Iran-backed factions in Iraq refuse to change prime ministerial candidate

Tension rises between Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and his Tehran-allied rivals over nomination for prime minister

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist Movement, inside the Iraqi parliament building after they stormed the Green Zone in central Baghdad, July 27, 2022.  EPA
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Iraq’s largest Shiite parliamentary bloc says it is still backing its prime ministerial candidate, a day after rival firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr expressed his objection by rallying throngs of protesters who broke into the government complex.

Since Monday’s announcement of the nomination of Shiite politician Mohammed Shia Al Sudani by the Co-ordination Framework, a coalition of influential Iran-backed Shiite militias and political parties, Mr Al Sadr has been mustering his followers.

He has called Mr Al Sudani a “shadow” of his rival, former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. The years-long antagonism between the two men has been one of the reasons behind the delay in forming a new government, more than 10 months since national elections were held.

“The Co-ordination Framework is sticking to the nomination of Mr Mohammed Shia Al Sudani as a prime minister to form the new government and not reconsidering it,” legislator Jabar Al Maamouri told The National.

To proceed with the process of forming a new government, parliament needs first to elect a new president for the state, who in return directs the nominee of the largest bloc in parliament to form the government.

Since that position is reserved for the Kurds — based on an unofficial agreement among Iraq’s political parties since 2003, the CF has to wait until the Kurds agree on a nominee.

“We are waiting for the Kurds to come up with a nominee, either today or early next week,” Mr Al Maamouri said.

The CF has been pushing the Kurds to reach an agreement and to hold a parliament session on Thursday, but now it is asking the legislative body to hold it on Saturday.

“If any armed dispute ignited, the blood of the poor would be shed, not their own,"
Jamal Mohammed, Baghdad resident

Iran's role

Each of the main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are eyeing the post of president. As of Wednesday, no deal has been struck between them and they have asked for more time, a Kurdish legislator said. The KDP has aligned itself with Mr Al Sadr, while the PUK is closer to Iran-backed factions.

But the CF is not in a position to lose time and has been pushing for an agreement. According to Mr Al Maamouri, the Kurds have only two options.

“They either agree on one compromise candidate or leave the parliament to vote on one of their two candidates,” he said.

Amid the rising tension and attempts to expedite the process, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, Brig Gen Esmail Qaani, landed in Baghdad on Wednesday, another politician affiliated with the CF told The National.

Mr Qaani has been meeting with Shiite and Kurdish politicians as a “friend to Iraqis trying to bridge the gap between the rivals”, he said. The Quds Force specialises in military intelligence, influence operations abroad and irregular warfare.

One of the names that has been presented to the Kurds as a compromise candidate is Abdul Latif Jamal Rasheed, the former water resources minister and the brother-in-law of the late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, he said.

From victor to rebel

Mr Al Sadr’s political group, known as the Sadrist Movement, emerged the clear winner in October's elections, gaining 73 of the 328 seats in the country's factionalised national assembly.

But he ordered his MPs to resign last month after failing to form the government with his Sunni and Kurdish allies. That has paved the way for his Tehran-allied rivals to take the lead in forming the new government.

That rivalry between the two camps reached its climax on Wednesday when Mr Al Sadr’s followers were called for a gathering at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre for protests since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Hours later, they crossed Al Jamhouriya Bridge that leads to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of key government offices, parliament, homes owned by political elites and foreign embassies.

They knocked down several concrete blast walls and briefly took over the parliament building, chanting anti-Al Maliki and Al Sudani slogans. A few hours later Mr Al Sadr ordered them to withdraw, saying “your message has been delivered”.

External help

Iraqis held their breath as they saw the quickly unfolding events on Wednesday, especially after pictures circulated on social media of Mr Al Maliki wandering through the Green Zone with a rifle in his hand and flanked by heavily armed guards.

“What are they are doing?” Jamal Mohammed, a Baghdad barber told The National. “As if they are school children quarrelling over a ball.

“If any armed dispute ignited, the blood of the poor would be shed, not their own,” he said. “They are threatening the future of the country and the coexistence.”

Like many, he says that Iraqis can’t stop them without external help.

“They have grown like mafias, looking after their own interests and they will kill anyone who tries to face them and this has been crystal clear for all inside and outside Iraq,” he said.

“Iraqis can’t remove them alone and the international community, which has supported and endorsed this political process since 2003, must interfere and stop this farce,” he Mr Mohammed said.

Updated: July 28, 2022, 2:32 PM