Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visits his father’s grave in Najaf, Iraq May 14, 2018. (REUTERS)

August 31, 2022

Four leaders of Iraqi Shiite factions met with two members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah party at a house in Baghdad in mid-August.

Just outside, in the heavily fortified Green Zone, supporters of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were collecting thousands of signatures for a “legal petition” demanding that the judiciary dissolve the parliament.

The meeting tackled the possible scenarios should an armed clash erupt with Sadr.

List of targets

A source informed on the proceedings of the talks said the gatherers reviewed a list of dozens of political and military targets related to the Sadrist movement. Among them were arms depots of the Saraya al-Salam, the armed wing of the movement.

The gatherers had hoped that attacking any of these targets would force Sadr to end his “rebellion” against the state, which he started by allowing his loyalists to storm parliament.

At the meeting, the Iran Guards representative expressed eagerness to “prepare” for a confrontation with Sadr, but he requested that it actually “serve” the interests of the pro-Iran Coordination Framework in “defending the system and legitimacy.”

The Hezbollah representative asked about the repercussions such a confrontation would have on Iraq and whether the situation would unravel further.

Hours later, the gatherers received a brief message from an Iranian official at Tehran’s embassy in Iraq, warning them against going ahead with the plans they shared with the IRGC.

A week later, the gatherers at the meeting would learn that one of the participants had divulged their plans of a confrontation to Sadrists.

On August 20, Sadr would for the first time speak of a plot to kill him. Since then, the cleric and his spokesman would always underscore the term “peaceful revolution” during their statements.

A leading Sadrist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Framework has tried to lure the Sadrists into a bloody confrontation

Intra-Iranian division

Meanwhile, four politicians from Framework parties spoke of division inside the IRGC, circles at the Tehran embassy and the intelligence ministry over how to deal with the situation in Iraq.

One of the politicians, a member of Hadi al-Ameri’s Badr organization, said Sadr managed to exploit this division in prolonging his “revolt against the system.” The Iranians, meanwhile, tested various means to address the Shiite disputes.

Tehran has resorted to its various means to influence the two main sides of the divide, but the IRGC often obstructed “possibilities drawn up by diplomats at the embassy or by the intelligence agency.”

An Iraqi politician revealed that Iraqi groups have expressed their concern over Iran’s “hesitation” in coming up with a unified stance on how to handle Sadr.

He also revealed that hardline factions had adamantly refused the idea of negotiating with the cleric.

Fickle positions

Members of Shiite armed factions spoke of how Iranian officials have had “fickle and changeable ideas” since the October parliamentary elections in Iraq.

They debated abandoning the “hawks of the Framework and negotiating with Sadr to see where his coup would lead.” They wondered whether they should instead continue to protect the Framework and push it to end Sadr’s political future.

They soon found out that they were dealing with different parties that had contradictory positions on how to manage Iraq.

A faction member, who had fought alongside the Iranians against ISIS in Syria and Iraq’s Tikrit, said the Shiite factions have been “improvising” ever since the killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020.

It appears that the Iranians, who have been calling on their Iraqi allies for more patience, do not have a “secret recipe” to resolve the deep dispute between the Shiites, especially since Sadr is seemingly improvising his “revolution” against the Iraqi system that is sponsored by Tehran.

Al-Sistani

Sadr’s actions have laid bare the Iranian divisions. A Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) official warned that the tensions between the pro-Iran factions and the Sadrists may lead to a “street war.”

He said members of armed factions expect that the eruption of clashes between the Framework and Sadrists may lead to similar fighting witnessed in Beirut during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

Asharq Al-Awsat had spoken with this official in March, two days after the Sadrist movement announced the formation of an alliance with the Sunnis and Kurds to form a new government.

He noted that the Iraqi factions, since their defeat of ISIS, had entrenched themselves in Iraqi institutions and the private sector. Sadr’s actions were threatening to strip them of their vast interests, he warned.

So, negotiations over the formation of a new government at the time would have gone beyond that scope and posed a serious threat to Shiite interests in Iraq, he explained.

Political activists have ruled out the possibility of the eruption of all-out war between the Shiites given how close their bonds are in the community. But Iraqi politicians believe that nearly a year of high tensions is enough to force both sides of the divide to turn to arms.

Asharq Al-Awsat asked five political figures from the Sadrist movement and Framework about the possibility of clashes. They said they were confident that the Religious Authority, Ali al-Sistani, had a decisive stance in store to avert the worst.

Financial and regional interests

Before the Sadr MPs resigned from parliament, main members of the Framework were discussing the fate of their interests should the cleric succeed in upending the Shiite equation in Iraq.

Framework member Hadi al-Ameri was in favor of a more measured approach and refused to escalate the situation when former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Qais Khazali advocated the formation of a government of Framework members that excludes Sadr.

Associates close to Ameri said he believed that this was a “swift way to put an end to the Framework.”

Maliki and his allies boast vast economic interests that they share with Iraqi businessmen and government officials. They believe that these interests will be threatened by Sadr’s political ambitions.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with businessmen who run major activities in seven Iraqi cities. Some of these activities are tied to influential armed factions and cover hotels, hospitals, residential compounds, malls, farms and others.

“The ball is now in Sadr’s court. Everyone is on alert to protect these interests in any way,” he stressed.

Another businessman revealed that Shiite factions have acquired major investment contracts that would provide Iranians profits in hard currency.

A local investor said Lebanese figures are a “vital” part of the economic activity controlled by the factions, most notably in running tourist companies, malls and hotels.

A member of the Framework said investors active along the network stretching from Tehran to Baghdad to Beirut are worried that the situation in Iraq would deteriorate. This has prompted internal and regional powers to intervene to resolve the political crisis.

He added that he has received hundreds of calls from businessmen and mediators, who are close to the Framework, to inquire about the safety of their interests in the market.

Hezbollah mediation and Maliki’s PhD

Before Sadr’s supporters stormed parliament, a leading member of the Lebanese Hezbollah party had paid a visit to Iraq’s Najaf to mediate between the Framework and Sadrists.

Two Iraqi and Lebanese sources said the party can manage a “temporary settlement until elections, demanded by Sadr, are held.”

The mediation calls for the formation of an interim government that would rule with “enough” powers for two years. Neither the Sadrists nor Maliki would be part of the cabinet.

In return, Hezbollah would offer Maliki a political “lifeline” and allow him to spend a brief break in Beirut’s southern suburbs – a party stronghold – so that he can earn a doctorate in the Arabic language.

He could use his time to deliver lectures to party members and academics to keep him relevant to the political scene.

Sources confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that Sadr did not meet with the Hezbollah official. A mediator did, however, deliver the cleric’s firm rejection of the party’s mediation because it allows Maliki to take part in the upcoming elections.

The Hezbollah initiative stirred a heated debate within the framework because the grouping refuses to offer such concessions to Sadr.

Informed sources revealed that the Hezbollah official received a clear message from a Shiite faction that “it was better not to visit Iraq at this time.”

The Iraqi file has since been handed by Hezbollah over to a figure close to the IRGC.

Asharq Al-Awsat

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.