Under the title “Why might Iran become the real loser in the internal conflict between the Shiites in Iraq?”, an analysis on the “Foreign Affairs” website reviewed the features of the conflict between the Shiite political blocs and the plans of the prominent leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, to lead the political scene, taking advantage of the current stalemate.
The magazine notes that the conflict in Iraq “is not between rival sects or ethnic groups but within the largest community in Iraq, the Shiites who are divided over their country’s relationship with Iran.”
The magazine refers to Al-Sadr’s announcement on August 29 that he retired from politics after months of “failed attempts to form a new government,” then thousands of his supporters took to the streets in anger, clashing with security forces and breaching the Green Zone.
The confrontations between them and the security forces and members of the “Popular Mobilization” resulted in the killing of 30 within 24 hours, before al-Sadr appeared and ordered his supporters to return to their homes, “reducing, at least for the time being, the political crisis that paralyzed the caretaker government in Iraq for several months.”
She notes that despite his announcement to withdraw from politics, “it is likely that he will work to take advantage of this latest wave of violence to control his rivals.”
He has made similar statements in the past but has never withdrawn from the political sphere.
He is now seeking to establish himself as “the undisputed Shiite power broker in Iraq and dominate the sectarian power-sharing system.”
Although al-Sadr tried to portray his movements as a “campaign against the corrupt political class loyal to Iran and other foreign powers, his maneuver poses another danger to the fragile Iraqi state, as Baghdad may be controlled not by Iranian-backed political factions, but by a Shiite cleric who was leading one of the The most dangerous Iraqi militias,” according to the newspaper.
That may seem unlikely for the time being after the recent failed protests, “but as heir to one of the most famous Shiite religious families, al-Sadr has proven remarkably adept at turning his religious lineage into a solid force, and his opponents should think twice before underestimating him.”
The Iraqi analyst, Raad Hashem, told Al-Hurra website that Al-Sadr “leads the strongest mass bloc,” which is more competitive than other political blocs that have lost their mass base, especially the state blocs affiliated with Iran.
Meanwhile, Ammar al-Shibli, the former deputy of the “State of Law Coalition” led by Nuri al-Maliki, one of al-Sadr’s fiercest opponents, said that he possesses political leadership with a religious cover, as his father, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and leads a strong populist bloc.
Although his current left parliament, “it represents about 60 percent of the members of the government, and with strong popular bases, it is still an active element,” according to Al-Shibli.
The former Iraqi MP said, in his statements to Al-Hurra, that “a political leader has no right to announce his retirement and then return to work, but Al-Sadr did that.”
He refers to the call made by Al-Sadr, on Thursday, which did not receive a response from the “coordinating framework”, regarding the retention of the caretaker prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kazemi, to supervise the holding of early elections.
In addition to the fact that this statement is “political” and contradicts his previous pledge, “the current government should not supervise the security of the elections after the recent security breaches.”
Filling the void and losing Iran
The Foreign Affairs report notes that “Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most revered cleric, and other Shiite religious scholars eschew direct political participation and, in doing so, created a power vacuum within the Shiite community that al-Sadr has worked to fill for two decades.”
Since US forces entered Iraq in 2003, al-Sadr has been the Iraqi leader “the most adept at navigating politics and religious authority, a fact that could explain his latest maneuver.”
The report notes that the political crisis in Iraq lasted nearly 11 months. However, al-Sadr did not initiate bloody street protests until he faced a threat beyond politics: the threat to his religious legitimacy. One day before he announced his retirement from politics, the Iraqi cleric residing in Iran announced, Kazem al-Hairi, who served as a spiritual guide for many members of the Sadrist movement, announced his resignation due to his deteriorating health.
But rather than inviting his followers to shift their allegiance to another Iraqi Shiite cleric who might be sympathetic to Sadr, Haeri advised them to follow Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Al-Haeri’s statements implicitly criticized Al-Sadr. He said without naming him that Al-Sadr risked tearing Iraq and the Shiite majority in it.
In his speech calling for an end to the recent protests, al-Sadr claimed that Iranian officials and his Iranian-backed Shiite opponents were behind Haeri’s criticism.
The magazine says that “this backstabbing reflects the growing power vacuum within the Shiite community in Iraq, a vacuum that has increased with the waning of Iranian influence in the country.”
For years, the Iranian Supreme Leader, General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations in the Revolutionary Guards, sent to Iraq to “unify the Shiite ranks.”
But after his death, Iran lost “important authority over its Iraqi allies”, and his successor did not have equal success in preventing Shiite factions in Iraq, especially the Sadrists, from challenging Tehran.
Iran’s leaders are “indignant” at al-Sadr’s unwillingness to work with their Iraqi allies, and may have tried to increase pressure on al-Sadr by prompting al-Hairi to question his religious legitimacy.
Analyst Raad Hashem says that Iran “feels the loss of the Sadrist movement, after it was counting it as one of its loyalists, but it deviated from its obedience and chose a political path away from its calculations, and is even working on structuring the armed factions affiliated with Iran, and this harms its influence over the Shiites in the world and Iraq in particular.” Even that al-Sadr’s distance from al-Haeri and his refusal that Khamenei be his reference, and that his reference be Najaf only, weakened her position even more.”
