Weeks of political tension boiled over after al-Sadr’s “exit” from politics announced on Twitter. Explosions lit up the sky, and gunfights took place among Iraqi security forces, protesters, and members of the Sadrists’ armed wing, known as Saraya al-Salam—ironically, “peace brigades”—Monday night into early Tuesday morning before al-Sadr stepped in to stop the violence that killed an estimated 30 people and injured hundreds of others.
Although a sense of calm has returned to the capital city, Baghdad, tensions remain high.
Since the parliamentary elections last October, Iraq has failed to form a government. At the center of the political crisis is al-Sadr, the populist Shia Muslim cleric, and the Coordination Framework, an umbrella bloc of Iraqi Shia parties that have ties to Iran.
Both have undermined the other’s efforts to determine Iraq’s next government.
Election results saw the Sadrist Movement win the largest bloc in parliament. However, failed alliances with the Kurds and Sunnis left al-Sadr without the two-thirds majority needed to form Iraq’s government.
In July, al-Sadr surprised everyone by ordering his candidates to withdraw from parliament, but was left frustrated when the Coordination Framework and his former political allies began to form Iraq’s government without him.
Insisting on the dissolution of parliament and a new round of snap elections, hundreds of al-Sadr’s supporters staged sit-ins outside of parliament that escalated into the violence that took place Monday and Tuesday.
Digging deeper into al-Sadr’s Twitter statement, the resignation was likely a reaction to comments made by Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri. After announcing his retirement on Sunday, al-Haeri called on his Shia followers, many of whom are loyal to al-Sadr, to throw their allegiance behind Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the Shia spiritual center in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.
The statement by al-Haeri directly challenged al-Sadr’s legitimacy in front of his followers.
Whether intentional or not, the outbreak of violence that followed was a clear demonstration that the political and social environment in Iraq is deeply fractured with an unclear road ahead.
With al-Sadr calling for peace, it’s likely that there will be a new push for elections, but with the political crisis still unsolved, a repeat of violence could very well ignite another civil conflict in a country and region that has seen its fair share of war.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen in Iraq over the next few weeks or months, but the violence should be a wake-up call for the United States.
U.S. policy in Iraq since 2014 has focused on the enduring defeat of the so-called Islamic State. That policy has encouraged increased security cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi security forces, but political leaders in both countries have faced pressure to define the strategic vision of a future U.S.-Iraq bilateral relationship.
Most attention has focused on the ongoing presence of U.S. military forces and operations in Iraq. Strategic discussions in 2020 reaffirmed a continued U.S. presence, but did not articulate a U.S.-Iraq strategy that would address Iranian proxy activity, the political deadlock, and the many economic, political, and security challenges that the country faces today.
Iraq is at a crossroads. Iran looms large in its politics. If the new Iran nuclear deal is completed and Tehran’s funds are unfrozen, the Biden administration will lose any leverage it has to deter Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Iraq will become a subservient client state of Iran’s, instead of a counterweight to Tehran, something that neither al-Sadr nor the region would welcome with open arms.
The political future of Iraq is uncertain, but what is clear is that what happens in Iraq will determine Iran’s foothold in the region.
There’s little the U.S. can do at this point to stabilize Iraq, but one thing it should not do is sign another flawed nuclear deal with Iran, which would greatly strengthen that regime and flood it with resources that will make it easier for Iran to dominate Iraq and the rest of the region.
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