Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq’s Tendency to Intra-Shia Conflict


At least 30 people were killed when supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his Iranian-backed opponents exchanged gunfire in Baghdad Monday and Tuesday morning, raising fears that the violence could escalate into a Shia-Shia civil war.

The worst violence in the Iraqi capital in years followed the influential Shia leader’s announcement that he would “retreat from politics” after months of political deadlock. Analysts have said al-Sadr’s drastic move appears to be in response to the resignation of Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri on Sunday. Many followers of al-Sadr follow al-Haeri.

Al-Haeri’s surprising resignation and his call on his followers to support Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dealt a blow to al-Sadr, who opposes Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.

More than 700 people have also been injured in the deadly clashes between fighters allied to al-Sadr and the security group Popular Mobilization Forces allied to Iran.

Tensions dissipated only after al-Sadr on Tuesday called on his supporters to withdraw “within an hour” from the fortified Green Zone — home to government offices and foreign embassies.

“I apologize to the Iraqi people, who are the only ones affected by the events,” al-Sadr said in a televised address.

Within minutes, the armed group that supported him, Saray al-Salam, had left the Green Zone and brought peace to what had turned into a battlefield. Yet the situation has remained tense and the fear of escalation has persisted.

“This one [the violence] was certainly the possible start or spark of a Shia-Shia civil war,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi political analyst with the Century Foundation.

“Violence may have subsided for the time being, but retaliation is to be expected. This violence is an indication of the bitter division and deadlock in Iraqi politics. It can be curbed for now, but without a proper solution it will reappear in the future,” he added.

Members of sadistic faction withdraw from Baghdad’s Green Zone after their leader demanded an end to fighting between rival Shia forces [File: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

‘Click with a finger’

Prior to al-Sadr’s televised speech, de-escalation efforts were unsuccessful and calls for Ayatollah Sayyid Sistani and the Grand Marji’a, the Shia religious leaders in Najaf, to intervene, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

“We expected Grand Ayatollah Sistani to issue a statement that the spilling of Muslim blood is prohibited and state property should be protected,” said Marsin Alshamary, an Iraqi analyst and researcher with the Middle East Initiative. -Sadr’s statement.

“When it comes to a Shia-Shia war, there are two forces that will try to counter that – Iran and Grand Ayatollah Sistani,” she explained, adding that Iran wants to maintain the status quo with its political parties. in power, while Sistani intervenes in times of political chaos.

Instead, the fighting – caused by al-Sadr’s apparent resignation from politics – subsided with a word from him.

“Sadr has shown that with one word he can mobilize and demobilize,” said Iraqi analyst Fanar Haddad. “He can click his fingers and threaten the entire building. Then he can click his fingers and save the whole building.”

Iraqi-focused analyst Tamer Badawi agreed, saying al-Sadr “increased his influence because the authorities and his nemesis needed him to intervene again to stop the mobilization of his followers”.

“Sadr is keen to position himself as the Iraqi political king, even if his actions ostensibly show the contrary,” he added.

Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks at a press conference in Najaf.
Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr speaks at a press conference in Najaf, Iraq [File: Reuters]

Large-scale violence

Al-Sadr’s resignation appeared to pose a serious threat to Iraq’s stability, a threat not seen in recent years.

“We’ve had clashes like this before, but on a much smaller scale and not as widespread across the country,” Jiyad said.

“Both sides tried to capture or hold territory in and around the Green Zone and targeted each other’s offices,” he added, explaining that al-Sadr’s Saray al-Salam and the rival Iranian-backed Hashd already -Shaabi a “hunger for violence” that could have developed into all-out war if the Hashd had used its full force.

A primary fear before al-Sadr’s statement, which precipitated the fighting, was that it would spread across Iraq’s mostly Shia south.

“If the conflict between the sadrists and the pro-Iranian Axis groups had moved outside Baghdad and expanded southward on a scale comparable to that in the Green Zone…there would have been a real risk of protracted conflict.” said Badawi. .

“Southern Iraq is already fraught with lawlessness, organized crime and tribal conflict that could fuel conflict between local militant leaders,” he added, explaining that such a development would have increased insecurity even if it had not been a full-blown civil war. to be.

But for Haddad, even if al-Sadr had not come out to condemn the violence, the prospects of civil war were unlikely.

“There has been a clear setback since Sadr’s statement, but the prospect of a Shia-Shia civil war was still slim despite the danger of an unplanned escalation,” Haddad told Al Jazeera. “None of the protagonists wants to face a civil war. They are all about to lose too much,” he added.

Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr clash with supporters of the Coordination Framework, a group of Shia parties, in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq [File: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

Why this time?

Al-Sadr has announced his retirement from politics at least seven times since 2013, amid ongoing tensions between the Shiites that have rocked Iraqi politics since the overthrow of President Saddam Hussain in a US-led invasion of Iraq. 2003.

But analysts have said the reason this withdrawal caused such tensions is related to a series of events leading up to al-Sadr’s resignation that left him with a sense of being at a dead end.

“Sadr has resigned before, but things escalated because he felt his opponents had used one of the sneakiest tactics – going to a cleric and asking him to denounce Sadr,” Jiyad told Al Jazeera, referring to Haeri’s resignation and his appeal for support for Iran. Khamenei, instead of the Shia spiritual center in Najaf.

Al-Sadr considered the move a blow to his legitimacy and credentials, as Haeri had given him the legitimacy he lacked as a religious authority with no scientific credentials to be an ayatollah.

“He wanted to send a message that he was the one who reined in his followers and if he takes a step back they are willing to do anything,” Jiyad said, referring to al-Sadr’s resignation. “This was him who said I’m out of options and I’m not willing to compromise.”

Al-Sadr withdrew from the general election in July before being swept away again by his opponents. His party won the largest number of seats in the October elections, but the rival Iran-backed Coordination Framework challenged the results and prevented him from forming a government of choice with Kurdish and Sunni allies.

Unable to form a government to his liking, he offered the Coordination Framework a number of government seats—an offer they declined. Al-Sadr responded by withdrawing his bloc from parliament, while his supporters staged protests and sit-ins in the Green Zone. The escalation prolonged Iraq’s months-long political crisis and the leaders’ inability to form a government.

And despite taking some responsibility for the recent flare-up when he condemned the violence of his supporters, al-Sadr continued to refuse compromise in his televised speech.

“Sadr indicated that his opponents had to find a solution,” Jiyad said. “He will not form a government with all the Coordination Framework included and they will not have a functioning government without him.”

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