Heavily affected by the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq has long faced difficulty in establishing political and administrative order. It has been approximately 10 months since the early parliamentary elections in Iraq took place; however, the country’s political leaders have been unable to form a government. The situation was aggravated further this week when on Wednesday, July 27, 2022, several demonstrators stormed the Iraqi Parliament. Similar setbacks in Iraqi politics have raised questions about the future of the country and the impact that it may have on the region.
Within this framework, we reached out to several experts for more on how to understand these developments in Iraq and what possible future scenarios may be derived from the current situation.
It has been 10 months since the elections in Iraq, however, all the efforts to form a government have so far failed. Of course, the political balance in Iraq and the conflict in the political circles have greatly impacted this. Previously, it was relatively easier to define politics in Iraq. We were saying that there are Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and we were referring to politics in this way. However, since the elections held on October 10, 2021, it has not been easy to rely on such categorizations. New groups began to emerge among the already existing groups. In particular, the division between the Shiites, who are the locomotives of Iraqi politics, that is, the executive power, has widely affected the political environment in Iraq. Ultimately, the inability of Shiite groups to cooperate was the most important factor in not forming a government in the country. The winner of the elections was Muqtada al-Sadr. He tried to form a government with 73 deputies, allied with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Mohammed al-Halbousi of the Sunnis, and formed the Save the Homeland Alliance. However, to form a government, a president had to be elected first, and they could not elect the candidate that the KDP had nominated because they were unable to gather enough lawmakers to get the two-thirds majority needed in Parliament. We then witnessed al-Sadr withdraw from the political process by bluffing, or so we interpreted it as a bluff at the time. After that, the Shiite Coordination Framework, formed by other Shiite groups that were al-Sadr’s rivals, began its attempts to form a government. I think al-Sadr miscalculated at this point, believing the Shiite Coordination Framework would be unable to agree on a common candidate, but as of today, we have seen that the group was indeed able to nominate a common candidate. Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, a former minister, was named as a candidate for prime minister. A session is also scheduled to be held in the coming days to elect a president. It appears that this situation has somewhat alarmed al-Sadr. Al-Sadr aimed to reinforce his influence with the parliamentary raid and protests, declaring immediately after the protests, “Your message has reached the necessary place, now you can withdraw.” In this sense, al-Sadr wanted to put on a show to demonstrate his influence. Of course, he opposes Mohammed Shia al-Sudani because al-Sudani was a member of the Dawa Party in the previous period. He was believed to have had a close relationship with Nouri al-Maliki – who was also a minister in his Cabinet. However, al-Sudani recently left the Dawa party and established a list under the name Firateyn and entered the race as an independent candidate – which is why he kept his distance from al-Maliki in the final process.
Compared to other names in Iraq, al-Sudani is known as a rational, young figure whose name remains free of controversy, especially when it comes to corruption. It is possible to describe him as a figure that the Shiite religious authority will not reject or has not rejected. Al-Sudani has earned the favor of the people, thus he was a likely choice as a candidate for prime minister. At this point, al-Sadr’s opposition does not make much sense, and we can say that he is gradually losing ground. In a sense, his reputation is also being hurt. In other words, though he has become the quarterback thanks to his large social base, on one hand, he is also in a position to disrupt the current situation, that is, he has become a game changer. I don’t think that’s a very positive situation for al-Sadr. If he loses this power, his influence will be reduced in Iraqi politics.
Nevertheless, of course, al-Sadr’s most important strength is his devoted millions-strong social base. We see this factor influencing the actions he has taken. He can use this social base to undermine the opposition’s efforts to form a government or make the government inoperative even after it is formed. However, as we have said at this point, sympathy for al-Sadr can turn into antipathy. For this reason, I think those forming the government can take a stance against al-Sadr while creating the new government with him. If this does not happen, that is, if al-Sadr hardens his stance (as seen after the protests, and Nur al-Maliki took up arms and waited outside), there may be outright conflict. I think this situation will drag Iraq into much more difficult issues. Of course, the most fundamental goal in Iraq is the transformation and institutionalization of the Iraqi state. If Iraq cannot achieve an institutional identity and state institutionalization, it will be very difficult to find solutions to the country’s problems in the short term because the problems are deeply rooted. The country faces issues that have accumulated over time and continued to snowball. Therefore, it is not possible to find solutions to Iraq’s problems without the establishment of a strong state structure. There are parallels in political and security balances in Iraq. As the political balance deteriorates, so too does the security balance, and ultimately, parties that benefit the most from the instability in Iraq gain strength, namely terrorist groups such as the PKK or Daesh. As such, as long as the instability and political conflicts in Iraq continue, unfortunately, it is not possible to say that the security situation in Iraq will improve.
