Sadr is paving the way for pro-Iranian parties to increase their seats in the Council of Representatives.

Not a single Iraqi news cycle can pass these days without some sort of mention of Muqtada al Sadr. The Shia cleric had started his career in post-Saddam Iraq running sectarian death squads targeting Sunnis, and more recently took advantage of record-low trust in Iraq’s “democracy,” managing to hoodwink his way into parliamentary supremacy in last year’s elections.

This week, in yet another grand theatrical display, “Sadr the Saviour” has ordered all 73 of his deputies to resign from their parliamentary seats. The Sadrists, who make up the largest parliamentary bloc, believe that this “protest” will make a grand statement. 

In fact, this childish display within a political system that he, himself, has propped up has done nothing but ensure smooth sailing for his alleged “opponents,” even as he abandons ship.

A history of backstabbing

A large part of Sadr’s schtick is to paint himself as an anti-establishment figure, even as he relies heavily on the establishment to legitimise himself and his militia activities. He further — and very gently — criticises Iran and its meddling in Iraq’s sovereign affairs, in spite of the fact that he has long been supported by Tehran and its Revolutionary Guard.

The reality is that he knows Iran heavily influences political groups in Iraq, and despite parliament voting to expel American troops after the assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Trump’s hands in early 2020, US military presence remains in the country to this day.

More accurately, Sadr knows that the Iraqi people are aware of continued Iranian and American presence, and he has consistently sought to latch himself onto mass demonstration movements to protest against Iranian and American meddling, rife corruption and graft, and the ethno-sectarian quota muhasasa system that splits Iraq’s main political offices between Shia Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs, bedevilling Iraqi politics since the US invasion of 2003.

The only time this was not the case was when a largely Shia Arab-led protest movement emerged in 2019, shaking Shia extremists like the Dawa Party, who thought they were secure in their new status as elites — at least with their constituents. 

However, when Shia anger at both Iran and its stooges in Baghdad erupted, Sadr did not side with them. Rather, and according to NGOs and the US government, Sadr transformed from a “saviour” to a “scourge” and used deadly violence to suppress those whom he repeatedly claimed to champion.

These actions and others, such as alleged massacres in 2020, led to an all-time low turnout of just over 40 percent at the last parliamentary election in 2021. With most of Iraq refusing to participate and engage in what was now obviously a farcical democratic and electoral process decided by violence, Sadr’s highly organised grassroots movement managed to push their supporters to polling stations and ended up with the largest bloc in parliament. 

Ceding the ground

At the time, Sadr hailed the result as a “victory for reform over corruption” and promised to form a majority government rather than engaging in the political haggling that Iraqi politics has been known for since a Frankensteinien democracy was bombed into them in 2003. 

This would have been a welcome step, as it would mean that a government could enact a legislative agenda for a change, rather than bearing with yet another weak coalition government that achieved nothing but deepening the mire of corruption.

Sadr made an alliance with the KDP — the leading Kurdish party in northern Iraq — and the Sunni Progress Party, led by incumbent Speaker Mohammed al Halbousi. While still short of a parliamentary majority, the tripartite alliance was strong enough to get Halbousi re-elected to his speakership, but has failed dismally at voting in any of their preferred candidates for the post of president, leaving the formation of the next Iraqi government in absolute chaos for the past eight months.

What Sadr could have done is to boycott parliamentary sessions and perhaps call for early elections. However, he knew that Iraq’s precarious political system would probably buckle under more instability, and the already historic low turnout at the last election would likely take yet another nosedive, further delegitimising not only his platform, but also the entire political process.

Instead, he decided to demonstrate to his allies in the KDP and the Sunni bloc that he is a singularly unreliable and capricious ally who could ditch them at a moment’s notice because he knows that he can pull on other levers in Iraq’s power game, including the use of his substantial (and illegal) Shia militias. Under the Iraqi constitution, it is illegal for anyone to create paramilitary organisations, yet many groups have their own militias anyway, with politicians representing their interests in parliament.

Sadr has also paved the way for his supposed enemies in the Coordination Framework — a group of overtly pro-Iran parties — to simply waltz into the seats he vacated. This is because Iraqi electoral law allows for the candidate with the second-largest number of votes to assume a seat an elected incumbent has resigned from.

This could lead to these groups gaining up to 100 seats — almost 30 more than Sadr used to control. This is, perhaps, the clearest indication yet that Sadr’s dispute with these factions is not about Iranian meddling and corruption — it is simply a sibling rivalry, with Sadr seeking a larger share of Tehran’s backing, as well as Iraqi ministerial budgets, as he has been a beneficiary of both in the very recent past.

As for the Coordination Framework, with enemies like Sadr, who needs friends?

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Source: TRT World