Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 29, 2018
What does the vote in war-torn Iraq really say?

In the first elections since the Islamic State or IS’s defeat, Iraqis voted on 12 May. The voter turnout was lower than the last polls, much less than expected. Nonetheless, defeating disillusionment with the exercise in general and navigating dozens of security barriers in specific, Irqis, who ventured out, expressed their will in uncertain terms -- a non-sectarian and an independent Iraq.

They intend on achieving it by backing an alliance between the communists and other allies of a Shia cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr. A maverick and a kingmaker, Sadr is a paradox. He is extremely religious but also professes a desire for a secular Iraq. An erstwhile force behind bloody sectarian riots, he now portrays himself as a possible peacemaker in the region. His men have gained the most number of seats by selling the promise of ending sectarianism, corruption and foreign meddling in the country. The vote in his favour reflects a huge shift in the expectations of the Iraqi peoples from their politicians. Divided along Shia-Sunni lines, Iraq seems to be moving beyond sectarian rivalries. But what has led to this momentous change? A proxy battleground of global and regional powers, is Iraq breaking free of the vicious cycle of bloodshed encumbering it for decades? And, what does the verdict in Iraq mean for the region?

Shia vs Sunni: Iraq’s receding fault line

A few months ago, I met Ameera, a professor at Baghdad University. She was waiting for her takeout at a restaurant in central Baghdad. A small introduction and a short chat later, she opened up about the tragedy she has been living with for years. The words were on her mind and fell quickly on her lips. She said, “Saddam picked-up my brother and turned him into minced meat.” Noticing her account seemed incredulous to the foreigner, she emphasised, “No, really. That is what Saddam did to Shias. His soldiers randomly abducted Shia boys, took them to the butcher, chopped their bodies into pieces and turned them into minced meat.”

Ameera’s story gives an insight into the deep-seated mistrust between the Shias and the Sunnis and how the dominant community of the Shias felt victimised by the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussain. Shias in the West Asia live with a historical sense of discrimination with its genesis in the 7th century killing of Imam Hussain at the hands of the Sunni caliph of Ummayad dynasty in Karbala in present day Iraq. With Saddam’s ouster, they were in a position to correct the alleged wrongs and claim a stake to high offices.

Inadvertently, American President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 gifted Shias with the much longed for political power. Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, became the premier. His rise didn’t eradicate sectarian violence, instead continued it by merely reversing the trend.

Initially, Shia and Sunni militias took on the American forces together but soon enough, they were fighting each other and spilling innocent blood. In the changed power dynamic with the Shias at the centre of power, Sunnis were feeling marginalised. This became a mantra for Jihadi Sunnis to garner popular support and was expolited by Al Qaeda members who formed the terror group IS in Iraq.

The IS went on a rampage and controlled large swathes of Iraq. At first, the local Sunni tribes accepted these fighters and saw them as the pious Muslims who could tilt the balance of power once again in favour of Sunnah. Over time, they bore a bigger brunt for the IS’s presence and welcomed Shia militias and anyone else who could get rid them of it. The IS’s stronghold of Mosul was liberated in 2016 and by then, broadly, Iraq seemed done with sectarian strife. The mood among the Iraqis was to move beyond these destructive quarrels and get on with their lives.

In this background, a young Shia cleric who spoke for nationalism and against sectarianism emerged as a political leader.

Why Muqtada?

Muqtada’s father was the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. He was seen as a messiah of the poorer Shias when alive and as a martyr post his assassination on the orders of Saddam Hussain. For as long as his father lived, Muqtada was never considered to be a scion of the cleric venerated by a large section of Iraqi Shias. But the family legacy was his to take forward. The murder of his two brothers along with their father, brought Muqtada into limelight. He continued the charitable work began by his father and to have his own stamp on the affairs, stablished militias funded by Iran to take on the American forces. By 2005, his militias or the Mahdi Army, were on a killing spree, targeting Sunni jihadis and even civilians to claim supremacy in the country split down on the middle.

