Are Iraqi Shias trying to free themselves from Iranian influence?

Are Iraqi Shias trying to free themselves from Iranian influence?

 Are Iraqi Shias trying to free themselves from Iranian influence?

Sadr supporters storm parliament

Hundreds of protesters have breached a high-security zone in Baghdad and broken into Iraq’s parliament building.

The supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr oppose the nomination of a rival candidate for prime minister.

Mr Sadr’s political alliance won the most seats in last October’s general election, but it is not in power due to political deadlock following the vote.

Police reportedly fired tear gas and water cannon at the protesters. No lawmakers were present at the time.

The group penetrated Baghdad’s closely-guarded Green Zone – which is home to a number of the capital city’s most important buildings including embassies.

A security source told the AFP news agency that the security forces initially appeared to have halted the intruders, but they then “stormed the parliament”.

Iraq’s current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, called on protesters to leave the building while the crowd sang, danced and lay on tables.

The tussle over a new government has put fresh strain on a political system that has been buffeted by crises since U.S.-led forces toppled dictator Saddam Hussein two decades ago.

In a sign of Iran’s concern, one of its senior military commanders, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, visited Baghdad in recent days in an effort to keep tensions from escalating, a Western diplomat said.

An Iraqi official in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-aligned factions, confirmed the visit but said Ghaani didn’t appear to have succeeded, without giving details.

Iran’s embassy in Baghdad didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Ghaani, who heads Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ foreign legions, has struggled to wield the influence of his predecessor, Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. attack in 2020.

“Iranian influence has had its ups and downs and has been waning to some extent,” said Renad Mansour of Chatham House, a think tank. “This election and government formation process has exposed fragmentation … among the political parties which makes it very complicated for Iran.”

The crisis comes at a difficult moment for Iran elsewhere. The heavily armed Hezbollah and its allies lost a parliamentary majority in Lebanon in a May, though they still have big sway.

Background of the movement

Al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction but still fell far short of a majority.

Ten months on, the deadlock persists over the establishment of a new government – the longest period since the 2003 invasion by the United States reset the political order in the oil-rich country.

Squabbling political parties failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pick a president – an important step before a prime minister can be selected. By convention, the post of prime minister goes to a leader from Iraq’s Shia majority.

After the negotiations stalled, al-Sadr withdrew his bloc from parliament and announced he was exiting talks on forming a government.
Al-Sadr’s withdrawal ceded dozens of seats to the Coalition Framework, an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran.

Al-Sadr has since made good on threats to stir up popular unrest if parliament tries to approve a government he does not like, saying it must be free of foreign influence – by Iran and the United States – and the corruption that has plagued Iraq for decades.

Al-Sadr, whom opponents also have accused of corruption, maintains large state power himself because his movement remains involved in running the country. His loyalists sit in powerful positions throughout Iraqi ministries and state bodies.

Iraqis linked neither to al-Sadr nor to his opponents said they are caught in the middle of the political gridlock.

Mass mobilisation is a well-worn strategy of al-Sadr, a mercurial figure who has emerged as a powerful force with a nationalist, anti-Iran agenda.

What do the protesters want?

The protesters are protesting against the long-standing corruption they claim the Iraqi government possesses, and its influence by Iran and the US.

Demonstrators oppose the candidacy of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, a former minister and ex-provincial governor, who is the pro-Iran Coordination Framework’s pick for the premier’s post.

“Al-Sudani just represents a very convenient excuse for Muqtada al-Sadr to voice his displeasure with the entire Coordination Framework and the political system in Iraq,” Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow the Harvard Kennedy School, told Al Jazeera. “He would have done this if anyone else were nominated. Al-Sudani actually represents one of the least controversial figures from the Coordination Framework.”

Sadr, heir to a prominent clerical dynasty who fought U.S. forces after the invasion, has long opposed foreign influence.

He raised the stakes in June when he instructed his lawmakers to quit parliament, ceding dozens of seats to the Iran-aligned factions. Their subsequent moves towards forming a government without Sadr prompted the parliament takeover.

Sadr’s recent call for unspecified changes to the constitution may indicate he wants to upend the entire system.

But some analysts question how much he really wants to change a system that has served him well: Sadr dominates much of the state which employs many of his followers.

“Sadr is no revolutionary. He wants the system to go on but with him in a more dominant position,” said Toby Dodge, a London School of Economics professor.

Dodge described the standoff as “a squabble within an increasingly unpopular elite” in a country where poor governance and corruption has inflicted power and water cuts, poverty and unemployment on Iraqis, despite enormous oil wealth.

Those same conditions fuelled mass protests across Baghdad and southern Iraq in 2019 in which security forces killed hundreds of protesters.

“There could be miscalculations and mistakes. But it seems to me that in every stage in this process, either one side or the other has taken steps to avoid violence,” Dodge said.

Hamdi Malik of the Washington Institute think tank noted signs of restraint by both sides, but said conflict was a risk.

“Any civil war between Shi’ite groups will have a profound impact not only on … people in Iraq, but the wider region and even other parts of the world, not least because of the possible disruption in oil supplies, as much of Iraq’s oil wealth is located in predominantly Shi’ite parts of the country,” he said.

The incident on Wednesday, and al-Sadr’s subsequent show of control over his followers, carried an implicit warning to the Coordination Framework of potential escalation to come if a government forms with al-Sudani at the helm.

Al-Sadr has shown that even if his supporters are not seated in parliament, he cannot be ignored by Iraq’s politicians, and can gather protesters to put his point across.

To make its inroads into Iraq, Iran has pursued a fundamental political goal: to unite the country’s Shia groups and help empower the co-religious community by translating their demographic weight into political influence.

Unless Al Sadr’s requests are addressed, or an attempt is made by the Iraqi government to negotiate a settlement that would suite all sides, protests may continue and evolve into a civil strife, spelling an end to any visions of a political and economic solution in the medium term.

To many observers, the latest standoff shows that the pro-Iran camp in Iraq’s Shia community is still powerful enough to outmanoeuvre Al-Sadr and even use Iran’s influence to corner the powerful cleric as the government crisis drags on.

Reports that Iran has succeeded in convincing the leaders of the self-ruled Kurdistan Region of Iraq to end their dispute over the election of a new president of the country that would then pave the way for ending the government stalemate suggests a major win for Tehran.

This is why the betting that Iran’s influence in Iraq is in decline based on Al-Sadr’s ability to block the parliament’s sessions may be far-fetched or wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, Sadr and his supporters remain a powerful force to be reckoned with that Iran cannot ignore.


Hazem Zahab

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