Sadr couldn’t control Iraqi democracy, so he might crush it now

Suspension

After two nights of violence that left more than 20 people dead in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which houses most of the Iraqi government, the political system that emerged after the 2003 US invasion is on the brink of collapse.

This is not the first crisis of this kind, but it is the most serious in many years: Iraq’s most powerful political figure, the mercurial Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, appears ready to bring down a regime it has failed to perfect.

Sadr’s career was built on the legacy of his father and uncle, two of the most revered Shiite religious authorities of their generation. While he lacks erudition and religious qualifications, and has no government experience, al-Sadr has succeeded in building religious and political authority side by side, complementing each other. This made him a notably toxic figure in contemporary Iraq.

After parliamentary elections in October 2021 that left his supporters – the primary anti-Iranian Shiite faction in Iraqi politics – with 73 seats, twice the number of his nearest rival, Sadr spent months trying and failing to form a government. His frustration led to a series of startling miscalculations that culminated this summer.

On 15 June, he ordered members of Parliament to resign en masse, hoping to gain influence for a last-ditch attempt to form a government or force new elections. Rival political factions called his bluff, and his seats in the House of Representatives were soon filled with runners-up from pro-Iranian Shiite parties. To prevent them from forming a government, al-Sadr ordered his followers to start a sit-in in the Green Zone to obstruct parliamentary functions.

His father’s religious successor, Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Hairi, who resides in Iran, dealt a major blow to al-Sadr’s ambitions. He announced his retirement and instructed his followers to shift their allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while criticizing al-Sadr for tearing up Shiite communities and not deserving his family name.

This prompted al-Sadr to suddenly announce his resignation from politics. His angry supporters attacked the main government palace, leading to clashes.

To save his reputation, Sadr cunningly apologized to the Iraqi people for the bloodshed — a remarkable gesture in a country with a strong tradition of authoritarian-minded leaders — and ordered his followers to leave the Green Zone. They did so on Tuesday, ending clashes and underscoring his unique ability to command not just armed militias but large and dedicated crowds.

However, since his victory in last October’s elections, al-Sadr has repeatedly failed to turn his competitive advantages into a practical political force. He is not completely wrong. His Shiite opponents loyal to Iran are more reckless, dangerous and violent. The Kurdish groups are hopelessly divided, while the Sunni factions are largely divided among groups allied with the various patrons of the Arab Gulf states.

The Iraqi political system after 2003 has always been miserable, but why is al-Sadr only now ready, willing and able to collapse?

His political power could not be gained much more by the power of the clergy, especially given brutal denunciations such as Heri. His religious and rabble-rousing qualities did not help him to master the financial acumen and nepotism involved in forming a government in a parliamentary system.

Al-Sadr’s efforts to combine religious power based primarily on his predecessors with political power based on working behind the scenes, in a system in which administrative power rests with ministries and government offices, failed, just as he reached the height of his ambitions. It is unlikely that he or any other Iraqi political figure will any time soon gain direct control of as many as 73 seats in the 329-member parliament.

Impatience is Sadr’s worst enemy. He lacks the discipline to gain the Shiite religious academic authority he aspires to. He failed to withstand the long and frustrating negotiations to form a government that should have been responsible for the request.

Now Sadr claims to have left politics, but no one believes him. He has said it many times before, and he remains the most important political figure in Iraq. But he also now insists that the post-2003 regime must go, as it has clearly failed to serve its interests.

However, he appears to have no plan, let alone a viable one, for an alternative national political structure. Any effort to formally combine religious and political power in Iraq, along Iranian lines, is doomed to failure because the nation does not have a large enough Shiite majority (Sunni Muslims make up at least 35% of the population), and there is strong opposition to such an agenda within the community. Shiite himself.

Both Iran and the United States have a vested interest in salvaging the political system. Both would be deeply concerned by the growing instability in Iraq. However, Iran has given the green light for its proxies to confront al-Sadr politically, while the United States wisely keeps a low profile (while undoubtedly working behind the scenes to strengthen interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi).

But the Iraqis will have to regain their balance. Nobody can do that for them. Al-Sadr’s efforts to combine his religious and political ambitions, which had always been somewhat contradictory, seem to have reached a dead end. Iraq is paying the price.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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