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Iraq’s Shia political establishment is in turmoil

Image of Shia Iraqi militias on 19 November 2016 [ZamanAlwslEng‏/Twitter]
Shia Iraqi militias on 19 November 2016 [ZamanAlwslEng‏/Twitter]

For the past three years virtually all news related to Iraq has been dominated by Daesh and the struggle to defeat it. Political developments in Baghdad have gone largely unnoticed, save for intermittent coverage of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s supposed pursuit of meritocracy in the face of opposition from entrenched political interests.

Beyond the headlines, two major Shia-dominated political currents are experiencing a degree of turmoil, if not a full-fledged crisis, as their leadership fragments or reforms in the face of challenges in addressing the needs and grievances of their core constituencies. The two currents are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrist tendency led by the mercurial cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

The transformation in these movements hints at profound underlying shifts in Iraqi politics. Nearly 15 years after the foreign-led overthrow of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, the religious-centric order that replaced it is struggling to accommodate new political demands.

At a geopolitical level, these developments hint potentially at a loss of Iranian influence, especially if the political discourse in the Shia establishment moves beyond identity politics. It remains to be seen to what extent the United States can move in to shape Iraqi politics with a view to isolating its Iranian rival.

Is ISCI a spent force?

Formed in Tehran in November 1982 and originally called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the “Majlis-e-Aaala” or the “Supreme Council” as its original members remember it fondly, was in large part a creation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Indeed, SCIRI’s armed wing was integrated formally into the IRGC order of battle as the 9th Badr Corps. Its founder, IRGC commander Esmail Daghayeghi, is glorified as one of the leading “martyrs” of the Revolutionary Guards following his death in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq War.

Read: 36 years on, the Iran-Iraq War is still relevant

Hence, in terms of origins, ideology and organisational mythology, the Badr Corps (or the Badr Organisation as it is now known), is effectively an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. However, whilst the Badr organisation has proven to be a sustainable military-political organisation under the dynamic leadership of Hadi Al-Ameri, by contrast its parent organisation, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is in the throes of an existential crisis.

In hindsight, SCIRI or ISCI never recovered fully from the killing of its founder Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Al-Hakim in a terrorist bombing in Najaf in August 2003. Hakim’s brother, Abdul Aziz (who died of cancer in 2009), was an able manager and administrator but he lacked the clout and charisma to outmanoeuvre the better-established Hezb Al-Da’wah (Da’wah Party).

Instead of developing SCIRI/ISCI into a serious electoral force, the Hakim family chose to consolidate the organisation’s less transparent role as a centre of patronage and behind the scenes kingmaker. SCIRI/ISCI controlled access to key centres of power in post-Baathist Iraq, notably the interior ministry and the wider security establishment. Moreover, they exercised strong influence over Iraq’s external relations, for example by maintaining a monopoly on Iraq’s representation at the United Nations.

Read: Who to trust in Iraq, Sunnis or Shias?

However, the organisation is now in steep decline, as demonstrated by fragmentation at the very top. The leadership deficit has been exacerbated by the departure of Ammar Hakim who has formed a new group called the National Wisdom Movement (NWM). The fallout from this remarkable move – which effectively ends the Hakim family’s monopoly on the Supreme Council’s leadership – is likely to be profound as well as acrimonious, especially as the newly-formed NWM is taking proactive steps in isolating the Supreme Council’s residual leadership.

A Sadrist resurgence?

Muqtada Al-Sadr’s recent surprise visit to Saudi Arabia has been interpreted widely as a snub to Iran. The movement which carries Sadr’s name is regarded as one of the three original Shia political trends in Iraq. However, unlike ISCI and the secretive Da’wah Party, the Sadrist phenomenon is primarily a grassroots movement comprised of working class and rural-tribal Shias.

Moreover, unlike ISCI and Da’wah, the Sadrists have cultivated a reputation for Iraqi nationalism and independence from Iran. This, though, is at best a half-truth as the Iranian IRGC, and other agencies, have deep connections to different levels of the Sadrist movement, in particular their armed wings. The IRGC Qods Force was the pioneer of the so-called “Special Groups”, which grew out of the original Sadrist armed wing, the self-styled Mahdi Army, and which proved to be the most potent foes of the Anglo-American occupation forces in Iraq.

As for Muqtada Al-Sadr personally, he has had a volatile relationship with the Islamic Republic. He spent the summer of 2003 in Iran where he was courted actively by the Ministry of Intelligence (as opposed to the IRGC), but owing to his volatility and eccentricity he was effectively written off by the Iranians as early as 2008. In hindsight, this was a mistake as the gadfly cleric has a remarkable skill in continually reinventing himself and creating new spaces and options for the movement which he purports to lead. Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia must be seen this context.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud (R) meets with Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr (L) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 30 July 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

In view of their extensive grassroots base, the Sadrists and allied movements are in a better position than other Shia political groups to decipher shifting public demands and expectations. In this regard, two inter-related developments are worth noting, namely the decline of religious-centric parties and a shift away from identity to issue-based politics.

The ISCI is imploding precisely because it cannot adapt to the new political realities. It remains to be seen whether its breakaway groups, notably the NWM, can connect successfully with the Iraqi public. By contrast, the Sadrist tendency may be in trouble, but owing to its diffused leadership and loose hierarchy, it is in a better position to ride out the storm.

In the final analysis, these developments are not unfolding in a geopolitical vacuum. On the contrary, they have a material impact on the strategising of Baghdad’s two main patrons, Iran and the United States.

Washington is likely to capitalise on the implosion of ISCI by stepping up support to Haider Al-Abadi and the technocrats around him. Iran, meanwhile, will move quickly to build up the breakaway factions of ISCI as a credible rival to the Da’wah Party and, more importantly, as a counterweight to the latest re-invention of Muqtada Al-Sadr.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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