The Intra-Shiite Battle of Wills at Its Peak: Ways forward

In his quest for ultimate power, Muqtada Al-Sadir lost yet another battle. This time, he came out even worse off and more bitter than ever. But, not to be underestimated, he has not lost the war.

On 29 August 2022, Muqtada declared his “retirement” from politics, but without calling his followers to abandon their occupation of the Council of Representative (CoR)’s vicinity. In fact, his statement was perceived as a signal for greater escalation, which was followed immediately by the violent invasion of government palaces inside the Green Zone. The protesters even tried to cross the Suspended Bridge into Al-Jadiryia, a stronghold of their opponents. These were interpreted as an attempt to seize control over Baghdad and the whole power. The Sadrists must have predicted violence, hence the arrival of groups of their military wing, Saraya Al-Salam. However, the small number of ill-prepared Saraya were no match for the well-entrenched and well-prepared armed ‘Fasail’, loyal to the Coordination Framework (CF). The Sadrists were surprised by the ruthlessness and determination of their opponents, hence sustained a greater number of casualties, mainly among non-armed protestors.

Meanwhile, Al-Sadir came under heavy pressure, both directly and indirectly, from other Shiite actors, including the centres of power in Al-Najaf, Al-Qum, Tehran and beyond. These culminated in Al-Sadir’s emotive and impulsive decision to abandon the battle front and peaceful protests al-together. He was self-critical too, and re-emphasised his retirement from politics, a habitual rhetoric that he is accustomed to. Of course, and quite rightly, no other actor is taking his words about withdrawal seriously. If anything, they worry that Al-Sadir is most likely to return to the battle field with vengeance.

The Current stand-off

In a recent article, I emphasised that Al-Sadir has under-estimated both the complexity of the Iraqi political system and the overwhelming hegemony of the ‘Shiite Universe’ on Iraqi politics, which will eventually prevent him from achieving his ultimate objective, namely dominating power in Iraq.  He also over-estimated both his own ability, as a one-man orchestra, and his follower’s (Al-Tayyar) ability to outmanoeuvre Iran and his Iraqi opponents. Hence his choice of pathways has not only proven challenging, but also erroneous.

On the other hand, Sadir’s opponents, particularly the CF, have under-estimated his ability to think outside the box and act outside the state-system to bring country to its knees. The CFhave managed to hold their own alliance solid and drove the Sadrists’ into impasses both inside the CoR and outside it, but they have not offered an agreeable alternative. They celebrated prematurely after the Sadrists withdrew from the CoR, took their time and failed to expedite the formation of a new government. They failed to win both the Kurds and Sunnis on board, or win greater sympathy among the Shiites. Now, they appear to get over-confident again after the Sadrists have vacated the Green Zone. They have refused to acknowledge Al-Sadir’s initiative to end violence and started provoking him in different ways, not least by calling for a parliamentary session and moving on with government formation as per their own agenda.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi state institutions have been reduced to mere incompetent by-standers at best, or blamed for complacency or even the escalation at worst. The Iraqi non-Shiite actors and the international community have also become no more than concerned and frustrated observers who have been at loss on how to engage all sides constructively. After all, where Shiite leaders fail to lead, there is a limit on what others, particularly the international partners (other than Iran), can do.

The Future

The future looks bleak, for the stubbornness of the rivals can drive Iraq to irreversible failure. The Shiites can tolerate a limited degree of violence, but the threshold has already been reached, beyond which Iraq will implode. However, there are ways of avoiding all these.

In the immediate term, there is a narrow window of opportunity for the actors to conceive a plan for a lasting solution. From now until the Arba’een Pilgrimage (on 16 September), the warlords are forced to rest and contemplate. No significant acts of violence are expected. However, left unattended, the future remains unpredictable. Judging by the exchange of undiplomatically worded statements, the same actors might resume after the Arba’een and may drive Iraq into the abyss.

Sooner or later, the Sadrists will realise that taking over total power is not a viable option and the extra-constitutional pathway to dominate Iraq will not pay off. Their only way back to legitimacy is to allow the CoR to meet, legislate for a new election and agree to dissolve itself. Conversely, the CF must also accept that they cannot get away with ignoring, let alone deleting, the opposition. Hence, a mutual compromise is needed.

The non-Shiite parties and international stakeholders would be best advised to press the two rivals to agree a middle-ground. The Kurds and Sunnis, in particular, should not rush into joining the CF in forming a government that proves to be at the expense of the Sadrists. Instead, they should make their participation conditional on achieving a lasting peace and a stabilised Iraq. The US, Europeans and UNAMI should carry on engaging all sides constructively, while focusing minds on stability, legitimacy and state functionality.

Iran must realise that the recent events have increased anti-Iranian sentiments among the Shiites, and further violence might eventually propel them further away from Iran. Iran must play a constructive role in persuading all sides to compromise. Even though Iran is partial in the conflict by supporting the CF, but they are well placed to force the CF into a compromise. The CF are clearly divided between hawks and moderates. It is not a secret that they are leaderless from inside, but well-guided by Iran. While they agree that Al-Sadir must be stopped, they collectively failed to agree on the best way to forward. It is time for them to blink and walk to the middle.

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