By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
Iraqis are terrified that renewed internecine Shiite strife could plunge the country into all-out war. Both sides have hundreds of thousands of militia fighters and supporters at their disposal. Neither appears motivated to back down. “The fire of dissention will burn us all,” warned Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
On one side is corruption personified; former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his Iran-backed paramilitary allies from Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. They suffered a crippling defeat in last year’s elections, but nevertheless have sought to hijack the political process and impose their choices, trying to use paramilitary muscle and Iranian leverage to dominate and exploit Iraq in perpetuity.
On the other side is cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who has again demonstrated his ability to mobilize millions of supporters. Sadr is a problematic figure, having inaugurated the post-2003 era of sectarian paramilitary anarchy through his Mahdi Army, which at that time had few reservations about accepting Iranian support, and which gave birth to many of the worst Hashd factions. In fact, it was Maliki in 2008 who bloodily crushed the Mahdi Army.
As Sadr re-established himself as an Iraqi nationalist bulwark against Iranian interference, Tehran-backed paramilitaries and the Sadrists evolved into bitter rivals, giving rise to assassinations and bloody clashes.
With Sadrist protesters now committed to remaining inside the parliament building indefinitely, the confrontation is set to escalate. Sources within the pro-Iran Coordination Framework initially called upon paramilitary supporters to flood out on to the streets in counter-demonstrations – a scenario that would have triggered bloodshed, and potentially all-out conflict.
Although later statements backed away from this call, Maliki-linked hardliners appear inclined to resort to force, while remaining unwilling to compromise on their determination to nominate a prime minister from their ideological camp. The Hashd understands only the language of force, having murdered about 600 demonstrators during the 2019 unrest, so many fear it is only a matter of time before they seek to brutally end the Sadrist uprising. Maliki’s bizarre appearance wielding a machinegun unambiguously signals his eagerness to use naked force.
The Coordination Framework stands to lose significantly if it allows the Sadrists to regain the initiative. The Framework initially benefitted beyond their wildest dreams from Sadr’s withdrawal from parliament, apparently offering them the freedom to dictate the composition of the incoming government.
If they meekly allow Sadr to trigger new elections, their current unpopularity among Shiite voters risks consigning them to political irrelevance, and would jeopardize their ability to protect their generous slice of the state budget from which the salaries of their vast paramilitary forces are paid.
One leading protagonist isn’t even Iraqi: Esmail Qaani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force — an institution designed for overseas sedition and terrorism — has been holding meetings in Baghdad aimed at strengthening the hand of Iran’s paramilitary puppets in the Coordination Framework. Dozens of Iraqis are already in hospital amid the latest unrest, but Tehran doesn’t care how many lives are lost — Shiite or Sunni — in pursuit of its agenda, just as uncountable numbers have been harvested in the service of Iranian supremacy in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
Sadr is most comfortable acting from a position of opposition, flooding Baghdad with supporters or denouncing his “corrupt” rivals. He previously wreaked havoc by storming the Green Zone in 2016, demanding reforms that were then being blocked by factions loyal to Maliki. In 2019, Sadr initially joined the protest movement, but then reversed his position and deployed paramilitary thugs to shut down protests —hence the reluctance so far of activists from other ideological camps to join the Sadrists this time.
But beyond his desire to outmaneuver Maliki and the Hashd, does Sadr have a coherent idea of what his endgame is? And is he capable of bringing Sunnis, Kurds and progressives on board with his aspirations for reforming Iraq’s dysfunctional and clientelist political system?
In both Iraq and Lebanon, the sectarian-based system has produced immense corruption and perpetual deadlock, as factions engage in months of self-interested brinkmanship. Attempts to create cross-sectarian parties have come close to success, particularly in 2010 where Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyyah won more seats than Maliki, the incumbent, but was thwarted by determined Iranian efforts to ensure that their stooges prevailed.
Internal Shiite tensions worsened after the leak of audio recordings in which Maliki denounced Sadr as an “ignorant, hateful Zionist,” and dismissed his pro-Iran paramilitary allies as “cowards.” Maliki’s comments, deemed as constituting “death threats” and “incitement to civil war,” are now under investigation by Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council.
Pro-Iran factions enjoy negligible popular support, yet they constitute the 150,000-strong and lavishly funded Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition, and will not relinquish their position without a fight. Through his Peace Companies militia, Sadr could easily mobilize upwards of 50,000 fighters, so internecine Shiite bloodshed is all too conceivable.
Loyalties of large segments of the army and security forces are conflicted, after decades of a Hashd-dominated Interior Ministry flooding the security apparatus with personnel from militias like Badr and with Badr commander Hadi Al-Amiri wielding de facto control over parts of the military, so the outbreak of conflict could lead to Shiite elements of the armed forces splintering along factional lines.
Can Sadr be trusted, and will he remain committed to his stated principles? All that matters at this juncture is that this current standoff is between nationalists who desire a sovereign Iraq and sectarian radicals doing Tehran’s bidding. What cannot be allowed are attempts by vested interests to enforce a continuation of the failed status quo.
Secularists, Sunnis, Christians and Kurds should seize the moment to press demands for reforms and a governing system that represents them. Impoverished citizens have a right to demand why, despite Iraq’s bountiful oil wealth, their corrupt and incompetent leaders can’t provide reliable electricity or water for drinking and irrigation.
The Coordination Framework represents a minuscule faction within a faction. They can and must be swept aside. But this will happen only if Iraqis across sectarian divides speak with one voice in demanding their rights to a democratic, prosperous and sovereign future.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.