Fears of violent escalation as Iraq’s political stalemate deepens

The deep political stalemate in Iraq has entered its 10th month with no solution in sight and fears a violent escalation.

Why is it important: Many fear that the political crisis – the longest in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein – could lead to an outbreak of armed conflict in the streets between supporters of different parties.

  • A civil war in Iraq could lead to a larger conflict in the region with neighboring countries intervening.

State of play: Iraq held snap elections in October 2021 in response to a national pro-reform protest movement that began in late 2019.

  • Since the vote, a political deadlock, mainly within the Shia parties, has prevented the formation of a new government.

The elections last October made by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadrist Movement the largest bloc in Parliament.

  • His rivals – the Shiite Party Coordination Framework grouping, which includes Iran-backed former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – have thwarted al-Sadr’s efforts to form a coalition government with the main Sunni parties and Kurds.
  • The framework, for example, was able to prevent enough MPs from attending parliament to vote on forming a new government.
  • Al-Sadr ordered his own deputies to resign and prevented the Cadre from appointing its own prime minister.
  • Both sides, who command heavily armed militias, have also staged protests in the capital Baghdad in recent weeks.

Between the lines: Iraq’s oil wealth – with foreign exchange reserves expected to reach $90 billion by the end of the year – has not translated into an improved economic situation for many Iraqis.

  • Al-Sadr capitalized on the anger and frustration felt by Iraqis, presenting himself as a nationalist bulwark against foreign interests, especially Tehran’s influence.

Driving the news: Outgoing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi last week organized a national dialogue in which the Sadrist movement refused to participate, unlike most other major groups, as well as the UN envoy to Iraq.

  • Al-Sadr asked the country’s judiciary to dissolve parliament, but this was rejected.
  • Al-Sadr supporters protested outside the Supreme Judicial Council in Baghdad’s Green Zone yesterday, worsening the situation.
  • The council reacted by closing all courts in the country for a day. A Baghdad court has also issued arrest warrants for three Sadrist leaders for “threats against the judiciary”.

The big picture: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought closer ties with Baghdad in recent years.

  • Iraq has led broader stability efforts, primarily between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

What to watch: Holding early elections as a way to end the crisis was not ruled out at last week’s national dialogue meeting, but it is unclear how this can happen in the current stalemate.

  • According to the Iraqi constitution, only parliament can call early elections.
  • The Federal Supreme Court, however, is also considering a separate lawsuit calling for the dissolution of parliament, with a decision expected next week.

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