The killings got out of hand and Muqtada ran to Iran on a self-imposed exile.

He returned a changed man.

Barring a few fighters who formed a separate group, Mahdi army was rebranded as Peace companies and instructed to give up weapons. The son of Sadr, Muqtada had millions of followers, an insufficient clout to serve his apetite. To gain more supporters, he did what the rest of the fragmented political entities couldn’t. The cleric turned into an astute politician as in his second innings, he tapped into popular causes of disenchantment, troubling Iraqis across religious affiliations and presented himself as the legitimate opposition.

How did he do it?

Tahrir square is the unofficial protest location in Baghdad, an equivalent of India Gate or Jantar Mantar in India. 2015 onwards, the leftists and secular Iraqis began collecting here to protest against the status quo and demanded reforms. They wanted to get rid of a sectarian quota based system termed Muhassa which effectively allows different political entities to control different government ministries who then use their powers to siphon-off funds and, if at all, cater only to their vote banks. The protestors also sought reforms to the judiciary so it could be free of political pressure and empowered to punish the corrupt. This quest for change emerged out of a daily struggle of the masses grappling with a shortage of electricity, water supply and a lack of employment opportunities. Corruption, they decided was the reason their living standards continued to be low even as oil money flushed in. They concluded, graft was abetted by global as well as regional actors who fueled sectarian tensions to meet their ends.

Muqtada al-Sadr sensed the sentiment and usurped the protests. He became the voice of the disaffected. He employed strategy and stealth to expand his base. Young sadrists wearing black t-shirts appeared on Tahrir Square and took over. Every time there is an agitation, they cordon it off, ostensibly to ensure the protests go on unhindered. These followers of Muqtada, yield not state but Sadr’s might.

The invasion was a bitter pill for the communists and the secular minded. Muqtada’s past was dubious but he was saying all the right things. As time went by, the unlikely ideologies came together with the hope to take Iraq forward. The cleric enjoys massive ground support across Iraq, which, thought the civil-society, could be used to make progress on the reforms sought. Joining hands with populist Sadr also gave the communists, on their last political leg, some relevance.

Sadr formed an alliance with the communists, called for Iraq first, assuaged Sunni concerns and was rewarded by the populace at the polls. His success can be attributed to the charisma he embodies but largely to his acumen. He adapted his ideology to the wishes of the Iraqis who wanted to be unequivocally heard on the issues crippling their country. It is significant here to note, even a controversial cleric accused of instigating a sectarian pogrom, was forced to sing a different tune as winds blowing in Iraq changed direction. Decades of bloodletting in the sectarian warfare has exhausted Iraq and that is why they are increaisngly speaking as a nation. The general sense is- bury the hatchet and move together to build a safe and prosperous country. Support for Muqtada is to that end. Shias voted for him, and so did the Sunnis.

To surmise, even though doubts over the cleric remain, Iraqis feel backing him is the best they can do, for now.

What does Sadr’s rise mean for the region?

Iraq was part of a broader calculation for Iran to gain strategic depth in the region and compete with the Saudis. Tehran funded and trained Shia militias to fight IS with the aim of gaining a larger foothold in the country and form an arc of influence from Tehran to Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq. This would help Iran distribute the ideas of Khomenie’s Islamic revolution, challenge Israel and also gain economic benefits. Iran’s relationship with Iraq had taken a severe beating as a result of the Iran-Iraq war under the rule of Saddam. Post the American invasion, Iran asserted itself by supporting Shia militias fighting the U.S. and later, took on IS.

While this chaos fermented, Iraqi society was going through a churn.

