Power struggle in Iraq intensifies as protesters block Parliament

BAGHDAD – Iraqi political leaders have spent 10 months unsuccessfully fighting to form a government, their country sinking deeper and deeper into political paralysis in the face of growing drought, crippling corruption and crumbling infrastructure.

Then in June those talks broke out. And now, there is a power struggle as Iraq’s main political factions vie for the upper hand.

The powerful Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the largest bloc in parliament, abandoned the talks in frustration, then urged his followers to take to the streets to get what they wanted. would like. Heeding his call, they erected a tent that blocked access to Parliament for more than two weeks to prevent any government from voting.

This is not the first time al-Sadr has resorted to threats of violence to get what he wants politically. He led the Shiite armed insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq from 2003-2009, and US officials say they now fear that Iraq could descend into violence and instability. once again.

Equally alarming, despite years of American efforts to shape Iraq into an alternative Shiite power center that would be more West-oriented than Iran, Mr. Sadr and his Shiite political opponents advocate a political system that would give more power to the religious clerics along the lines of an Iranian theocracy.

“We are looking at the beginnings of the end of the US-led political order,” said Robert Ford, a former US diplomat in Iraq and now a fellow at Yale University and the Middle East Institute. support in Iraq.

For decades, Iraq has been reeling from crisis to crisis – a cycle that shows no signs of abating. After the 2003 US invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, there was a civil war, and then the takeover of large parts of the country by the Islamic State.

As a result, Iraq, despite its vast oil reserves, remains mired in political turmoil with a stagnant economy that leaves unemployed youth vulnerable to employers who cater to extremist movements and makes political investors become permissive. At the same time, the Gulf states led by the United Arab Emirates normalized relations with Israel and moved ahead politically and economically to become the new focal center of the Middle East.

And America’s vision of Iraq’s future seems increasingly distant.

When President George W. Bush invaded in 2003, his government tried to encourage Iraqi political leaders to establish a system of representation to share power more equitably among the three main groups. of the country – majority Shiites, and minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds.

“Americans hoped that there would be more multi-sectarian and policy-focused coalitions between political factions, but sectarian and ethnic divisions prevailed,” Ford said. “Instead, we argue among and within sectarian and ethnic communities over how to divide Iraq’s oil money.”

According to the World Bank, about 85% of the Iraqi government is financed by oil revenues. And under the current political system, each major political faction in Parliament has control over at least one government ministry, and with that comes patronage jobs and the opportunity to earn and pocket funds. kickbacks.

As politicians focus more on their own power than on national interests, Iran has found it easier to convince some Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite leaders to support policies that it cares about. most mind; cross-border movement of Iranian weapons, people and goods.

The crisis now engulfing Iraq pits Mr Sadr and his mostly Shiite supporters against a coalition of Shiite parties with Iran-linked militias in a bitter power struggle. The caretaker government, fearing violence, was reluctant to break Mr. Sadr’s blockade, allowing him to hold the country hostage with a list that included demands: dissolution of Parliament, new elections, change the electoral law and possibly the Constitution.

“It looks like a peaceful coup, a peaceful revolution,” Mahmoud Othman, a former member of Parliament not affiliated with any political party, said of the Sadrist blockade of Parliament. . “I say peace because his followers don’t carry guns. Sadr is stronger than gun. He is now the strongman on the street and he is imposing his will on others”.

So far the blockade has not been violent.

Several thousand Sadristians occupied the tents, working shifts. They wandered, listening to clerics denouncing the government for corruption and eating shawarma, grapes and watermelons donated by sympathizers. They rested in their tents in the heat of the day, awaiting further instructions from Mr. Sadr via tweet, his preferred means of communication.

Sunnis and Kurds remain on the sidelines.

Moayed Jubeir Al-Mahmoud, a political scientist at Anbar University in the city of Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see a secure and prosperous future for my country,” he said, describing Iraq as a failed state controlled by militias linked to Iran. “We are concerned that the state will go from being dominated by militias to being dominated by al-Sadr.”

The United States and most of its neighbors have mostly kept quiet about the chaos in Iraq. Only Iran has attempted to intervene, meeting with Mr. Sadr’s Shiite opponents and encouraging negotiations, although Mr. Sadr, a nationalist, has taken strong anti-Iran views in recent years.

The last thing Iran wants is for the Shiites to fight each other and risk undermining their ability to hold power, which could weaken Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

Some of Mr. Sadr’s positions align with Tehran. Both want to force remaining 2,500 US troops leave Iraq, oppose any interaction with Israel and support the criminalization of homosexuality.

this is not first Mr. Sadr resorted to mass protests. But this time, he is using the street protests to force the country to ignore last October’s election results and hold a new vote that could put his lawmakers back in power. .

The parliamentary elections 10 months ago went well for Mr. Sadr. Lawmakers backing him have won the most seats of any faction and have nearly formed a governing coalition backed by their Kurdish and Sunni counterparts. The next step would be to bring it to a vote for approval.

However, Mr. Sadr’s Shiite opponents refused to attend the parliamentary session, denying him the necessary quorum for a vote. Frustrated, Mr. Sadr asked his lawmakers to resign in protest.

Parties that received fewer votes, mainly his Shiite opponents, then filled the seats vacated by Mr. Sadr’s followers potentially giving them control of ministries and government offices. and disqualify Mr. Sadr.

He responded by calling for a blockade of Parliament to prevent a vote on a new government.

“So this is when Muqtada al-Sadr decided that if democratic procedures are not allowed to take place on their own, the response is revolutionary,” said Rend Al-Rahim, former Iraqi ambassador to the United States and Iraqi president, said. Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes democracy.

At the tent site, the atmosphere was Shiite. Last week, Mr. Sadr’s followers marked Ashura, a memorial to the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. His death is often described as the beginning of the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Everywhere there are signs supporting Mr. Sadr’s cause: Even some of the poorest have to pay for tents or meals. A water company has donated enough each day to fill large tanks that provide tent residents. Markets in Sadr City – a poorer part of Baghdad filled with Sadr loyalists – sent crates of tomatoes, onions, dates, grapes and apples.

To cope with the 115-degree heat during the day, some protesters have installed large fans or air coolers that are hooked up to Parliament’s 24-hour power supply.

“This is the first time we have electricity 24 hours a day,” said Faiz Qasim, an enthusiastic Sadr organizer who often works as a day laborer. Much of Baghdad has daily power cuts.

Sadr supporters from southern Iraq prepared large pots of casserole daily. One day it was a chicken with rich curry sauce, while nearby, the next day’s meal – a black and white cow tethered to a telephone tower – indulged in some watermelon. A little further on the same street, another cow is being slaughtered for dinner that night.

The clerics periodically gathered groups of men – there were hardly any women in the tents – with chants against current political leaders:

“Many people have suffered from those who have been here in this swamp.

They climbed to power behind innocent people and Iraq suffered because of them.

There were a lot of people reaching out their hands, begging on the street and walking through the trash.

Al-Sadr said that the US and Israel have money and weapons. But what do we have?

Allah Almighty. “

Falah Hassan contributed reporting.

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