Average Iraqis feel powerless and fearful amid political gridlock

Current political stalemate over formation of new government is longest since 2003 US-led invasion

Iraqi men cool down in front of misting fans amid a heatwave in central Baghdad, on July 20, 2022. AFP
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Ordinary Iraqis say they have been caught in the middle of Shiite political rivals’ cut-throat competition for influence, while communities across the country are gripped by mounting challenges.

The past several months have been excruciating for Iraqis, as the political elite have failed time and again to form a new government since the October elections.

The political infighting hit worrying levels last week when influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr ordered his followers to take over the parliament building and stage an open-ended sit-in.

The protesters have since been ordered by Mr Al Sadr to leave the parliament building but will remain camped outside.

Mr Al Sadr's aim is to derail efforts by the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework to form a government. In return, his rivals — who suffered significant losses in the election — briefly launched counter-protests on Monday in a show of force.

The Co-ordination Framework, at least on paper, has a fighting chance of forming the next government after Mr Al Sadr removed his MPs from parliament in June.

Both sides have shrugged off calls for calm and dialogue. Many feared Monday’s protests could have led to violence, as both factions are heavily armed.

“Literally, we are lost between them,” Ibrahim Ali, 55, told The National.

“All the people are terrified, not only me, especially yesterday. We thought they would fight each other in the streets.”

Preparing for the worst over the past month, Mr Ali has been building a stockpile of essential food items at home — rice, sugar, dried food and drinking water.

“The situation is very hard and I see no exit,” he added, standing in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour neighbourhood.

“There is no future in Iraq, the future is bleak with the presence of these political parties and militias. They only care about their interests and how to secure the biggest slice in the cake.”

Literally, we are lost between them
Ibrahim Ali

The political stalemate is the longest since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. It has led to delays in approving this year's federal budget, hindered efforts to improve public services and halted plans to create jobs in a country where unemployment hit at least 14.2 per cent in 2021.

After winning 73 seats in the 329-seat parliament in October, Mr Al Sadr sought to form a majority government with only Sunni and Kurdish parties, upsetting his rivals in the Co-ordination Framework.

Members of the bloc derailed efforts to form a government through series of legal challenges and parliament session boycotts to block the candidates put forward by Mr Al Sadr's allies for the role of president — a vital step in government formation. Intimidation tactics were also reportedly employed.

In June, Mr Al Sadr ordered his MPs to resign, opening a path for the Co-ordination Framework to form a government.

Last week, the bloc nominated Shiite politician Mohammed Shia Al Sudani for the role of prime minister, someone Mr Al Sadr has called a “shadow” of his rival, former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, one of the senior Co-ordination Framework leaders.

Before a planned parliamentary session on Thursday, Mr Al Sadr's followers briefly occupied the legislative building. They returned on Saturday and started their sit-in, prompting the parliament speaker to suspend the session indefinitely.

Few residents of Baghdad have ventured outside their homes since the protests began and the main markets in the city have been mostly empty. For those brave enough to go out, road closures around the Green Zone have snarled traffic.

“Our sales dropped by at least 40 per cent,” said Fatima Sabah, a cashier at a women's clothing store in Mansour. Other workers stand nearby, with no shoppers to be seen.

“No one dares, or has the mood to go out and buy anything while the country is burning and on the verge of a collapse,” Mr Sabah, 25, said.

Late on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi renewed calls for calm and de-escalation as his caretaker government searches for a solution.

But Mr Ali says such efforts will lead to nothing.

“The only solution is to form a national salvation government to prepare for another election and most important, to change the political system, giving more power to the president of the state,” he said.

Occupying the Green Zone

The eerie silence of the rest of the city changes into something much different in the Green Zone.

Three-wheeled rickshaws, known as tuk-tuks, shuttle Mr Al Sadr’s followers to and from the parliament building. Tents have been erected along the main road that runs next to the Green Zone, with free food and drinks on offer for protesters.

Three lines of volunteers search those looking to enter the area, where some protesters sleep on mattresses spread out on the marble floors. Others chant and read pro-Al Sadr slogans and poems.

“Here are the soldiers of the Sayyed,” one group chanted, using the honorific for descendants of Prophet Mohammed.

Posters with images of Mr Al Sadr hang on the walls alongside banners with pledges of allegiance from different Iraqi tribes and leaders.

“Yes, yes for reform,” one banner reads. “We are with our leader, Moqtada Al Sadr, to overhaul the political system and salvage the country,” another says.

Ali Abbas Alwan joined the sit-in on Sunday. He came from Diyala province in north-eastern Iraq, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

“For the sake of Iraq and the Sayyed, we are here today,” Mr Alwan, a 29-year-old construction worker, told The National.

“We believe in him and we are certain that he will take the country out of this dilemma that the corrupt and the thieves put the country in.”

On Tuesday morning, he received a phone call from his family, saying that they had ran out of milk for his 1-year old child.

“I will go back to them today to work for few days so that I can buy the milk and other needs and will get back again here,” he said.

Updated: August 02, 2022, 4:23 PM