Iraq: How a Political Deadlock Turns Violent

The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed commentary upon the most significant issues and trends in the MENA region. Today we focus on Iraq, where a new wave of violence between conflicting Shia factions has erupted within the capital and across the country. In the midst of a deepening political crisis, clashes have

ISPI MED this Week #MED2022
The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed commentary upon the most significant issues and trends in the MENA region. Today we focus on Iraq, where a new wave of violence between conflicting Shia factions has erupted within the capital and across the country. In the midst of a deepening political crisis, clashes have followed Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement of his retirement from the Iraqi political scene.


The long existing power struggle between Iraq’s rival Shia factions recently turned into bloody street violence. On August the 29th, in yet another of his unpredictable manoeuvres, the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his retirement from politics. The announcement came shortly after Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, the spiritual leader of the Sadrist Movement, announced his resignation from his clerical role and urged adherents to support Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. This proved a hard blow to al-Sadr’s leadership, as he was overtly delegitimized as a true heir to his family’s legacy. Within hours, thousands of the cleric’s loyalists had stormed into Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green zone, occupying key government buildings. For 24 hours, the capital witnessed violent intra-Shia confrontations between al-Sadr’s supporters, Iraqi security forces and numerous armed groups loyal to the Coordination Framework (a pro-Iran set of Iraqi political parties). The violence ended as quickly as it had started when, upon the following day, al-Sadr ordered his followers to clear the Green Zone, by this time the victim toll had surpassed 30 deaths and hundreds of injured. Top Iraqi officials lauded his apparent effort to de-escalate tensions, as many now feared the country was back upon a path towards civil war. An anxious region now looks on concerned at Iraq’s latest peak of political instability. Iran has temporarily closed its borders with the neighbouring country, urging dialogue amongst the disagreeing Shia factions. Still, the threat of further violent clashes looms within the country. Tensions between al-Sadr and his opponents have not been resolved, and, most importantly, a solution to the political deadlock that has now lasted for over ten months is not within sight.


Experts from the ISPI MED network analyze the ongoing political crisis in Iraq and what led to the fighting in the capital Baghdad.

The rivalry between al-Sadr and his opponents is still an open wound

“Al-Sadr’s announcement to withdraw from politics is, at best, temporary and, in reality, non-existent. As he finds himself in open conflict with his main rivals within the Shia Coordination Framework, he is compelled to respond politically and militarily. While the use of force has reflected badly upon his movement, whilst he claims to protect civil peace, his followers may grow even more committed as they consider themselves under attack. A similar logic exists on the opposing end of the Shia political spectrum, which sees the rise of al-Sadr as an existential threat to their ability to influence and control state institutions. However, the conflict need not be a zero-sum game if more moderate forces in the Shia house are strengthened in their role as mediators between the warring parties.”

Lahib Highel, Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group


Al-Haeri’s criticism was a heavy blow to al-Sadr’s religious legitimacy

“The religious dimension is one of many motivating the recent al-Sadr saga. Al-Sadr’s Twitter announcement was in response to a statement issued by Ayatollah Kathem Haeri, an Iraqi cleric residing in Qom, Iran. Al-Haeri is the intellectual heir of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father, and the spiritual guide for al-Sadr himself as well as for many of his followers, in particular the older generation. In his statement, al-Haeri first announced his withdrawal from his position as a Marjaa, a spiritual guide, and directed his followers to follow Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei, instead. This is an uncommon, if not unprecedented, move in Shia clerical history. In addition to this, al-Haeri criticized al-Sadr in the statement – though not by name – and accused him of not being true to his family’s legacy, an agitator, and someone who lacked religious credentials. Al-Haeri’s criticism was strong and sharp and was the impetus for al-Sadr’s statement in response, including his press conference, in which he said that his withdrawal from politics was a “religious” matter as his spiritual guide had spoken. The disrespect that al-Haeri has shown towards al-Sadr will doubtlessly make Haeri persona non grata among the younger Sadrists. Still, al-Sadr’s acquiescence to it may also make him look weak and powerless in front of his followers.”

