For the second time in a few days, demonstrators have occupied the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad – a declaration of war by the politician and preacher Muktada al Sadr to his rival Nuri al Maliki and to Iran. After the first occupation last Wednesday, supporters of Sadr withdrew after a short time, but when they returned to the building on Saturday they announced that they wanted to stay there for the time being.
Parliamentary work has been suspended until further notice. Maliki responded by demonstrating his own willingness to fight: he had himself photographed with an assault rifle. Nine months after the most recent parliamentary elections, Iraq is facing a dangerous escalation.
Sadr and Maliki compete for leadership among Iraq’s Shiites, the largest ethnic group in the country. Sadr won the October elections but failed to form a government and withdrew his MPs from parliament in June. Maliki, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2014, wants to form a pro-Iranian government, but Sadr wants to prevent that.
The power struggle in the Shiite camp is blocking the solution to urgent problems such as rampant corruption, poor electricity supply and high unemployment. The grievances triggered nationwide protests in 2019 and led to the early elections last year, but nothing has improved, on the contrary: the competition between Sadr and Maliki is now conjuring up the horror scenario of a new civil war.
Both politicians can mobilize thousands of fighters and ignore the state security forces’ official monopoly on the use of force. According to internal statements that have been made public, Maliki is said to have predicted an inner-Shia “war”. Sadr accuses Maliki of trying to kill him. With the parliamentary occupations, this dispute is now intensifying. The government of Acting Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi is powerless.
The 47-year-old Sadr is one of the most dazzling players in Iraqi politics. The son of a prominent cleric who opposed the dictator Saddam Hussein, he is held in high esteem by many Shiites. His militia, the Mahdi Army, fought the Americans after the 2003 US invasion.
Although Sadr presents himself as an Iraqi nationalist who rejects Iranian interference in his country, he has traveled to Tehran several times in recent years for political talks. Although he announced his retirement from politics in 2014, Sadr is one of the most powerful politicians in the country: his Saairun alliance won the most parliamentary seats in the 2018 and 2021 elections.
Maliki is closer to Iran than his rival Sadr, but has so far been unable to assert himself against him. Observers see this as a sign of Iran’s weakness, which has viewed Iraq as its backyard since the fall of Saddam Hussein. For Tehran, Iraq is part of Iran’s sphere of influence from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, says Iran expert Firas Elias.
But Iran has been losing influence in Iraq since the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani two years ago, Elias wrote in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy. Sadr’s victory in last year’s elections was another defeat for Iran.
The timing of the first parliamentary occupation of Baghdad on Wednesday shows how strong Sadr feels: His supporters stormed the plenum during Esmail Qaani’s visit to the Iraqi capital. As Soleimani’s successor, Qaani leads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign troop and is thus the head of pro-Iranian politicians like Maliki. Apparently he doesn’t want to mess with Sadr. Iran expert Elias reported on Twitter, citing Iranian sources, that Qaani wanted to ask his protégé Maliki not to provoke his rival.