In Iraq, a political storm continues to gather force

Schisms within the once-united Shia faction in Iraq are proving difficult to quell, writes Matthew Ayton.

Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr is playing an increasingly prominent role in Iraq. Alaa Al Marjani / Reuters
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George W Bush and Tony Blair must now be looking at the situation in Iraq with queasy discomfort. Their unease would not be limited to the depredations of ISIL nor the Kurdish fighters who have been forced to endure another long courtship with unspeakable violence. They would also recoil at the seemingly inert chaos of post-war Iraqi politics that, thanks to the US-backed Iraqi constitution, is sectarian almost by definition. Iraq’s status quo political system comprises three major alliances, which are predominantly Shia, but also include Sunni Arab and Kurdish elements.

These alliance have done their best to exacerbate the dissolution of Iraqi society. Shiites mostly dominate the central government, while the Kurds and much of the Sunni population are displaced or live under ISIL. Yet, to assume that each sect is a unified whole would be to take a simplistic view.

Of late, Shia unity has started to dwindle as demands have increased for the Iraqi government to remove the veil of impunity from rampant state corruption, and to start providing essential services. The demands culminated in a series of demonstrations. This resentment has recently been stirred by the presence of an old familiar face – that of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr – whose followers have swelled the rank and file of the anti-government protests.

Indignation has swept from Baghdad to the highest religious authorities, who have cast aspersions on the government for its steadfast refusal to concede to the clamour of protest.

Mr Al Sadr, a religious and militia leader turned quasi-statesman, and his Sadrist followers regret that the Shia parties’ role in post-2003 government was significant, therefore connections between them and state failings are indelible.

Mr Al Sadr has recently issued an ultimatum calling for the replacement of Haidar Al Abadi, the prime minister.

Tensions have reached such a boiling point that Iraq’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, who has previously refused to get involved in non-religious affairs unless a crisis erupts, has assumed the role of interlocutor between the bickering parties.

What started off as potentially reconcilable divergences between Shia politicians and leaders has metastasised into belligerent threats.

Mr Sadr and his acolytes have threatened mass sit-ins in front of the “green zone” – the demarcated space in central Baghdad for the Iraqi parliament and the US embassy – in protest against government skulduggery. The expansion of the strife has almost become self-propelling, with the Sadrists threatening to break into the green zone over the last few weeks unless the government capitulates to Mr Al Sadr’s demands by adding a number of his technocrats to the Iraqi government.

The government is so consumed by fear about the emerging situation regarding Mr Al Sadr and his followers that it has diverted Iraqi troops from the battlefield with ISIL to Baghdad.

Even Iran, the ostensible bastion of Shia Islam, which has traditionally assumed a prominent role as a middleman for any problems between the Shia alliance of the Iraqi government, has failed to resolve the ongoing dispute.

Often referred to as the “shadow commander”, Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani was dispatched by Iran to Iraq in an attempt to twist Mr Al Sadr’s arm into an understanding with the Shia alliance. A source told London’s Al Hayat newspaper that the meeting was a failure and Mr Al Sadr walked out.

Historically, Iraq’s Shiites have fought their battles – whether with words or bullets – with other sects in Iraq. The emerging schisms in Iraq’s Shiite political alliance, and the rise of Mr Al Sadr as a maverick statesman, indicate that Iraq’s Shia alliance is fracturing and losing its ability to resolve internal differences.

This is unprecedented, given that even the traditional forces of religious and political authority – Iran and Mr Al Sistani – have been ineffectual in calming the growing storm.

Matthew Ayton is a freelance writer and researcher in the West Bank