Interview with Soran Khateri, Voice of America’s Middle East correspondent living in Iraq.
Let us start with a premise: what has triggered the current political and social situation in Iraq? Why have these protests come about?
“There are two main factors for the protest in Baghdad. The first one is the competition between Shiite fractions to get in power. On one hand, the Sadrist movement which won 73 of 329 seats of the Iraqi Parliament in October 2021, formed a coalition with Sunnis and Kurds to form a majority government in Iraq. Al-Taqqadum (Progress party) led by Sunni leader Mohammad al-Halbusi (won 37 seats) and Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani (won 31 seats) aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr to form the majority government. On the other hand, Shiite groups close to Iran want a consensus government which has been practised in Iraq since 2003, when the former Baathist regime was toppled. These groups formed a coalition named The Coordination Framework to form a such government. According to tradition, the parliament speaker goes to Sunnis, Shiites get the prime minister and Kurds to have the presidency of Iraq. There has been also a dispute between Kurds regarding the presidency. Kurdish parties, according to the practice, must nominee one candidate for the presidency, but since October 10 election, the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have not agreed on one candidate and each insists on their nominee. PUK also has a close relationship with Iran and is aligned with The Coordination Framework.”
“This dispute has been going on since October 10 and none of the sides has been able to form a new government. Sadrist MPs resigned from the parliament in July, a move that paved the way for the Coordination Framework to form the government. During the time when Sadrist MPs were in the parliament, the Coordination Framework did not participate in the sessions that were supposed to form a government. Now when the Coordination Framework introduced Mohammed Shia’a al-Sudani for the position of prime minister, Sadr said that he will not allow those who are corrupt and tied to foreign countries (Iran) lead Iraq. But what triggered the protests and storming of parliament, many believe was an audio recording attributed to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in which he calls Muqtada Sadr a traitor, coward and a British agent who aims to target Shiite and Iraq. Before that Audio file, al-Maliki was one of the candidates for the position of new prime minister, but after the audio file was leaked, he withdrew from his candidacy. In summary, the current political crisis in Iraq is a result of Shiite rivals getting power which has been going on in the country for nearly two decades.”
Let us analyse a little the figure of Al-Sadr: who is he and what does he want? According to some international newspapers, the preacher aspires to radical reforms, even to draft a new constitution.
“Muqtada al-Sadr is the leader of the Sadrist Movement. The movement was formed in 2003. Sadr and his militia (Mahdi Army) reportedly participated in the war against American forces in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, the Iraqi government which, Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister, attacked Sadr militias mostly in Basra. Sadr himself fled to Iran then. Meanwhile, he is considered as a nationalist and populist cleric who opposed foreign interference in Iraq, especially Iran. He also criticized Shiite militias that are not under the control of the government. In the past years, he blamed corruption among officials, Shiite militias, and foreign interference for the situation in Iraq. In his lasted tweet on July 31 after his supporters stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone and Parliament building, he called the move of his supporters a revolution, and a chance to change the political system, constitution, and election law. So yes, in his latest statement he asked for a new constitution.”
Why does Al-Sadr have so much of a following? Is there a danger of a new civil war? (After all, he also has armed forces, and militias)
“I believe it’s because Sadr attracted his followers from financially poor areas in Iraq, those areas where people were affected by corruption, unemployment, the role of Shiite militia groups and lack of public service. The second reason, I believe is he has shown himself as an Iraqi nationalist figure opposing sectarian, corruption and foreign interference. Regarding the danger of civil war between Shiite fractions, many politicians and experts in Iraq have warned about that.”
«We must remember that in the Iraqi government when Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister, the government launched a military operation against Sadr’s militia group (Mahdy Amry) in Basra».
“Even in the audio recording attributed to Maliki, He talks about that operation and how he attacked the armed forces of Sadr. The Confrontation between the Shiite fractions is now through media and on August 1, it became public when supporters of both sides gathered in Baghdad and several other provinces across Iraq. But, as I said, many are afraid that these confrontations may worsen and become a civil war. And I think that is why most of the Iraqi political figures even the US, UN, and EU have asked for dialogue between them.”
Is there room for political dialogue between the various forces at play?
“Until now Sadr has not agreed to dialogue. On July 31, Hadi al-Amiri head of Badr Organization, which is among The Coordination Framework, asked for a meeting to resolve the tensions through dialogue, but an official of the Sadrist movement, Saleh Mohammad al-Iraqi set three conditions for the meeting, including withdrawal of Hadi al-Amiri from the Coordination Framework and condemning Nouri al-Maliki’s sayings in the audio recording of him. Before supporters of the Sadrist Movement stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone and Parliament, there have been meetings and talks between different forces, Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites which all failed and they did not agree on forming an Iraqi new government. Iraqi PM, KRG president and several other Iraqi and foreign officials has already asked to resolve tensions through diplomatic paths, but until now Sadr has not agreed. One thing that has changed, on August 2, Sadrist Movement asked its supporters to leave the parliament building which may be a sign of de-escalation. On August 3, after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi asked for a national dialogue and Iran-backed Shiite groups welcomed this call, Sadr in a press conference refused to talk, he said that meetings between other groups had been examined and did not succeed and they will not. Sadr also asked for resolving parliament and holding elections again.”
Iranian influence in Iraq: is it that strong? What does it consist of?
“Iran’s influence in Iraq is one of the main points of tensions between Shiite factions, although most of them have been in Iran during Saddam’s era and even some fought against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, Iran has had its influence on Iraq and its politicians, but it intensified after Saddam was toppled by the US in 2003. According to Nouri al-Maliki, in the audio recording attributed to him, Muqtada al-Sadr was receiving military support from Iran in 2005 and 2006 to fight against the Iraqi government.”
«Iran’s influence in Iraq increased more in 2014 when ISIS took control over one third of Iraq and Hashd al-Shaabi was formed by the fatwa of Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Shiites in Iraq».
“Supporters of several figures formed their armed wings and joined Hashd al-Shaabi. These forces including Badr Organization of Hadi al-Amiri, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq led by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and some other forces which several of them are branded as terrorist organizations by the US, are accused of committing war crimes against Sunnis and Christians during the fight against ISIS mostly in Anbar and Mosul. After ISIS was militarily defeated, these groups start their own business. There are several reports that these groups even confiscated lands and homes of Sunni and Christians, especially in Mosul. I mean these groups after ISIS started their own business and according to Iraqi officials are trying to become another version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iraq by forming their own political wings and participating in Parliament elections. Now, Iran-aligned militias have their own military, business, and political divisions, and most of them practice Iran’s policy in Iraq.”