Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced he would resign from Iraqi politics on August 29, prompting his followers to storm government palaces in response and sparking fears that violence could erupt in a country already beset by its worst political crisis in years. Iraq’s military announced a nationwide curfew and the caretaker premier suspended cabinet sessions in response to the violence.
The announcement followed months of protests by Sadr supporters backing his call for new elections and the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament, which was deadlocked in its efforts to form a new government ten months after the parliamentary elections of October 2021.
On August 30, with at least twenty-one people killed and more than 250 injured in clashes, Sadr tried to defuse tensions by calling for his followers to stand down. Below, Atlantic Council experts react to the news of Sadr’s resignation and offer their thoughts on how the international community will deal with the conflict moving forward.
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Living in a ‘shadow of horror’
Once again, Iraqis had to live under a shadow of horror, with armed groups exchanging random fire to impose their respective leaders’ political visions of the government formation, which has been lingering for the past eleven months.
Sadr’s frustration with the protracted gridlock led him to order his seventy-three members to resign from parliament on June 12. His rivals hurried to claim these seats for their losing candidates in each district. In response to this zero-sum attitude, Sadr called for dissolving parliament and holding new elections, which is the only constitutional path for the Sadrists to return to the political process. Receiving a cold response from his rivals and former allies alike, he ordered his supporters to storm the parliament and, later, the Supreme Judiciary Council on August 22. He finally gave an ultimatum for a clear announcement of dissolving the parliament and the exclusion of all political actors who assumed leading positions in the past.
One day before this arbitrary deadline, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who enjoys a following from many Sadrists, announced his retirement and, oddly, issued a two-page letter that included a denouncement of Sadr and his supporters, accusing them of dividing the Iraqi people in the name of the Sadr family that has enjoyed long-standing respect in Iraq and beyond. Haeri also recommended that his followers emulate Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei— another gesture that antagonized Sadrist leaders who have protested increased Iranian influence and accused their rivals of being Iranian agents.
The Sadrist response to Haeri’s retirement letter was fierce and Sadr announced his “complete withdrawal” from the public scene, leaving his rivals to face the angry masses—mostly Sadr’s followers. As the situation escalated, Sadr gave a scathing speech criticizing his supporters and rivals alike and ordered his followers to end their occupation of the parliament and stop all protests, including peaceful demonstrations. He also praised the Armed Forces, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Sadr’s speech cleared the way for parliament to resume its business and political actors to restart government formation negotiations. What happens next depends on the direction that Sadr’s rivals will take. If they agree to dissolve parliament and clear the way to hold another early election, Sadr will have made his point and will be willing to remain out of Iraqi politics for the coming months. However, if they feel triumphant and unilaterally form a government and exclude the Sadrists for the next three years, expect another round of violence, which may not be easily managed.
Dr. Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative.
Withdraw from politics or just Iraq’s defunct political institutions?
While cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s resignation has sparked even more protests in Iraq, it is hard to tell what it portends for the country’s future. The election of Sadr supporters to parliament in October 2021 gave hope that their nationalist, non-sectarian agenda could break the impasse in Iraq’s political and economic development. Unfortunately, Iraq’s opaque government formation process—coupled with a ruling by their Supreme Court requiring a two-thirds majority—meant that Sadr’s success simply entrenched the status quo, largely enforced by Iran-backed parties and militias who lost in those elections. Even after mass resignations and protests, there has been no movement in the government formation process.
It is difficult to tell, of course, whether Sadr means to withdraw from politics or Iraq’s defunct political institutions. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for example, also does not involve himself in politics. However, he is arguably one of the most, if not the most, influential person in Iraq, as evidenced by the mass enlistment into the Popular Mobilization Forces in response to his 2014 fatwa. While Sadr is not in line to succeed him, Sistani’s eventual departure will likely create a clerical vacuum that Sadr could take advantage of to enhance his influence.
It is perhaps more likely that, by disengaging from Iraq’s political institutions, Sadr hopes to delegitimize what remains, setting up his return. It just is not clear what good that will do. A majority of Iraqis already do not trust either the government or parliament, so there seems to be little legitimacy to take away. However, given his movement’s size and ability to mobilize them, Sadr could use it as leverage to force parliament to take on critical issues like constitutional reform and other measures that could break the impasse.
