Iraq cannot afford an intra Shia civil war, says ex-ambassador Al-Rahim

The political tension in Iraq is rising. Is Iraq on the brink of a Shia-Shia war? How will the political crisis be resolved? What does the Iraqi Shia political leader Muqtada Al Sadr want? Iraqi political expert Rend Al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the US, discussed all these topics with Gazete Duvar.

Hediye Levent / DUVAR

How do you interpret the current political tensions in Iraq? Is this a Shia-Shia conflict or much more complicated situation?

Let’s start by saying the Shia religious parties have been controlling the state of Iraq since 2003 and although Kurds and Sunnis participated in government, ultimately the state has been under the control of Shia religious parties.

Therefore any conflict between the Shia political parties becomes a problem for the entire country.

Let’s go back a couple of years: in October 2019 we had popular demonstrations and protests. It was massive, but was almost entirely confined to Baghdad and the south. In other words, it effected the Shia community only. We did not see similar uprisings in the Sunni areas. There were some protests in Kurdistan but they were not very strong.

As you know hundreds of people were killed, thousands were injured.

This protest started as a demand for services; electricity, jobs, water, health, education. But gradually it transformed into a political protest against the status quo, it became a protest against, the political parties, sectarianism and muhasasa. Muhasasa means the sharing of power among the political groups. When you have power-sharing you also have a sharing of benefits and corruption and muhassasa fed the corrupt system in Iraq.

The protesters called for changes in the electoral law, early elections, new faces, changes in the constitution.

So protests for services turned into massive political protest. As a result, the prime minister at the time, Abdel Mehdi, resigned in November 2019 and there was a caretaker government until May 2020. Mustafa Kadhimi was then appointed prime minister and formed a new government with a mandate to hold early elections under a new electoral law.

Parliament amended the electoral law in a very fundamental way and the elections were held in October 2021.

Rend Al-Rahim

Is that electoral law beneficial for Iraqi people?

Most Iraqi people viewed the new electoral law as better than the previous one. They regarded this law as fairer and more representative and more reflective of will of the people.

As a result of the elections Muqtada Al Sadr came out a big winner with 73 seats and the other Shia parties lost ground, they lost dramatically.

Under the old law each province was one electoral district, so we had 18 electoral districts. Elections were run according to party lists. If I were a citizen voting in my province, I would see several party lists and these party lists represent the entire province in which I live. I would vote for the party and for a candidate. The party would get most of the votes so ultimately I was electing a political party.

The law was changed in 2021. First, Iraq became 83 electoral districts, a much smaller scale, very local. The other change is that you did not have lists anymore. Each candidate ran alone. The candidate probably belonged to a party, but nevertheless, when I vote for that candidate in my local district I am voting for the candidate, not for a whole list or a political party. So you got much more diversity.

I will give 2 examples: first, many more independent candidates ran in the elections of 2021 and for the first time 30 independent candidates won, nearly 10 percent of parliament.

Second, the Iraqi constitution stipulates a 25 percent quota for women, which is equal to 83 seats in the parliament. In the elections of 2021, 96 women won seats. Because many women were running on their own and because the districts were small, people knew these women and voted for them.

What are the reasons behind Sadr’s success and how could he get support from Sunnis, seculars even the communists?

I think there are 3 reasons for his electoral success.

The first is technical; the Sadrists understood how to use the new electoral law and how to take advantage of it and run the campaign in such a way as to benefit from the electoral law.

The second reason is that the other religious Shia parties did not understand the new election law: They ran a campaign as if it was the old election law and did not know how take advantage of it.

The final reason is political. Muqtada Sadr knew how to exploit the political sentiment of Shia voters. He had a platform that spoke a language of reform which was welcomed by the voters in the centre and in the South.

The other Shia parties, specifically those that are called PMF, the Popular Mobilization Forces, in other words the Shia militia parties, were accused of killing the protestors in 2019 and they were accused of greater corruption than anybody else. The Shia population had withdrawn support from the militia parties.

Initially Sadr, supported the protests, but later the Sadrists began to exploit the protests and eventually suppressed the protesters. There were incidents in provinces like Nasriyah in the south where Sadrists were accused of killing dissidents.

Is Muqtada Al Sadr sincere about changing the sectarian system and undertaking fundamental reforms? Sadrist groups were always part of the state and they were even in charge of some ministries.

You bring up a very important point. Muqtada Al Sadr has always been part of the muhassasa system. Sadrists have controlled a number of ministries, and his ministers were not necessarily the most effective. They were also accused of corruption. So all the facts that people associated with the political system can be attributed to the Sadrists as well. The real irony is that Sadr is not an outsider. He is not coming from outside the system to reform it. He also has a militia, like other Shi’a parties. 

Do you mean Mehdi Army?

Sadr changed the name several years ago. His militia is now called Saraya Al-Salam, which means Brigades of Peace. The name change demonstrated Sadr’s astute of language.

During the last elections, Sadrists were very clever in their rhetoric: They called for reform, they spoke against muhassasa, against sectarianism, and used a nationalist language.

They accused all the others, especially the political wings of the Popular Mobilization Forces, of being followers of Iran. And all this resonated with the people to the extent that voters were willing to give them a chance even though Muqtada Al Sadr had been part of the system.

