become a coherent force to represent the protesters’ demands in the legislature.
Some independents have said they faced threats and fear for their lives, and one was offered tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to side with the Iran-backed group.