Whether he does so or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, expect Iran-backed parties to take advantage of the vacuum and further entrench. Thus, where the United States can help is by promoting alternatives to Iran by expressing support for Iraqi nationalism, representative government, and constitutional reform and the organizations that support them.
Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Is Iran really to blame?
Democracy has always been a fragile concept in a country like Iraq, with a long history of autocracy, political violence, and foreign intervention. Now it appears that Iran—the most powerful outside actor in Iraq since the 2003 US overthrow of the Baathist regime—has sought to sideline Iraqi populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been blocking the formation of a new government in Iraq dominated by pro-Iran groups. Sadr blamed Iran for forcing the “resignation” of Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, the cleric Sadr regarded as a source of religious guidance, and seeking to transfer Haeri’s followers to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sadr has now vowed to quit politics, but his supporters are rioting in the streets, blood has been shed, and it remains to be seen how this latest crisis can be resolved.
For now, I’m reminded of something Alina Romanowski, ironically the current US ambassador to Iraq, told me in 2002 as the George W. Bush administration was preparing to invade the country: “Iraq presents as unpromising a breeding ground for democracy as any in the world.”
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
The United States must offer deterrence against violence
This version of Iraq is unsustainable. Its post-2003 government was formed as a temporary alliance between American soldiers and Iranian proxies. When the United States’ nation-building efforts ended in 2011, the remaining regime was so sectarian that it helped incite the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and a Shia revolt less than two years after ISIS was gone.
The 2019 demonstrations should have been a turning point in Iraqi politics. Protesters gathered in the streets against a rigged system that could not deliver prosperity and were duly shot by Iran-backed paramilitaries anxious to maintain Tehran’s influence on the regime. The demonstrations were not about Iran but became about Iran when people began to die. Iraq’s government was paralyzed, noncommittal, and complicit.
The critical element missing in 2019 that might have been decisive was deterrence against the Iranian proxies by a capable non-Iranian-aligned militia. Only the Sadrists might have deterred the alphabet soup of Iranian proxy groups from killing more. And, though there is not much overlap with the 2019 protestors, only Sadrists can change the system without violence by forcing Iran-backed groups to make fundamental concessions on its militias.
The most important thing the US can offer is deterrence against violence. That means deterring undecided individuals and institutions from siding with militias. This can be done through individual sanctions against swing political actors and by providing a visible diplomatic presence to protect allies of Sadr—like the Kurdistan Democratic Party—who have come under fire from Iran. Iran treats Iraq as absolutely essential—the United States should as well.
But the United States cannot choose the future of Iraq, and neither can Iran (or at least totally). Not even average Iraqis at this point can do so—only Sadr can. This is his moment, resurrected from the ghosts of 2019. Let’s hope he succeeds.
Dr. Andrew Peek, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Sadr’s two-pronged gamble
Casting himself as an authentic, charismatic, religious figurehead and defender of Iraqi sovereignty against outside forces and a corrupt political class—and unable to create a government through Iraq’s current democratic institutions—Muqtada al-Sadr may be taking a two-pronged gamble by plunging Iraq into a state of uncertainty once again.
Despite having announced his “definitive retirement” following unsalvageable political deadlock since the October 2021 elections, Sadr, a man with an eye on the country’s religious authority and the political leadership of Iraq, is unlikely to simply step away.
In Najaf, the traditional center of Shi’ism, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has advocated a “quietist” approach where clerics do not intervene in the political space so as not to sully or corrupt the religion. Stemming from a highly revered family of Iraqi Shia clerics, Sadr however remains shallow in his theological education, and, therefore, is not in line to succeed Sistani. Nevertheless, his first gamble will be to influence the succession. How Sadr may do so can be found in neighboring Iran’s Qom school, where Iranian ayatollahs radically departed from the “quietest” tradition, preferring the Velayat-e Faqih, which has underpinned the way Iran operates since the 1979 revolution. Within this system, Sadr may be able to impose his political will—minus a need for theological credentials.
Sadr, having never held a government post, has been a populist leader for decades, finding fertile ground with the poorer, urban segments of the Iraqi population. A potent political force, Sadr’s second gamble will be to challenge his rivals on the streets in a bid for a new path for Iraq under his leadership. Iraq’s future may be uncertain now, but Sadr looks to be seizing his moment as the reasonable and best alternative, and he will certainly remain a key player in Iraq for years to come.
Masoud Mostajabi, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.