Civil war looms as Iraqis call time on power-grabbing militants
These are days of reckoning in Baghdad. Cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and a growing swath of Iraqis are finally taking a stand against the Coordination Framework — a flimsy political front for Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the vast Iran-backed paramilitary coalition with the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqis on its hands.
This Hashd movement has no claim to popular acceptance by Iraqis. It brutally levered its way to the preeminent position it wields today through lies, cheating, violence, threats and a refusal to compromise in pursuit of its partisan and anti-Iraqi aims.
Al-Sadr warns that the provocative actions of his opponents risk triggering civil war. It is difficult to disagree with this conclusion when the Coordination Framework has deluged Baghdad with counter-demonstrations by paramilitary thugs. Al-Sadr called off his planned “million-man protest” last week after reports that the Framework had colluded with tribesmen to flood Baghdad with armed hoodlums tasked with attacking protesters.
Al-Sadr boycotted the dialogue called by Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, pointing out that the secretive format of these meetings perpetuated the worst aspects of the current sectarian system — in which a group of unrepresentative men carve up the administration among themselves in preparation for looting the country and thwarting the aspirations of the Iraqi people. “I will not sit with corrupt people, and those who want to kill me,” he not unreasonably declared.
One of his close allies told Kadhimi: “The revolution does not need anything from you, except to step down.” He added that the dialogue process should be televised “so that the people can be aware of the plots, intrigues and leaks occurring behind the scenes.” However, Al-Sadr’s call for a UN-brokered public dialogue will certainly be rejected by the other parties. The corrupt demands they intend to make are certainly not for public consumption.
Coordination Framework hard-liners such as Nouri Al-Maliki and Qais Al-Khazali, two truly evil figures who have already wreaked tremendous damage upon Iraq, meanwhile appear hellbent on further provocation and escalation.
Al-Maliki is the godfather of these current intractable divisions, the Frankenstein-like figure who welded the Hashd colossus together in the first place from a rag-tag bunch of criminal militia factions. By adding the Hashd to the government payroll in 2014, he perversely rendered the Iraqi state responsible for spending billions of dollars bankrolling entities laboring to destroy Iraqi statehood.
Pro-Iran elements at each stage of the game blocked all progress toward forming a representative government, in order to impose themselves on the electorate. The paramilitary factions behind the Framework use military muscle to wield power throughout Iraq’s provinces, with gangster-like networks that dominate the economy and brutally displace all those who constitute a threat.
Compromising with the Coordination Framework would mean ceding Iraq’s government to thieves and murderers, halting any pretence of democracy and dragging Iraq irretrievably within Iran’s embrace. Hashd factions reject early elections because they benefited immeasurably from the Sadrist resignations from parliament. All that awaits them in a new vote is utter defeat.
As well as uncompromisingly enforcing his demands for early elections, Al-Sadr and other nationalist figures must ensure that new elections don’t merely replicate another cycle of the hell that Iraqi politics has long been straitjacketed into.
Compromising with the Coordination Framework would mean ceding Iraq’s government to thieves and murderers, halting any pretence of democracy and dragging Iraq irretrievably within Iran’s embrace.
Al-Sadr has been accused of using his supporters to stage a coup d’état, and he is indeed seeking to revolutionize the governing system. If he desires national-level legitimacy he must go further in reaching out beyond his own support base to the vast numbers of non-Shiite Iraqis who nominally support his vision for radical change.
After facing accusations that he betrayed the protest movement in 2019, Al-Sadr must demonstrate that he can be trusted with their support, as well as motivating them to participate in future elections. Al-Sadr’s career is littered with U-turns and false starts; let’s hope that this time he sticks to his principles.
Elections laws must be reformed away from the sectarian system that enshrines corruption and divisions. Secretive and manipulative electoral lists that obscure who Iraqis are actually voting for should be abolished.
Broad-based anti-sectarian coalitions must reach across political divides, ending the fragmentation and partisanship that treats the Iraqi state as a cake to be carved up. With about 85 percent of government funding coming from oil income, revenues of each ministry have habitually been drained dry by kleptocratic factions with zero concept of public service.
Last week’s visit to Riyadh by Ammar Al-Hakim, head of the Wisdom Movement, was a welcome initiative for drawing moderate Shiite politicians away from the pro-Iran extremists who build coalitions only by terrorising or bribing other factions into doing their bidding. A greater role for Arab states can only be a positive thing in empowering nationalist progressives and counterbalancing Iran’s malign influence.
Iraq’s crisis is reminiscent of Lebanon, where pro-Iran factions who lost the last elections have sought to impose their political choices, threatening to plunge the country into violence if their demands aren’t met. The common denominator in both cases is Tehran’s determination to impose its proxies on populations who for the most part reject foreign domination and the loss of their sovereignty.
With negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program at a critical juncture, Tehran is likely to play hardball in an attempt to maximise its international position. Any breakthrough in these talks would shower Iran with billions of dollars of unfrozen funds with which to further reinforce its overseas allies.
The two Shiite factions currently facing off in Baghdad, with long histories of enmities and divisions, can both easily mobilise tens of thousands of armed fighters in support of their cause, meaning that the current spat could be dialled up to horrific levels. Iraq’s complex melting pot of ethnicities, tribes and faiths makes the potential for conflict particularly perilous.
Iraqis who desire to salvage their nation as a sovereign state must act decisively before Iraq as we know it disintegrates in its entirety, and its massive oil wealth is squandered on self-destruction.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.