The Sadrists’ Gamble: A Milestone Even if It Fails

Encouraged by visible weaknesses within the ranks of his rivals, as well as implicit support from non-Shiites and external actors, Muqtada Al-Sadir pushed Iraq into a new phase in the country’s transition. Once again, he challenged the entire governing system, exposed its major structural weaknesses and drove the political dynamics to a new impasse. In the process, the Sadrist supporters tarnished the current system of democracy, humiliated the state institutions and proved that Iraq is not governable under the existing ‘Order’.

The destructive political and security dynamics in the wider Middle East and inside Iraq have put the country on a descending trajectory for almost two decades, but now Iraq has reached another milestone and another irreversible point. In the eyes of Iraqi people, the 2005 Constitution is no longer worth its ink, the Council of Representatives (CoR) is no longer worth its name, and the executive and judicial branches are no more than tools. The descent is downhill from here, even if a compromise is reached between the warring sides. Left unattended, Iraq will fail, if it has not already.

The Sadrist at an impasse

Al-Sadir has been known for his ambition to become Iraq’s father-figure and its the unrivalled leader. He worked hard for 18 years to achieve a clear parliamentary majority, which he did in the last election. However, since then, he has made a series of decisions that are proving to be strategic miscalculations. His over-ambitious plans are perceived, by his competitors, as strategic threats. He does not hide his intentions to use the popular support to take ownership of the legislative, executive, and later the judicial, powers. In other words, to become Iraq’s ultimate authority (a de facto Waly Al-Faqih), radically shake-up the country’s governing system and eliminate his historic rivals. To achieve these goals, Al-Sadir forged a solid alliance with those Sunni and Kurdish parties that had won majority seats in the CoR. Despite efforts, he reached a deadlock, facing the prospect of either compromising with his rivals or become an opposition. Either way, one could argue that he could have achieved plenty. Instead, he chose to exit and reject the entire governing system.

A Mountain to Climb

The Sadrists are now facing two complex, immovable and overwhelming ‘Orders’, which will defeat them sooner or later. The first is the internal political and security ‘Order’ which governs Iraq. This includes the 2005 Constitution, the state institutions, the diverse and irreconcilable political forces, and a plethora of armed state- and non-state actors. No single party can drive change, cancel the Constitution and take over the state institutions alone. Those days are gone. When it comes to revising the 2005 Constitution or power re-distribution, there is no confidence or mutual agreement between any two political parties in Iraq, even within members of a single coalition. The Kurds for a start will never agree to a rushed and ill-considered change of the Constitution, which they and the Shiites led into successful adoption.

The second ‘Order’ is that of the collective Shiite Universe that has a major say in Iraq’s power direction, which includes the Iraqi Shiite political and public actors, the Majaiyats of Al-Najaf and Al-Qum, the state of Iran and the Shiites of Lebanon and beyond. This ‘Universe’ has struggled for five centuries to seize and consolidate power in Iran and Iraq, therefore, will not allow an adventurist group to weaken their grip or jeopardise their rule.

The Sadrists have been credited for being courageous and confident in taking adventurist initiatives. However, they are also known to be temperamental, populist and over-reacting. This is a reflection of a one-man orchestra, whose decisions, by the admission of the Sadrists’ track two leaders, often cause serious damage to themselves and to the legitimacy of Iraq’s state institutions. In their latest move, they rejected the democratically adopted Constitution and disrespected the CoR which is their only way back to legitimacy. Their demands of rushing the revision of the Constitution or conducting new elections will require reactivation of the CoR, which they now have exited and rejected. For them, it is like swallowing a razor blade (Iraqi saying), any move up or down will be equally damaging or embarrassing for them.

The failure of rivals

The secret behind the Sadrists persistence with their course are largely to do with the collective failure of the other national and international actors to act. The Sadrists’ arch rivals have lacked leadership and lost for ideas on how to manage the post-election challenges. They were successful in blocking the Sadrists’ way into forming a new government, but they too failed to expedite the formation of a consensus government after the Sadrists left a void. The CF failed to reach out not only to Al-Sadir himself, but also to his Sunni and Kurdish coalition partners and attract them into their ranks.

Iran has been calm and quiet, being confident that the Sadrists can eventually be contained. They are known to consider some of the Sadrists’ policies as strategic threats to their national security. They think the Sadrists vision of government and their on-going efforts would split the Iraqi Shiite community, which (they perceive) can only serve the interests of Israel, the Gulf Arabs and the United States. The Iranians have presided over Iraq for over a decade and a half. They should see that a stable and prosperous Iraq under their influence would serve as a good model of what Iran can do for its allies. Instead, they have contributed to the undermining and weakening of the Iraqi state institutions, and played their part in the fragmentation of the Shiite parties into a smaller and more manageable state- and armed non-state rivals. In the process, they failed to manage Iraq’s politics or halt its descent into chaos.

The Acquiescence of proponents

Despite the fact that the Sadrists’ have now paralysed and ridiculed the CoR, most of the Iraqi non-Shiite parties or CoR members have tolerated the move, let alone condemning it. They only called for dialogue, thinking that they are not to take sides. To add insult to injury, the Speaker of the CoR suspended the institutions’ activities, instead of expressing utter outrage.

Similarly, in contrast to the pro-Trump protestors who stormed the Capitol Hill early last year, the United States and the rest of the international coalition partners have acquiesced with the Sadrists’ occupation of the CoR and failed to criticise the move. The international community, the West and Gulf Arabs in particular, have long invested in strengthening Iraq’s state institutions to make the country more stable and better governed. They have long opposed Iran’s influence in Iraq and its support to the CF allies or proxies, including armed non-state actors. The West and the Gulf Arabs preferred, and implicitly supported, Al-Sadir’s plans to counter the CF members with the hope that they will ultimately empower Iraq to stand up to Iran.

Solutions and outcomes

Inevitably, the current crisis will come to an end, with or without violence. Violence and intra-Shiite war are being averted, but easily triggered if the conflict is allowed to escalate. One way or another, the Sadrists will have to agree to compromise and embrace the same old political system to move forward for a solution. For example, they can reclaim their 73 seats in the CoR (where there is a will, there is a way) or strike a political deal where they agree on a new roadmap to another snap election or even the revision of the Constitution. All these solutions will undoubtedly involve re-activating the now suspended CoR, which must be accompanied by face-saving presentations to Al-Sadir.

Iran will eventually play a major role in reconciling and persuading all sides to compromise. They have been patient so far, but when the time comes, they are well placed to force progress. Iran is best qualified to play the mediator role, even though it is partial in the conflict by opposing Al-Sadir and supporting the CF. They have numerous political, judicial, financial and security leverages inside Iraq to threaten stubborn parties from either side. They have the power to force the CF to compromise, side-line certain CF leaders and promise change or offer temptations to the Sadrists

As for the Sadrists, they have now gone ‘all in’, knowing that they are unlikely to win outright. However, they have already changed Iraq for good. Their current mindset remains to be that of determination and refusing to negotiate, but they have been known to be pragmatic politicians too. They have compromised in the past, backed down and changed course when necessary. This does not mean they will give up their ambitions of taking over the system of governance which they are prepared to pay the price for, but this is for the future, not this time round.

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