Untangling Iraq's political deadlock 'may take months'

Populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr's move away from politics gives rival blocs a chance to reassess their positions

Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Iraq’s political deadlock is likely to drag on for months following populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's decision to step back and offer a 40-day window to form a new government, experts have told The National.

Mr Al Sadr’s announcement last week came five months after a general election and will give his Iran-backed rivals, the Shiite Coordination Framework (SCF), a chance of uniting.

The 40-day window period began on Saturday, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Iraqi cleric was the biggest winner in the vote on October 10, with 73 seats in the 329-member parliament, but his Iran-backed rivals have posed a serious challenge to his government formation efforts.

Mr Al Sadr joined forces with powerful parties including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sovereignty Coalition led by parliamentary Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi. Each has vowed to limit representation of pro-Iran parties in parliament.

Mr Al Sadr has instead been pushing for a national majority government, steering away from the typical quota-based system known as the Muhassasa introduced after 2003 that tries to give equal opportunities to Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups.

It remains unclear which party has the largest bloc in parliament because of the vague and shifting loyalties of some politicians and parties.

A supporter of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr in Sadr City, east of the capital Baghdad, on March 25. AFP

“Mr Al Sadr’s move hasn’t prompted any change in positions yet but there may be a greater likelihood of negotiations resuming after Eid,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraqi analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“We witnessed a similar scenario in 2010 when government formation took nearly 10 months. With the constitutional deadlines already ignored there is still time but other options are also possible, like early elections,” Ms Higel told The National.

The Iraqi cleric's offer came in a tweet, in which he also called on his followers not to interfere as his rivals attempt to cobble together a cabinet.

For several months, the country's political scene has been deadlocked with Mr Al Sadr unable to form a coalition government. He has criticised his rivals, saying they “obstructed and are still obstructing” the process.

The parties have not agreed on the candidate for president, a problem that may also extend to the position of prime minister.

Mr Al Sadr's move will force the SCF to “adjust their demands to ensure that the Shiite house agrees on the next prime minister and cabinet,” Ms Higel said.

The SCF is made up of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s State of Law bloc with 33 seats. The Fatah Alliance, comprises of mainly of Shiite militias, won only 17 seats, compared with 45 in 2018, while the Kurdistan Alliance led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party also won only 17 seats.

“Even if the SCF would be able to convince the sovereignty alliance and the KDP to form a government together they wouldn’t want Sadr outside it, just like Sadr wouldn’t form a government without any of the other Shia parties on board,” Ms Higel said.

Mr Al Sadr’s move was expected and is a way to relieve pressure from his movement and give an opportunity for others to take the heat, said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst at the Century Foundation.

“This move is not really serious, rather a tactic to take pressure off himself and for others to have the opportunity to see how little support they have from the other parties,” Mr Jiyad told The National.

Iraq has at least two more months until political parties can agree to form a government, he said.

“Mr Al Sadr knows that it is highly unlikely that a government can be formed without him so the SCF will try to form a government including him and he's already taken a specific stance against some groups,” he said.

Updated: April 04, 2022, 4:48 PM