Ten months after the October 2021 parliamentary elections, Iraq is still mired in a political impasse that turned deadly Monday after Moqtada al-Sadr announced his resignation from politics. Supporters of the powerful cleric clashed with followers of rival Shiite parties, plunging Iraq into a crisis that could draw in regional powers. FRANCE 24 looks at the various players jostling for power.
Tensions have soared in Iraq following al-Sadr’s shock resignation announcement on Monday, with the cleric’s supporters storming the government palace in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
Despite the imposition of a curfew, the violence showed no signs of abating on Tuesday, with the death toll mounting to at least 23, according to medics.
Unable to agree on forming a new government and appointing a new prime minister, two very different manifestations of political Shiism have been locked in a bitter impasse since the October elections.
On one side is al-Sadr, a nationalist cleric and the biggest winner in the polls, who had hoped to put one of his allies in place as prime minister after forming a coalition with other religious communities.
On the other is the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, an umbrella group of several parties including that of ex-PM Nuri al-Maliki, and the Conquest Alliance, the political wing of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a former paramilitary group.
FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the main Shiite actors driving the political contest.
Al-Sadr underlined just how powerful he is in the parliamentary elections when his party won the most seats, with 73 MPs.
He was long known in Iraq as the son of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, the champion of militant Shiism, whom former president Saddam Hussein assassinated in 1999.
But al-Sadr won infamy in the West in the 2000s as the leader of the Mahdi Army, the militia that fought against US troops occupying Iraq.
After his strong showing in the October polls, he wanted to form a majority with his allies from two Sunni groups, Azm and Taqadom, as well as Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. But Iraq was left with the current deadlock instead.
The populist cleric is adored by his political base, which sees him as the standard-bearer of Iraqi nationalism. But the 48-year-old’s detractors point to his frequent U-turns.
Given his popularity, al-Sadr has refused to cede power to his rivals and seems confident that he can avoid doing so, assuming that he would perform well if new elections were held.
Al-Sadr demanded that his MPs resign in June, leaving his opponents to try to form a government. The cleric then sent his supporters to occupy parliament on July 30, where they remained for nearly a week before moving their sit-in to its grounds.
In particular, the Sadrist protesters were railing against the political candidacy of Mohamed Chia al-Soudani, whom al-Sadr’s rivals had put forward for prime minister.
On Wednesday, al-Sadr said he was giving the judiciary a week to dissolve parliament.
Mohamed Chia al-Soudani
Mohamed Chia al-Soudani is a seasoned politician hailing from Iraq’s political elite. The former governor of southern Missane province, he has also served in several ministerial roles, notably as minister for employment and social affairs between 2014 and 2018.
The 52-year-old al-Soudani is taking on a new role as the preferred candidate of the Coordination Framework, the alliance of pro-Iranian Shiite groups facing off against al-Sadr’s camp.
Al-Soudani left the parliamentary coalition of former PM al-Maliki, with whom he is close, in December 2019. He now faces off against both men as he vies for renewed influence in Iraqi politics.
Widely described as “Iran’s man in Baghdad”, the 68-year-old al-Ameri wields enormous influence in Iraqi politics. Analysts say the two people who really have the power to lead Iraq out of its impasse are al-Ameri and al-Sadr, his great rival.
The former transport minister first rose to the fore in 2014 when then PM al-Maliki gave him a role overseeing the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in eastern Iraq, presumably at Tehran’s behest.
Al-Ameri also saw his Badr militia – originally formed by Iran in 1982 during the Iraq-Iran war, then made up of Iraqi Shiites exiled in Iran – effectively integrated into a powerful paramilitary organisation, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which allowed him to impose himself as a key player in Iraqi politics.
In the 2018 legislative elections, the Popular Mobilisation Forces’ political arm, the Conquest Alliance, won 48 of Iraq’s parliamentary seats. This put the bloc in second place behind al-Sadr’s political group.
But these days the Popular Mobilisation Forces are not so popular. Many Iraqis blame them for the killings and kidnappings of protesters against the country’s entire political class in late 2019. As such, the Conquest Alliance was left with just 17 MPs in the 2021 polls.
Al-Ameri is disputing the results through both protests and legal avenues, and refuses to give up power to the Sadrists.
The 72-year-old is one of the major figures of Iraq’s post-Saddam era. Al-Maliki’s eight-year tenure as prime minister came to an end in 2014 when he lost the support of allies in Tehran, Washington, and indeed, within his own Shiite faction in the Iraqi parliament.
Al-Maliki’s many detractors accuse him of worsening Iraq’s instability during his tenure – with some saying his authoritarian and sectarian approach alienated Iraqi Sunnis and thereby fuelled the rise of the IS group. At the time, al-Sadr even called him the “new Saddam”.
But al-Maliki remains influential due to his alliance with al-Ameri, which makes him a leading player in the Coordination Framework’s tug-of-war with al-Sadr’s bloc.
(This article is an updated translation of the original in French.)