In one week, two back-to-back events took place, proving just how wasted America’s efforts have been at nourishing democracy in post-conflict war-torn countries. One was the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on 1 August—exactly one year after the US had withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan. Far from upholding democratic principles, Afghani leaders had opened their arms to the very same man whose presence in their country—and that of his friend Osama Bin Laden—had triggered the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. It was a circle complete, from al-Qaeda to al-Qaeda.

And then nineteen years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, we saw angry Iraqi protestors storm their parliament building on 30 July—for the second time in a week—transforming it into a political circus. They ate and smoked, danced, and walked around barefoot carrying photos of their boss, Muqtada al-Sadr. Basically, they ransacked the place, showing just how little respect those young Iraqis had for their legislative branch of Iraqi politics—a symbol of their statehood and the post-Saddam democratic system that ostensibly, was introduced by the Americans in 2003.

Who holds the majority in Iraq’s Parliament?

Fast forward to 2022, Muqtada al-Sadr, a rebel turned politician who is often called “king-maker” of post-Saddam Iraq, is in the ascendance. After waging a war against the US, he abandoned the gun and went into a political career, joining every government and parliament while having a saw in all post-Saddam Hussein premiers. His supporters are now protesting attempts at forming a government by the Iran-backed Coordination Framework (CF), a parliamentary coalition of Shiite parties who have been at daggers-end with Sadr since Iraq’s October 2021 elections.

Sadr insisted that only a premier of his choice was entitled to form a government, citing his impressive bloc of 73 MPs as the largest in the Chamber of Deputies.  Shiite leaders in the CP are long-time friends, allies, and relatives of Sadr who have parted ways with him in recent months, as they too claim to hold the parliamentary majority.

Western observers of Iraq wrongly portrayed the conflict as black and white, describing Sadr as “anti-Iran” and the CF as “Iran-backed.” That is an oversimplification. Both players are Iran backed—although in varying degrees—and by no means is their conflict a crisis over Iranian influence in Iraq. Rather, the conflict is mainly about the distribution of power within the once united Shiite community, which is Iran-backed. It is more about Sadr no longer wanting to share power with his fellow Shiites, and wanting to establish himself as the ultimate voice in Shiite politics.

Is Sadr really a critic of Iran?

It is incorrect to say that Sadr has parted ways with Iran. Many observers erroneously claimed that after Sadr called on Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to step down in April 2017, three months before paying a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia, where he was received by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, a sharp critic of Iranian influence in the Arab World. Journalists took both stories at face-value, forgetting that as recently as September 2019, Sadr was received in Tehran by none other than the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai, and was seen at a religious ceremony seated between him and the commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani, who was subsequently assassinated in Baghdad on January 3, 2020. No critic of Iran would be privy to such a VIP audience. And last summer, Sadr was the first Iraqi leader to congratulate Assad on his re-election, ending all talk about what many perceived was a soft defection from Iran’s orbit.

A fight for the premiership

But back home, not all of Iran’s allies are on the same page. Many are disturbed by Sadr’s soaring popularity in Shiite circles, especially after last October’s parliamentary election. The list is long and includes former prime ministers Haidar Abadi and Nouri al-Malki, commander of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Faleh Fayyad, and his counterpart at the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri. Badr had been founded by Iran to fight Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, while the PMU had established by the Iranians to fight ISIS in 2014. The leaders of these military groups felt both outsmarted and marginalized by Sadr, vetoing his attempt at unilaterally forming a government headed by his cousin, Ambassador Jaafar al-Sadr. On June 15, 2022, Sadr took the surprising decision of calling on his 73 MPs to resign from parliament. He thought that this would either bring down the chamber, or force his opponents into accepting all his dictates.

Aborting the nomination of Mohammad al-Sudani

It actually had the opposite effect. Glad to see the end of his MPs, the Coordination Framework now claimed to hold the undisputedly majority in parliament, giving them the constitutional right to form a government. They were no longer obliged to seek Sadr’s blessing since he was technically no longer leader of a 73-man bloc in the Chamber of Deputies. The CF’s first candidate was ex-Prime Minister Nour al-Malki. His name was automatically rejected by Sadr, however, and so was Mohammad al-Sudani, a member of Malki’s State of Law Coalition, who was nominated for the job by the CF on July 25. Sudani had begun his career in the Iraqi underground working with members of the Sadr family, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He then shifted into Malki’s orbit after the year 2006, serving as governor of his native Maysan province in southeast Iraq, and then as minister under Malki. He too was vetoed by the Sadrists. When the CF stuck to Sudani’s name and tried holding a parliamentary session to name him premier on July 30, the Sadrsts marched towards the barracked Green Zone, tore down its concrete walls, and stormed the chamber, suspending its session and bringing political life in Iraq to a grinding halt.

Ways forward

On August 3, Sadr delivered a televised address from the holy city of Najaf, calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections. He stressed that he was ready to be “martyred” for his cause, triggering loud chants of allegiance from his supporters, who remain still inside the parliament building or camping out in its vicinity. But elections will probably yield the very same results as they did last October. At the time, Sadr had hoped for 100 MPs, but had to settle for the equally impressive 73. He now needs 165 votes in parliament to pass any resolution with an absolute majority—something that he currently does not have. Going for elections is tricky for Sadr, however, after what his men did to Parliament. That could back-fire and instead of raising his share could potentially result in reduced representation. For now, the CF refuses to talk about dissolving parliament or early elections.

The worst-case scenario is that a civil war may break out between Sadr’s men and those of the CF. In early August, war was on the verge of happening, as the two sides neatly divided the Green Zone into spheres of influence, each filled with men armed to the teeth. But the CF has since ordered its supporters to withdraw, calling for dialogue with Sadr to resolve the crisis.

A middle-ground scenario would be for regional and international mediation, prompting both sides to abandon their claim to the premiership. They would then go for a technocrat premier who would choose ministers based on their professional merit, rather than political affiliation. Alternativley, mediation could ultimately result in a swap deal: the premiership going to one party, and the lion’s share of cabinet seats going to another.

But we are not there yet.