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On the Counter Revolution in Iraq – Part 1


In October 2019, a popular mass movement erupted all over central Iraq, eventually turning into what became known as the Tashrin uprising[1]. Under the slogan “We want a homeland” the impoverished Iraqi youth occupied squares in the centres of major Iraqi cities, expressing their strict refusal of the post-2003 institutionalized sectarian system. They demanded the Prime Minister’s resignation, new elections, and a change in the constitution that puts an end to the so-called Muhassasa Ta’ifia, or sectarian apportionment system.

Importantly, the protestors also defied the influential Shi’a cleric, militia leader, politician, and long-standing oppositional figure, Muqtada al-Sadr, who on the one hand claimed to support them, and on the other hand attacked them for the gender-mixing of women and men during the demonstrations and at the squares, requesting women to wear the scarf.

Although the uprising won the demand for “early” elections – held two years later, in October 2021, becoming the fifth round of elections since 2003 – the elections witnessed a new historically low voter turnout, reflecting the lack of trust in the electoral system. The Tashrin protesters’ refusal to participate in the elections showed their lack of legitimacy in a system that can only reproduce itself. Other parts of the Tashrin forces that had organized formally since the uprising, like the Imtidad political party, participated successfully due to a new electoral system that allowed voting for candidates directly (as opposed to voting for lists).

Crucially, a combination of low participation and a loyal base guaranteed a win for Muqtada al-Sadr and his allies. This created two broad political coalitions in parliament: Sadr’s bloc; made of his forces, a majority of elected Sunnis, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The other bloc is the Coalition of the Coordination Framework (CCF) which brought together the State of Law alliance of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Fatah Coalition, and others, and is considered to be supported by Iran.[2]

Over the last few months, these elected parties and candidates have been stuck in a serious political deadlock, suspending the creation of a new government. Iraq’s post-2003 political system has been characterized by a “National unity government,” which is usually formed by the biggest parliamentary bloc and requires a “broad consensus” (tawafuq) of all parties voted into parliament. In order to form a government, a two-third majority vote is required. However, all subsequent votes only need a simple majority. This means that there is almost no protection for the opposition and their interests. The Coordination Framework, which is a minority in the parliament, opposes the Sadrist bloc and its potential overtake of the parliament, and hence no tawafuq has been reached.

Furthermore, Iraq’s political system is organized through the “Muhassasa Ta’ifiya” system which means that ministries and rents are distributed to each faction of the government according to the election turnout. Supporters of this system have argued that it would prevent violence by dividing state resources amongst the parties in government. Others argue against this system as it distributes the state’s money to political parties instead of the general public. Hence Iraqis themselves can only access state resources through becoming clients of the parties in power. After the October 2021 election, Sadr’s bloc proposed breaking with this system by forming a “majority government” that would exclude the election loser (the Coordination Framework) and would prevent them from accessing the state’s resources. However, Sadr’s bloc did not receive the necessary two-third vote.

In consequence, in June of 2022, the Sadrist bloc announced its withdrawal from parliament and the governing forming process hereby ceding most of their seats to their rivals who continued with the government formation process. By this move, Sadr retreated to challenge the political system from outside using street politics and trying to achieve his political goals from outside the formal system.

This interview was conducted for LeftEast in early August of 2022 as the political deadlock spilt into serious confrontations in Iraq, causing much unrest and even threats of renewed civil war. The interview, split into two parts, offers a leftist perspective on the latest events unfolding in Iraq.

Part 1

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr and what is the Sadrist political current in Iraq?

Ansar: Muqtada al-Sadr depicts himself rebelling against the same system he controls a large part of. Can you explain the ways in which he is able to articulate such contradictory positions?

Salam: Muqtada al-Sadr’s political rhetoric has historical roots. He represents part of the opposition to the old regime, and hence he inherited a certain audience and discourse.

Jamal Al-Sayigh: Muqtada’s uncle – who also was an Ayatollah[3] – and his father were both part of the opposition against the regime of Saddam Hussain. Their killing at the hands of the old regime left amongst the Iraqi people a certain popularity to this name, especially in the 90s. So at the beginning of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Muqtada Al-Sadr formed an armed resistance movement, Jesh Al Mahdi (the Mahdi army), and opposed the American invasion – this gained him huge popularity amongst some Iraqis as well. His attempt at resistance ended in a catastrophe. He started two uprisings which were suppressed by the Iraqi central government troops and the US occupation forces.

