BAGHDAD — Weeks after followers of an influential cleric stormed parliament, Iraq’s political crisis shows no sign of abating, despite mounting public anger over a debilitating stalemate that has further weakened the country’s caretaker government and its ability to provide basic services.
Iraq’s two rival Shia political camps remain locked in a zero-sum competition, and the only voice potentially capable of closing the divide – the respected Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – is strikingly silent.
For now, hundreds of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a burning Shia cleric, still camp outside the Baghdad legislative building, ready to escalate if their demands are not met.
Al-Sadr has called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and constitutional amendments. He has given the judiciary a week to dissolve the legislature.
Its Shia rivals in the Iran-backed camp have their own terms. They accused him of violating the constitution, sparking counter-protests that have fueled fears of bloodshed.
Neither faction seems willing to compromise to end the decade-old political crisis, the longest since the 2003 US invasion restored political order. The interim cabinet – unable to pass laws or pass a budget – is weakening by the day as the public lashes out in protest at disservice, including power cuts during the scorching summer heat.
THE BATTLE FACTS ASSOCIATION
When al-Sadr ordered thousands of followers to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified government zone on July 30, he paralyzed state institutions and prevented his political rivals from continuing to form a government.
Al-Sadr may have felt encouraged by the silence of 92-year-old al-Sistani, a revered spiritual figure whose word holds enormous sway among leaders and ordinary Iraqis.
Three officials from al-Sistani’s seminary in the holy city of Najaf said he did not use his influence because he did not want to appear to be taking sides in the most acute internal Shia crisis since 2003. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they not authorized to inform the media.
“The Marjaiya is monitoring the situation with concern,” said one of the officials, referring to the Ayatollah. He said al-Sistani “will not interfere at this time. His entry can be understood as an advantage of one side over the other.”
Al-Sistani has rarely intervened in political affairs, but when he did, it changed the course of Iraqi politics.
In 2019, his sermon led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi amid massive anti-government protests, the largest in Iraq’s modern history. Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government was sworn in with a view to holding early elections, which took place in October.
The ayatollah is tired of the current political dynamics in Iraq, the official in Najaf said. He has not resumed his usual Friday sermons, which had been suspended during the pandemic. Its doors remain closed to Iraq’s political elites, a sign that he disapproves of them.
The seminary in Najaf is also divided among al-Sadr. Some fear his boldness deepens the Shia divide, while others agree with his anti-corruption and reformist rhetoric. Dozens of seminary students recently joined the protests.
Al-Sistani does have red lines that, if crossed, would force him to intervene, officials said. They include bloodshed and attempts to erode what are seen as Iraq’s democratic foundations.
“Muqtada knows these red lines and will not cross them,” said an official.
LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT OF THE CRISIS
Even if the Shia rivals agreed to hold elections, fundamental disagreements over the electoral rules remain. There is no legal precedent to guide decision-makers.
Al-Sadr has hinted that he will escalate protests if the judiciary does not dissolve parliament before the end of the week. The judiciary says it does not have the power to dissolve the legislature.
Its rivals in the alliance’s Coordination Framework, which is largely made up of Iran-backed Shia parties, allege al-Sadr’s pressure on the judiciary is unconstitutional. They have no objection to new elections, provided there is a national consensus on how the vote will go.
Such a consensus seems unattainable.
Al-Sadr wants to apply the same rules as in the October elections, when Iraq was divided into 83 constituencies. The current law benefits strong-base parties, such as al-Sadr’s, which increased its seat from 54 to 73, while Iran-backed parties saw a drop from 48 to 16.
The Framework wants the law to be amended. However, the parliament building is closed and hundreds of al-Sadr’s followers camped outside to prevent MPs from entering.
WHAT THE REST OF IRAQ THINK
Ordinary Iraqis are increasingly frustrated as the caretaker government struggles to provide basic services such as electricity and water.
The political crisis comes at a time when unemployment is rising, especially among young Iraqis. The country has endured successive droughts that severely damage the agricultural and fishing sectors, further deteriorating job prospects.
Protests in southern Iraq turned violent last week after protesters who threw rocks clashed with security forces outside oil fields in Missan and Dhi Qar provinces. More than a dozen protesters were detained and more than a dozen members of the security forces were injured.
In Missan, Mustafa Hashem protested severe water shortages that are damaging livelihoods in Iraq’s swamps. He said the security forces were involved in “brutal and unjustified repression” against peaceful protesters.
More protests were held in the southern province of Basra after three consecutive days of power cuts during the peak summer heat. Protests are common during the summer in Iraq, when rising temperatures flood the national power grid and cause outages. This year, many protesters called on al-Sadr to stand up for their rights.
Salinity in Basra this summer is almost the same as it was four years ago, when tens of thousands of people were hospitalized because of poor water quality, environmental activist Shukri al-Hassan said. The health crisis of 2018 sparked violent protests that heralded mass anti-government demonstrations the following year.
The caretaker government has failed to pass a budget law and has taken emergency measures to fund urgent expenditures such as food and electricity payments to neighboring countries. Meanwhile, crucial investments, including in water infrastructure, have come to a standstill.
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