Although the political equation in the country did not dramatically shift with Iraq’s early parliamentary election held on October 10, 2021, it is possible to say that the elections have changed the balance. In particular, the Iraqi people did not vote for the lists/parties and factions along the ethnic-sectarian lines of the last elections. It should be considered that the turnout for the October 10 election did not exceed 44 percent. In other words, it can be said that the so-called democracy that the United States has brought to Iraq and the political model it established are weakening day by day. For this reason, Iranian-aligned Shiite parties and formations lost a significant number of votes in the Iraqi elections. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on the other hand, brought Iraqi nationalism to the forefront, winning 73 deputies in the elections, and then began attempts to form a majority government instead of a reconciliation government. Al-Sadr tried to carry out the process of forming a majority government not with the Iranian-backed Shiite party, lists, and formations but with the Sovereignty Alliance, formed by Masoud Barzani-Sunni Arabs and the Saving Homeland Coalition, which won 31 deputies – however, they failed. Therefore, al-Sadr’s statement on June 9 calling on 73 deputies to resign and the subsequent resignation of two independent deputies along with al-Sadr’s deputies ended the formation of a majority government. In fact, it sent the message that al-Sadr had withdrawn from the political scene by ensuring the resignation of his deputies rather than just withdrawing from the process of forming a government in Iraq.
In this context, following the resignation of al-Sadr-supporting deputies, the Coordination Framework List, an Iranian-backed Shiite alliance, met with all political parties to form a reconciliation government and nominated Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, who was previously the minister of finance, agriculture and human rights, for the post of prime minister. Al-Sadr reacted negatively to the nomination of al-Sudani and on July 27, al-Sadr’s supporters first went out to the streets and then entered the Green Zone to reach Parliament. Al-Sadr then appealed to his supporters, saying they had sent a message to those who were corrupt and demanded that they peacefully withdraw from Parliament. When we evaluate why al-Sadr sent his supporters to the Green Zone, it is necessary to draw attention to two important points. First, al-Sadr has proven he can prevent the process of forming a government in Iraq, even if he is not on the political stage. Second, it sends an important message to Tehran that it does not want a pro-Iranian partisan Shiite government. For this reason, it is possible to conclude that al-Sadr will continue to prevent the process of forming a government by calling on his supporters to demonstrate. Iraq has entered a serious political impasse, and Shiite-Kurdish tensions will continue to increase. As long as the rivalry between pro-Iranian Shiite actors (such as al-Maliki and Amiri) and nationalist Shiites continues, the formation of a government seems difficult with al-Sadr aiming to consolidate his Shiite leadership in Iraq in both political and sectarian terms. It is also worth noting that al-Sadr, who is known as anti-U.S., is trying to break the influence of Tehran and pro-Iranian Shiite politicians on the Baghdad government. Although perhaps not directly, it can be said that the Washington administration indirectly supports this resistance. As a result, it can be expected that the political crisis in Iraq may turn chaotic. If the power struggle between al-Maliki and al-Sadr does not cool, the current tensions may turn into an outright conflict.
Sakarya University Middle East Institute (ORMER)
All indications on the horizon tell us that the Iraq crisis, which entered a new escalating phase due to the resulting stalemate in the formation of a government after the October 2021 national election, is heading for a serious rupture. This turn of events will have far-reaching consequences internally and spillover regionally.
The recent events are the manifestation of the conflict between the two current approaches to governing in Iraq. The first is the pro-Iran Shiite groups, which want to govern with the same methods that have been in place since 2003. They want all Shiite groups to form a government for a national coalition. This type of government, which has now been espoused by the Cooperation Framework bloc, brought about dismal failure in all sectors and rampant corruption. It also made Iraq a hostage of Iran’s regional hegemonic policies and led to a confrontation with the U.S. The second approach wants to form a government of a national majority, and it is currently favored by the followers of the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This group’s emphasis is on reform, and it wants to reign in the uncontrolled pro-Iranian militias and strengthen the state security forces. The latter group is Iraqi nationalist and is vehemently opposed to Iran’s undue influence in Iraq.
