Thursday September 01, 2022

Breakdown in Baghdad as Sadr quits politics

Breakdown in Baghdad as Sadr quits politics

Muqtada Al Sadr

The announcement of influential Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr that he was retiring from politics had driven his followers to break into violent protests. They entered the Green Zone in Baghdad housing important official buildings including the parliament where they held a sit-in. And the protesters clashed with the Iraqi security forces and private militias of other Shia groups, ending with more than 30 dead and hundreds injured. Al-Sadr had to make a televised speech asking his supporters to withdraw in the evening.

The followers of Al-Sadr are aware that the reason their leader had announced his retirement is due to frustration that no government-formation in the months after the general election last October. At first, Al-Sadr asked the elected members of his group to quit parliament after he failed to form a coalition keeping out the Iran-backed Shia groups.

Al-Sadr has been very firm that Iraq needs an independent government that is neither pro-Iran nor pro-United States. But he failed to muster the numbers. He had been demanding dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. Many observers feel that Al-Sadr’s dramatic announcement of retirement was a rhetorical gesture and he would plunge right back into the political arena.

The caretaker government has imposed curfew, the Emirates airlines suspended flights to Baghdad, and Kuwait, which shares a 254-km border with Iraq, had asked its citizens to move out of Iraq. The Netherlands has evacuated its embassy staff in Baghdad. Al-Sadr’s call to his followers to end the protest seems to be an attempt by the Shia cleric to avoid a complete breakdown in the country. Many fear that if no solution is found between the contending groups, then it could end in destructive civil war.

It appears that Al-Sadr would not want a civil war because he knows that there are no winners in a civil war, and at the end of the day negotiations and compromises cannot be avoided. Though Al-Sadr’s party won the largest number of seats, it was falling far short of the simple majority needed to form a government. The other groups are the Shia groups supported by Tehran, the minority Sunnis and the Kurds.

The deadlock and the stalemate that is unfolding in Baghdad is akin to the political deadlock over the formation of government in Beirut. In Beirut, it is Hizbollah that is proving to be the hurdle in the formation of the government. It is an open question whether Iran should declare that it has no interest and stakes in the internal political affairs of Iraq and Lebanon, and that it has no role in influencing the Shia groups there. And this could possibly pave the way for a political resolution in the two countries.

But Iran has along taken the position that it has no hand in the Shia politics in these two countries. It becomes difficult to make any declaration that it is not involved because that would imply that it exerts a huge influence on the Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon. But it is obvious to a political observer that Iran casts a shadow over both Iraq and Lebanon. The harsh reality is there is no alternative to a negotiated deal, where each group would have to yield ground. A national government seems to be the reasonable solution. And that seems to be a very difficult task to accomplish given the stated positions of all the parties involved. It is difficult to deny the validity of Al-Sadr’s position that Iraq must have a government which is free of American and Iranian influences. But he would have to work more and convince the other groups about the correctness of his position.

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