There is a harsh proxy war in Iraq between Iran, the USA and even Turkey is part of it. At this point Sadr is saying their goal is saving the motherland and foreign forces such as Iran, USA and the others must withdraw from Iraq. Does that statement make him a target in the proxy war?

One of his famous slogan is ‘la Sharqiyah wala Gharbiyah’: neither East nor West, meaning we do not favor Iran and we are not going to favor the US. Of course this is a dangerous statement and he has many times indicated that he would not be surprised if he is killed but he is ready for martyrdom.

Some say Sistani can change the balances between rival Shia groups if he gets involved in the current tension.

Sistani is a very different case. First of all he is a theologian, not a politician. Sistani is not going to be dictated to by Iran or anyone else.  I do not think we can include Sistani in this mix because he is completely different category.

Let me go back to the protests of 2019. It was clear that the people who were close to Sistani expressed views supportive of the protests. Sistani himself never came out with a fatwah explicitly supporting the protests. However Sistani spokespersons who gave Friday sermons in Najaf and Karbala supported the demands of protesters for reform, nationalism, and being centrist and moderate in policies. They also supported the protesters’ calls for accountability for corruption and better governance.

I do not think Sistani or his agents will say anything about the political situation now because they do not want to get involved in an intra Shia dispute. It would be dangerous, it would have negative consequence.

And as you know Sistani has refused to meet any politician for the last 2-3 years. So I think Sistani very wisely is not making any statements.

How do you interpret the current political tension? Is it a proxy war or an internal power game?

It is not a proxy war. It is a power game. Muqtada Al Sadr talks about reform, revolution, new elections, services, amending the constitution, ending the system of muhassasa and sectarianism.

His Shia opponents talk about upholding the constitution, protecting the institutions of the state, protecting parliament, upholding the law, protecting the judiciary. But behind it all is a power game, as you suggested. Both sides want power for themselves, both sides want to control at least the Shia component of the political system, and both want to control the state.

Now, it’s hard to know what each side might do if they control the state. The record is not promising.

They have all been in power one time or the other. None of them has respected the constitution, rule of law, judiciary, and all of them had been corrupt and all of them have exploited state institutions for their own benefit.

What are the disputed topics between rival Shia movements?

One of the factors that created this conflict is that Muqtada Al Sadr, while asking for change and reform, also wanted to form a majority government. He won the largest number of seats in parliament, formed an alliance with the KDP and with the Sunni Party of Muhammad Al Halbousi the speaker of the parliament, and he wanted to form a majority government with his Kurdish and Sunni allies. All others, Shi’a, Kurds, ad Sunnis, would form the opposition.

His Shi’a opponents, under a coalition called the Coordination Framework, rejected this. They want to go the back to the old model of consensus government, in which everybody participates.

What is the difference between a majority government and a consensus government?

The difference is fundamental. Since 2003 we have had consensus governments, meaning that ministries and senior posts are divided among the political parties and every political party gets a share. It is a coalition government made up all the political parties regardless of how many seats they have in parliament. Of course the Shia always got the majority of the ministries, the Kurds and Sunnis got fewer. But essentially everybody was in the government and there was no opposition.

Of course everybody was corrupt, everybody served the interests of their party and their clan, everybody appointed their relatives, everybody controlled and benefited from state contracts-- and nobody held anybody to account. There was an unspoken pact that “we will not expose any wrongdoing because we are all in this together”.

Muqtada Al Sadr is proposing a majority government with the largest winners of the elections while others would constitute the opposition. So at least theoretically the government will be accountable to the opposition.

Iraq is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world but unfortunately there is a huge economic crisis and hundred thousands of people live under poverty. Muqtada Al Sadr has an influence on the streets. What will happen if the tension goes on?

When you watch interviews with his followers they mostly young people who say: We have no jobs, we have no future, we have no services, the government gives us nothing.

And remember the really important thing is that these are all Shia talking about the Shia state, about Shia politicians. They are not talking about Sunni or Kurdish politicians. They are talking about Shia political parties that at the very least should serve the Shia. The poorest part of the country is in the Shi’a South. People have no jobs, agriculture is dying out because of climate change and water shortage, the health and education sectors are collapsing. Shia politicians have done nothing for their own constituency.

What is the solution for Iraq? How does Iraq exist from that complicated circle?

It is the billion dollar question.

First of all, the confrontation is escalating. Muqtada Al Sadr has called for Iraqis in all provinces to rise up to support reform, to support elections, and so on. And he may enter into armed clashes with the Shi’a armed groups of the Coordination Framework. Everybody knows that the country cannot afford an intra Shia civil war. Ultimately there has to be dialogue and negotiation. 

I think the most likely future scenario, because it is the only practical one, is that the new parliament will continue for a limited period.  The current government will also continue, or there might be a new transitional government which is agreed on by all the political groups. The job of new government and the current parliament will be to hold elections within 1 year.

This will archive 2 aims: If there is a decision to hold new elections within a reasonable time-frame, Sadr will be satisfied. If there is a new transitional government with a mandate to hold new elections, this will satisfy the Coordination Framework.  In all cases, parliament cannot be dissolved immediately as Sadr wants. If Iraqi political parties agree to hold new elections, the current parliament must legislate for the new elections, pass a law to provide funds for the new elections, and perhaps amend the current election law. Only then can parliament be dissolved. A government, whether the current one or a new government, is needed to oversee elections.