Iraq’s fledgling democracy has undoubtedly and successfully seen off many grave threats, the most potent of which was posed by Daesh. Now, however, it is facing an unusual existential threat stemming from its supposedly staunchest guardians, namely the Shia majority and the Shia religious establishment, both of which were the principal victims of Saddam’s dictatorship and also in the vanguard of the war against Daesh. Now, however, they are becoming increasingly disaffected. In a show of defiance the Shia majority heartland has been rocked by waves of protests, which erupted on 8 Jul 2018 in Basra – Iraq’s only port and above all its main oil-hub – and swept through the southern provinces.
Just like the July 2015 protests the current demonstrations were also triggered by an indefencible, chronic shortage in electricity and water supply, widespread unemployment and rampant corruption. And once more, Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani gave his ringing endorsement to these demonstrations.
In 2015, though, Al-Sitani was in the unenviable position of having to wholeheartedly back Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to enable him to take on political blocs promoting corruption, as Iraq was engaged in war against Daesh. After all, it was Al-Sistani’s call in June 2014 to take up arms that led to the formation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which spearheaded Iraq’s fight back.
As expected Al-Sistani’s instructions to Al-Abadi – to be more courageous by striking corruption with an iron fist – fell on deaf ears.
In 2016 Muqtada Al-Sadr scrambled to take charge of the protests, presenting himself ostensibly as the commander-in-chief of reform, while in reality his overarching goals were:
First, boosting his power base by echoing Al-Sistani’s calls for reform. Second, widening his popularity through transforming his image from the militia leader who led the Mahdi Army against the US and in the sectarian civil war, to a reformed statesman. Third, safeguarding Al-Abadi’s premiership, fearing that his overthrow would pave the way for his arch foe Nouri Al-Maliki, Al-Abadi’s predecessor and boss in both the State Of Law (SOL) political bloc and the Dawa Party. Fourth, acting as a safety net for the political establishment by allowing protesters to vent their anger while keeping them under control. Even when protesters stormed the Green Zone – home of Iraq’s government in 2016 – Al-Sadr ordered them out.
As part of the increasingly aggressive strategy inspired by Trump and sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince – King Salman’s young and inexperienced son Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) – Iraq rather than Syria, where the Syrian government backed by both Russia and Iran was decisively gaining the upper hand, should be the central battleground to roll back what they both perceive as growing, yet perilous Iranian influence.
They began implementing their strategy after the Mosul liberation by: First, bolstering Al-Abadi’s inherently weak leadership ahead of the parliamentary elections on 12 May by depicting him as a national hero who ousted Daesh and foiled Kurdish independence. Second, propping up his power base, hence empowering him to steer Iraq away from Iran and lure it into Riyadh’s orbit. Yet paradoxically, such a strategy has relied heavily on enticing Shia blocs to form a Shia-dominated coalition that is ostensibly led by Al-Abadi but in reality employed by Riyadh. Even if such a coalition fails to secure Al-Abadi’s second term bid, it would be exploited to combat Shia blocs aligned with Iran, inevitably sparking a Shia vs Shia all out conflagration.
In preparation for the elections the Shia bloc, National Alliance, splintered into five blocs:
SOL, led by Al-Maliki; Nasr, led by Al-Abadi; Fateh, led by Hadi Al-Amiri who heads the Badr Organisation. It also includes political representatives of the pro-Iranian PMFs, like Asaib Ahl Alhaq. Sairoun, led by Al-Al-Sadr which is composed of the Sadrist movement, the Communist Party and other secularists and Al-Hikmah led by Ammar al-Hakim, who ditched the leadership of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council.
Faced with growing accusations of standing behind the ruling elite, Al-Sistani issued not merely a stark message on 4 May 2018, explicitly emphasising that he refuses to enforce any political bloc, but also turned the tables on the leaders of political blocs by instructing voters to decline voting for powerful officials.
Against this backdrop the elections were marred by unprecedented low turnout and widespread allegations of fraud, compelling Al-Abadi to launch an independent investigation.
Although the election results, announced on 19 May, were a severe blow to Al-Abadi as his bloc came in third position winning 42 seats, the highly unexpected victory of Al-Sadr’s bloc coming first with 54 seats was perceived by Al-Abadi as a lifeline, since it not only pushed Amiri’s Fateh bloc to second place with 48 but potentially enabled Al-Sadr to become kingmaker.
