2022: The World This Year

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2022: The World This Year
Iraq: Deadlock and breakthrough

  Rashmi BR

TWTW#196, 31 December 2022, Vol. 4, No. 45


What happened?

The political crisis in Iraq reached its peak in 2022. The year was marked by mass resignations, the inability to form a stable government, long-drawn protests, violence, and finally a breakthrough in the second leg of the year. 

In July 2022, protestors rallying in support of Shia leader Muqtada al- Sadr breached the heavily fortified Green Zone and stormed Iraq’s Parliament. The protestors opposed the candidacy of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, the pro-Iran Shia Coordination Framework’s candidate for the Prime Minister’s post. The incident resulted in clashes, stone pelting, and tear gas firing, and more than 125 people including protestors and the police are reportedly injured.

On 1 August, al-Sadr’s supporters were countered by Coordination Framework’s and al-Sudani’s supporters who held demonstrations in the latter’s favour. On the same day, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called on the protestors to evacuate the Parliament and participate in a national dialogue that would involve all the parties and draw a road map for a solution.

On 29 August, the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from Iraqi politics and closed his political offices. He tweeted- “I hereby announce my final withdrawal”, and confirmed that all institutions linked to the Sadrist Movement will be shut down, barring the heritage facilities and mausoleum of his father Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999. 

The announcement immediately resulted in an outpouring of emotions, with Sadr’s supporters storming the heavily fortified Green Zone and the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. The Sadrist Movement’s military wing Saraya al-Salam or the Peace Brigade reportedly fired rocket-propelled grenades and fired used machine guns against the security forces and rival Shia groups. Al-Sadr announced a hunger strike after his withdrawal and said that he would continue until the use of force against his supporters continue. The deadly clashes continued for the second day and killed at least 30 people and injured more than 700 people. 

The clashes and violence prompted calls for peace and political dialogue from the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, the Iraqi interim government, the United Nations, Turkey, France, European Union, the US, and Canada, among others. Iran closed land border crossings with Iraq, UAE and Iran cancelled flights, while Turkey and Kuwait issued an advisory to its citizens. 

On 30 August, al-Sadr addressed his supporters through a televised speech and asked them to end their protests. He said that the protest has “lost its peaceful character…and the spilling of Iraqi blood is forbidden.” Following the 60-minute deadline given by him, the protests reduced and there was relative calm in Baghdad. 

On 27 October, Iraqi members of Parliament met to decide the formation of a new government and voted in favour of a cabinet led by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. The cabinet consists of 21 ministers including three women. The lawmakers approved the new government after a political deadlock that lasted for more than a year.

What is the background?

First, a strong Sadrist movement in 2022. Muqtada al-Sadr is a Shia scholar, cleric, and militia leader who founded the Sadrist Movement after Saddam Hussein’s fall. He is a populist leader, drawing his support base from the working class and poorer sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq's Shia heartland. The string of events that unfolded in 2022 showcase the power and the sway Al-Sadr held over the population, his ability to call for and control violent protests, thereby exerting considerable political pressure.

Second, the growing nationalist sentiment in Iraq. The Sadrist Movement gains its popularity by seeking to detangle Iraq from American influence, and Iran’s strong influence in political matters, separating itself from the pro-Iran Shia factions and representing different sects such as Sunnis and the Kurds. Expression of support for the Movement represents the growing nationalist sentiment in the country. 

Third, the failure to form a government. Al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement won 74 seats in the October 2021 elections, emerging as the largest faction in the 329-seat Parliament. He failed to secure a two-thirds majority and was unable to form the government, paving way for a political deadlock. After nearly eight months of failing to form the government, al-Sadr made his 74 legislators resign but warned of political pressure through possible mass demonstrations in support of his candidature. The protests prevented the parliament from convening and choosing the Prime Minister and President.

Fourth, the political situation since the war. The post-2003 political landscape of Iraq has been dominated by sectarian competition and rivalry between the Shias and Sunnis, with the increasing Shia-centric rebuilding. The post-war progress in Iraq is hindered by political instability which is the root cause of corruption, poverty, unemployment, poor public services and poor economic situation. Political instability has been a recurring problem in the country, given the presence of numerous factions and their militias, rendering the Parliament without a majority for one political entity. Clearly, the 2005 constitution failed to create a representative and functioning government. The 2010 political deadlock that lasted for 290 days was the longest prior to the current deadlock. It also cemented Shia dominance in Iraqi politics, and paved the way for more Iranian influence, as the majority of Sunni leaders and voters boycotted the election process. 

The political situation worsened with the Islamic State, external interference, and the pandemic. Protests during Arab Spring and the 2019 protests were an expression against political mismanagement. The 2021 elections saw the least voter turnout since 2003, showing a lack of confidence in political processes. The current breakthrough though is an important step towards breaking the long political impasse, it is yet to be a sign of stability in a faction-ridden Iraqi political landscape.

About the author

Rashmi BR is a Doctoral Scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

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