Sadr and his supporters (Jesh al Mahdi) were blocked in a small area in Najaf. At that time, he was not properly prepared for a military battle and the political system was about to take form. He was rescued from the military stalemate by the Marja’iya[4] that is represented by Sistani and his deputies who were active in writing the constitution in coordination with Paul Bremer in the Iraqi Governing Council between 2003-2004[5]. By this they basically reduced the opposition to the new political system they were part of. This secured Sadr’s political role today.

Ansar: How did he become an important part of the political system?

Salam: He, at first, opposed the US occupation and rejected the constitution and the first elections in Iraq after 2003. His Mahdi army controlled parts of the south until then-prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki fought against them in the military operation known as “Saulat Al-Fursan” (Charge of Knights). Sadr then decided to participate in the political process rather than confront the police and army, therefore, his Mahdi army remained a strong force. He even managed to get hold of weapons directly provided by the system. Then he took the decision to participate in the political process and formed a bloc which he called “Ahrar parliamentary bloc” (The Free bloc)[6].

Ansar: How can we connect this history to the moment we’re in today?

Salam: He got hold of ministries and posts and many privileges from the system through his move into politics. It’s clear Muqtada can’t be a revolutionary and doesn’t want to change the system because he is an essential part of it. What we are witnessing, instead, is his attempt to widen his control over the political system while painting himself as an outsider.

To clarify, the political system in Iraq is built on an alliance or rather a “sharing” of the wealth and power of the state between two wings. The first wing is called the Coalition of the Coordination Framework (CFF) – which is an alliance of several political parties and armed groups. This coalition gained renewed power through their fight against Daesh (ISIS) and their forming of the armed group called Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular mobilization forces), which is loyal to Iran. The second wing is the Sadr current [which includes him, his armed supporters, a majority of elected Sunni representatives, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party].  

The Tashrin uprising of 2019, which erupted due to worsening social and economic conditions, deepened the already existing crises within the two wings of the system.

Muqtada likes to appear as a revolutionary or change-maker or, in his own words: a “reformist”. But he is also in a stalemate in the sense that every time he gets closer to power, he loses his popularity. Every time he needs the support of his base, he needs to leave some space between him and formal political power. So, to analyse Sadr, we need to understand what his task and role in this system is. Muqtada’s role is that when any protests go to the streets to demand a change in the system, he tries to highjack it and get parts of the people to buy back into the same system they protested.

Ansar: Meaning that, by hijacking these movements, he tries to prevent them from turning into popular social movements that could really form a challenge to the system?

Jamal Al-Sayigh: Exactly. Sadr turned into a formally recognized political leader whereas before he was considered only a leader of some terrorist groups. Especially since 2011, we see that Muqtada al Sadr has been trying to restore any fissure that is happening within this political system. At any protest movement, Muqtada al-Sadr will be present, either to disperse it by violence or to hijack it. We’ve seen this before:

Most recently in the Tashrin revolution of 2019, when his gangs – then called Blue Helmets (Quba´at Ziraq) – used knives and other tools to attack the protestors but under the pretence of protecting the protestors. This way they entered Tahrir Square in Baghdad and took over parts of the square by force and even killed activists of the student movement. They claimed that the protest movement is infiltrated by so called mundassin (Infiltrators) who would drink wine and cause gender mingling or even dancing of women at the protest squares, and this would provoke the government’s violent reaction. So, these mundassin would need to be “educated,” and this is how he justified the actions of the Blue Helmets and even argued that they are part of the Tashrin-movement.

Another tactic of his is hijacking demonstrations and bringing a huge audience to the streets while changing the slogans and demands from a radical protest movement to an issue-specific movement (Haraka Matlabiya). He would come up with a list of demands towards the system, and then claim that they were realised in his negotiations with the responsible people, but in reality nothing happens. Then he tells people to return to their houses.

What is happening right now, meaning the occupation of the parliament and power display – depicting himself as a revolutionary – is not really surprising. Today Muqtada Al-Sadr again aims towards making a compromise with these political forces which he is allegedly revolting against. While using a reformist discourse, he creates an entire ceremony for the protest: first the big united prayer (on the 15th of July), then to enter the green zone, to withdraw, then to enter it again. Then a sit-in in the parliament, followed by a prayer on the “celebration square” in the Green Zone. I guess afterwards Muqtada Al-Sadr probably comes to a compromise with them, and then the people have to go home in order to prevent the movement to cause a collapse in the political system. He is part of the tools to accommodate the system when crises are happening to which the system proved to be unable to provide real answers to. This is our definition of the Sadrist current as part of the Iraqi political system.

