Iraq’s Moqtada Al Sadr defends Sunni and Kurdish allies after militia threats

Since October's national elections Shiite rivals have grown more divided, threatening to prolong process for forming new government

Iraqi Shi'ite radical leader Muqtada al-Sadr delivers a sermon to worshippers during Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque near Najaf, Iraq September 21, 2018.  REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
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Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr has pitted himself further against his Iran-backed Shiite rivals amid rising tension over forming a new government.

Since October's national elections Shiite rivals have grown more divided, with the Sadrist Bloc emerging as the clear winner while Iran-backed factions suffered a significant drop in support.

These rifts deepened when Mr Al Sadr joined forces with Sunni and Kurdish parties to pick the parliament speaker and his deputies during the first session after the elections.

The move angered the pro-Iran camp, which includes influential Shiite militias who boycotted the session, and they issued threats against Sunnis and Kurds.

“We will not allow anyone, whomever he is, to threaten our partners and the social peace,” Mr Al Sadr said in a statement posted on his Twitter account late on Tuesday, referring to his Sunni and Kurdish allies.

“There will be no return to the sectarian violence and warfare,” he said, in a reference to the sectarian tit-for-tat attacks that engulfed the country in 2005 and 2006. His now-disbanded Mahdi Army militia were blamed for playing a major role in the civil conflict.

“The next government will be one of law and there will be no place for any violation from anyone,” he said.

Mr Al Sadr’s political group won 73 seats in October national elections, becoming the clear winner, but fell short of gaining the majority — 165 seats in the 329-seat parliament – needed to form the government.

Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who heads the State of Law bloc, won 33 seats, and the Iran-backed Fatah Alliance won 17.

For months, Mr Al Sadr and the Iran-allied Co-ordination Framework – which is formed from the State of Law, Fatah and other Shiite groups – have failed to reach a deal.

The long-running dispute between Mr Al Sadr and Mr Al Maliki is one of the main obstacles to any deal, as the Shiite cleric seeks to exclude his rival from the next government. Their enmity dates back to 2008, when Mr Al Maliki launched a military operation against the Mahdi Army.

In his statement, Mr Al Sadr struck a defiant tone.

“We are proceeding with the formation of the national majority government and our door is open for some of those we still think well of,” he said, referring to other members of the Co-ordination Framework he has been wooing.

During the first session of parliament on Sunday, which was chaired by the eldest member of the legislative body, Mahmoud Al Mashhadani, both rival Shiite groups claimed to be the largest bloc.

According to the constitution, the largest bloc will be asked to form the government.

Mr Al Mashhadani asked to check the names and the signatures on both lists with a committee, causing chaos inside the hall and leading to a heated discussion between him and some Shiite politicians who gathered around him.

He then appeared to faint and was taken out of the parliament building for treatment, disrupting the session. But proceedings later resumed with the second oldest member, Khalid Al Daraji, and the Parliament Speaker and his two deputies were elected, resulting in MPs from the Co-ordination Framework walking out in a protest against the move.

On Monday, Alia Nussayif, a senior member of the State of Law, held Sunnis and Kurds accountable for creating “a rift among the Shiites.”

In an interview with a local TV station affiliated to a powerful pro-Tehran Shiite militia, Ms Nussayif went further, warning them that the “fire will catch them” if confrontations among Shiites erupted.

Hours later, Abu Ali Al Askari, a spokesman for the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah armed group, issued a warning that “Iraq could see tough days and all will lose”.

The elections last October were the fifth parliamentary vote for a full-term government since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

They were held months earlier than scheduled to try to appease the pro-reform protest movement that surfaced in 2019.

Updated: January 12, 2022, 7:08 PM