The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iraq crisis simmers as protesters shut parliament down

Ten months after cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won at the ballot box, Iraq’s politicians are still bitterly divided over a new government

Protesters occupy Iraq’s parliament building in Baghdad on Aug. 1. (Anmar Khalil/AP)

BAGHDAD — Rival street protests over the shape of Iraq’s government ended peacefully this week, but the country’s political crisis has entered a new and uncertain phase as the feuding elite offered no signs of resolution.

Ten months after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won the largest number of seats in the legislature, politicians from the country’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs continue to fight bitterly over the shape of a new government. Now Sadr has withdrawn from the process as his followers camp out in the grand legislature building.

No budget has been passed, and the country’s problems are piling up. Public works projects are on hold. The power grid is faltering. As summer heat smothers the daytime, few can afford enough electricity to keep cool anyway.

Iraq’s wild-card cleric upends politics as summer’s heat descends

Almost two decades after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, political parties here have usually operated within what have effectively become rules of the game: a consensus-based system that gives everyone a seat at the table and access to the oil-rich country’s mineral wealth, often through patronage and corruption. But after trying and failing to form a government that excluded his Shiite rival, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr has challenged the rule book, and the unrest it is sparking has tilted Iraq toward anxious, unknown territory.

Sadr is a storied figure in Iraq, with a history of agitation against U.S. troops and fierce loyalty from tens of thousands of working-class acolytes. Now, the Shiite cleric is urging those followers to take to the streets as he casts himself as the man to bring down a kleptocratic political system forged in the wake of America’s invasion.

But analysts say this is likely to be a fresh push to dominate decision-making within the country’s divided Shiite factions, and by extension, throughout the country’s entire political system.

“Sadr seems intent on reconfiguring the power-sharing arrangement,” said Fanar Haddad, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen. “He’s shown that they can occupy parliament; he’s shown that they can occupy public space.”

Iraq’s latest power struggle was made possible by popular protests against corruption and foreign interference in 2019, which caught politicians from Baghdad to Tehran to Washington by surprise and briefly seemed to threaten the entire political system.

The movement was broken by security forces and militias, including forces backed by Sadr, but it forced fresh elections in October. The cleric’s candidates won more seats than any other faction.

After months of deadlock over forming a new government, he pulled his parliamentarians from the discussion, and framed the walkout as an indictment of the system.

Sadr retained followers across Iraq’s institutions of power, leading analysts to speculate that the move might also be aimed at shoring up a usually zealous base that was growing cynical about participation in the country’s fractious electoral politics.

How powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could snuff out Iraq’s mass street protests

They believe the mercurial cleric is trying to sideline Shiite rivals to emerge as the preeminent power presiding over the government formation process.

The stakes of that effort sharpened when leaked audio recordings appeared to reveal Maliki describing Sadr as treacherous and corrupt, dragging their acrimonious history back into public view, and setting up a fight from which only one victor could emerge.

By last Wednesday night, Sadr’s supporters had stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to politicians and the U.S. Embassy, their black-clad cadres patrolling the streets with walkie-talkies. Hundreds of young men burst into the parliament and declared a sit-in.

Rivals declared it a coup, and by Monday morning, both sides had announced street protests for when the heat of the day ebbed. The capital held its breath, fearing escalation, even violence.

But the demonstrations passed without significant incident. In central Baghdad, supporters of the Shiite political grouping dominated by Maliki, the Coordination Framework, milled about in groups, at times disagreeing over whether to try to dismantle concrete security barriers that led toward the Green Zone.

“This country’s reached a point where its international image is of chaotic people storming their elected parliament,” said Abbas Ali, a 40-year-old teacher. “Hasn’t Sadr been a part of this political system since 2003 until today? And now he presents himself as a reformer?”

Populist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr dominates Iraqi elections marked by low turnout

But across the Tigris River, Sadr’s supporters said they believed him.

“I never felt proud to be a Sadrist in the way that I do today,” said Ahmed Haider, a 22-year-old construction worker. “He’s the only one who felt our suffering and tried to change it.” The cleric, he said, was a “man of action, not just speeches.”

By nightfall, the drama appeared over, for now. Sadr and Coordination Framework leaders thanked their supporters for coming out in defense of Iraq. Most protesters went home. As darkness blanketed the city, the only spectacle left was in parliament, where teenagers and young men bedded down for another night on the mattresses they have laid out in the grand antechamber.

“I wish this could continue all summer,” Haider said, looking up at the air conditioning that Iraq’s parliamentarians enjoy around-the-clock, and laughed. “I’ve never slept under such cold in all my life.”

Iraqi politicians called Monday night for dialogue. “Our dear Iraq is seeing a tremendous political tension that may threaten dire consequences; god forbid if the wise do not interfere,” Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in a statement.

“I call on all parties to sit at the table of a national dialogue to reach a political solution.”

That call was swiftly echoed by leading figures from the Coordination Framework. Cleric Ammar al-Hakim said discussion would stop Iraq from “slipping into unimaginable consequences.”

Sadr’s allies appeared to reject the proposal. “Neither will we accept stopgap solutions nor sit at a round table,” senior leader Jaber al-Khafaji said. “Radical change is a must.” Within hours, Sadr called on his followers to extend their sit-ins to provinces across the country.

Iraq’s largest political factions remain divided.

Former U.S. foe likely to emerge as kingmaker in Iraqi election — with tacit American backing

The Trump administration’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and allied Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020 removed two key power brokers from the scene. Both had been instrumental in bringing political forces together in times of crisis.

“Since 2003, one of Iran’s main exports to Iraq has been consensus-making,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of the platform and a scholar of Iranian-Iraqi relations. “The problem now is that too many people want to dominate at the same time, while almost all Iraqi actors are stronger than they were a decade ago.”

Loveluck reported from London.