Iraq’s stumbling government formation process has taken a dangerous turn after an allegedly leaked recording of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki was made public last week.
Influential nationalist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr responded angrily to the recording, which contains personal attacks on him, sparking protests by his supporters in Baghdad and several southern Iraqi towns.
Both Mr Al Sadr and his rivals in the Shiite Co-ordination Framework (SCF) command heavily armed followers and have clashed in the past.
In the recording — the authenticity of which is contested — the former prime minister claims Mr Al Sadr is backed by foreign powers, whom he accuses of a kidnapping and murder campaign across Iraq during years of sectarian violence after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Mr Al Maliki, who led Iraq between 2006 and 2014 before being removed from office as ISIS took over one third of Iraq, has been nominated by his State of Law Coalition for the role of prime minister, amid a government formation process that has stumbled for nearly 10 months.
Mr Al Sadr once commanded a notorious militia, the Jaish Al Mahdi, which is accused of human rights violations.
In perhaps the most politically damaging part of the recording, Mr Al Maliki calls the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a largely Iran-backed militia force accused of war crimes and violent crackdowns on protesters, “cowards”.
Mr Al Maliki is allied to parties linked to the PMF and passed legislation in June 2014 to legalise the militias as a state-backed force.
The two men are bitter rivals. In 2008, Mr Al Maliki sent the Iraqi army to the southern port city of Basra to drive out a militia force loyal to Mr Al Sadr, which had taken control of the city.
Yesar Al Maleki, a Gulf analyst at the Middle East Economic Survey, said the recordings “fit the narrative of the Maliki versus Sadr saga, which is that this old rivalry that is not going to die".
"So has Maliki been ambushed?" he said. "Yes.
“The timing is very important. This is where Sadr is still a major player. He put out all these statements and we saw how many people went out to support him afterwards. The Sadrists were having gatherings and just last Friday they had perhaps one of the biggest Friday rallies in post-2003 Iraq.”
Mr Al Sadr says Mr Al Maliki should apologise to him and leave politics.
Government formation stumbles
The backlash against Mr Al Maliki could complicate efforts by the SCF to form the next government.
In a surprise move, Mr Al Sadr last month passed the responsibility of government formation to his rival parliamentary bloc when he asked his MPs to withdraw from government, instantly removing the Sadrists from Parliament.
Sixty-four out of 73 MPs loyal to the cleric — the largest bloc in Parliament — have since been replaced, mainly by members of the Co-ordination Framework.
At the head of that grouping is Mr Al Maliki and Fatah Alliance head, former militiaman and Iran-loyalist Hadi Al Amiri.
On paper, they are now in pole position to form the next government, with the largest bloc, but will still need the support of Sunni and Kurdish parties, some of whom were allied to Mr Al Sadr.
But Mr Al Sadr’s move, while self-destructive in appearance, has revealed splits within the SCF that have now been exacerbated by the leaked recording.
Mr Al Maliki was an uncertain choice for some in the SCF who felt he could be too divisive and provoke mass protests from the Sadrists.
“That recording has clearly hit a nerve," said Kirk Sowell, who runs Iraq-focused consultancy Utica Risk.
"My view is that Maliki's unofficial candidacy to have a third term never had a chance, and it was just a question of how long and what they'd have to give him to save face and back down. If this weakens Maliki, maybe it speeds up government formation by weakening Maliki's hand."
A new civil war?
While the Sadrists and some militias linked to the SCF have clashed in the past, and recent months have seen a sharp rise in assassinations of figures linked to the PMF, some believe a new Shiite-Shiite conflict can be avoided.
Norman Ricklefs, who advised Iraqi security forces during Mr Al Maliki’s last major clash with Sadrists in 2008, predicts political chaos could drag on into next year, but is uncertain about armed conflict.
“The most important outcome of the press release by Sadr’s office is that it makes the formation of a new government from this Parliament more difficult, making fresh elections in 2023 more likely," he said.
"It also affirms to the Sadrist movement that it can continue to play a powerful political role from outside the Parliament, which has the unfortunate effect of undermining Parliament’s authority.”
Mr Al Maleki agrees that Mr Al Sadr likes to maintain the image of being separate from the political process, despite retaining strong influence in ministries.
Mr Al Sadr is "back to where he is most comfortable, which is influencing government policy, influencing politics while not getting his hands dirty in the process", he said.
Mr Sowell said despite the seemingly endless deadlock between parties with armed groups, conflict is not preordained.
He said there appeared to be considerable efforts to avoid any Shiite-Shiite conflict and predicted “that we are headed for a 2018 scenario”.
Under such a scenario, Shiite leaders would select someone “with no electoral mandate or political base, someone not controversial for Sadr, and Iraq gets another weak government”.
Mr Sowell said: "In my mind, the main uncertainty is how many weeks or months it takes to get Maliki to climb down."