The deadliest violence in the Iraqi capital in years was eased on 30 August 2022 after Moqtada al-Sadr, a popular cleric in Iraq, ordered his supporters to stop protesting in the city’s center.
Following hostilities between an armed force loyal to him and rival Shiite factions supported by Iran that resulted in the deaths of 22, Sadr apologized to the people of Iraq and granted his own supporters an hour to disperse.
Following 10 months of political gridlock following Iraq’s October parliamentary elections, confrontations between competing Shiite factions on Monday have caused fears of growing instability. Sadr won the majority of the votes in the election, but he was unable to bring together Sunni and Kurdish parties to create a government without the Shiite organizations supported by Iran.
The recent violence broke out when Sadr announced his decision to quit participating in politics, which he said was motivated by the inability of other Shi’ite leaders and parties to change a broken-down and corrupt political system. Prior to Sadr’s speech, a government official in Iraq claimed, under the condition of anonymity, that the government was powerless to exert control over the opposing armed groups.
How the latest crisis unfolded
After Sadr announced his permanent retirement from politics, there was fighting. He made his statement shortly after Kadhim al-Haeri, a senior cleric who serves as the Sadrists’ spiritual leader and resigned from his position as a marji’—a learned Shia scholar whom the layman is encouraged to replicate was notable. Along with his resignation, Haeri also subtly attacked Sadr’s authority, which contributed to the current turmoil.
Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri is a senior Shia margin, which implies that in addition to having religious legislative authority, he has the power to impose taxes on Shia believers known as the khums, which is Arabic for “the fifth.”
Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who rejects all foreign meddling, whether it comes from Iran or the West or the United States.
He is in charge of a militia that numbers in the thousands and has millions of devoted followers all around the nation. His rivals, who have long been Tehran friends, are in charge of numerous paramilitary organizations that are extensively armed and trained by Iranian forces.
The Key players in Iraq besides Sadr
Since Saddam Hussein was overthrown by a coalition led by the US in 2003, Iraq has experienced numerous political crises. Few have a good sense of how the current crisis will end. Many people worry that the arming of the various factions in the area of Baghdad could signal the start of a civil war. However, so far, the various political figures have refrained from escalating the situation, and there have been some hesitant attempts at negotiations. But deep political divides castes shadow such endeavors, as Muqtada Al Sadr is not the only figure in Iraq’s chaotic political sphere.
Since the murder of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020, Ameri, the head of the Badr Organisation military faction and the Iran-backed Fatah alliance in parliament, has been seen as Iran’s major figure in Iraq.
Ameri has long been a devoted supporter of Iran; he even fought for the Islamic Republic during the 1980s Iran-Iraq conflict. Following Saddam’s ouster in 2003, the Badr Organization rushed into Iraq and swiftly established itself throughout most of the post-Baathist nation, being accused of torturing Sunnis and committing sectarian massacres of them.
Khazali and the armed Asaib Ahl al-Haq organization he leads have taken a considerably more aggressive stance toward Sadr than his Coordination Framework ally Ameri.
The Mahdi Army removed Khazali from its ranks in 2004, apparently after he disobeyed Sadr’s instructions to uphold a truce with US soldiers. Khazali had previously supported Sadr.
In 2006, he founded Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which has taken credit for more than 6,000 strikes against US-led occupation forces and their allies in Iraq. In the 2019 anti-government protests in Iraq, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a group allied with Iran and its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was accused of participating in the repression and killing of protesters.
Nouri Al Maliki, who ruled the nation from 2006 to 2014 and was a steadfast ally of both the US and Iran, presided over the American troop pullout and then their prompt re-entry following the establishment of IS. During his rule, the country’s coffers saw billions of dollars disappear, earning him a reputation for corruption.
His State of Law alliance was able to win the third-most seats in the legislature during the elections in October 2021, and as part of the Coordination Framework, he has been attempting to make a comeback in politics.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq, is conceivably also the most well-known person in the nation.
His public statements over the previous few decades have been credited with saving the state from dissolution since they included support for democracy, resistance to corruption, and a call to arms against the Islamic State.
He has apparently refrained from speaking out in the past few months due to concerns about inflaming tensions among Shi’ites.
Since the October elections, Kadhimi, who was appointed prime minister in May 2020 following anti-government rallies, has held onto his position as Iraq’s parties have been unable to form a cabinet. A man from an intelligence background, he is being seen as the bridge between the warring factions of Iraqi politics and most notably an intermediary between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
What is ahead for Iraq?
Politics and Sadr’s disagreements have frequently resulted in their temporary estrangement. This is not the first time this has happened. Sadr has consistently sought refuge in Iran whenever he has resigned in whatever way.
Fearing an American crackdown in 2007, Sadr stayed in Iran and had clerics younger than him speak for him until his return. Similarly, in 2011, after going away for four years without being seen, Sadr addressed a large crowd in Najaf before leaving once more for Iran to “complete his studies.”
The cleric retracted his statements and appeared again after each partial or complete retirement announcement. And each of Sadr’s political sabbaticals resulted in Tehran hosting him, despite his alleged opposition of Iran. He was visited by a Quds force commander from Iran days before the latest wave of violence.
Iraq is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC, and in recent months, its rising oil sales have resulted in a $20 billion cash surplus. Control of this money ultimately serves as the foundation for the current political turmoil because oil profits are illegally utilized to pay the nation’s political forces and paramilitaries.
With the Russia-Ukraine war, Iran is hoping to take a slice of European energy market, amidst talks of lifting of some sanctions from Tehran and worsening of Europe’s relations with Moscow. Iran will look to extend its political shadow over Baghdad’s oil resources to influence global oil market and stay ahead of its Saudi rivals.
There are no true winners among the Iraqi factions in this scenario. Iran would extend its winning run by establishing its dominance and influence over the nation that had been devastated by war. If prior demonstrations against Iranian hegemony are any indication, an Iranian intervention in this situation will only put the problem off till later, and one should prepare for more serious turmoil soon.