North Africa, West Asia

Frenemies forever: Iraqi Shi’a after Mosul

In Baghdad Iraqi Shi’a political parties and elites are returning to patterns of infighting habituated by decades of coalition- and relation-building in both the pre- and post-Saddam Iraq.

Nick Grinstead
1 May 2017
Toby Melville/Reuters/PA Pool/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

An Iraqi wears a badge of the Iraqi flag with an 'Elect Iraq' slogan on it. Toby Melville/Reuters/PA Pool/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.With the liberation of Mosul a certainty, if not an imminent one, international attention on Iraq is largely focused on rebuilding the war-torn city and fostering intra-communal reconciliation.

The former is understandable as the immediate needs of Mosul are great and tangible. The latter also fits into western conceptualizations of Iraq, two decades after intervention, which views the country as comprised of three distinct and uniform communities: Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd.

Meanwhile, back in Baghdad Iraqi Shi’a political parties and elites have long shifted focus away from defeating the Islamic State. Instead, they are returning to patterns of infighting habituated by decades of coalition- and relation-building in both the pre- and post-Saddam Iraq.

No such thing as structural political unity

While Iraqi Shi’a parties and elites did circle the wagons as the Islamic State bore down on Baghdad, once the Hashd al-Shaabi militias (Popular Mobilization Units) emerged, at the behest of Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa calling Iraqis to arms, and American-led airstrikes began the existential nature of the threat of the so-called Islamic State was effectively nullified. 

Political unity of Iraq’s Shi’a parties and elite [nearly] only occurs in response to a common enemy, which most recently took the form of the Islamic State and in previous periods had been Saddam Hussein and the United States.

Contrary to popular discourse, Iraq is not three cohesive ethno-religious blocks that act in unison. In fact there has been no such thing as structural political unity for Iraqi Shi’a for at least the past two and a half decades. When such unity does materialize it quickly disappears and is replaced by vicious competition.

Drain the Baghdad swamp

A contemporary example of the unscrupulous nature of Iraqi Shi’a coalition- and -relation building is Moqtada al-Sadr, who has rather opportunistically seized upon the pro-reform, anti-corruption protests that have been taking place in Baghdad since the summer of 2015 by throwing his and his movements weight behind the protests.  

The protests were in support of a reform drive that was primarily the work of another Shi’a politician Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, which on its surface would suggest either support from a fellow Shi’a, Sadr, or at least disagreements kept behind closed doors.

Al-Abadi, however, has little political base within his Dawa party of State of Law coalition and as a result has seen his efforts at reform stymied. Instead of supporting, Abadi Sadr took the public position that the reforms do not go far enough, creating headaches for Abadi who struggled to elicit any support for the reforms from fellow Shi’a inside and outside his own party.

Many see Sadr’s calls for reforms as disingenuous since members of his movement are integral partners in the political process. Sadrists representatives sit on the Electoral Commission, for example, which was recently the target for reform by Sadr and his followers. Sadr is likely supporting the protests calling for reform, and not necessarily the reforms themselves, to energize his political base and attract new supporters in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections.

Moqtada al-Sadr and his movement are deeply enmeshed in the political system that he currently rails against and the protests are a tool employed to try and hammer his opponents with.

Preserving a kleptocratic pie

In this environment of renewed competition Iraqi Shi’a political elites do not share common views on much. Deep divides persist between Iraqi Shi’a parties over what role clerics should have, whether Iraq should move towards a federal structure, and the desirability of Iranian influence in the country. These fundamental positions of the major Iraqi Shi’a parties make long-term alliances an impossibility.

Perhaps the sole thing they can agree on today is the preservation of a political system that permits state capture for the sake of perpetuating patronage networks. This system was consolidated after intra-Shi’a violence abetted in 2009 with the defeat of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Although violence throughout the country raged on, the fighting between Shi’a groups was replaced by competition over resources of the Iraqi state, a trend that accelerated under the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014).

Today, corruption is a deeply entrenched feature of the Baghdad political terrain. Iraqi Shi’a political groups and elites shifted away from violence to competing over revenue from oil sales and control over ministries and parliamentary committees in order to employ family members and supporters.

In addition, Iraqi political elites continue to favor the status quo of a centralized state, despite the promises of devolution to Iraq’s provinces. The reason for this being that a centralized state in Baghdad is one that is easier to steal from.

 Plus ça change aux Baghdad…

While these elites have so far managed to fight off attempts at reform, popular grievances against poor governance, insecurity, poverty and inadequate service delivery remain unaddressed. Even the storming of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone in May of 2016, jarring as it was, proved unable to move the needle on the substantive reforms so desperately needed. So then what becomes of Iraq if the status quo is maintained?

The last 25 years of Iraqi history shows that despite violence and acrimonious political rhetoric, Iraqi Shi’a parties are still likely to form alliances to contest upcoming elections with their ostensible rivals. If the sustained pressure of the reform protests can continue to be contained, Iraq’s political elite will likely manage to cobble together a government after the 2018 parliamentary elections that is no more responsive to its constituents than before.

Steps forward

Mosul will require substantial bandwidth and resources from external actors for the near to medium term, deservedly so. The next crisis, however, will almost certainly involve the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 2018.

External stakeholders should look to ways to support more productive competition between Shi’a parties that results in parties and leaders that are more receptive to the needs and wishes of their constituencies. This can be accomplished at least in part by facilitating confidence building and reconciliation between existing Iraqi Shi’a political groups.

In the spirit of more productive competition, external stakeholders can provide long-term support to Shi’a social movements, civil society advocacy groups and even nascent parties. Fostering a counter weight to the stagnant Iraqi Shi’a political class external stakeholders can help to challenge the complacency of the established elite. This could take the form of long-term core funding to these groups or discrete training courses held outside the country.

Ultimately, an additional focus on promoting the quality, legitimacy and diversity of Iraqi Shi’a political representation will translate in strengthening cross-ethno-sectarian reconciliation efforts in Iraq.

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