September 6, 2022

IntelBrief: Driven by Sadr’s Machinations, Instability Returns to Iraq

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

Bottom Line up Front

  • The powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s withdrawal from politics set off violent intra-Shia confrontations, threatening to undo Iraq’s gradual evolution toward stability and regional reintegration.
  • Sadr’s supporters are numerous, but the firebrand cleric has no obvious pathway to form a government nearly one year after national elections.
  • Unrest and political stalemate render the government unable to address longstanding problems such as corruption, lack of services, and rampant unemployment.
  • Unrest in Iraq, if sustained, might adversely affect the operations of Iraq’s oil export sector and, in turn, the global oil market.

Ten months of unresolved political power struggle within Iraq’s dominant Shia community has brought the country to the brink of civil conflict, threatening nearly two decades of gradual, if halting, stabilization since the U.S.-led military invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. The late August-early September political violence has been the worst convulsion since October 2019 popular rioting against governmental corruption and has aggravated the most serious crisis for Iraq’s government since the Islamic State captured large portions of Iraqi territory in 2014. On August 29, clashes in the government center of Baghdad between followers of the powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, many of whom were armed, and Shia militias armed by Iran, resulted in at least 30 deaths. The Sadrists conducted their show of political strength as a reaction to Sadr’s announcement that he is withdrawing from politics entirely - an announcement that reflected his frustration that the strong showing of his movement in the October 2021 vote has not enabled him to assemble a reformist government that excludes Shia groups aligned with Iran. Sadr accuses his pro-Iranian Shia rivals of refusing to curb official corruption or cede any power to Sunni Arab and Kurdish factions, but his adversaries include armed factions supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). They were able to thwart Sadr’s attempts to exclude them from a new governing coalition and have since succeeded in denying Sadr’s requests for new elections or changes to the Iraqi constitution. Yet, his ability to send his followers into the streets has enabled Sadr to prevent his Iran-backed competitors from forming a government that would almost certainly keep in place the flawed and corrupt status quo. The late August clashes expanded to central Basra, but abated immediately after Sadr, reportedly under pressure from Iraq’s leading Shia religious figure Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed to his followers to end their protests. Thousands of pro-Sadr protesters nonetheless resumed demonstrating, although peacefully, on September 2.

Sadr’s policy views reflect the hunger among his supporters for deep reform, including dismantling the existing political bargains that render government ministries as patronage networks serving the interests of individual factions and are ineffective in serving the public generally. The perception of governmental corruption, and the deterioration of services such as health care facilities and electricity supplies, had produced a significant public protest movement in October 2019. The failure of senior leaders to address popular grievances, which also include high unemployment, fueled Sadr’s strong showing in the October 2021 vote. Sadr’s followers also resent the extensive influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Iraq’s government and politics, perceiving that Iran wants to preserve the existing factionalized and patronage-intense power structure that best serves the interests of pro-Iranian politicians and Iran-backed Shia militia forces.

Although the clashes have petered out as of the first days of September, experts assess that the potential for renewed violence, or even a slide into all-out civil war, remains high. Sadr’s supporters remain unsatisfied and still armed, and his Iran-backed adversaries, led by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are likely to seek to resume their interrupted efforts to assemble a new government they can dominate. Although he can demonstrate that his following is large and loyal, Sadr has not articulated a clear roadmap to resolve the political crisis on his terms. And, Ayatollah Sistani’s intervention to end the clashes indicates that senior Shia clerics might blame Sadr for destabilizing the country and causing high numbers of civilian casualties, if violence resumes. At the same time, Sadr’s failure to accomplish his objectives does not necessarily clear the field for Iran and its Iraqi allies to dominate politics. Iran’s strategy in Iraq has consistently sought to ensure cohesion among all Shia factions, and Iranian leaders do not want to take sides openly in the intra-Shia rift. To date, Iranian leaders and diplomats have instead sought to encourage dialogue among Shia politicians to return to the pre-2021 political structure in which all Shia groups dominate the country’s governing coalition. Whether Sadr is willing to return to a consensus political structure - knowing that this structure will not produce reforms or improve living standards for most Iraqis - remains unclear.

The potential for renewed and intensified political violence in Iraq is a major concern not only for Iraqis and the region, but also for strained global energy markets. Iraq’s clashes have been concentrated in Baghdad but have spilled over into Basra province, which accounts for more than two-thirds of Iraq’s 3.5 million barrels of oil per day of oil exports (3% of the global market). In an oil market already pressured by low oil inventories and key OPEC members producing less than their assigned quotas, any reduction in Iraqi oil production could push up prices again significantly. The tensions have not, to date, disrupted Iraqi oil output. And, even during earlier periods of unrest, such as the October 2019 demonstrations, Iraq’s oil exports did not decline significantly. However, because the latest unrest represents a rift within Iraq’s Shia community, which is dominant in oil-rich southern Iraq, the potential for oil production interruption in the event of intensified domestic conflict is greater than it was in earlier periods. For the United States and its regional partners, major violence in Iraq would represent a setback to a nearly twenty-year project to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq, but the United States now has few options to affect events in Iraq one way or the other.