Iraq has seen its worst political violence since 2019 this week, with clashes between Shiite groups raising fears of wider internecine conflict. Street-fighting in Baghdad killed at least thirty people after followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area of central Baghdad where government offices and foreign embassies are located.
What’s going on? “The struggle for mastery of Shiastan has come to blows,” says Joel Rayburn, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served as U.S. special envoy to Syria from 2018 to 2021. Shias are the largest sectarian group in Iraq, but they are split among competing factions. Whoever controls the majority of Shias controls a nation with considerable strategic and economic importance: Iraq is not only one of the world’s top oil producers, but also a country that could either help or hinder Iran’s ambitions of regional domination.
What’s driving the unrest?
The current confrontation began in October 2021, when elections were held for the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives. Sadr’s party emerged as the big winner, with 73 of 329 seats. He then formed a coalition with the biggest Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties, which together controlled a majority of seats, to try to form a government.
But Sadr, a nationalist who has said he opposes both U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, was blocked by a coalition of Iran-backed Shiite parties whose leaders include former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Qais al-Khazali, leader of the powerful Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia. Iraq’s supreme court interpreted an ambiguous article of the constitution to rule that government formation requires the support of two-thirds of parliament—which Sadr and his allies could not muster.
On June 12, Sadr took the radical step of telling his seventy-three parliament members to resign in protest. He apparently expected that the other Shiite parties would urge them to come back. Instead, the Iran-backed parties filled the Sadrists’ seats with their own representatives and moved forward with nominating a prime minister from their bloc.
Sadr followed up with two dramatic moves this week: he announced that he was quitting politics and sent his supporters to storm the Green Zone. No one in Iraq truly believes that Sadr is done with politics, because he has so successfully flexed his muscles as the head of a popular movement representing impoverished Shiites. Tens of thousands of his followers took to the streets not only in Baghdad but also across the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, where they burned offices belonging to his rivals. The bloodletting in Baghdad was due to fighting between Sadrists and Iran-backed militia fighters who are part of Iraq’s security forces. On Tuesday, Sadr ordered his militants to leave the Green Zone and they did—again demonstrating the control he exercises over his supporters.
How have the United States and Iran played a role in the tensions?
The two Shiite factions—one resistant to Iranian influence, the other subservient to it—are the most powerful players in Iraqi politics. The prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is a Western-backed, moderate Shiite who has been overseeing a caretaker government since the previous prime minister resigned following massive protests in 2020. But Kadhimi is seen as a largely powerless figurehead. The general sense among both Iraqi officials and foreign diplomats in Baghdad is that both Washington and Tehran exercise a veto over the Iraqi government and that whoever leads the country needs the support of both the United States and Iran—a tall order given the long-standing enmity between the two countries.
Adding to the layers of complexity is the fact that Washington and Tehran continue to negotiate over whether Iran will rejoin the nuclear accord that U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from in 2018.
Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias are mounting attacks on U.S. forces in Syria to try to force them out of that country, and President Joe Biden has responded with air strikes on Iranian militia targets in Syria. Biden has not bombed Iran-linked fighters in Iraq, even though there is evidence that at least one drone that attacked a U.S. base in Syria took off from central Iraq, because his administration fears further destabilizing an already unstable country. About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq and another 900 in Syria, but they are marginal players in both countries.
How should the United States respond?
For the Biden administration, the situation in Iraq is an unwelcome distraction at a time when senior policymakers are focused on larger priorities—in particular, Russia and China—and have little attention to spare for a country that has been riven by sectarianism and corruption ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Washington’s best bet would be to use its influence to build political support for Sadr—which would represent quite a turnaround from when U.S. troops battled Sadrists during the Iraq War—and to apply further pressure on Iran-backed figures such as Maliki, who was already threatened with U.S. sanctions in the last days of the Trump administration.
Ultimately, Washington cannot determine Iraq’s fate. The best it can hope for is to try to prevent the worst possible outcomes—either the consolidation of Iranian power or the outbreak of another civil war. Having long ago given up hopes of turning Iraq into a democratic showplace, the United States is left with no better choice than to try to limit the chaos.