Pro- and Anti-Iran Shi’ite Factions Face Off as al-Sadr Followers Occupy Iraqi Parliament
Security forces use a water cannon to prevent supporters of the Coordination Framework from entering the capital Baghdad's high-security Green Zone on Aug. 1, 2022, during a counterprotest against Muqtada al-Sadr's loyalists who have been occupying parliament. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Pro- and Anti-Iran Shi’ite Factions Face Off as al-Sadr Followers Occupy Iraqi Parliament

Sadrist Movement, Coordination Framework umbrella group battling over who will form government

Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq’s Shi’ite anti-Iran Sadrist Movement, is demanding a sharp shift in the country’s political system as his followers continue to occupy the parliament in Baghdad after storming it on Saturday for a second time in three days.

Al-Sadr’s bloc, the largest in the legislature, opposes the nomination of a rival candidate for prime minister.

He tweeted on Sunday that the open-ended sit-in at the parliament is “a great opportunity to radically challenge the political system, the constitution, and the elections.” He called on Iraqis to join the “revolution.”

Iraq is a divided country. The great majority are Shi’ite Muslims. There are also many Sunni Muslims, including Kurds, and myriad smaller groups. Since 2003, with the fall of Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein, a Shiite government has been in power. However, the Shi’ites are not unified as there is a pro-Iran faction and another one that is not, led by al-Sadr.

The storming of the parliament came after al-Sadr led a mass resignation of 73 of the 329 lawmakers on June 13, saying the move aimed to end an eight-month political deadlock as no government had been formed since the October 2021 election.

Ali Kurdistani, an Iraqi political analyst, told The Media Line the occupation of parliament is certainly connected to the resignation of Sadr’s MPs, describing the move as “the second step of Sadrists to put more pressure on their rivals, and to show that even if they are not in parliament, they can stop others from forming a government.”

Mahmood Baban, a research fellow at the Rudaw Research Center, an Iraqi think tank, told The Media Line that the Coordination Framework, an umbrella organization that unites all the pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties, is trying to form a government.

“Al-Sadr knows that with the formation of a new government and transferring all the powers (parliament, council of ministers), the coming days will look like 2006, when [Nouri al-] Maliki, who was prime minister, destroyed the Mahdi Army militia groups (led by al-Sadr),” he said.

That is why, Baban continued, “Al-Sadr told his followers to go to the parliament and stay there until they are recalled, and ask for dialogue. Al-Sadr is asking to change the entire [political] system and the pro-Iranians are asking to keep the system.”

The Peace Companies, or Sarayat al Salam, are a 2014 revival of the Mahdi Army that was disbanded in 2008.

Kurdistani said the Iraqi people, in general, are not happy with the storming of the parliament.

“They are concerned that it will turn to violence and lead to a civil war, especially since the government institutions are not strong enough to save the country from any possible serious event.”

Baban said that the situation threatens the country’s fragile democracy.

He noted that most of the militia groups’ leaders and heads of political parties are demanding a new constitution and to change the system from parliamentary to presidential. “That leads to the rule of one person,” he said.

Furthermore, Baban continued, “I do not think that the two leaders of the Shia factions, al-Sadr and [Islamic Dawa Party Secretary-General] Nouri al-Maliki, will reach an agreement, because of what happened in the past days and the fact that they demand too much from each other.”

Kurdistani added that if the protests don’t remain peaceful, a coup is possible.

“If it turns to violence between supporters of different Shia groups, and if they attack the government’s institutions, that will become a threat to democracy especially since there are concerns of coup scenarios, which happened in Iraq’s history several times,” he said.

He believes the fate of the country over the coming days is in the hands of the Shiite leaders. “If al-Sadr tells his supporters to go home, they will do so. But if he insists on making radical change in the country in this way, as he said yesterday in a statement when calling the storming of the Iraqi parliament the “liberation” of the Green Zone, then it is likely to escalate further and even turn to violence.”

The parliament is located is what is still called the Green Zone, a formerly heavily fortified area in the center of Baghdad that has served as the headquarters of successive Iraqi regimes.

Baban said that the situation will probably keep escalating but not to a civil war.

Things are already escalating, he said, “but a civil war between al-Sadr’s followers and the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, it is not going to happen. I believe it will see some people removed from power, reduce their role, and remove the key militia groups.”

If there is no civil war between Shia militias, there is the possibility that a new round of elections will be held that would provide a chance for a government that meets al-Sadr approval to be formed, Baban said.

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