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Why Iraq’s Current Crisis is So Intractable

The political deadlock preventing the formation of a new Iraqi government has been characterized by multiple compounding intra-group political competitions, mainly among Shia political adversaries over the prime minister’s position and among Kurdish political rivals over the federal president’s position. The events of the past ten months–and particularly those of the last month with repeated street clashes and incursions into Iraq’s ostensibly secure “Green Zone” at the request of Shia factional leaders–mark a new development in this stalemate, transforming the crisis from a political to a constitutional issue and creating an existential dilemma for Iraq’s post-2003 political system.

How Iraq Got Here

Following his victory in Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary election, influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr repeatedly attempted, without success, to form a ‘national majority’ government with the Sadrist Movement, his eponymous political party, at its head. Frustrated, he abruptly withdrew his seventy-three MPs from parliament in June, essentially handing their seats over to the main Shia opposition movement, the pro-Iran “Coordination Framework” (CF.)

The main reason for Muqtada Al-Sadr’s failure to form a government came from Iraq’s constitution, which mandates a quorum of two-thirds of the parliament members to be present in the voting session for a new president. In the past, this restriction has led successive Iraqi parliaments to attempt to form consensus-based governments with representation from all factions, essentially guaranteeing all major factions a seat at the table regardless of their electoral outcomes. After the October election, however, Al-Sadr took the ambitious decision to form a “national majority” government excluding the CF from power through alliances with Sunni and Kurdish groups. The CF in turn obstructed Sadr’s efforts by preventing the appointment of a president, making it impossible for further government formation to take place.

Following his failure to form a government, Sadr tried a different tactic—he called for his MPs to resign from parliament, placing the ball in the CF’s court with the knowledge that the pro-Iran alliance also lacked the strength to form a government. However, the cleric’s act was unilateral and did not receive support from his Kurdish and Sunni allies of the Kurdish “Kurdistan Democratic Party” (KDP) and the Sunni “Sovereignty Bloc.” Neither group followed the Sadrists in resignation, which might have triggered a set of new elections if they had. Outside observers have suggested that Sadr did not appreciate that the political process was prepared to move on without his involvement.

The failure of the resignation gambit pushed Sadr to exploit already-building public anger and demonstrations by calling for sit-ins and protests around the Green Zone and the parliament’s building provoking major public disruption to Iraq’s political system. Although Sadr himself claimed in late August that he would permanently resign from politics, the Sadrist Movement’s armed wing, “Saraya al-Salam,” and the armed groups affiliated with the political groups of the CF have found themselves in direct armed confrontation in Baghdad and several southern provinces. The violence underscores the absence of the rule of law and the weakness of the state against the armed groups. It also spreads fear of a possible internecine Shia conflict, although such a clash would clearly amount to a political dispute between two factions that do not represent the vast majority of ordinary Iraqi citizens, even those from the Shia majority areas. To his credit, Sadr has called for his supporters to disarm, although it remains unclear what effect these words will have.

A Constitutional Crisis

A new layer beyond the ‘consensus versus national majority’ government debate concerns the role of the Federal Supreme Court, which has postponed the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament four times before. Following several postponements, the court met this month to discuss the case raised by the Sadrist Movement regarding parliamentary dissolvement and early elections. Sadr’s supporters argued before the court that the parliament lost its constitutional legitimacy since it failed to elect a president, prime minister, and form a government within the constitutional period. This political crisis goes back to the political deadlock Iraq has experienced since the October 2021 elections, which were themselves conducted early as part of the response to the demands of the anti-government protests that began in October 2019.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, convened a second round of talks with Iraqi leaders aimed at resolving the ongoing political crisis between rival Shia blocs and some of their Sunni and Kurdish partners, but the representatives of the most influential figure, the leader of Sadrist movement, failed to attend the dialogue initiatives. Sadr’s continued absence from the talks will likely hamper Kadhimi’s efforts to broker a solution to Iraq’s 11-month crisis. However, the participants recently “renewed the invitation” to Sadr’s camp “to participate” in the meetings, according to a statement from Kadhimi’s office.

The Federal Supreme Court has postponed the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament four times already, so the court was scheduled to make its final decision on the case and decide the fate of the Iraqi parliament. There is no specific law regarding the court’s power to unilaterally dissolve parliament, but Article 64 of the Iraqi constitution claims that the parliament can dissolve if requested by one third and then voted for by two thirds of the parliament – which is a number both the Sadrist and their allies and the CF and their allies have each failed to achieve. The constitution also allows the PM and the president to call for the dissolution of parliament, but both PM Kadhimi and President Salih are acting in a “caretaker” capacity, meaning they do not have the right to do so.

Therefore, in short, the dilemma is that the dissolution of parliament and the holding of early elections—perhaps the only short-term solution to the current political stalemate, and the central demand of its strongest player—cannot be legally arranged by either the court, the president, or the prime minister according to the constitution, and cannot conceivably be approved in the parliament due to its sharp partisan divisions. In essence, Iraq’s government has entered a crisis that the country’s constitution is insufficient to solve. Even if any of the previously mentioned players had the right to do so, it would make it appear that they had been pressured into the decision by Sadr’s supporters, calling into question their ability to continue in their position in a neutral capacity

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Sadr, explaining in a long statement the reasons behind its inability to unilaterally dissolve parliament and institute early elections. In contrast to the escalating sentiment that overshadowed the political discourse between the Sadrist and CF rivals, however, this decision did not lead to violence. Iraq’s judiciary, after all, is the last institution that any of the political forces would want to challenge in an assumed democratic system, including the Sadrist Movement. The current silence before the next storm is either a period of negotiations between rivals to find a settlement to resolve the current crisis, or separate planning and preparations by each side of the spectrum to find alternative ways to overcome the constitutional limitations. One way or another, the current crisis will not simply end on its own, but could be brought to an end by the decisions made in the coming weeks.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Zeidon Alkinani is a Middle East analyst and research with a primary focus on Iraq. Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and is Doctoral Researcher and Teaching Assistant in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. He holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London (UCL), a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Westminster, and a Preparatory Diploma in Law from London Metropolitan University. His research focuses on geopolitics, identity politics, democratization, power-sharing agreements, state-building, civil societies, and other policy issues in Iraq and the Middle East, where he has published extensively in articles, reports, policy analyses and briefs, and a book chapter. Currently, he works as a Media Specialist at a non-profit educational organization in Qatar and formerly was a Non-resident Fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara (IRAM). Alkinani is a regular political commentator and contributor to Aljazeera English, Open Democracy, Middle East Monitor, The New Arab, Al-Araby TV, and other media outlets.

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