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Supporters of Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Al Sadr perform the weekly Friday prayers in the Sadr City suburb of Iraq's capital Baghdad on January 28, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: Mediation efforts continue in Iraq, to bridge the gap between the two largest Shiite blocs that are have been at daggers-end since the country latest parliamentary elections in October.

One bloc, headed by Moqtada Al Sadr, swept the polls winning 73 out of 329 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Challenging those numbers is the Coordination Framework, a coalition of Shiite parties — all former allies of Al Sadr — who claim that they collectively hold the majority of 88 seats, rather than the Al Sadrists.

Neither hold a majority in the new chamber, which held its first session on January 9, 2022. A majority vote requires 165 MPs, forcing Al Sadr to reach out to his opponents, very unwillingly, in order to form a government.

But whatever hopes existed about bridging the gap seemed to have vanished on Sunday, after the Supreme Court temporarily suspended the candidacy of Hoshyar Zebari, who is running for president, with support of the Sadrists, the Taqqadum Party of Parliament Speaker Mohammad Al Halbousi, and his own Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The suspension comes after lawmakers petitioned the Supreme Court, reminding about corruption charges against Zebari when serving as finance minister back in 2016. Although he persistently denied any wrongdoing, he was forced out office back then and his opponents claim that his financial record doesn’t qualify him to become Iraq’s next president.

Supporting the suspension, of course, is Zebari’s rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose candidate Barham Salih, is running for a second round. As Al Sadr stood behind the KDU, the Coordination Framework went for Salih and the PUK, sharpening fault lines between the two Shiite groups.

Al Sadr announced that he will be boycotting parliament’s second session, scheduled for midday today, and so will his 73 MPs. Joining the boycott will be Halbousi’s parliamentary bloc, known as the Sovereignty Coalition (51 MPs), and the KDP, with its 31 MPs.

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Hoshyar Zebari (left) seeks to replace incumbent Barham Salih as president. By Iraqi law, the president is always a Kurd. Image Credit: AFP

During parliament’s first session on January 9, it was the Coordination Framework that walked out on the chamber, objecting to the Al Sadr-KDP alliance that led to Halbousi’s re-election as speaker.

Furious with the deal, CF deputies fumed out on the chamber after trying to unseat the session’s interim speaker, Mohammad Al Mashadani.

A house divided

On January 27, three Katyusha rockets landed close to Halbousi’s home in Anbar, west of Baghdad. A hallmark weapon of Kataib Hezbollah (which is part of the Coordination Framework), these rockets seemed move like a message to Al Sadr than to Halbousi.

The Coordination Framework includes the Fateh Alliance of Hadi Al Amiri, leader of the Badr Organisation, the State of Law Coalition of Nouri Al Maliki, the Hikma Party of Ammar Al Hakim, and the Nasr Alliance of ex-prime minister, Haidar Abadi.

Headed by Amiri, this group controlled the lion’s share of seats in the Iraqi Parliament back in 2018-2021. The Fateh Alliance had its bloc slashed from 48 to 17 MPs — a major blow for Shiite militiamen and politicians who once took credit for liberating their country from Daesh.

Represented in the Fateh Alliance, in addition to the Badr Organisation, is Kataib Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), also known as Hashd Al Shaabi. The State of Law Coalition did a far better job in October, winning 33 out of 329 seats in Parliament.

“Al Sadr’s desire is to have Shiite politics reconstructed around himself and his movement as the central anchor,” said Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Aarhus University, specialised in Iraqi affairs. Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “He now hopes to use his dominant election performance to persuade Iran to shift its position on the Al Sadrists, to regard them as a more stable and powerful foundation for Shiite Islamist power and securing Iranian interests in Iraq than the fragmentary PMU.”

Sadr-Amiri rapprochement

Last month, Commander of the Quds Force Ismail Qa’ani visited Iraq to reach common ground between Al Sadr and the Coordination Framework, accompanied by Mohammad Al Kawtharani from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

At their urging, Al Sadr agreed to meet Hadi Al Amiri on 15 January 2022, with the aim of reaching a compromise deal. The two men had worked well with the each other in the past, both during the fight against Daesh and subsequently, in naming Mustafa Al Kadhimi as premier in mid-2020.

Al Sadr offered Amiri a handful of sovereignty posts in the new government, which he insisted, must go to a member of the Al Sadrist bloc. His claim to the premiership is justified by the numerical majority of his parliamentary bloc, which Amiri rejected.

On January 25, Al Sadr delivered a television address, claiming that Amiri had agreed to join the “majority government” without Al Maliki.

Maliki had been Iraq’s premier in 2006-2014 and insists on returning to the job, refusing to join a cabinet headed by the Al Sadrists. Al Sadr conditioned that any deal with the Coordination Framework ought to exclude Maliki, saying: “I refuse to ally myself to Maliki.”

Behind closed doors, Maliki’s supporters criticized the Al Sadr-Amiri meeting, claiming that the Al Sadrists were trying to drive a wedge within the Coordination Framework.

Al Sadr’s singling out of Amiri to do business raised eyebrows in the Shiite community. Part of its was due to Amiri’s own “weakness and vulnerability,” says Robin-D’Cruz. That, in addition his pragmatism and “Badr’s importance as a military power, and Al Sadr’s personal animosity with Maliki and Qais Khazali (leader of Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq) makes the prospect of an alliance between them and Al Sadr less viable.”

Opposing him initially was his ally Faleh Fayyad of the PMU, who defended Al Sadr saying: “He will not join a conspiracy to tear the Shiite house apart.”

Something happened between 25 January and 1 February, however, prompting Amiri to back out on his agreement with Al Sadr. He contacted Al Sadr, saying that he would not join the government without his allies in the Coordination Framework.

A new round of talks is expected this week, ahead of a February 7 parliamentary session, fixed to elect a new president. And Ismail Qa’ani is due to return to Baghdad, hoping to revive talks between Al Sadr and Amiri.