Iraq in constitutional limbo as rivals take to the streets

Iraq in constitutional limbo as rivals take to the streets

Iraq in constitutional limbo as rivals take to the streets
Supporters of Iran-backed Shiite Coordination Framework attend a rally to denounce their rivals in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP/File)
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It has now been 10 months since Iraq held its last legislative election — the fifth in the post-Saddam Hussein era — and yet the country’s political rivals remain gridlocked, unable to name a new prime minister and head of state. In fact, Iraq now finds itself in an uncharted constitutional no man’s land, having exceeded all timelines for forming a new government. At the core of the political impasse is the chasm separating the firebrand, populist Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose list won the most seats in parliament, and his pro-Iran rivals now working under the umbrella of the Coordination Framework.
Pro-Iran parties and coalitions, including the Popular Mobilization Units, which are represented by Al-Fatah, lost seats in the elections but retained a veto over Al-Sadr’s ability to form a national unity, nonsectarian government of technocrats. After seeing his efforts to force a new political reality blocked, Al-Sadr in June ordered his deputies to resign, adding to the ongoing chaos.
And when his Shiite rivals, led by the controversial former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, tried to name their own candidate as premier, Al-Sadr called on his supporters to storm the legislature building and hold a sit-in. By doing so, he paralyzed the political process.
After a tense 10-day standoff, Al-Sadr gave his followers the order to leave the parliament building and to instead hold an open-ended sit-in in the Green Zone. His rivals called on their own supporters to hold a similar sit-in across the river. This has become a tug of war, with both sides attempting to prove they have command of the street. But in this challenge, Al-Sadr knows that he has the upper hand.
When he gave the Supreme Judicial Council a week to step in and dissolve parliament and order a new election, the council said it had no authority to do so. He then presented the same ultimatum to Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court and waited. But not before his aides had issued a call to supporters across the nation to hold a million-man protest this coming Saturday, congregating in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad. What will happen next is pure guesswork at this stage.
Iraq has gone through a series of debacles since the US invasion of 2003. It has seen sectarian strife rip the country apart, it has gone through the tumult of an anti-US guerilla war and it almost succumbed to the horrendous rampage of Daesh. In between, it saw a new political clique emerge; one that pilfered billions at the expense of ordinary Iraqis. But most of all, the US invasion allowed Iran to infiltrate the skewed political system and create pro-Tehran militias that weakened the central government.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis from all walks of life, Al-Sadr has the upper hand.

Osama Al-Sharif

While successive political figures were discredited by their own track records, subservience to Tehran or Washington and collusion in the mass larceny of the country’s resources, Al-Sadr reinvented himself as an Iraqi nationalist leader who wants his country to rid itself of US and Iranian hegemony, while replacing the ethno-sectarian system that has crippled it for years.
Al-Sadr may have been encouraged by the deafening silence of Iraq’s spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has chosen not to take sides in the current intra-Shiite squabble — so far at least. In the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis from all walks of life, Al-Sadr has the upper hand and he knows that he can mobilize millions if that is what it takes to force his rivals to back down.
This could be why a key member of the Coordination Framework, Hadi Al-Ameri, has chosen to mediate and find a way out before things get out of hand. He supports dialogue, which he says could lead to the holding of new elections. But Al-Sadr wants to change the election law as well. That is a red line for the pro-Iran camp.
The reality is that Iraq’s caretaker government, under Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, is now powerless, unable to approve a budget, spend money or draft new laws. The current standoff could last for weeks or even months. It is disheartening that Iraq’s future lies largely outside its borders, in Tehran and Washington. Al-Sadr’s gambit of mobilizing the street may work, but it could also backfire. The specter of a bloody intra-Shiite faceoff is not far-fetched. The Coordination Framework, still united, is now calling for its own mass demonstrations in response to Al-Sadr. The impasse may linger while Iraq succumbs to a perfect storm of political disarray, economic collapse, internecine infighting and the dire effects of climate change, which are rendering major parts of the country a wasteland.
Millions of Iraqis continue to suffer as the political cliques scramble to maintain influence and economic dividends. As things stand today, the outlook is somber to say the least. Iraq is in limbo and a breakthrough leading to a detente seems like an impossible feat.

Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Twitter: @plato010

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