Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drives a car as he joins anti-government demonstrators gathering in Najaf on Oct. 29, 2019. (AFP)

By Track PersiaFebruary 29, 2010

The Iraqi parliament is the most divided in post-US led invasion Iraq after having postponed a vote of confidence in prime minister-designate Mohammad Allawi’s government for a second time on Saturday 29th of March, amid bitter division and political wrangling. There are fears of a constitutional vacuum if Allawi fails to win a vote of confidence when the parliament is convened to vote again.

The reason declared by parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi for Saturday delay is a lack for a quorum.  Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds rejected a non-binding vote passed by Iran-backed Shiite factions back in January that demanded an immediate departure of US troops stationed in Iraq.

Iraq has been without a government since Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet has resigned and become a caretaker under pressure from the ongoing widespread and unprecedented protests in Iraq’s modern history.

Failure to go ahead with the vote could trigger a call for protests by populist radical Shi’i cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has sent contradictory messages to his followers and to Iraqi public in general since he started his visit to the Iranian holy city of Qom, officially to pursue his religious studies, this claim, however, is not convincing given Najaf in Iraq, Sadr’s home city has the most prestigious Shiite religious seminaries.

The ongoing largely Shiite protesters are mostly unemployed young people who grew up without memories of life under former President Saddam Hussein, who was deposed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The popular protests which have gripped Baghdad and mainly Shiite cities in the south since October demand a new cross-sectarian government that is not subjugated to Iran or any other external influence.  The protesters have already rejected the nomination of Allawi because he has been selected by the Shiite Islamic factions and they see him too close to the confessional political system they have rallied against for months.

The widespread protests have indicated growing sentiment among Iraqis against Iran, the country that has dominated their country’s political system since the invasion, though Shiite Islamist political factions linked to Iran-backed militias. The successive post-invasion Shiite-led governments have integrated the pro-Iran militias in the Iraqi security forces. Despite being part of Iraq’s government, these militias are not under government control. They are accused of carrying out many crimes including killing, kidnapping and forced displacements of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. More recently these militias which are called as ‘unknown groups’ by Iraqi officials fearing of retaliation, have been accused of killing more than 600 protesters and wounding about 25000.

On a few occasions, the young protesters expressed their anti-Iran’s sentiments by attacking Iranian consulates and offices of Iran-backed parties in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The public anti-Iran sentiments are seen as among the biggest challenges to Iran’s influence in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Sadr’s flip-flopping 

For several weeks until 25th of October, Sadr held back his support for the protests. However, after was convinced the protests were gaining momentum, Sadr ordered a group from his Saraya al-Salam militia so-called Blue Hats to back and protect the protesters.

It was on January 3rd after General Qasem Soleimani was killed by a US drone near Baghdad airport, Sadr has switched stance against the protests. From his residence in Iraq, Sadr sent a series of tweets criticising the popular anti-government protests accusing the protesters of taking a wrong path, promiscuity, immorality and taking drugs and alcohol. He warned against Iraq was turning into Chicago. He later ordered his Blue Hat to withdraw their support for the protesters. Two weeks later, he sent more tweets calling for cleansing the protests.

Upon Sadr’s orders, Sadr’s Blue Hats swept through the streets looking for protesters, beating them, fatally stabbing some of them and handing others for Iraqi security to arrest them. They also burnt tents used by the protesters and took over a famous high-rise building known as ‘Turkish Restaurant’ which the protesters had taken over to prevent snipers from using it to shoot at them during demonstrations in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad. Far from Baghdad, the Blue Hats raided protesters’ camp in Najaf on 5th of February, killing at least five people and wounded more than 20.

At the same time, Sadr ordered his followers to protest and demand that the 5200 US troops in Iraq withdraw. The demonstrators were seen carrying aloft photos of Sadr and his late father Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr.

In a move that was intended to intimidate the protesters, the Sadrists were seen chanting and singing songs boasting kidnapping and killing anyone who is displeased with their leader, in a reference to the sectarian war back in the mid of 2000 when Sadr’s Mahdi militia carried out mass killings of Sunni Arabs on sectarian reasons. They also declared that they had cleansed ‘infiltrators’ from protests.

The Sadr’s militias have succeeded in disrupting the popular protests and forced many of protesters to retreat, given they are still being killed on daily basis and the government cannot, does not want, to stop the bloodshed.

rIn an attempt to keep the protests alive, the young protesters have recently shifted the focus of their protests from Tahrir Square to the impoverished cities in the south such as Nasiriyah. However, banning public gatherings by the government this week for fear of the coronavirus epidemic, the protests are seen to have been weakened further.

Sadr’s shift towards Iran hast gone down badly with Iraqis in general and the protesters in particular. They see Iran is behind the savagery used to crush the protests and Sadr’s anti-protest shift which they see as essential to crush the protests to force Iraqis to accept the political status quo established after the US toppled President Saddam Hussein in 2003.

How badly will Sadr’s new shift towards Iran damage his public image? Sadr has been heavily criticised for his change of stance since the invasion in 2003. He has been seen as being a member of the ruling class while presenting himself at the same time as a radical opponent of this class. His recent flip-flopping has exposed him as also being a hypocrite and a political chameleon, as his rivals.




About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack 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.