By Kamran Bokhari
Summary When protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament on Saturday, it underscored a critical factor that explains why the fight against transnational jihadism is not making progress. Efforts to counter the Islamic State cannot succeed without an effective polity. There cannot be an Iraqi state when those who are supposed to be fighting the Islamic State are engaged in power struggles. The situation in Iraq is even more complicated because the country has not resembled a functioning state in the post-Baathist era due to the complex factions.
On April 30, supporters of Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtadā al-Ṣadr were able to breach Baghdad’s high security Green Zone and stormed the country’s parliament. Thousands of angry demonstrators demanding an end to corruption and political quotas ransacked the building, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency in the capital. The incident took place within minutes of al-Ṣadr holding a press conference in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf to condemn a political deadlock that has prevented parliament from appointing a technocratic Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The protesters left the government district on May 1 but pledged to return by the end of the week if their demands remain unfulfilled. This development reflects the power struggle within various factions in Iraq and reveals why a peaceful settlement to the country’s political chaos will be hard to come by.
Shia Versus Shia
The al-Sadrite movement has been playing the vanguard role in the popular opposition to the quota system, which assigns top government positions to ethno-sectarian leaders and has been blamed for systematic corruption. There are two reasons for this. First, al-Ṣadr’s group derives its support from lower socio-economic groups and thus has to address widespread public dissatisfaction with the political elite that are seen as providing poor governance. Second, al-Ṣadr sees the current situation as an opportunity to enhance his own group’s long-standing goal of displacing the Shiite establishment dominated by his two principal rivals, the prime minister’s Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by the al-Hakim clan.
Though it has always tried to position itself as a non-sectarian nationalist movement, al-Ṣadr’s group is not very different than the other two more established parties. The al-Ṣadrite movement is very much a sectarian entity because it is primarily a Shiite Islamist group. Furthermore, it has historically been part of the ruling coalition even as it has sought to enhance its power among Shiites. The heightened sectarian polarization since the Islamic State captured Mosul in June 2014 further aligned al-Ṣadr with his Shiite competitors.
Al-Ṣadr thus must limit disagreements with fellow Shiite forces to prevent damaging the Iraqi Shiite collective. In fact, balancing the need to ensure Shiite domination of the fragile political setup and the aim of becoming the most powerful Shiite group has been the hallmark of the al-Ṣadr movement ever since its rise in the aftermath of the 2003 toppling of former President Saddam Hussein. For this reason, al-Ṣadr has oscillated between closing ranks with fellow Shiites to meet communal challenges and assuming a nationalist stance to enhance his partisan objectives.
Another factor that shapes this dynamic is Iran’s influence among the Iraqi Shiite groups. There are two contradictory views that dominate much of the conventional wisdom on this issue. Some believe the Iranians use Iraqi Shiite militias against the Baghdad government. Others believe al-Ṣadr resists Iranian influence.
Neither of these views are correct. Iran has influence over all Iraqi Shiite factions, including al-Ṣadr, whom the Iranians were able to bring in line eight years ago when he went to Iran to enhance his clerical credentials. Shiite political parties and militias are useful to Tehran in different ways. Most important, however, Iran wants to see a stable Iraqi political system that is dominated by the Shia.
Iran has not been able to realize this objective largely because the Iraqi Shiites remain highly factionalized. Tehran has long had to play factions against each other, while also serving as a mediator. Ideally, the Iranians hoped to have a Shiite-dominated Iraq with strong military capabilities. But that did not materialize, and Tehran and its Iraqi Shiite allies had to pull together a large militia known as the Popular Mobilization Force to support the Iraqi army, which proved incapable of dealing with the jihadist threat. Around the same time, the Iranians played a key role in forcing al-Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, to step down.
The Illusion of the Post-Baathist State
Al-Maliki become a major liability for the Shia due to the way he dealt with the country’s two main minority groups, the Kurds and especially the Sunnis. The Shia never really got along with either group, but the situation was contained because of the presence of American troops in the country. Once U.S. forces departed at the end of 2011, relations began to seriously deteriorate. Meanwhile, the civil war in neighboring Syria provided the jihadist movement a massive amount of strategic depth, which allowed IS to return to Iraq and declare its “caliphate.”
The Iraqi Shia and the Iranians were not interested in once again negotiating the internal balance of power within the Shiite community required to replace al-Maliki with a new prime minister. The loss of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, to IS forced their hand and they quickly moved to appoint al-Abadi. The hope was that al-Abadi would not just sort out the problems between the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, but also work toward bringing many of the Sunnis who supported IS back into the political mainstream. While the al-Abadi administration has been able to regain control of significant Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, IS still remains firmly entrenched in large parts of the two main Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh.
Degrading IS in Iraq has two key components. First, the Shia and the Kurds must reach an understanding on the question of Kurdish autonomy, particularly on how oil is to be exported and revenues shared, especially when oil prices remain depressed. Second, the Sunnis must be given more political influence in Baghdad. Both of these are chronic issues that date back to the earliest days of the U.S. attempts to establish a democratic Iraqi state. Institutions were created but a power-sharing agreement was never achieved.
In the 13 years since, Iraq has failed to resemble a real state. Rather, it has a system rendered dysfunctional by ethnic and sectarian differences. The critical lesson of the U.S. attempt to effect regime change in Iraq (as well as Afghanistan) is that the overthrow of one regime does not guarantee the formation of a functioning new regime. Regime change never really takes place. Instead, attempts to overthrow autocratic regimes lead to the breakdown of order. It is the same lesson learned from the Arab Spring (save for the lone exception of Tunisia), which ushered in autocratic meltdown rather than democratic governments.
In these scenarios, the various factions that were suppressed for decades all rush to dominate the scene. Western powers seek to mediate. But the ethnic and sectarian factions are unable to agree to disagree. The result is the chaos that we are seeing in Libya, Yemen and Syria. These are the precise conditions that IS seeks in order to pursue its transnational caliphal ambitions.
In the case of Iraq, the threat posed by IS has not convinced the various factions to set aside their differences, despite the fact that the Shia and the Kurds know that on their own they cannot defeat IS. The situation has deteriorated well beyond the fault lines between the Shia and the Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds and the Sunnis and Kurds, as is evident from al-Ṣadr’s move to storm parliament. Internal divisions have plagued the Shia, as well as the Kurds.
Under these circumstances the Shia and the Kurds are unlikely to sort out their mutual differences – much less work together to convince the Sunnis to turn against IS. This is because Iraq has not had a real state since the fall of the Baathist regime. No one wants to acknowledge this, but Iraqi nationalism died a long time ago. The country has for many years been in a state of chaos, with different factions at various levels locked in a perpetual conflict.