No end in sight for Iraq crisis despite talk of new elections

The largest Shiite parliamentary bloc is split over early elections called by Moqtada Al Sadr

Supporters of Moqtada Al Sadr occupy the Iraqi Parliament for a fifth consecutive day. AFP
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A senior Shiite leader in Iraq has welcomed a call by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr to hold early elections.

The welcoming of the cleric's suggestion represents an offer to break 10 months of political deadlock that has resulted in his supporters occupying Parliament, and a dangerous standoff between armed Shiite groups.

Hadi Al Amiri, the head of the Fatah Alliance, a leading component of the Co-ordination Framework, which is now the largest bloc in Parliament — and Mr Al Sadr's main rival — said on Thursday that his support for a fresh election called by Mr Sadr requires an inclusive national dialogue.

Mr Al Sadr had on Wednesday night said he was against dialogue with the Co-ordination Framework, but an agreement on fresh elections could yet provide space for compromise.

"We support holding early elections called for by His Eminence Moqtada Al Sadr, especially since the previous elections were marred by many suspicions and objections," said Mr Al Amiri, whose Badr Organisation led an array of Iran-backed groups in the fight against ISIS.

Known for his strong ties to Iran, Mr Al Amiri said a national dialogue was crucial to holding free and fair elections “that restore Iraqis’ trust and confidence in the political process”.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi had made a similar call on Wednesday, before meeting Mr Al Amiri.

But compromise could still be some way off as divisions grow within the Co-ordination Framework. Nouri Al Maliki, Iraq's former prime minister, a senior member of the Co-ordination Framework and a bitter rival of Mr Al Sadr, has so far refused to endorse the offer of elections.

Co-ordination Framework parties are linked to a collection of Iran-backed militias under quasi-government control known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), some of which have clashed with Mr Al Sadr's supporters in the past.

Free haircuts outside Iraq's Parliament where hundreds continue their sit-in

Free haircuts outside Iraq's Parliament where hundreds continue their sit-in

Al Sadr and Al Maliki's rivalry

In a televised speech on Wednesday night from the holy city of Najaf, Mr Al Sadr called for the dissolution of Iraq's Parliament and early elections.

His demand came after thousands of his followers stormed the Parliament building over the weekend and declared an open-ended sit-in with the aim of preventing MPs from convening and electing a new prime minister.

The Sadrists had the largest bloc in Parliament until it resigned en masse last month on the orders of the cleric, who said he would not partake in a corrupt political process.

The resignation came after a number of legal challenges mounted by the Co-ordination Framework at the Supreme Court, that successfully blocked Mr Al Sadr and his allied Sunni and Kurdish parties from completing the process that would allow them to form a new government.

Mr Al Sadr said the Framework had used backchannel influence on the Supreme Court to derail his election gains.

Last month, two events deepened the crisis. The Co-ordination Framework nominated Mohammed Shia Al Sudani for prime minister, whom Mr Al Sadr accused of being "Maliki's shadow", and a recording attributed to Mr Al Maliki insulting Mr Al Sadr and warning of imminent war with his supporters was leaked on social media.

Mr Al Sadr then called on supporters to launch an escalating series of protests, culminating in the storming of Parliament.

Protesters storm Iraqi Parliament

Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr react as they protest against corruption inside the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq July 27, 2022.  REUTERS / Ahmed Saad

Occupying the legislative building, they chanted slogans against Iran and condemned the endemic corruption and political stalemate in their country.

Mr Al Sadr has further called for changing the 2005 constitution and Iraq's post-2003 ethno-sectarian political system, which allocates key government positions based on sect or ethnicity. His Shiite rivals have explicitly rejected the proposed reforms.

His speech on Wednesday night elicited an immediate response from Mr Al Maliki, who criticised the call for early elections and accused Mr Al Sadr of not being serious about breaking the stalemate.

“Serious dialogue, from which we hope to resolve differences and restore things to their rightful place, begin with a return to the constitution and respect for constitutional institutions,” tweeted Mr Al Maliki, who leads the State of the Law coalition, part of the Co-ordination Framework.

Co-ordination Framework splits

Beneath the statements of Mr Al Amiri and Mr Al Maliki is a fault line within the Co-ordination Framework regarding how to deal with Mr Al Sadr.

Fadel Mawat, a senior member of Mr Al Maliki’s State of Law coalition, explicitly rejected Mr Al Sadr’s call for snap elections.

“We have got our wires crossed here, but it’s the woolly thinking of him that I find so confusing,” he told the independent Baghdad Al Youm news agency.

Opposed to fresh elections, the State of Law coalition has 37 seats in Iraq's 329-member assembly, making it one of the largest parties in the fragmented Parliament.

In a further sign that Mr Al Sadr's protests are likely to continue, Faleh Al Fayyad, the chairman of the PMF, said on Thursday he would continue to support Mr Al Sudani as candidate for prime minister.

Updated: August 04, 2022, 6:47 PM