Indeed, Al-Sadr’s tweet on 19 May clearly indicated his desire to construct a government that excludes Iran’s allies, Fateh and SOL. Unsurprisingly, Thamer Al-Sebhan, Riyadh’s Gulf Affairs Minister, fervently embraced Al-Sadr’s position. Al-Sadr’s plans however, were derailed when Al-Abadi declared on 5 Jun that the independent report confirmed that serious violations occurred in voting, opening the door for the outgoing parliamentary members to mandate – the next day – a nationwide manual recount, despite vehement opposition from Al-Sadr and Hakim.
Beyond doubt, Al-Sadr’s worst nightmare materialised when the warehouse containing ballot boxes for the Al-Rusafa district of Baghdad where Sairoun surprisingly scored nearly double what Fateh won, was deliberately burned down on 10 June, forcing him to write an article the following day appealing for a compromise.
Amiri promptly seized the opportunity, forging on 12 June an alliance with Al-Sadr, thereby easing tensions and dampening calls for re-elections. Of course, Riyadh was infuriated by such an alliance, ordering its media to scathingly criticise Al-Sadr, accusing him of treason, while also pushing Al-Abadi to join this alliance on 23 June, therefore enabling him to push harder from within towards becoming a compromise Prime Minister.
Additionally, MBS sent a high-level business delegation to Erbil on 24 July pledging substantial investments in return for staying away from Iran’s allies.
Trump, in turn, scrambled to ramp up US efforts to revive Al-Abadi’s faltering campaign by repeatedly dispatching his envoy Brett McGurk in July and August to coercively push political blocs to join an Al-Abadi-Al-Sadr-Hakim and potentially Ayad Allawi – head of Al-Wataniya coalition, which is backed by Riyadh – alliance.
It is doubtless that Al-Abadi’s failure to prevent widespread vote rigging and burning of the ballots has contributed to reigniting protests. Yet what makes these demonstrators profoundly alarming is not only the targeting of major oil and gas fields, ports, airports, and headquarters of political parties, but also the conspicuous absence of a visible figurehead, particularly after fiercely rejecting Al-Sadr’s attempts to take charge. So Al-Sistani swiftly moved to assume leadership of the protests, demanding the swift formation of a new government and underlining that the selected Prime Minister must be decisive, strong and courageous enough to wage an inexorable war on corruption. Surely Al-Sistani’s uncompromising stance has left no doubt that Al-Abadi has not got what it takes to undertake such a formidable task, but more significantly it critically torpedoed the Tump-MBS quest to keep him in power.
It appears that Al-Abadi’s decision on 7 Aug to abide by Trump’s unilateral sanctions on Iran was a last ditch attempt to resurrect his premiership campaign by highlighting that he has enough courage and strength to take decisive decisions, while also showcasing his patriotic credentials by putting Iraq first – echoing Trump’s slogan “America First”.
Without doubt, his gamble spectacularly backfired, striping him of his much-touted claim of balancing US-Iranian competing interests and also prompting Falah Al-Fayyadh, head of PMF – who has a group of nearly 20 lawmakers within Nasr – to defect, sowing discord within his bloc. Therefore, Al-Abadi was compelled on 13 Aug to retract his decision. And while the Trump-MBS strategy appeared to make headway on 19 Aug when the Al-Abad-Al-Sadr-Hakim-Allawi blocs declared creating the core of the largest group, nevertheless it fell far short of the majority of 165 lawmakers needed to form the new government.
In response Fateh-SOL and Al-Fayyadh’s – who was sacked on 30 Aug by Al-Abadi – group of lawmakers announced the formation of their own majority bloc. Indeed, the first session of the new parliament held on 3 September failed to elect a speaker since both blocs claimed that they possessed the largest bloc, forcing the temporary head to refer this contentious issue to Iraq’s Supreme Court. But with Basra’s protests spiralling out of control and in response to Al-Sadr’s request, Al-Abadi attended an emergency parliamentary session on 8 September in which he failed to justify his government’s feckless performance, leading Sairoun to join Fateh in calling for him to step down.
It is increasingly apparent that the growing backlash against the relentless battle by Trump-MBS to retain Al-Abadi is pushing Iraq closer to Iran and could be the final straw that unravels Iraq’s democracy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.