After two days of deadly unrest, armed supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr began to clear out of Baghdad’s Green Zone at the behest of the Shiite cleric leader. In a public statement condemning the violence that had engulfed the country and apologizing for the 22 Iraqis killed, Sadr ordered his followers to disperse in a calm and orderly fashion.
An Inconclusive Election Creates Instability
Since its October 2021 national election produced ‘inconclusive’ results, Iraq has grappled with intense political gridlock and chaos that has largely paralyzed the country. On Monday, tensions escalated when Sadr, who’s political bloc won the most seats in last year’s election, announced he was withdrawing from political life. The ongoing political upheaval in Iraq is just the latest in a surge of demonstrations that have swept the country in recent years.
Since Sadr proclaimed his resignation, protests have primarily concentrated around Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, home to foreign embassies and other diplomatic sites. Sadr’s protesters were already holding a sit-in inside the Green Zone when news of the cleric’s plans circulated. Sadr’s supporters immediately stormed the presidential palace, scaling the walls and swarming the halls of the building.
Protests soon turned deadly when live ammunition descended upon the demonstrators. According to BBC, all protesters killed so far were Sadr’s supporters and an additional 380 people were injured. A few weeks ago, dueling protests between Sadr’s supporters and demonstrators representing Iranian-backed militias played out in front of Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council. Sadrists demanded the dissolution of parliament and early elections, to which Iranian-backed Shiite blocs refused to accede.
Tensions between Sadr’s political bloc and the Iranian-aligned Fatah Alliance peaked last October when Iraq’s national elections were denounced. The election results gave the Sadrist Movement a huge boost, raising the party’s initial thirty-four seats to seventy-three. The Iranian-backed Fatah Alliance took the greatest hit, losing almost three-quarters of its seats.
Unsurprisingly, Iranian groups refused to recognize the election results, calling Sadr’s resounding win a ‘scam.’ Since last October, Sadr has called on Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias to disband and join his governing party. He even asked the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to “purify” their ranks of “corrupt individuals,” according to The Times of Israel.
Iranian-Backed Group Blocks Peace in Iraq
The PMF’s presence in Iraq perhaps serves as the country’s largest roadblock to peace. The Iranian-aligned paramilitary organization has roots in the anti-ISIS campaign but has morphed into militias loyal to the regime. Responsible for carrying out hundreds of rocket, drone, and missile attacks targeting U.S. assets since 2020, the PMF is one of Iran’s greatest regional assets.
Iran’s tight grip on Iraq, including through its aligned-PMF groups, has at the very least contributed to the country’s ongoing political upheaval. Sadr’s resignation from government was in protest against his inability to form a government despite having the votes, seats, and allies needed to do so.
The Shiite cleric fervently blames the Fatah Alliance for preventing his party’s rightful transition to power. As detailed by The Times of Israel, if any seat in Iraq’s parliament becomes vacant, “the candidate who obtains the second-highest number of votes in their electoral district would replace them. In this case, it would make al-Sadr’s opponents from the so-called Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shiite parties and their allies, the majority. This would allow pro-Iranian factions to determine the makeup of the next government.” For this reason, Sadr protested the convening of a parliamentary session earlier this month.
Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa-al-Kadhimi also threatened to resign from his post if the country’s ongoing political crisis continues. The prime minister has centered his own campaign on reviving Iraq’s sovereignty from foreign powers, including from Iran’s malign influence. On Tuesday, Kadhimi vowed to create an investigative committee to uncover the perpetrators of violence that turned the protests deadly. Considering the PMF’s role in the lethal clashes that swept the country in 2019, the Iranian-backed militias’ involvement appears likely.
Although Sadrists have begun to exit the Green Zone at the urging of the cleric, Iraq’s political instability remains in effect. More concerning, Iran’s influence in shaping the turmoil that has engulfed the country in recent years does not appear to be dwindling.
One Iraq war veteran, Tommy Waller, who currently serves as Executive Vice President at the Center for Security Policy, observed, “As we try to make sense of what’s happening in Iraq, it’s important to understand that whether Shiite or Sunni, nationalist or pro-Iranian, most of these combatants have a theological justification for their violence – meaning it won’t likely end anytime soon.
“Reconciliation becomes extremely challenging when the centrality of ‘jihad’ persists in the minds in a divided population,” Waller said.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.