Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who led an insurgency at the height of Iraq’s civil war, is once again asserting himself as a power broker in Iraqi politics. He has mobilized followers to back Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s reform agenda, which includes replacing cabinet members with technocrats. This has pitted Abadi against Shia lawmakers, who stand to forfeit power from the reforms. In late April, protestors led by Sadr occupied the Green Zone and parliament. At least for now, the protests serve Abadi well, since the prime minister “does not have a natural constituency,” says Mohamad Bazzi, a professor of journalism at NYU who reports on the region. But the political paralysis has set back Iraq’s campaign to retake its second-largest city, Mosul, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Bazzi says.
Does this political dispute that has been unfolding in Baghdad since last summer jeopardize the viability of the Iraqi state?
The core of the problem is the system of sectarian apportioning of positions that starts at the top and works its way to the middle and bottom rungs of government. That’s why the political parties, especially the Shia parties, don’t want to change the system.
So far Muqtada al-Sadr has framed the protests as a movement to help Abadi get his reforms approved in parliament, but the rhetoric has been getting more fierce. Sadr has warned that if the current impasse isn’t resolved, he might seek to bring down the government and even call for early parliamentary elections. If the paralysis continues, there is a strong likelihood Abadi might be forced out, or he might threaten to resign to break the impasse.
The political dispute shows how politics in Iraq is so heavily driven by intra-Shia conflict. Sunni Arabs and Kurds have been mostly bystanders. The Kurds have a bit more say in the politics of Baghdad than the Sunni Arabs, but even they have been on the sidelines since this crisis started last summer.
“The effort to retake Mosul, and the overall fight against the Islamic State, has stalled because of the political bickering of the past few months.”
Its roots go back to the post-invasion period and the early U.S. attempts at creating this Iraqi government. [Sectarian quotas were implemented in 2003 to distribute ministerial and bureaucratic positions among Sunni and Shia Arabs and Kurds. The protestors charge that this system, by giving political blocs the powers of appointment, has enabled rampant corruption and mismanagement.] The corruption includes contracts that get doled out to political supporters and the bloated bureaucracy that exists in a lot of the ministries. A lot of political supporters are on the payroll in no-show jobs. It’s become a more serious issue as [oil prices have declined]. Revenues have shrunk, so there’s a smaller pie to fight over.
Many parts of Iraq only get electricity six or ten hours a day. The protestors who breached the Green Zone marveled at the amenities there—around-the-clock electricity, air conditioning, plant life—all things that are not available in so many parts of Baghdad. It was a good anecdote for these two Iraqs that exist.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have all visited Baghdad recently, concerned that the political crisis is setting back efforts to roll back the Islamic State. Is the United States in a position to mediate this conflict?
The effort to retake Mosul and the overall fight against the Islamic State have stalled because of the political paralysis of the past few months, and also because Iraqi Shia leaders have shown little willingness to share power with the Sunni Arabs. The United States has some leverage because it is training Iraqi forces, U.S. Special Operations troops are undertaking operations against ISIS, and U.S. military officials are working with their Iraqi counterparts to help prepare for the major operation to retake Mosul. But as far as political bickering goes, the United States has almost paralyzed itself trying to get the Shia factions to share power [with Sunni Arab and Kurdish factions] and also to get along with one another. [Former Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki was transforming into a dictator and the United States could no longer control the political system it unleashed after 2003. We have not seen the United States able to leverage its political support for years, even before the withdrawal.
Sadr is best known for leading the Mahdi Army against the U.S.-led occupation forces and then Sunni Arab militias. Why is he stepping back into the political scene now?
After the U.S. troop withdrawal in late 2011, Sadr went into self-imposed exile from politics. His supporters were still running for parliament and controlled several ministries, but he stepped back from the limelight. He is trying to put himself in the position of a kingmaker once again.
There were several periods when he tried to position himself as kingmaker, especially with the selection of Maliki [as prime minister] in 2006 and 2010. Sadr was one of the most important forces that helped Maliki get that second term, and then they had a falling out soon after. In that case, in 2010, Sadr was under a lot of pressure from Iran to support Maliki.
This time, Sadr is trying to exert himself as a more independent force. He has distanced himself from Iran, even though he still communicates with the Iranian leadership, as all Shia factions in Iraq do. He is trying to position himself as an Iraqi nationalist who can reach out to the Sunni Arabs, fight ISIS, and be a force for political reform.
Is his claim that he can reach out to disaffected Sunni Arabs and roll back Islamic State forces really credible?
That’s the most problematic part of this new undertaking; the Mahdi Army had a bloody track record throughout the civil war. Aside from leading the rebellion against U.S. troops in southern Iraq and in Sadr City [a poor suburb of Baghdad], it carried out kidnappings and assassinations, and was one of the main forces that cleansed parts of Baghdad of many of its Sunni inhabitants. The Sunni Arabs are not going to forget that.
