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The search for Iraq’s free political future

Another round of violence following the resignation of Muqtada Al Sadr has reinforced the need for stability, but it won’t come from Iraq’s gridlocked government and corrupt elite

For now, the guns have stopped after Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al Sadr called for a halt to protests that killed at least 30 people in Baghdad this week. After a sleepless night as bullets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades battered the city, there’s a sense of relief among residents that the violence has been contained. Few, however, doubt Al Sadr’s ability to unleash further chaos on Iraq’s streets if he chooses to deploy his enormous influence over the country’s fractured politics.

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On Monday, a tweet from the mercurial cleric, who commands the support of around seven million Shias, announced his “final” resignation from political life, prompting hundreds of Sadrists to storm the government palace in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and face off against rival Shia groups in the street.

The fighting was the worst in a summer of unrest as Iraq enters its eleventh month without a government. The UN Mission in Iraq decried the “dangerous escalation” as protestors tore down cement barricades outside the palace, rampaged through its marble halls and photographed themselves in the swimming pool. “Iraqis cannot be held hostage to an unpredictable and untenable situation. The very survival of the state is at stake,” the mission said in a statement.

A broken system

Iraq’s political system has been paralysed by corruption and in-fighting since inconclusive elections failed to lead to the formation of a government in October 2021. With no party securing a sufficient majority to form a unity government – something that’s difficult to do in Iraq’s ethno-sectarian system – national issues have been sidelined while leaders squabble behind the scenes. 

The power vacuum is destabalising a country already on the brink of socio-economic collapse, with around 35 percent of Iraq’s large youth population unemployed and up to 30 percent thought to be living below the poverty line. Despite the substantial oil wealth, Iraq’s people endure crumbling infrastructure, poor public services and declining standards of living – challenges the ruling classes have largely failed to address. 

The weakness of their country’s political institutions in the post-2003 order has convinced many Iraqis that the entire system needs to be revamped, but the stalemate in parliament is such that no group can secure the support and legitimacy to implement change. Al Sadr, whose bloc performed well in the 2021 elections, cited frustration over this gridlock as the reason behind his resignation – a tactic he is prone to using when political events do not go his way.

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Baghdad residents returned to the streets on Tuesday after a nationwide curfew was lifted, but ordinary Iraqis who aspire to live in a politically stable and secure country look at the situation with fear because they know that at any moment the spark could re-ignite, said Zaid Al Salman, Chairman of the Independent Organisation for Students & Youth Development (IOSYD).

“Al Sadr’s retirement from political work without liquidating the armed groups associated with him means the possibility of their return at any time,” he said. Iraq is suffering from a “dangerous political crisis that may threaten the democratic process,” with the latest violence reinforcing the country’s vulnerability to shocks. “And what destabilizes Iraq could destabilize the whole region,” he added.

An alternative vision for Iraq

At a political conference on Saturday organized by the IOSYD in collaboration with Ideas Beyond Borders, he was joined by experts in constitutional law and representatives from the electoral commission to explore solutions to the impasse. “We need a new political contract between the government and the people. If the democratic system fails it will be miserable – chaos and killing in the streets,” said Wameed Al Shaibi, Vice Chairman of IOSYD.

Also present were leaders from emerging political parties seeking to disrupt a system calcified by corruption. “The political blockage means parliament has been unable to perform its duties, so it has failed in the purpose for which it was elected… there should be elections with a new law that guarantees national identity, not regionalism, and is a true expression of the voter’s will,” said Mushriq Kadhim Salih, General Secretary and Founder of the Nazil party, one of the fresh faces on Iraq’s political scene.

IOSYD, which is supported by Innovation Hub funding from Ideas Beyond Borders, conducts media training and political workshops for these new parties, which emerged from the October Protest “Tishreen” Movement in 2019. Almost 600 people were killed and up to 30,000 injured when security forces cracked down on the largely unarmed protesters, whose mass demonstrations against corruption, unemployment and poor public services overthrew overthrew the government of former prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi but failed to enforce lasting change. “The only way to achieve these aims is through new political parties – the alternative is chaos,” said Al Shaibi. 

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During the conference, speakers highlighted flaws in Iraq’s constitution, under which Iraqi citizens elect members of parliament but not the Prime Minister or President. Discussing solutions to the standoff, the conference called for electoral reform and the replacement of a powerless caretaker government before Iraq spirals further out of control.

“No change can be made except in the presence of a strong government with full powers and authority to enforce the law,” Al Salman said, reinforcing the urgency of “combatting the horrific spread of corruption and disarming the militias.” Paramilitary groups, including those linked to Al Sadr, operate with impunity on Iraq’s streets, with reports of kidnapping, torture and murder during Iraq’s civil war and the killing hundreds of protesters in 2019.

These militias, many backed by Iran, are now turning on each other, fuelling fears of another civil war – this time between rival Shiite camps as competing political factions jostle for influence in parliament and on the street. “The government has failed to disarm the militias, so any party that feels threatened will resort to the force of arms,” Al Salman said.

A new generation of political parties

Grassroots political movements that emerged from the Tishreen protests are trying to secure the funding and support needed to take on the entrenched power elite. Nazil, which is one of the parties receiving support from IOSYD and IBB, is preparing a social contract to establish a fresh relationship between people and state, beginning with plans to hold the corrupt to account.

“Patronage networks have typically shut out small parties, silencing voices of dissent in a political process tailored to the interests of Iraq’s elite,” said Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “They offer an alternative and younger voice that’s aligned with Iraq’s largest demographic – the youth.”

As a new party, untainted by association with the failures of the past, Nazil has the scope to inspire trust and “restore the street’s confidence in the possibility of change,” said Salih. Ahead of the elections last year, the party drew support from 11 governorates across Iraq, overcoming geographic and ethnic divides in a country riven by sectarian conflict. Nazil is also the first political party in Iraq to openly identify as ‘liberal’, championing freedom of expression, a free media and the right to demonstrate in a country where exercising these rights frequently results in bloodshed.

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“The most important goal at present is to create a space for dialogue between the forces that believe in democratic change,” Salih said, highlighting the party’s plan to work with legislative movements, civil forces and social actors towards the peaceful transfer of power and ultimately “a social stability that creates a suitable environment for development.”

Another new party that formed out of the Tishreen protest movement, Emtidad, surprised everyone by securing nine seats in the 2021 elections and plans to “confront the corruption of the current regime,” according to party founder Dr Alaa al-Rikabi. He was a prominent figure in the protests before the Covid-19 pandemic forced people off the streets and deepened the poverty that drove many to demonstrate in the first place.

Now, Emtidad is carrying the voice of the protesters into parliament to address their demands from within. “There is a big gap between the hopes of the street and the people in power… Emtidad aims to restore the public’s confidence in the political process through sincere political performance devoid of personal interests,” said Al Shaibi.

How far these new players will fare against the establishment remains to be seen, but while their lack of political experience, funding and powerful backing are disadvantages, their claim to represent the will of the people is a novelty in Iraqi politics that may yet shine through at the seams.

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