Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr ride in vehicles while celebrating in the central shrine city of Najaf after the closure of polls during the early parliamentary elections on October 10, 2021
Supporters of Muqtada Al Sadr ride in vehicles in the central shrine city of Najaf (File) Image Credit: AFP

Iran-backed Coordination Framework (CF) is putting the final touches on a proposal to end the government crisis in Iraq, now entering its seventh month. Composed of Shiite parties that failed to win their desired number of seats in last October’s parliamentary elections, the CF includes the Badr Brigade of Hadi Al Amiri, the State of Law Coalition of ex-Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) of Faleh Fayyad.

They claim to hold 100 out of 329-seats in Iraq’s new Parliament, a claim challenged by their former ally Moqtada Al Sadr, who says that his bloc alone won 73 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Based on that assumption, Sadr insists that only he is entitled to naming Iraq’s new prime minister, nominating his cousin, Jaafar Al Sadr (Iraq’s ambassador to London), as a replacement to incumbent Prime Minister (PM) Mustapha Al Kadhimi.

Previously Sadr had gotten the upper hand in naming all of Iraq’s post-Saddam PMs, starting with Ebrahim Al Jaafary in 2005 onto Mustapha Al Kadhimi in 2020, but that was done always in cooperation with other political parties. He now seemingly wants to go a step further, positioning himself as the only premier-maker in Iraq — an ambition that might be easier said than done.

Ad hoc parliamentary alliances

Sadr has teamed up with non-Shiite parties, forming a coalition called Al Inkaz Al Watani (Saving the Homeland), composed of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Al Halbousi, leader of the 37-man strong Sunni bloc.

A majority vote in parliament is required for naming a new premier, which means 165 MPs. Currently, Sadr doesn’t have that number and nor do his opponents, forcing both to reach out to potential allies. On the opposite end of the chamber, they are building their own parliamentary alliance called Al Thabat Watani (National Fortitude).

Like Sadr, they too are trying to come across as a pan-Iraqi bloc rather than an all-Shiite one, hoping to attract Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians, with an end-objective of 140 MPs.

Sadr gave the Coordination Framework a grace period to join a Sadrist government, or be left out of the executive branch completely. It began with the first day of Ramadan and ends on 10 May.

They are insisting on a consensual government, however, rather than one dictated solely by Sadr. Last month the CF and its allies blocked two parliamentary sessions aimed at electing a new president, saying that deciding on an acceptable premier is more pressing than finding a new head of state.

Radical Measures

In fact, so adamant are the CF leaders at drowning Sadr’s single-party government that they are considering a handful of radical measures, like dissolving the chamber or accepting the US-backed Mustapha Al Kadhimi for a second term at the premiership. The constitutional deadline for forming a government was 6 April 2022. Parliament can now officially dissolve itself if two-thirds of MPs vote in favour.

Previously the Coordination Framework had flatly rejected the notion of keeping Kadhimi at his post, accusing him of back-stabbing Shiite parties that brought him to power in mid-2020. Kadhimi has upset Iraqi Hezbollah, a ranking component of the Coordination Framework, arresting a handful of its members while confiscating its arms.

He eventually had to back down, however, fearing a mini-civil war in 2020-2021. Accepting him would be painful, no doubt, but it would be easier to swallow than ceding power completely to Sadr.

The CF Proposal

The Coordination Framework is marketing its proposal as a win-win scenario in which all twelve Shiite ministerial posts go to Moqtada Al Sadr, in exchange for him dropping his claim to the premiership and accepting a consensus prime minister.

That would keep the Shiite front united, they claim, in full control of both the executive and legislative branches. According to Atwan Al Atwani, a ranking member of the Coordination Framework, the proposal hopes to prevent any major Shiite player from moving into the opposition.

Sadr has to date flatly rejected any compromise, insisting on nothing less than naming the new premier and all his ministers. Last March he got on the phone with Nouri Al Maliki but the conversation lasted for no more than a few minutes. This month, he tweeted that “political blockage” was easier for him than reaching an agreement with the Coordination Framework. Such an alliance, he added, would mean “end of the nation.”

Sadr sees the current situation as a lifetime opportunity for his political career, which to date, has been one success after another. He premiered on the heels of the US invasion of 2003, first billing as a militia commander leading an armed insurgency against the Americans.

Representation of the poor

When that failed, he turned to politics, establishing himself as leader of Iraqi Shiites, especially the poor who were not represented in traditional Shiite parties like Al Dawa. That party, which led the underground under Saddam Hussein, had ironically been founded by his uncle, who also happens to be the father of his choice for premier, Jaafar Al Sadr.

He is not sure if the Sadrists will win the same number of seats in any future elections, whether carried out in the immediate or distant future. If he doesn’t invest in the October results, he might never get another chance at naming a Sadrist as premier.

Regional arbitration might solve the crisis but the two countries with the ability to deliver in Iraq — Iran and the US — are busy with other international matters, from Ukraine to the nuclear talks in Vienna. If both Iraqi sides refuse to budge, however, then the only logical outcome would be to dissolve the current chamber and go for new elections.

For Sadr it would mean compromising his 73-man majority. For the CF, it means running the high chance of losing more seats in a new vote. Both remain uncertain of what is more painful for now, swallowing their pride and working with one another, or going for a scenario in which all sides lose.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.