A civil war in Iraq, unfortunately, is a matter of “when”, not “if”. The country has been experiencing a continuous political crisis in the last decade and, when it seems that a worsening would be impossible, the situation deteriorates even more and becomes more serious. In just one day, the last 29 of August, hundreds of people were injured in the capital Baghdad, more than a dozen were injured and the US and Iranian embassies were attacked by armed groups. If the situation continues, the “mere survival of the State of Iraq will be at risk.”
The quotation marks are because this is a direct quote from the note from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. The text was written after yet another wave of protests in Baghdad in which protesters supporting Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr invaded the Republican Palace, seat of the prime minister’s government, a position currently held by Mustafa al-Kadhimi. In a month, this was the fourth major invasion by protesters of Baghdad’s International Zone, also known as the “Green Zone”.
The main government buildings and foreign embassies are located there. There were even published reports of Western representations who were evacuated in an emergency. In recent weeks, Sadrists have invaded parliament twice and besieged the seat of the judiciary. What motivates these protests? The October elections of 2021. In other words, the consequences of the elections. The Sadrist movement was the most voted party, with about 10% of the national vote, electing 29 ) seats, from 329, to parliament.
Since then, however, no viable government has been formed in the country, which remains under an interim government for almost a year. Seven parties elected more than ten parliamentarians, more than twenty other parties elected at least one and there are 43 independent parliamentarians. It became an impossible task to form a bloc of at least 165 representatives of a majority government. And this is explained by several reasons. The first and obvious one is the fragmentation that we have already mentioned.
The sectarian divisions between Shiites and Sunnis are also a factor. Another aspect is the international support of each group. For example, among Shia groups, there are different degrees of proximity to Iran. Ideological differences are also present. The Kurds, for example, are divided between two party blocs, one on the left and the other on the right. Which reminds us that there is also a national division within Iraq. There is also a division between religious and secular parties.
In addition to this political fragmentation and the fragmentation of parliament, there are other elements in the current crisis that reflect discourses present in Iraqi society. One of them, very present among Sadrists, is corruption, in which the other political actors are all corrupt, representing traditional regional families or leaders sold to foreign countries. al-Sadr is a Shia, studied in Iran and has a good relationship with the country, but he advocates the withdrawal of all “foreign influences” from Iraq.
In the current crisis, al-Sadr claims he was the winner of the elections but that the other parties boycott him, because they are under foreign yoke or because he is not corrupt. He also stated that any government without the participation of his party would be illegitimate, even with a majority. He “affirmed” because, in June, his party announced the collective resignation of all parliamentarians, stating that they would not negotiate with the corrupt and with the “old leaders” who are “destroying the country”.
The sparking the protests on the day 29 was the announcement of “political retirement” by al-Sadr. Whether it’s a sincere announcement or a bluff is still unclear, but it rocked Iraq even more. There are two other elements that the reader needs to keep in mind to understand what is happening in the Arab country that owns one of the largest oil reserves in the world. First, virtually every political group has an armed militia. This causes crises to escalate very quickly.
Episodes of violence
This is not the first time this has happened. In November 2021, Iraqi Hezbollah and its allies revolted calling for an electoral recount. The October Movement, in 2019, involved a myriad of militias, with a toll of almost a thousand deaths, almost becoming a generalized civil war. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has already been the target of two assassination attempts. In September 2018, protesters in Basra, to the south, a mostly Sunni city, stormed the Iranian consulate in the city.
Critics say al-Sadr wants to “throw gasoline on the fire” and that his speech is uncompromising, preventing national agreements with other groups, in the Iraqi patchwork that we have illustrated. The al-Sadr family is one of the most influential among Iraqi Shiites. He opposed both Saddam Hussein and US forces after the invasion of 2003. His goal would be an Islamic republic, without the presence of foreign influences, including Iran.
One of Iraq’s few popular leaders, al-Sadr’s flags are very difficult to classify in a perspective. left and right, a western concept. A “nationalist populism” is perhaps the closest, superficially. And he also has his armed militias, the Sarayat al-Salam, “Peace Battalions”. And the fact that armed militias are so prolific in Iraq is directly linked to the great risk of a civil war that threatens the “survival of the state”.
Since the US invasion, in 2003, Iraq went through different moments of crisis. Perhaps the most serious of these was when a considerable part of its territory was under the control of Daesh, the self-styled Islamic State. The State was bankrupt and the national armed forces were going through a process of refounding. To fight the extremist and genocidal group, the Popular Mobilization Forces were formed, a parallel army formed by local and partisan militias, making their existence official.
Vacuum of power
In theory it is a national guard subordinate to the army. In practice, it is a collection of armed groups each with different loyalties, most of them Shia. So we have a country with several armed actors, in two decades of instability, including a foreign invasion and a terrorist group that dominated considerable slices of territory, target of different interests of its neighbors and powers, split between different groups and in a vacuum of power since the elections.
An example of this power vacuum is the number of times Iraqi sovereignty has been violated by other countries, such as Iran, Turkey and the USA, in recent years. Who will protest? Who is going to do anything, if there is not even a government that can represent all of Iraq and the Iraqis, with popular legitimacy? Year after year this power vacuum grows and the social and political fabric of Iraq is more frayed, to the point of rupture, which would certainly affect the entire region.
Power vacuums often do not last long. A “strong leadership”, like a general, may want to “restore order”. Or a popular religious revolution wants to “preserve values”. A foreign country can interfere, turning an Iraqi civil war into a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, for example. It is no wonder that the UN mission asks Iraqi leaders to “refrain from acts that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events.”