moqtada sadr
Moqtada Al Sadr has come out with a series of conditions to put an end to the crisis that began over cabinet formation Image Credit: AP

Earlier this month, Moqtada Al Sadr ordered his supporters out of the Green Zone of Baghdad, ending a stand-off that cost the life of no less than thirty Iraqis. The Sadrists obeyed his command, tentatively defusing a crisis that could have spiralled into a mini-civil war within the country’s Shiite community.

Moqtada has since come out with a series of conditions to put an end to the crisis that began over cabinet formation and has since snowballed on into who has the upper hand in Shiite politics.

Moqtada’s conditions include calling for early elections and dissolving the current chamber of deputies, which had been voted into office as recently as October 2021.

The 7 September Ruling

Iraq’s top court just put a damper on both conditions, however, putting Moqtada in difficult waters. On 7 September it came out with a statement saying that that it was constitutionally incapable of dissolving the chamber of deputies, adding that if Sadr’s condition were to be met, then parliament had no choice but to dissolve itself.

No answer could have been more worrying for Moqtada and his team. For starters, it shows that although he has proven — rather ultimately — that he and only he controls the streets of Baghdad, he is still far, from controlling strategic sectors like the Iraq judiciary, without which he can never rise to become a pan-Iraqi leader.

During the first few years of the post-Saddam era, Moqtada made claims to the ministries of education and health, packing schools and hospitals with his people, but failing to make similar advance into Iraqi courts. He is seen as someone who respects the rule of law, making it more difficult for him to challenge verdicts of the Supreme Court.

Read more

No dissolving of parliament means no new elections. Iraqis will have to keep their current chamber, from which Moqtada withdrew all his MPs last June in an arms-twisting move, aimed at pressuring his opponents into a political compromise.

The October 2021 parliamentary elections had originally been hailed as a great victory for the Sadrists, who managed to sweep 73 out of 329 seats in Parliament.

That was 92 seats short of the 165 needed for any majority vote. Sadr ordered them to resign collectively, hoping that this would either make his opponents accept his choice for premier, or else, run the risk of bringing down the entire chamber.

Lessons from Lebanon

It actually had the opposite effect. Shiite opponents in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework (CF) hurried to name their own premier, claiming that they were no longer obliged to negotiate names with Moqtada, who was technically, no longer represented in parliament.

Sadr did the same mistake committed by Lebanese politician Samir Gagegea in the aftermath of the 4 August 2020 port explosion in Beirut. Gagegea had won an impressive 15 seats in the 2018 parliament, making him leader of the second largest Christian bloc in Parliament.

He ordered them to resign — one after the other — objecting to state negligence that led to the port explosion, wrongly believing that his move would bring down the Chamber of Deputies. It also had the exact opposite effect.

The chamber stayed on for another three years, with Gagegea absent. When it was time to form a government, first by Saad Al Hariri and then by Najib Mikati, both were technically freed from the burden of accommodating Gagegea, since he was no longer commander of a parliamentary bloc.

According to a norm established in 2016, every four parliamentarians in Lebanon are entitled to one seat in cabinet. That would have given Gagegea four seats in government but he is now represented with not a single minister.

There may be no turning back for Moqtada’s 73 MPs. It would be far easier for him to call for new elections, than to withdraw their resignations. Until the supreme court ruling last week, Moqtada hoped to increase his share up from the 73 MPs.

The big conundrum

Western pundits who highlighted the 73 MPs in October fail to realise that this number was actually less than what Moqtada had promised his followers. He had originally aimed for 100+ and feels that now is the time to achieve that goal.

According to the Supreme Court, parliament must dissolve itself, which none of the remaining MPs want, certainly not after Sadr’s bloc withdrew from the chamber last June.

They fear that new elections would mean more seats for Moqtada and even less for Badr Organization, the Victory Alliance, or the Popular Mobilization Units (aka Al Hashd). A delegation of CF is due to meet with Moqtada in Najaf.

The talks are being sponsored by Hadi Al Amiri of the Fateh Alliance, a ranking member of the CF, who wants to keep the Shiite family united. Working with him to reach middle-ground are Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Al Halbousi, and head of the Sunni Al-Siyada Alliance Khamis Khanjar.

They are eying a deal that gives him a lion’s share of sovereignty seats, in exchange for naming a consensus prime minister who is seen acceptable both to the Sadrists and the CF.

For that deal to pass, Moqtada would have to drop his unilateral claim to naming a prime minister, accept the court ruling, and abandon his calls for a parliamentary dissolve and new elections.

— 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.