Marsin Alshamary, Research Fellow, Middle East Initiative


This new wave of violence is highly problematic for Iraqi Kurds

“The Kurds are very concerned about the current political situation. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) will be adversely affected both directly and indirectly. Iraq’s total failure would make the KRI and the Disputed Territories vulnerable in terms of security, finances and population movements. It will be in everyone’s best interest if the Kurdish leaders play a constructive role in Baghdad while preserving unity at home. The Kurdish leaders have tried to be at an equal distance and play a constructive role between the rivals in Baghdad. They have promoted dialogue, offered mediation and are likely to be more actively engaged in the near future.”

Dlawer Ala’AldeenPresident, Middle East Research Institute (MERI)


The latest wave of violence calls the PMF’s loyalty into question

“For most of the past ten months, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have tried to avoid being directly involved in a crisis that, since the beginning, appeared far from being limited to the political field only. At least in Baghdad, the PMF units aligned closer to the Coordination Framework (CF) and Iran abstained from intervening, even when pro-Muqtada al-Sadr supporters stormed the Green Zone last July. While key PMF leaders denounced the move, they did not wish to ignite a direct confrontation potentially able to enflame the entire country. The situation changed dramatically on August 29, when al-Sadr declared he was quitting politics. As far as we know, the protesters moved towards the Republican Palace, only to be confronted by Iranian-backed PMF units firing against them despite the direct orders issued by the office of the Prime Minister. This resulted in a confrontation between them and al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam forces. The battle killed tens of militiamen, only ending when Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to leave, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi threatened to resign. Albeit apparently contained, the crisis underlined the risks connected to the prosecution of the current stalemate, further questioning the loyalty of some PMF units towards the Iraqi institutions.”

Andrea Plebani, Research Fellow, Catholic University of Milan; and Associate Research Fellow, ISPI


As the deadlock drags on, citizens are losing their faith in Iraq’s political system

“More than ten months after early elections took place in response to the demands of the October 2019 protests, Iraqis are still without a government. Ordinary citizens have lost faith in the political process and are disenchanted with the political system. Many people are dissatisfied with the political elite and find themselves not wanting to take sides in the political conflict between the parties that have captured state institutions and are battling over who gets greater power and a more significant piece of the ‘cake’. This political standoff is placing a strain upon the system as a whole, which to date has proven to be resilient. However, this disenchantment indicates that in the future, people might be unwilling to vote since there is a widespread belief that elections do not necessarily result in change. We have also already seen a decrease in participation rates, which reached the lowest point since 2003, in the latest election.”

Hayder Al Shakeri, Research Associate, Chatham House


For Teheran, the crisis may be an opportunity for dialogue with al-Sadr

“Tehran will be the loser of a civil war in Iraq. Iran’s strategic goal is to set up a penetrable political system that supports both Iranian security and economic interests, rather than having a failed state that poses a security risk and is unable to trade. Along with seeing Iraq as a critical puzzle in its backed axis of resistance, Tehran views Iraq as both a buffer zone and a bridge with Sunni Arab states. In this role, Iraq is part of Iran’s strategy in containing Saudi Arabia, and at the same time, it is a path to reach out to the Arab world. Besides, Iraq is Iran’s top export market within its neighbourhood, with $9 billion in exports – a critical lifeline for an economy under sanction. To preserve these interests, Tehran successfully blocked Sadrists from forging a government. But, Muqtada al-Sadr’s show of power through street violence strongly conveys that no political settlement can be reached without his inclusion. Yet, from the Iranian perspective, recent developments are likely to cause a decline in al-Sadr’s power in the short term. Thus, Tehran sees this moment as an opportunity to initiate negotiations with Sadrists and speed up mediation among Shia groups. In a post-JCPOA revival time, Tehran may also boost its soft intervention in the form of socio-economic aid as a long-term solution to undermine al-Sadr’s social base.”

Abdolrasool DivsallarNon-Resident Scholar, MEI 


For Washington, Iraq’s new cycle of violence is simply “business as usual”

“The general view in Washington is that the latest wave of violence is business as usual in Baghdad. While the recent spike in political instability has certainly caught US policymakers’ attention, and it is always possible that this current round of violence continues to spiral, there is unlikely to be any meaningful change to America’s approach to Iraq (from both a political or security standpoint). America’s presence in the country is already paired down and focused upon its counterterrorism mission. Thus, the devastating violence in Baghdad this week does not meaningfully change that mission, nor United States’ priorities in Iraq.”

Morgan L. Kaplan, US Foreign Policy and Middle East Security Expert

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