The hundreds of demonstrators who breached the high-security Green Zone in Baghdad, which houses Parliament, government offices, and diplomatic missions, were involved in a protest against the candidacy of Mohammed al-Sudani, a former minister and ex-provincial governor, who is the pro-Iran Coordination Framework’s pick for premier. The pro-Sadr followers who were inside the premises of Parliament chanted anti-corruption slogans and anti-Iran curses. The situation is so grave that it forced Esmail Qaani, the head of the Quds Force and in charge of the Iraq file, to hasten his trip to Iraq. The message al-Sadr and his followers wanted to convey in the Parliament storming and the unified Friday prayer a week ago was multilayered. Firstly, although the al-Sadr bloc has withdrawn from Parliament, his bloc is still determined to be the king-maker of Iraq. In a message to his followers, al-Sadr considered the protest a part of a “revolution and reform.” He added in a message on Twitter: “Your message has been heard … you have terrorized the corrupt.” Secondly, the easy and smooth way in which al-Sadr’s followers made their way to Parliament indicates that the whole affair was planned with the security forces loyal to the ongoing caretaker government of Mustafa al-Khadmi, and it also reveals how deep anti-Iranian elements have penetrated Iraqi security forces. This is an indication of how far Iraqi security forces have been polarized and any future confrontation of Iraqi forces with the paramilitary pro-Iran forces will be a very bloody and prolonged process.
In addition, this confrontation adds further fuel to the already tense situation that has been created by the leaking of the secret audio recordings in which al-Maliki was quoted calling for the murder of al-Sadr and making reference to the imminent fighting between Shiite armed groups. Al-Sadr responded by calling on al-Maliki “to declare seclusion, retire from politics, resort to seek forgiveness or surrender himself with his corrupted collaborators who he protects to the judicial authorities.”
If the current situation continues, only one of two scenarios could unfold. The Framework Coordination group will most likely go ahead and form the government by putting up its nominee for the post in power in Baghdad. This will provoke the al-Sadr group, which will try through mass protests to unseat it as soon as possible. This scenario will entail blood baths and the creation of a situation very similar to that in Yemen.
The second scenario will be one of the temporary modus vivendi, which will be created by the third-party interventions, either by Iran or Ayatollah Sistani, in the process of government formation. Al-Sadr has indicated on numerous occasions that he would be satisfied with an arrangement in which al-Khadmi’s term in government will be extended and a new national election date will be set up. Or an independent personality will be appointed as prime minister to prepare for the forthcoming national election.
Should this temporary arrangement fail, Iraq will plunge into a deep civil war that will have repercussions in the region. Iran and Turkey will be in a situation not very dissimilar to the one they have now in Syria. Turkey could not afford to sit idly by while events just across the border unfold that could threaten its national security.
Recep Tayyip Gürler
Sakarya University Middle East Institute (ORMER)
In Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters have previously stormed the Parliament building. Al-Sadr, whose demands for reform failed to materialize during Haider al-Abadi’s premiership, staged protests against the government. Then, on April 30, 2016, his supporters stormed the Parliament building and went so far as to beat some of the deputies. As such, the recent raids are not a surprise for Iraqis. As long as the current political system in Iraq remains, political and social crises will continue to occur. Months of negotiations to form a government after each parliamentary election are causing social tensions.
An important reason for this is that the democratic process has not yet been internalized by both politicians and the people. In addition, foreign interventions by countries such as Iran and the United States are one of the biggest obstacles in front of Iraqi decision-makers.
It seems unlikely that such developments will be prevented from happening in Iraq in the short term. In the medium and long term, if fundamental reforms are made in the electoral law and the electoral system, some improvements can be achieved. The election of the president, prime minister, and speaker of Parliament according to ethnic and sectarian origin is one of the developments that prolong the formation of the government. In particular, the fact that Kurdish groups cannot agree on presidential candidates and Shiite groups cannot agree on prime ministerial candidates is blocking the political process. While in the past it was analyzed that Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, and Turkmens could not get along with each other, now all ethnic and sectarian groups are also further divided among themselves. In particular, the demand of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the al-Sadr group, which has won the last two elections, that a technocratic candidate who does not belong to any party should become prime minister and that the Cabinet be formed from technocrats is not accepted by other parties. The parties and their leaders are unlikely to easily give up their desire to rule Iraq for the time being.