Today: the occupation of the parliament, and beyond a Shia-Shia narrative

Ansar: The media describes the current situation as a struggle between two Shia sides. But in your words, how can we describe what happened in the past few weeks? The reporting now concentrates on the occupation of the parliament by Sadrist loyalists, but your answers already show that you expected this. Can you speak a little bit more about how this escalation was possible? For weeks we witnessed Sadr display different forms of power. Who are the people following his call to occupy the parliament? Now the wording the Sadr current is using is “Thawrat al-Islah” (The Revolution of Reform), they talk about the “liberation of the parliament”, the turning of the “Council of representatives to the council of the people” etc. Can you please elaborate on this, because it is important to go beyond the common analysis of a Shia-Shia power struggle. This framing actually obscures the ideologies of these different actors.

Salam: What we can say is that the ruling political class didn’t enter these clashes by full choice. The social, economic and political crises went through several stages and the protests have continued even when the intifada declined. Sadr, as part of the system, understands if he doesn’t support the political and economic change that his audience supports, he will lose a lot… he has already lost a lot of his supporters due to the revolution of 2019. In 2019 the support – to be fair – for Sadr was not low, he managed to control their perception of the situation. But his popularity was harmed by the uprising, and he understands fully that things cannot continue as they did in the past.

So he resorted to two things: political and the economic promises in order to contain his supporters. From a political point, he went for the discourse of a national majority government after the October 2021 elections. He tried to make his constituency understand that the political sectarian and clientelist quota system (Muhassasa Ta´ifiya) and the corruption have led to the deteriorating situation at hand. Therefore, he told people that he will now change everything by making a “national majority” government.

On the economic side, he recently supported the “Law of food security and development” and other laws before withdrawing from forming a government. This new law gave him access to appoint people – meaning he provided his followers with state resources by providing them with state jobs.

The question now is why the Coordination Framework didn’t support the forming of a national majority government. The reason is that this would have meant less privileges for them, less ministries to control, less loopholes to get state money. They also rely on a system that distributes them “their” shares. But Sadr also had no real interest in finding a compromise with the Coordination Framework, because he would have lost many of his followers then too. So he couldn’t pursue this project and resorted to the tactic of withdrawal from forming the government in June 2022.

The Coordination Framework after Sadr’s withdrawal actually seized its chance and went to form a government and even made suggestions for a prime minister. But the problem is that the Sadrists have the need to keep their access to the resources of the system, if they are outside of the system they would lose many of their privileges. Sadr accounted for all of it. So, he went for the escalation plan, first through the mass prayer on the 15th of July as mentioned, and then the intrusion in the parliament by the end of July. And as we said, in the end, this struggle is not for a change of the constitution or anything in the parliament nor about revolution nor reform. He rather wants to be a bigger hegemon. So, the crisis is really within the system.

Read part 2 here.

[1] People supporting or having participated are called Tashrinis or in Arabic Tashriniyiin.

[2] External political support for these alliances has changed over the years. For example, the US has an interest in strengthening Sadr but he is a natural or a historical ally.

[3] High ranking title for Shia clergy, comment by A.J.

[4] Religious reference and highest religious authority amongst Shia Muslims, comment by A.J.

[5] Political body put in power by the occupation forces in Iraq after 2003. From July 2003 until June 2004 it was supposed to represent the provisional government of Iraq. It was subject to the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administration of Paul Bremer. A.J.

[6] This political party affiliated with Muqtada Sadr has strongly opposed the then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. They constantly managed to increase their seats, already in the 2018 and 2021 elections, they were the strongest political force in terms of representation in parliament.

Ansar Jasim is a political scientist. She is interested in civil society movements and transnational solidarity from a theoretical and practical perspective with special focus on Syria and Iraq.

Jamal Al-Sayigh and Salam Al-Akhdar are socialist activists of the Harakat Al-Amal (Workers´ movement) formed as a result of the October 2019 uprising in Iraq. Both grew up and are politically active in the area that is commonly understood to be a strong hold of Muqtada Sadr, Sadr City in Baghdad.