War-scarred Iraq sinks deeper into political crisis

War-scarred Iraq sinks deeper into political crisis

Iraq, an oil-rich but poverty-stricken country battered by decades of war and insurgency, has been mired in a long political crisis that just took a turn for the worse.

The Muslim firebrand cleric and former anti-US militia leader Moqtada Sadr on Sunday sparked fresh turmoil when his followers, the biggest bloc in parliament, resigned en masse.

The move deepened uncertainty in a country where democratic institutions built since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein remain fragile and Iran wields major influence.

Iraqis went to the polls in October, but the elected MPs have so far failed to agree on a new government to replace that of caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.

Amid warnings that Iraq’s political troubles could once more explode into popular anger and violence on the streets, here is a look at the latest crisis.

– What just happened? –

Sadr, who commands a devoted following among Iraq’s majority community, is a wily politician known for surprise manoeuvres that sometimes baffle observers.

On Sunday evening, all 73 lawmakers who are part of his bloc stepped down — a move he had telegraphed days earlier, to protest the paralysis of the 329-seat parliament.

In the past, Iraq’s blocs have joined forces to build “consensus” governments — but Sadr has instead advocated a “majority” government with Sunni and Kurdish parties.

Such a coalition would sideline his rivals of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, which includes the political arm of the armed group Hashed al-Shaabi.

Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi, speaking in Jordan on Monday, said the Sadrist resignations were already effective and would “not require” a vote.

The departing Sadrists will be replaced by those who came second in the October 2021 elections, he added.

Because these politicians come from very diverse political backgrounds, the reshuffle will change the make-up of the legislature, which is however going into recess now.

New elections are possible, but the parliament would first have to vote to dissolve itself.

– What does Sadr want? –

Since Saddam’s fall Sadr, who wears a black turban symbolic of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, has become a key political figure.

Long considered fiercely anti-American, he also has a complicated relationship with Iran, whose outsized influence angers many Iraqis.

Sadr is believed to have no intention of becoming prime minister, a position that is far too exposed, and prefers the role of kingmaker.

His cousin Jaafar al-Sadr, Iraq’s ambassador to London, who had recently made his interest for the position known, threw in the towel on Sunday.

Iraqi political scientist Ihsan al-Shammari said he finds it “difficult” to see how MPs from other parties will be able to form a government without Sadr.

If such a government were to emerge, he predicted, “it would quickly fall”.

Another analyst, Hamzeh Hadad, called Sunday’s move “more political theater” from the Sadrist movement and Halbussi, the cleric’s influential ally.

Last year, Sadr had first announced he would boycott elections, before finally participating in them.

Hadad said that if a we-dominated consensus government is formed after all, Sadr “will be able to shrug off the criticism of eventually joining by claiming that he went the furthest to try and prevent it”.

– How will Iraqis react? –

The caretaker government of Kadhemi is only dealing with day-to-day affairs in Iraq where, according to the UN, about one third of the 41 million people now live in poverty.

In power since 2020, the former journalist and spymaster took over in the wake of a huge protest movement that shook Iraq in 2019.

The fury was fuelled by state corruption and nepotism, dismal economic prospects and poor public services. Little has changed since then.

Iraq, one of the world’s most oil and gas-rich countries, is still unable to provide electricity on a regular basis. The unemployment rate among young people is 40 percent.

Hadad expects “new demonstrations this summer” when temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

That is likely why Sadr had his elected officials resign, said Shammari, arguing that this way the cleric can avoid “taking the responsibility” for Iraq’s deepening woes.

The UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, last month urged Iraqi politicians to end the deadlock, warning that “the streets are about to boil over”.