Iraq gets deeper and deeper into a political quagmire
Ten months ago, Iraq was on the verge of pulling off a remarkable, albeit improbable, feat after the conclusion of national parliamentary elections. Most Iraqis were skeptical of the tired promises, delivered with the usual populist grandeur typical of a country adrift in chaos and with an absentee leadership. However, the October 2021 vote offered the last, best chance for a hopelessly battered Iraq to break a nearly two-year political stalemate that was hampering efforts to deliver improved public services, new jobs and much-needed reforms.
After the election, two broad coalitions formed, guided less than in the past by sectarian, or even class-related, differences in visions for post-2019 Iraqi politics, the economy and society at large. Instead, a tripartite gathering of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds emerged, seeking a majoritarian government that could free Iraq from nearly two decades of ineffectual politicking and gridlock.
On the other hand, however, a loose coalition of Iran-backed Shiite groups sought to reinforce the politicking by insisting on the traditional “tawafuq” — a sort of “broad” consensus governance that came to define (and cripple) Iraqi politics after the ill-fated US-led invasion 19 years ago.
The two sides have jostled, face-to-face and within the judiciary, for months seeking ways to undermine each other and prevent their opponents from cobbling together an acceptable base from which to advance the political process.
Each episode, interspersed with bizarre stunts and maneuvering by the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, has only complicated Iraqi politics and scuttled promising alliances that could have been key to securing voting majorities on a raft of legislation designed to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges. Ironically, a constitutional requirement intended to prevent the three confessional groups from sidelining each other during government formation is now impeding them, since none of them can single-handedly secure a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Fast-forward to this month and Iraq is even deeper in the thralls of worsening political gridlock. There are no feasible solutions in sight beyond calls for what will likely be open-ended dialogue coming mostly from the Shiite Coordination Framework, which Iran, curiously, supports as well.
On the other hand, the tripartite coalition disintegrated after members of the Sadrist bloc in parliament abruptly resigned, only to be replaced by political rivals angling to fast-track a stalled political process. After all, if the Sadrists were to try to outmaneuver parliament from the outside, or manacle its work through “peaceful revolutions,” it would be before and during government formation. Any later moves would force a now incumbent government to deploy the security forces against the Sadrists. The latter would have likely summoned the power of the state to suppress the opposition, justifying the use of force as necessary for enacting change from within a seemingly broken political system.
Of course, the Sadrists dismiss these concerns as mere suppositions by a gilded elite beholden to foreign agendas, which necessitate calls for more drastic expressions of public furor. Patience is wearing thin among rival factions. They hint at taking up arms when dialogue fails. There have already been assassination attempts and attacks on the offices of key political figures, underscoring the razor’s edge Iraq is walking ahead of a possible plunge into a maelstrom that would make the horrors of Daesh’s emergence pale in comparison.
The current political crisis is easily the longest in almost two decades since the 2003 invasion. Worse yet, now that there is a conspicuous lack of a common “enemy” or cause — such as the “defeat” of Daesh or the end of Kurdish secessionist ambitions — the bulk of Iraq’s maladies are coming from within, where politics have become the purview of proxies, guided by brinkmanship and not a lot of substance.
Patience is wearing thin among rival factions. They hint at taking up arms when dialogue fails.
Last year’s elections may have elevated the Sadrists and afforded them some political heft, but their ability to defy expectations and pick up a sizable number of seats in parliament did not usher in a period of promised change, nor liberation from a heavy-handed Tehran and a strangely indifferent US.
In turn, a peculiar multipolar system has emerged among a mostly leaderless, feuding Shiite assemblage that includes both the Sadrists and the expansive Coordination Framework, featuring an alliance led by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Having failed to threaten or beguile fellow Shiites into falling in line behind him, Al-Sadr has since resorted to outlandish actions such as demanding the country’s Supreme Judiciary Council dissolve the parliament.
These latest efforts came to naught but did not dissuade staunch Sadrist supporters from protesting outside the Supreme Judiciary Council in an effort to pressure the court into issuing a favorable ruling next week in an unrelated lawsuit seeking dissolution.
The chief concern among many keen observers is that escalating tensions, against the backdrop of Iraq’s extreme socioeconomic and political challenges, might lead to Iraqis fighting among themselves for completely different reasons. Everyone in Iraq is armed, whether members of paramilitaries or civilians, and so the possibility of further escalations and a heightened potential for violence demand the utmost prudence — not a stubborn reversion to the impracticable and incendiary.
Simply shutting the Sadrists out will not work either, even if their ultimate goal is to rewrite the Iraqi constitution and social contract. Despite multiple calls for this, and many changes in Iraq since 2003, the political will or capital to amend the flawed constitution simply does not exist. In addition, the US, Iran, Turkey and some other enterprising external actors would not accept such a drastic change in the status quo, since the persistent dysfunction more or less prevents other forces from seeking to dominate Iraqi dynamics, while leaving enough space to exert some influence.
As a result, the inadvertent imbalances of power created by the constitution are unlikely to be addressed in the short-to-medium term, despite fueling the squabbling not only with the Sadrists but also among the Coordination Framework’s multiple factions.
In addition, Sunnis and Kurds are particularly squeamish about any talk of fiddling with the constitution — after all, talk of reforms is all well and good but public outbursts or “spontaneous, peaceful resolutions,” could lead to a systemic breakdown and intra-Shiite armed conflict that would disproportionately affect minorities.
Looking ahead, it will not be easy to break this deadlock given the wide gulf between the visions of the Coordination Framework and the Sadrists for an ideal political system for Iraq. Nearly two decades of endemic corruption, backroom deal-making and the apportioning of benefits has only served the interests of a connected and well-to-do political elite, including Al-Sadr himself. Meanwhile the rest of Iraq has languished despite having the fourth-largest proven oil reserves in the world.
The Sadrist plan, which demands swift, radical political change, might appeal to a desperate Iraqi public but its suspicious lack of coherence or clarity has left more questions than answers, which the mercurial cleric has yet to provide.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.