Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Sadr’s revolution

The Shia politician Muqtada Al-Sadr has become Iraq’s most powerful leader, but whether this is good or bad will depend on how he now uses his power, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Like old-time colonialists, the military planners of the US occupation of Iraq excelled at creating an imperial township with high security and luxurious lifestyles for those who ran Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.

It was “America on the Tigris” – a heavily fortified urban enclave with wide boulevards and immense squares that protected the occupation administration, or so-called Provisional Coalition Authority, and its Iraqi cronies.

The district in the centre of the Iraqi capital served as the headquarters of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was the administrative centre for his ruling Baath Party, the base of his elite Republican Guard, and the location of the country’s prestigious Conference Palace.

The 10 square km area was taken by the invading US forces in April 2003 in some of the bloodiest fighting during the capture of Baghdad.

Soon it was called the “International Zone” because it housed foreign embassies, a UN mission and contactors, though the “Green Zone” remained its most commonly used name, and it stood in contrast to the unsecured parts of the surrounding city where US troops were battling insurgents.  

The great irony, of course, is that long after the last US troops left Iraq the Green Zone remained a high-security enclave that provided shelter and protection for the government, the parliament, the presidency and thousands of members of the country’s new ruling clique.

With its heavy concrete blast walls and barricades run by elite counter-terrorist forces, the Green Zone’s fortification were supercharged in such a way as to discourage any coup attempt and deter urban insurrections.

Yet, this fortress-like district turned into the epicentre of a major political upheaval in Iraq this week, and for many Iraqis it is to be hoped that it will now become a symbol of change.

On Saturday, hundreds of followers of Shia politician Muqtada Al-Sadr entered the Green Zone and stormed the parliament after the influential cleric had denounced Iraqi politicians’ failure to reform the political quota system blamed for the country’s deadlock.

The parliament had failed to vote on a partial cabinet reshuffle proposed by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi as part of a reform package demanded by the protesters and pressed for by Al-Sadr.

For several weeks powerful parties in parliament have resisted Al-Abadi’s efforts to replace some ministers, chosen to balance Iraq’s divisions along party, ethnic and sectarian lines, with non-political ministers in order to combat corruption.

Exasperated by the legislators’ failure to endorse a government of technocrats, the protesters, who have been demonstrating outside the Green Zone for weeks, pulled down the blast walls and barbed wire that surround the Green Zone to create an opening before storming the parliament.

In a carnival-like atmosphere, hundreds of protesters danced, waved Iraqi flags, and chanted pro-Al-Sadr slogans. Inside the chamber, many jubilant protesters took to the seats of the MPs and posed for photographs.

Some rampaged through the building and broke into offices and broke furniture. Others blocked the roads and exits of the Green Zone, effectively preventing some lawmakers from fleeing the chaos. They also attacked and damaged several vehicles that they believed belonged to the lawmakers.

The escalation came shortly after Al-Sadr had warned that the protesters would bring down the entire government if Al-Abadi retained corrupt officials and the quota system in place.

In a televised speech from the holy city of Najaf announcing a two-month withdrawal from public life, Al-Sadr said he was “waiting for the great popular uprising and the major revolution to stop the march of the corrupt.”

On Sunday, the activists said they had begun to leave the Baghdad government district. A statement by the protest organisers said they were leaving temporarily, but threatened to escalate their demands if a government of technocrats was not formed.

In a sense, the protests, which spread to other Shia-dominated cities, have turned into an urban uprising which threatens to move Iraq’s political crisis into the streets.

The Iraqi public’s rediscovery of street politics signals a dramatic shift in the country’s politics and the end of the authority of the ruling elites who will no longer be able to control the political tides in Iraq.

Iraq’s political crisis is fast-moving and is becoming more complex. What is at stake now is the power struggle between the ruling factions which has been deepened by Al-Sadr’s revolt.

What had looked like a grave government crisis has ended up becoming a total paralysis of the country’s political system, putting Iraq at risk of falling to pieces altogether.

One major concern is that the political crisis could distract attention from the fight against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group which still controls Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and large swathes of the country’s territory.

The group continues to carry out attacks in Shia-dominated neighbourhoods and cities across Iraq, remaining relentless in its bloody campaign of bombings against the Shia and the security forces.    

This week, IS claimed a series of bombings targeting Shia pilgrims that left dozens either killed or wounded. The attacks underscored the current stalemate’s impact on the security situation.

However, the political ramifications of the conflict could be more important. The crisis has underscored the heightened power struggle between the Shia political factions that have been in power since the ouster of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime in the US-led invasion.

The Shia Iraqi National Alliance has rejected Al-Abadi’s reshuffle plan and has insisted that the present power-sharing system that distributes seats in the government according to sectarian and ethnic quotas should remain in place.

The deep-rooted competition between the three main partners in the Alliance, the Islamic Da’wa Party, the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council (ISIC) and the Sadrist Movement, has resurfaced.

On Sunday, demonstrators in several towns stormed the offices of the Da’wa and ISIC Parties and tore down pictures of Da’wa Party leader Nuri Al-Maliki and ISIC leader Amar Al-Hakim and smashed furniture.

On the other hand, the escalation seems also to have left the country’s Sunni political leaders wallowing in confusion. By lacking a clear strategy on the political crisis and as a result of indecisiveness, the Sunni political class seems to be leaving the entire Sunni population in the lurch, blurring further what the future may have in store for it.

As for the Iraqi Kurds, who joined Iraq’s post-Saddam polity largely to advance their ambitions, the rise of Al-Sadr and the consequent changes in the balance of power pose a serious threat to their ability to influence domestic politics.

As Iraq plunges deeper into chaos, the Kurds will be emboldened to cut their ties with Baghdad and press ahead with their secessionist agenda.

Kurdish lawmakers who left Baghdad after the protesters broke into the parliament called on the Kurdistan Regional Government to reconsider its participation in the legislature, a move which could signal its severing its ties with Baghdad.

Therefore, everything now seems to depend on Al-Sadr and whether he can redefine Iraqi nationalism and offer a vision and a strategy not only to end the stalemate in the country but also and more importantly to stop it from breaking up.

By exploiting popular discontent against the ruling oligarchies and resorting to active street politics, Al-Sadr has been adjusting his tactics to revamp his movement and ensure his position as Iraq’s single most powerful leader.

If Al-Sadr uses his newly acquired public support and influence to reform the way power works in Iraq, he could do his country a great deal of good.

So far, the signs are mixed. His resorting to street politics has been vital to energising the reform movement, giving it a sense of patriotism in contrast to the US-sponsored regime change which brought the current political class to power.

It may be that he is merely trying to settle scores with other Shia politicians and groups in Iraq, pushing them aside in order to establish himself as Iraq’s one-man band and his Sadrist Movement as the main representative of the country’s majority Shia.

Al-Sadr now has a golden opportunity to transform himself and Iraq by not only reversing the dysfunctional political process and stamping out corruption, but also by making the country stand tall and united.

But the task is too much for a one-man band, and he risks missing the opportunity if he fails to establish a broader reform movement that includes Iraqis of all social and political shades and religious backgrounds.

add comment

  • follow us on