BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr gathered on a recent Friday evening in central Baghdad to show their support for the powerful Shiite cleric.
Al-Sadr has become a key political broker since Iraq’s May elections, selecting his preferred candidates for the ministries responsible for the country’s security.
Men and women waved Iraqi flags and banners reading “our neighbors are our friends, not our masters,” a reference to Iran’s political and military interference in Iraq.
At the same time, hundreds of miles to the south, crowds gathered in Basra to protest at attempts by Shiite political parties to elect a new governor. Stones and molotov cocktails were thrown and riot police responded with tear gas and live bullets, allowing the council members to leave without a vote having taken place.
The two scenes in Baghdad and Basra encapsulated Iraq in 2018 — a year in which there was a sea change in the country’s political dynamic that spilled into violence. In the past 12 months, the main political battle lines have shifted from a divide between the government and extremist militants to a bitter rivalry between two Shiite political factions — one loyal to Iran and the other opposed.
Little more than a year ago, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi declared victory over Daesh after three years.
But what came next was a succession of political crises that exposed the vulnerabilities of Iraq’s political system.
“We can certainly define 2018 as the year of political crisis,” Abdulwahid Tuama, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News.
“As soon as the war against Daesh came to an end by the end of 2017, the political crises began to follow one after the other.”
Shiite political forces filled a political vacuum created when Sunni forces melted away and let down their constituents during the 2014 Daesh invasion, Tuama said.
New young forces emerged to help win back Daesh-held areas — but this only served to set up the next power struggle.
“The first sign of the post-Daesh period is the transformation of the nature of the political conflict in Iraq from a Shiite-Sunni conflict into a Shiite-Shiite conflict,” Abbass Al-Yassiri, head of the Baghdad-based Ishan Center for Political Studies, told Arab News.
“Defeating Daesh has redrawn the map of the national powers as Shiites have emerged as the biggest winners, while Sunnis and Kurds withdrew into the shadows.”
The absence of political competition encouraged Shiite leaders to run separate lists for the parliamentary elections for the first time since 2005.
Three main alliances were formed. Sairoon was sponsored by Sadr, whose followers once fought US forces in the country before he switched to opposing Iran.
Al-Fattah was led by Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organization, the most powerful Shiite armed faction, which is supported by Tehran.
Confident of a second term, Abadi, put together the Al-Nassir coalition.
“They (Shiite parties) wanted to know the area of influence each of them held, so they were not keen to run for elections in one big electoral coalition,” a prominent Shiite leader said.
Democratic progress or political apathy
The 2018 electoral campaigns were the most bitter since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Allegations of sex scandals and threats were used to exclude some candidates and discredit their electoral lists.
Abadi and his candidates, along with women, were targeted.
The election was held on May 12, with more than 7,000 candidates taking part. However, participation was low, especially in Shiite areas, with a turnout of just 44 percent.
The results put Sairoon in first place, Fattah second and Nassir third.
Abadi and his Islamic Dawaa Party were the biggest losers and it was a bitter defeat for him to swallow. But his success in leading the country through one of its many dark periods and his backing from the US still left him in the strongest position for prime minister.
Amiri emerged as a representative of the Iranian-backed forces.
“The actual conflict was between the US and Iran, not Abadi and Amiri,” Tuama, said.
“Iranians saw Abadi as the man of the US whom they can’t trust, so they had to clip his wings.”
The biggest surprise was Sadr’s big win.
Abadi launched an investigation into alleged fraud and set up a special committee that recommended a manual recount of votes.
At the same time tensions increased between Sadr and the Iran-backed faction Assaib Ahl Al-Haq. A huge explosion hit Sadr City in Baghdad on June 6, killing 32 people. An investigation found the bomb had targeted Sadr’s Brigades of Peace.
In the private offices of many Shiite leaders, the finger of blame was pointed at Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Five days later, a fire in a warehouse in east Baghdad where the electoral commission had stored ballot boxes destroyed many votes, hindering the recount. Accusations of who started the blaze were again directed at Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
“All the Shiite leaders and their international backers (Iran and US) were worried and had to decide either to cancel the election results or continue monitoring the skirmishes between Sadrists and Assaib and risk the outbreak of fighting,” a leading Shiite leader said.
In the end, the recount did not change the results.
Summer of protest
The winners started frantic negotiations to form new alliances to reach a majority in the 329-seat parliament. The Shiite forces and their Sunni and Kurdish allies split into two camps, one led by Sadr and the other by Amiri. Neither succeeded in collecting the necessary 166 seats.
As tensions in Baghdad escalated, people in Basra endured temperatures of 50 C with no mains power.
Mass demonstrations took place in Basra in July against the outages and a breakdown in other basic services, including clean water. The protests expanded to target the lack of jobs.
Iraq’s economy relies entirely on the revenues from Basra’s oil. The province is home to dozens of local and global oil-related companies.
Some Iranian-backed factions, such as Assaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq, announced their support for the demonstrations.
Many tribes joined, and cut off roads leading to the oil sites.
By the end of the second week of July, at least eight demonstrators had been killed.
Government buildings were set on fire as the protests spread to other Shiite provinces.
“The demonstrations were ridden by several Shiite political forces,” Tuama, said. “The strongest message was … the Iraqi oil sector is within range of the Iran-backed Shiite factions.”
Abadi sought to calm demonstrators by offering to provide tens of thousands of jobs and fund infrastructure projects.
Race to control parliament
In August, negotiations between the two sides, now known as Reform (led by Sadr) and Al-Binna (led by Amiri), made progress.
They agreed to nominate the Shiite veteran politician and former vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi as an independent candidate to be the prime minister, ending Abadi’s hopes of a second term.
Without warning, however, the negotiations collapsed and the two sides announced they would work separately to form a government.
Deadly protests erupted again in Basra, with more buildings set ablaze. At least 10 protesters were killed. On Sept. 7 the Iranian consulate building in southern Basra was set on fire by protesters chanting against Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
The chaotic protests had dangerously escalated.
“It was clear that things were heading towards chaos, and that big players were directing the events (in Basra),” a federal Iraqi intelligence officer told Arab News. “The demonstrations were completely derailed.”
To halt the escalation and facing pressure from Shiite leaders and the US, Sadr and Amiri agreed to resume negotiations.
The two sides decided the only way forward was to join together under a single joint coalition.
By the end of September, they had agreed on a parliamentary speaker, a president and the prime minister.
Adel Abdul Mahdi presented his Cabinet in early October to parliament for a vote, but a dispute erupted over eight of the 22 candidates.
Falih Al-Fayadh, the national security adviser, is at the heart of the dispute. He is also one of Amiri’s key allies.
Sadr considers Fayadh a man of Iran, so he vetoed his candidature to be the interior minister.
Even within Binaa there are many who oppose his nomination.
“Sadr rejects Fayadh because he is Iran’s candidate,” a Binna’a negotiator told Arab News. “Iran also wants to ensure one of its allies controls the Ministry of Interior as it is one of the most important keys to control the security in Iraq.”
Iraq goes into 2019 once again in political deadlock.
But while the country appears to be edging away from violence and instability, poverty, poor basic services, and an unending corruption that drains the state coffers, will continue to hold back any improvement in Iraqis’ daily lives.