As we have seen since February, he can mobilize tens of thousands of people into the streets of Baghdad for protests under the banner of fighting corruption and achieving government reform. He can also mobilize fighters to fight the Islamic State again; he has recast the Mahdi Army as the Peace Brigade, one of the many militias that are fighting in Iraq now. Outreach to the Sunnis is the part that hasn’t worked out; he doesn’t have any considerable Sunni force behind him.
Is the Peace Brigade making up for the weakness of official security forces, or is it exacerbating Iraq’s sectarian tensions?
It is doing both. Like most of the Shia militias that have emerged or reemerged since June 2014, when ISIS took Mosul, Sadr’s [Peace Brigade] has tried to fill the security vacuum in various parts of Iraq. It has taken on security around some Shiite shrines, manning checkpoints and trying to prevent suicide bombers, and organizing huge number of religious pilgrims. It stepped into that void especially in southern Iraq, the Shiite heartland.
But like other [Shia] militias, it has exacerbated tensions with Sunnis by committing atrocities and violations of human rights, especially in areas that were cleared of the Islamic State. You saw some of this in Tikrit after it was liberated, as well as in Anbar province. There has been less documentation of violations committed by Sadr’s militia this time around because it is not taking as prominent a role at the forefront of fighting the Islamic State as it did during the [2005–2009] civil war [against the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq].
How aligned are Sadr and Abadi?
So far their interests seem well aligned. Notice that Sadr did not call for Abadi’s resignation or his ouster in February, when Sadr instigated this mass protest campaign in Baghdad. Sadr framed the protests as an effort to help Abadi consolidate support. But Sadr has also been frustrated with Abadi, and I’m sure that Abadi is also frustrated with Sadr.
The series of events with the protestors storming the Green Zone and [staging a] twenty-four-hour sit-in at the parliament possibly frustrated Abadi. It is fairly clear that they had massive support from security forces, because of how easily they got into the Green Zone. [The security forces] didn’t open fire on them, so there was at least some collusion. They seemed to be sympathetic [to this reform agenda]. There has been some speculation that Abadi’s office also knew about this or cooperated with it, but that is a bit more far-fetched.
Abadi is well intentioned but he is weak, and in many ways needs this kind of support. Even though Abadi is a leader in the Dawa Party, Maliki had stronger roots in the party and entrenched himself within the overall Shia political structure. Abadi does not have a natural constituency, and he does not have a militia that he can control or instigate.
It seems like his hands are tied with so much of parliament arrayed against him.
“[Abadi] does not have a natural constituency, and he does not have a militia that he can control or instigate.”
In late March, he announced the plan for a new cabinet made up of almost entirely of technocrats, many of them unaffiliated with the political parties. That was when Sadr declared victory, called off his protests, and left the center of Baghdad. But then the Shia political parties began to lean on some of the [ministerial nominees]. Some of them withdrew. There was the kind of backroom dealing that Sadr had railed against to replace some of the technocrats, and then the entire plan stalled in Parliament. Then there was a whole series of votes—it’s unclear whether they were constitutional—to try to remove [Salim al-]Jabourri, the speaker of the parliament [who is a Sunni Arab belonging to the Iraqi Islamic Party]. All of that sent the signal that Iraq is experiencing severe political paralysis.
Two years ago you wrote that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the only Iraqi who commands the moral authority to restrain Sadr. Is he playing a role in the current dispute?
Sistani played a role at the beginning, in the summer, forcefully supporting political reform. It was interpreted as political cover for Abadi to announce the first reforms, where he wanted to eliminate the three vice presidential posts [one is held by Maliki], eliminate political patronage, and approve a cabinet of technocrats. Sistani has warned about the dangers of the intra-Shia fighting and alluded to how it’s a distraction from the fight against ISIS, which is a danger to all Shia factions.
In this case Sadr is aligned with Sistani and with the clerical hierarchy in [the Iraqi holy city of] Najaf. Publicly he’s been calling for the same things: an end to corruption and for political reform. But since Sadr began these protests we haven’t heard much from Sistani or the rest of the clerical hierarchy.
A sense of disenfranchisement among Sunni Arabs contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. Where do they stand with respect to Abadi’s proposed reforms?
The Sunni Arab factions would like to see an end to the quota system because most of it benefits the Shia factions. The Sunni Arabs get some benefits at the very top, with the distribution of ministers, but because of their political weakness, [the benefits do] not trickle down to the middle and lower levels of the government, which is where most of the patronage is divvied up. Ending the system would also show that the Shia political establishment is willing to share some power with the Sunnis.
This interview has been edited and condensed.