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Iraqi Gridlock: Leadup and Stalemate

With the essential context provided in our previous article, we must now analyze the events leading up to the gridlock and its protagonist, Sayyid Muqtada Al Sadr.


The Muhasasa’s overthrow was one of the main demands of the October 2019 protests. It was a spontaneous uprising of Iraqis from multiple sects hoping to reform their country’s economic and political system; ending the Muhasasa was the first goal on many activists’ agendas.

The protesters, who were made up of many factions of Liberals, Nationalists, Secularists, Communists, social activists, youth leaders, and Sadrists, successfully brought down the government in May 2020, leading to a new interim government whose main goal was overseeing early elections. Two prime ministers failed to form a cabinet for a caretaker government during this period and gave up trying to reconcile the different political forces that all wanted different positions. The third attempt by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi was finally successful in forming a caretaker government, as Al Kadhimi was a previously unknown intelligence officer that seemed to be inoffensive to any significant political faction in the negotiating tables behind closed doors.

Al Kadhimi’s rule, before and after the promised elections, was characterized by turmoil, violence, and instability as his relationship with the Pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces deteriorated due to him being perceived as too friendly to the United States.

Muqtada Al Sadr

A theologian and Shia cleric from the city of Najaf who previously led a rebellion in the south against the U.S Supported Maliki government was the kingmaker during the October protests. He supported the protesters to varying degrees throughout their actions, even though he was part of the Shia political establishment and was seen as just another Iranian-leaning cleric; he saw the protests as an opportunity to weaken his fellow Shia political opponents and gain leverage against them.

He gained power in the Kadhimi government, as Kadhimi seemed reliant on his support and much more friendly to Sadr than the PMF-aligned Fatah Shia bloc. Kadhimi made multiple favorable statements toward Sadr in 2020 and 2021.

Sadr’s power and influence are uniquely entrenched in the minds of his followers, as he inherited a base of popular support among a large section of poor southern Shias from his father, who was one the prominent opposition leaders to Saddam Hussein inside of Iraq; his supporters follow him religiously and fanatically, giving him a unique advantage as he doesn’t have to worry about losing their support through risky political maneuvers as much as any of the other factions.

Despite participating in many governments and forming coalitions with other establishment parties, Sadr still presents himself as a figure of opposition and reform, publicly stating his opposition to the Muhasasa system and foreign intervention inside Iraq, even disavowing Iran’s intervention and presenting himself as an Iraqi nationalist, despite his various links to the Iranian regime.

The Elections

The long-awaited early elections were finally held on the 10th of October, 2021; they were generally seen as a success by the international community, with the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) getting praise from many international bodies, like the UN and EU.

What made this election different from all previous ones was the adoption of a new electoral law, which divided the country into 83 electoral districts. The number of districts was initially based on the 25% quota needed for women in parliament, with each district having a set number of seats corresponding to its population.

However, the elections still exhibited a degree of corruption and dishonesty, and there certainly was some fraud demonstrated by the different parties with no intervention from the authorities, like the mysterious disappearance of an IHEC employee who was carrying classified electoral data on the 20th of September, 20 days before the elections were set to take place. The elections also saw a massive boycott from almost all secular parties, including many which had emerged during the October protests, as well as older established secular parties like the Peopleโ€™s Party for Reform and the Communist Party. The boycotters argued that any election under the current circumstances would be inherently fraudulent and undemocratic.

The aforementioned distrust and apathy for democracy showed itself in this election, with many secular and independent figures boycotting, the stage was left almost completely to establishment parties, with a record low turnout of 41%. 

The results saw a massive victory for the Sadrists, with them gaining a plurality of seats and vowing to ally with the Sunni and Kurdish parties to form a National Majority Government, as opposed to the compromise governments of old. This move would have excluded almost every other Shia party from power, forcing them to put their differences aside and form an anti-Sadrist Shia coalition called the Coordinative Frame to oppose Sadrโ€™s rise to power. 

The Shia House Divided

Sadr wasted no time allying with the KDP and the Progress-โ€™Azm general Sunni coalition (Sovereignty Alliance); combined with some Sadr-aligned independents, they had a majority of seats and were ready to form a government.

The broad alliance quickly gathered in a session to elect a Speaker of Parliament, and most parties agreed that Mohammed Al Halbousi of the Progress Party, the incumbent speaker, should continue his role in a second term; despite being a Sadrist ally of convenience, he was seen as flexible and malleable to serve the interests of all factions.

Halbousi was reelected with a majority of 200 votes after some parliamentary drama and delay involving the most senior member of parliament, Mahmoud Al Mashhadani, who is constitutionally required to chair the speaker election session. He tried to delay the session by faking a faint; after being escorted to the hospital, the session was resumed with no further delays, with the third most senior member in the chamber taking the chair instead.

To say that this was Sadrโ€™s moment would be an understatement. This was what he had been working towards since 2003; the Shia political balance of power that was necessary to placate all equal but opposing factions was no longer necessary; with this victory, Sadr could finally secure his revenge against his Shia rivals that had put down his rebellion in 2008, forcing him to put down his arms and freeze the Mahdi armyโ€™s operations, as well as agree to a political alliance.

The Sadrists convened parliament confident in their ability to form a government, but the coordinative frame used a legal loophole to prevent a session to elect a President of the Republic from being held; holding such a session required โ…” quorum of MPs, and as the Anti-Sadrist frame made up just a little more than a third of parliament, they coordinated a collective boycott of all parliamentary sessions.

Sadr tried negotiating with some factions of the frame, such as the Badr organization and their close affiliates in the Fatah bloc, but vehemently refused to negotiate any deal with Nuri Al Malikiโ€™s State of Law coalition, still holding onto decades-old grudges going back to the Knightsโ€™ Charge operation, when the Maliki government destroyed the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia with the help of U.S and coalition forces back in 2008.

Sadrโ€™s negotiations were limited, and he did not agree to change anything about his program or public intentions. Between October and June, he released multiple statements condemning the Muhasasa system and calling for its end while also calling for Iraq to affirm its sovereignty and kick out foreign forces, or at least negotiate terms of their stay โ€œon respectful and mutually beneficial grounds.โ€

Sadrโ€™s failure to make any real initiatives to attract his rivals to break their boycott, and the coordinative frameโ€™s surprising cohesion and cooperation led to a political deadlock that lasted for eight months, with every single parliamentary session failing due to the aforementioned quorum; as conditions worsened and political tension rose, one side had to budge eventually. He also made many accusative and antagonistic remarks against the Coordinative Frame, the Muhasasa system, and the PMF, vowing to end all when he takes power in a National Majority Government.

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