Tired of terror unleashed by Saddam, the Iraqis didn’t really think of U.S. boots on the ground as the solution. Neither did they approve of giving an all-out control to Iran supported militias as the panacea once IS was exterminated. Iraqis wanted to stop being the pawns in the hands of regional and global players. Sadr understood this and opposed both the United states and Iran. He cautiously approached the gulf and indicated to a more balanced foreign policy approach, in sync with the desire of most Iraqis. That is easier said than done. Sadr is facing insurmountable challenges and is heavily constrained by Iran. The runners up in the Iraqi elections is Iran’s man Hadi al-Ameri. He led Badr brigade, a militia which took on IS on the battleground and lost many fighters. In the process, Ameri acquired a huge support base which voted for him in large numbers. He too expects a massive share of the pie once the new government is finally formed. Currently, tough negotiations are on between Sadr and Ameri. At the very least, the latter wants to control the conglomeration of Shia militias called Hash al-Shaabi or the popular mobilization units which albeit under government control, answer only to the Prime Minister. Largely, they run their own writ. Hashd clashes with the State because it takes orders from Ameri, who diligently walks the line drawn by patron Iran. Sadr wants to merge the militias completely in the defence forces, so the strongest military entity in the country can be managed by the parliament and in effect limit Iran’s ability to call the shots. The question is, what will Sadr offer Ameri to balance Iran’s ambitions in Iraq and yet lead it on the path envisaged.

Demonstrator holding a picture of Moqtada al-Sadr during a demonstration in Baghdad

The fighters of the Hashad have worked closely with Iran and its proxy Hizbollah. They have been nurtured to obey the call to join in, if and when Iran confronts Israel.

Iran is raging with the loss of the nuclear deal and facing regular attacks on its assets in Syria from Israel. Over the last few weeks, tensions escalated between the two and murmurs of the region’s next war resonated across the world. Despite the shock of Sadr’s performance, Iran still has many levers left to pull, exerting influence through Ameri is right at the top.

For Riyadh, Sadr’s ascent to power is good news. In July last year, Sadr visited Riyadh and was hosted by none other than the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. In doing so, Sadr displayed to Iran that he has more than one option, presented himself as a statesman above sects and ethnicity and earned political plumage which paid off in the elections. The Saudis were happy to receive him because the leaders and groups backed by the Wahhabi kingdom have failed to deliver in the region. They understood, if they can moderate their expectations, Sadr could be a perfect counter to Iran. He won’t bend over for the Saudis but will make things difficult for Tehran.

With the rise of Sadr, Saudis are also betting on a Shia-Shia divide. Shias across Iraq consider cleric Ali al-Sistani as their spiritual leader and most Shias spread around the world look upto Ayatollah Khamenie in Iran. Sadr doesn’t want to play second lead and by renouncing any official position yet controlling the strings of the powerful in politics, Sadr has found a way to stay as important as the Ayatollahs if not more. In the name of Iraqi Shiasm vs Iranian Shiasm, Sadr is shaking-up the hold of the leading clerics. If handled carefully, this splits the Shias and weakens any singular authority. Among the politicians, while Sadr has been at loggerheads with Iran run PM Nouri al-Maliki, interestingly, he prefers America supported incumbent PM Haider al-Abadi.

Sadr’s slant towards Abadi, suspicion of Iran and rapprochement with the Saudis, are all comforting signs for America, but short of adequate. It is hard for the US to forget how Sadr’s militias maimed thousands of American soldiers. He has been the biggest threat to American interests in Iraq. Momentarily, Washington seems pleased but it isn’t rushing to court the cleric just yet.

For stable Iraq

The Iraqis have voted against sectarianism, corruption and games by regional and global powers. A stable Iraq benefits all concerned and Sadr’s rise should be seen in that context. The powers that be will have to tread cautiously with once a maverick and in turn, he would need to manage a wide range of interests. Establishment of a truly secular state through the power of a cleric is democracy West Asia style. The politics of patronage, endemic corruption is set to continue, but, there is at least a hope now that the government’s agenda will include governance issues along with the idea to diminish the hampering sectarian divide.

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Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.

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