The current sectarian-based political system in Iraq is made up of three major alliances, namely Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish. These alliances have, however, taken apart the Iraqi society, due to their political differences, and have failed to save themselves from internal divisions. Although the Shiite alliance is the strongest, representing 60-65% of Iraqis, it suffers from internal divisions and disagreements.
Shiite political parties and currents organized themselves in parliament under the Iraqi National Alliance. This alliance would not have been able to survive if the fear from the other sects, specifically the Sunnis, did not exist among the Shiites. Its unity, however, has started to lose vigor following the economic crisis and demands to bring about reforms. These demands began with a series of popular demonstrations in July 2015, which were initiated by the civil movements and witnessed extensive participation from the Sadrists.
The dispute reached other Shiite forces, namely the highest religious authority in Najaf, which objected against the government performance, Shiite parties’ political conduct and rampant corruption. In fact, the Shiite parties’ role in the post-2003 governments has been substantial. Therefore, they are largely responsible for the failure and corruption, and have been subjected to growing criticism by the community. As a result, leaders of major Shiite currents and parties met in Karbala on March 7 to resolve the differences.
The pressures continued growing to include Muqtada al-Sadr’s demand that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi be replaced or else public protests would increase. This warning came as Sadr objected against the Islamic Dawa Party, which has the largest number of parliament and government seats. Then, differences reached a point where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani failed to resolve, and he even abandoned its advisory role.
Sistani has assumed the biggest role in converging views between Shiite parties since the start of the political process in Iraq after 2003, and has been the counterbalance in the establishment of a Shiite alliance prior to the 2005 elections. His blessing has resulted in a unified Shiite voice to the advantage of this political alliance.
A decade later, Sistani sharply criticized the Shiite parties within the alliance. In his Friday sermon on Jan. 22, the spokesman for Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Sistani said that the successive (Shiite majority) Iraqi governments have wasted public funds, in a way that would cause the state to collapse and have turned a deaf ear to Sistani.
On Feb. 5, Sistani decided to remain silent in regard to the general political situation in the country, which he described as alarming, and said that there is no need to reiterate its directives that the Shiite parties have not taken seriously.
Political differences among Shiite parties and currents themselves have moved from disputes among politicians to the street — diplomatic language has changed to direct threats. Sadr called for massive sit-ins in front of the Green Zone, to protest against corruption and government performance. He even embarrassed his Shiite rivals within the alliance. These sit-ins started on March 18 and have expanded. Remarkably, Sadr threatened to break into the Green Zone in case the government did not fulfill its demand to replace the current government with a technocrat government.
In contrast, the State of Law Coalition, which represents a majority within the Shiite alliance, issued a strongly worded statement March 16, saying Sadr’s call for protests is illegal and unconstitutional. The statement ended with a warning, or even a threat, that “weapons will be faced with weapons, and men will be faced with men. The people, the country, particularly areas that Islamic State [IS] gangs failed to destroy, would be the biggest loser. Resorting to the street is a mistake that will end up destroying the country and community.”
On March 26, State of Law Coalition leader Nouri al-Maliki said in Najaf that the sit-in in front of the Green Zone is unconstitutional. He compared the Sadrist protests to the previous ones in Sunni areas in December 2012, which led to IS entering Sunni areas.
Maliki continued, “With the support of the tribes and the [Shiite] higher authority [Sistani], we managed to counter those who wanted to bring down Baghdad and Najaf … [the protests] were a trick.” Maliki warned against a scenario that would result in Iraq’s partition and civil wars in the post-IS era, in reference to the Sadrist protests. He said, “The challenge that was initiated in the past few days was flagrant in undermining the foundations of national security and political process, and in causing everyone to hold their breath, out of fear that the security situation would go out of control.”
In this regard, Iran — which had assumed a prominent role in preserving the unity of the Shiite alliance and preventing divisions on several occasions — failed this time to converge views and reduce the dispute between Shiite parties. The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper published an article on Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani's visit to Sadr in Najaf, after the latter refused to go to Baghdad to meet with him. Al-Monitor learnt from an adviser to Sadr in Najaf, who declined to be named, that the meeting did actually happen in the third week of the Sadrists' demonstrations, which began on March 4.
The source added that the meeting did not bear fruit, as Sadr left after he rejected Soleimani’s request that an understanding with the other leaders of the Shiite parties within the alliance be reached. The source said that he had insisted on his stance to form a technocrat government that would replace most of the current figures in the government. Interestingly, Sadr is now taking part in the protests himself with a group of supporters in a tent inside the Green Zone.
On March 30, the State of Law Coalition’s political committee met in Baghdad and voted for the inclusive change in the government, which includes Abadi as well. Abadi did not attend the meeting, but he was preparing for another scenario that surprised all of his rivals within the Shiite alliance. Abadi presented on March 31 a new Cabinet to the parliament, which included 14 new technocrat ministers out of a total of 16. The only ministers that stayed on are Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi and Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban. Abadi thanked Sadr for his insistence and pressure for reform. Sadr, in response, called on demonstrators to end their sit-in. Yet, the new Cabinet did not receive the parliament’s vote of confidence, which means the disagreements and protests might resurge any minute.
All this reveals that the Shiite alliance has lost its political dynamics to resolve differences. The Shiite forces have moved their internal dispute outside the Shiite circles. Besides, traditional forces such as the highest Shiite authority and Iran have failed to mediate and limit the dispute based on common sectarian foundations.