Fatih Oğuzhan İpek
Sakarya University Middle East Institute (ORMER)
Following the elections held in Iraq in October last year, the new government could not be formed within 10 months. During this time, essentially two camps emerged in Iraqi politics. On one side are the Shiite cleric-led Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Sunni leader Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Taqaddum Party, while the other camp unites political groups that follow policies close to Iran, especially former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, clustered around the Shiite Coordination Framework. Considering that his group has a leading role in the formation of the government because it received the most votes in the elections, al-Sadr has taken a stance in favor of the formation of a “national majority government” aimed at appealing to all segments in this process. In the opposite camp, the Shiite Coordination Framework insists on the establishment of a “national unity government” in which government ministries or a quota system in which state resources are distributed within the framework of the votes received by political parties will be implemented. The disagreement over the way a government should be formed has delayed the formation of a new government in Iraq. In the process, al-Sadr insisted on his own government-forming procedure and last month called on al-Sadr bloc lawmakers to resign. On July 26, the Shiite Coordination Framework’s announcement of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, a minister in the al-Maliki government but opposed by al-Sadr, as their candidate for prime minister, caused the followers of the al-Sadr movement to storm the Iraqi Parliament. This move was another example of al-Sadr’s ability to carry out effective opposition at the parliamentary and street level in the political arena, as in previous years. Al-Sadr, who “set aside” politics through Parliament, mobilized his followers with a populist approach to intimidate his opponents. In the coming period, while a sufficient majority is not expected to be achieved in the session where al-Sudani’s candidacy for prime minister will be voted on July 30, it seems that current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will perform his duty for a while longer. In addition, it means that Iraqi politics, which is locked in the Sadr-Maliki rivalry, will be wide open to the intervention of foreign powers.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet University
This is the first time since 2003 that the Iraqi political arena has witnessed such unexpected and unprecedented events. In particular, developments such as the resignation of the government, the holding of early elections as well as the unexpected election results are examples of these astonishing events. While no political entity was able to reach the majority to form a government, despite the existing political alliances, three main alliances have emerged: The Sovereignty Alliance (the Shiite al-Sadr group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Sunni Taqaddum Party), the Coordination Framework (the Islamic Dawa Party, the al-Ataa movement, Fatah, al-Asaib, al-Kataib, the Sunni al-Azm alliance and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), while the third alliance consists of independents and other parties. The Coordination Framework, together with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), succeeded in frustrating all the attempts of the Sovereignty group to form a government. This resulted in the resignation of the Saairun (al-Sadr group) Movement from Parliament under the direction of their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Before discussing the latest developments in Iraq, we need to look at who the al-Sadr group is and how its leader Muqtada al-Sadr has acted in the face of political developments. The al-Sadr group’s actions in the face of recent developments make the situation blurry and harder to evaluate clearly. The group’s moves started very strongly and then slow down – but its influence continues on the street. As a remedy for this situation, it only leaves the option of including the al-Sadr group in the formation of the government or at least consulting with them in the state administration in the coming period.
The al-Sadr group’s decision to resign from Parliament has not been well calculated or thoroughly laid out. Even some of the MPs were not aware of the plan. But the real surprise came when the speaker of Parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, accepted these resignations quickly and invited Parliament to elect new deputies to replace them.
The al-Sadr group’s sole expectation was that the Coordination Framework would fail to pick a candidate to form a government. This idea was influenced by the fact that many figures in the Coordination Framework were aspiring to take on this task. According to the al-Sadr group, there would eventually be political gridlock, and the interim government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi would serve until the elections. But for the al-Sadr group, a strong candidate like Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, well known to both Shiite and Sunni circles, was not welcome. Al-Sudani is also in a position to win the support of all Kurds and Sunnis, and all those who support the fight against corruption and oppose racism and sectarianism. The al-Sadr group thus saw that with the presence of a powerful figure, it could not enforce its own decisions in the state administration. In response, Mustafa al-Kadhimi began appointing people close to the al-Sadr group to government positions. Again, the al-Sadr group wanted to issue a statement against al-Sudani. However, when the Coordination Framework insisted on al-Sudani, Sadrists mobilized in the streets with the help of Mustafa al-Kadhimi and stormed the Parliament building. The fact that al-Halbousi also played a role in the storming of Parliament (when the demonstrators entered the Parliament building) attracted attention.
The Sadrists’ storming of the Parliament building is a clear message to the Coordination Framework to withdraw a strong candidate like al-Sudani, and they had previously voiced their threats on social media. However, the Coordination Framework refuses to retreat from its position and insists on its candidate.
Apart from all this, people like al-Halbousi do not want the government to be formed due to several concerns. First, al-Halbousi believes that if a government is formed, he will be removed from the Parliament presidency and replaced by someone from the Sunni al-Azm alliance. Barzani, on the other hand, is trying to make various gains from Baghdad. In addition, al-Halbousi, Barzani, and Muqtada al-Sadr want al-Kadhimi to remain in office due to his support both from the Gulf countries and the West.
Eventually, Iraq will see more demonstrations, and clashes between the government and Sadrists are highly likely. The only way to avoid confrontation and clashes is for the Coordination Framework to not dismiss the al-Sadr supporters from the state positions, avoid making substantial changes, grant al-Sadr supporters privileges on various issues, and provide some sort of guarantee in the elections.