Protesters loyal to Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr invaded the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad, known as the Green Zone, twice in one week in late July. They occupied the parliament building for days and blocked al-Sadr’s Iranian-backed rivals’ formation of a new government without al-Sadr’s approval (annahar.com, July 30). Aware of al-Sadr’s power and in accordance with orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who remains an ally of al-Sadr, the Iraqi security forces avoided confrontation with the protesters and allowed them to control the parliament building (alaraby.co.uk, July 30).
Al-Sadr and his rivals stand ready for escalation, despite calls for calm by al-Kadhimi and other figures. Al-Sadr’s rivals showed that they can also mobilize thousands of their supporters, who took to the streets on August 1. Security forces, however, stopped them from entering the Green Zone and approaching their Sadrist rivals. Sadrist gunmen also appeared in videos warning their rivals against carrying out any move against them (alquds.co.uk, August 1). These events revealed the possibility of direct conflict between the two factions and even the possibility of an intra-Shia civil war.
Background on Electoral Frustrations
Al-Sadr won more seats than any other party in the parliamentary elections of October 2021 but still fell short of a simple majority (alarabiya.net, October 11). Even al-Sadr’s coalition with mainly Kurdish and Sunni parties did not secure the two-thirds majority that is necessary to start the process of electing a president and subsequently a prime minister. This was because his Iranian-backed Shia rivals managed to obstruct the process. They wanted a government that included all parties like Iraqi governments have since the U.S-led invasion of 2003. Al-Sadr, in contrast, wanted a majority government this time and even offered to go to the opposition to achieve this objective (aawsat.com, May 22).
When al-Sadr gave up on this political objective, he ordered his lawmakers to resign—and they did (aa.com.tr, December 6). However, when al-Sadr’s rivals moved relatively quickly and nominated a new prime minister, that was the tipping point for igniting the Sadrists’ late July protests and the occupation of the parliament building. Al-Sadr might have withdrawn from parliament, but quite evidently not from politics.
An Iraqi Shia Civil War?
There are dozens of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, but the exact numbers of each Shia militia are not available and, in any case, they tend to inflate their numbers. Al-Sadr, on the other hand, has only one militia compared to his rivals’ dozens. In any potential showdown al-Sadr, however, would most likely dominate all of them. Any confrontation between the two sides would not be typical open fighting. Rather, it would involve a series of confrontations in civilian areas where the Sadrists have the opportunity to combine their militia operations with the supportive efforts of the civilian population.
Unlike the other militias, the Sadrists are also a grassroots movement that has a presence in most of the cities, towns, and neighborhoods of Shia dominated Baghdad and southern Iraq. Additionally, the tribes, which are powerful in Iraqi local communities, tend to respect al-Sadr as a revered politico-religious figure, but not necessarily other Shia political and militia leaders. As for al-Sadr’s followers, they have always shown their willingness to sacrifice for him. While all other militia leaders try to establish themselves as symbolic, charismatic figures and seem to have never achieved that, al-Sadr in the eyes of his supports is a semi-divine figure.
Nevertheless, the key factor in any confrontation between al-Sadr and his rivals would be Iran, which is the preeminent Shia powerhouse in the Middle East. The current commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Esmail Qa’ani, has struggled to live up to his predecessor Qassim Soleimani, who was killed outside Baghdad airport in a U.S raid on January 3, 2020 (newkhalij.news, January 3,2020). Qa’ani has not brought all Shia factions into consensus and expanded that into a deal with the Kurds and Sunnis, which was a craft that Soleimani mastered for years. Qa’ani also met with al-Sadr more than once since the October elections, but no agreement was reached on forming a government (aljazeera.net, February 9). Iran will likely continue to call for Iraqi Shia unity. If it cannot stop the escalation from turning into a civil war, Iran is likely to support al-Sadr’s rivals, but probably not to an extent that would significantly hurt al-Sadr and turn him from a nuisance into a stanch enemy.
After his followers took full control of the parliament building and as the chances of forming a new government have almost vanished, al-Sadr has called for fresh elections. (baghdadtoday.com, August 4). His intentions remain unclear in the wake of the preceding events, but he says he envisions a “peaceful democratic revolutionary period (khabaar.press, August 3).” What this means exactly is anybody’s guess but it likely indicates more struggle with his opponents. Although he pledged not to commence violence against his rivals, he equally vowed that he would be ready to die for what he believed in (annaharar.com, August 3).
Both Iran and the U.S, which are the two countries that have exerted the most influence in Iraq since 2003, seem to have had little involvement in the recent events. However, what happens between the two countries’ negotiations to revive the nuclear deal will be reflected in Iraq. The U.S still has troops in Iraq, albeit in an advisory role. The threat of Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists has not disappeared, and a stable Iraq is important for President Joe Biden’s strategy in the Middle East, which hopes to curb the power of Iranian-backed Shia militias.
Iran seeks to consolidate its influence in Iraqi politics and, therefore, its position on the ongoing intra-Shia tension is critical. The U.S seems to hope that the role of its old enemy, al-Sadr, as an Iraqi nationalist will counter Iran’s influence. Al-Sadr has never claimed to be an enemy of Iran, and many within the ranks of his movement blame Iran for Iraq’s problems while his rivals are undoubtedly Iran’s allies. The outcome of Shia strife in Iraq will ultimately affect both U.S. and Iranian positions not only in Iraq, but also across the Middle East.