BAGHDAD: Moqtada Al-Sadr has raised the stakes in the struggle for Iraq with a major political escalation that could lead to conflict with his Iran-backed rivals or force a compromise in their tussle over government.
Frustrated at being unable to form an administration eight months after his party won the biggest share of seats in parliament, the leader steered Iraqi politics into uncharted territory on Sunday when his lawmakers quit.
The step points to a deepening struggle for influence in the Shiite community that has been ascendant since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein two decades ago.
A serious challenge to the post-Saddam order, Sadr’s move has presented his Iran-backed rivals with a major dilemma.
In theory, they could now form an administration of their choosing to replace the outgoing government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who continues as caretaker.
But in reality, analysts say such a move would likely provoke unrest and even conflict with Sadr’s vast support base, which has previously taken up arms.
For Iran, the latest twist in Iraq’s political crisis is an unwelcome development, underlining intra-Shiite fissures that risk undermining its influence.
Sadr, who has positioned himself as an opponent of US and Iranian influence, has not detailed his reasons for quitting parliament. In a handwritten note, he described it as “a sacrifice” for the homeland.
Sadr’s Iran-backed opponents appear to be moving cautiously, well aware of his capacity to mobilize. They convened a meeting on Monday but announced no new decisions.
“We are caught off guard by Sadr’s surprising decision and we think a bad scenario is waiting for us in case we move ahead and form a government,” Ahmed Kinani, an Iran-aligned Shiite politician, said.
“We must read the recent, crucial development very carefully before deciding the next step, because forming a government without Sadrists will be a huge risk. We don’t want to be ambushed.”
Sadr has not declared his next move. He has a track record of radical action, including fighting US forces, quitting Cabinets, and protesting against governments. Last year, he declared he would boycott the election, before reversing course.
“We are out of the political scene now, and let’s see how a new government will stand without Sadrists,” said a source at his office.
Ihsan Al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Center for Political Thought, did not expect Sadr’s rivals to form a government alone. “Such a government will be born dead because Sadr followers will not accept to see Moqtada broken and politically isolated by powers supported by Iran,” he said.
Heir to a clerical dynasty, Sadr shot to prominence after the invasion, establishing a force of fiercely loyal fighters that waged war on US forces and later clashed with Iraqi authorities.
He has sought to set himself apart from Iran-backed rivals in recent years, emphasising his Iraqi nationalist credentials.
He has also installed many followers in state positions, whilst tapping public anger at the government’s corruption and failure to provide services despite Iraq’s oil wealth.
Iraq has been politically deadlocked since October’s election, in which Sadr won 73 of 329 seats and the Iran-backed factions — which retain militias — performed poorly.
Alleging vote rigging, Sadr’s opponents have thwarted his efforts to form a new administration with Kurdish and Sunni Arab allies.
Parliament has failed three times to elect a new president — reserved for a Kurd in Iraq’s power-sharing system — because a two-thirds quorum could not be secured.