The analyst believes that “if al-Sadr continues to oppose loyalty to Iran, the Shiite division will be greater.”
For his part, the former Iraqi MP, Ammar al-Shibli, said that Iran “has its own interests, and its interests may meet and may differ with the Iraqis, but Iraqis who are tired of violence, disarmament and the deteriorating economic situation only want a strong government that restores security and economic stability.”
The report did not rule out “political machinations,” and notes that Sistani is in his nineties and his statements have become rare, and Shiite leaders in Iraq and Iran are preparing for his death, and a “rift” if more than one successor appears in Najaf.
The analysis believes that al-Sadr is preparing himself for the post-Sistani period, hoping to play a role in choosing a successor, despite his “limited qualifications.”
The magazine says that al-Sadr believes that with more influence over the government in Baghdad and a greater share of its spoils, he will be able to exert more influence over the religious establishment in Iraq.
The magazine added that if al-Sadr had succeeded in forming a government, his supporters would have claimed that al-Sadr had overturned the “quota system”, when in fact he was trying to put this system under his control, not end it.
Al-Sadr especially hates the alliance with Nuri al-Maliki, whose bloc won 33 seats in last year’s elections, the second-highest percentage among Shiite factions after the Sadrists, and his dispute with him dates back to 2008, when al-Maliki, who was prime minister, ordered the security forces to confront militias Al-Sadr, and Al-Sadr did not forgive him for “harming his movement at the height of the civil war.”
The report points to his attempt to form a government and his failure to do so, after the Supreme Court, whose judges were appointed by Shiite factions loyal to Iran, ruled that the Legislative Council must convene with a majority of at least two-thirds to elect a president, unlike the simple majority required in previous years.
Shiite factions opposed to al-Sadr boycotted parliament sessions, depriving him of the majority needed to vote.
In June, his candidate for prime minister, Jaafar al-Sadr, withdrew his candidacy, then al-Sadr ordered his 73 deputies to resign en masse from parliament, hoping to force his rivals to lift their boycott and convene the assembly.
But al-Sadr’s gambit backfired, according to the magazine, as his Shiite opponents moved quickly to fill the seats, which by law go to the runner-up in each district when the winner resigns.
With his rivals gaining a new parliamentary majority, al-Sadr feared he would be excluded from a government that could stay in power for three years.
In July, he called his followers to storm the Green Zone and besiege parliament, and thousands rallied demanding the dissolution of the current parliament and the holding of early elections.
The Sadrists’ siege of parliament ended on August 30, after al-Sadr ordered his supporters to leave the streets to avoid further violence.
Hashem says that he “may have lost the fight in the field of constitutional engagement, after he withdrew from Parliament and weakened his electoral position, but his public position remained on the rise.”
Nevertheless, “if he tries to bring about fundamental changes outside the constitutional framework, he will lose more.”
However, “the political blocs take into account his presence and political weight, even if he retires from political work, for fear of confrontations, as happened recently.”
The magazine report says that al-Sadr “may have miscalculated by inciting violence without a clear plan to break the political stalemate in Iraq, but he has a way to recover from political setbacks and rise more strongly.”
Despite his “reputation as a leader (…) al-Sadr has played a long game, bypassing the US occupation and some members of the religious hierarchy in Najaf, and building a massive social and political movement that can provide votes and benefit from the corrupt patronage system in Iraq.”
For years, al-Sadr demonstrated greater political skill than his opponents believed.
Although he failed in his campaign to contain Iranian influence, weaken other Shiite factions, and establish control over the country’s power-sharing arrangements, “the question remains whether Sadr’s opponents will try to remove him from government entirely, risking unleashing a new cycle of bloodshed?” Reaching a compromise and thus delaying his great ambition to become the most powerful Shiite leader in Iraq.
Analyst Raad Hashem points out that there are “flexible” parties in the “coordinating framework” that seek to placate al-Sadr, but “extremist parties in al-Maliki’s movement want to distance him from the political process and are alone in making the decision, which indicates an expected splitting of the coordination framework groups in which the hard-liners are working on Adhering to its conditions, such as retaining Al-Sudani as prime minister.
He believes that the current situation is “an undeclared armistice imposed by the forty days of Husseiniya, but once it ends after a few days, a political escalation will occur” due to “non-understandings and the two parties’ adherence to their terms and attempts to take arms” despite attempts to calm down and open dialogue to work on a new, different government that al-Sadr is satisfied with.
It is expected that the intransigence of the two sides will lead to confrontations “at a higher rate, but this time in the provinces where the two parties have masses, and “it may expand at times and calm down at other times, but with the lack of understanding it will continue.”
For his part, al-Shibli expects demonstrations by supporters of the Sadrist movement, but they will not be marred by much violence.
He believes that early elections “have become a need, but parliament must amend the election law first, and vote on a new government that pledges to hold elections within a certain period, and can maintain the security of the elections.”
He adds: “All political forces are calling for early elections, but the caretaker government will not be able to do so.”
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