On 29 August 2022, thousands of protestors headed to the Green Zone in Baghdad, which houses Iraq’s foreign embassies and government buildings. Soon, these protests took a violent turn and expanded later to include other areas in Iraq, including Maysan, Dhi Qar and al-Basra governorates, all in response to a tweet published by prominent Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr that he would withdraw from political life. In this tweet, al-Sadr expressed his final resignation from all political activities.
Al-Sadr’s decision and the protests that followed constitute another chapter in the story of the recent political chaos in Iraq. The current crisis began when the parties were unable to form a government, following the early elections that took place in October 2021. Since then, Iraq’s Shia political opponents are facing a dead end that keeps getting more complicated with time.
The direct consequences of Sadr's withdrawal
Al-Sadr's withdrawal in June 2022 caused bloody clashes between his supporters and the other Shiite factions such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq militia. With 33 people killed and hundreds injured in these clashes, security forces declared a comprehensive curfew in Baghdad to stop the cycle of violence.
The next day, al-Sadr held a press conference in which he instructed his supporters to withdraw from the Green Zone and the Iraqi parliament building within one hour. In a televised speech, al-Sadr said that he deeply regrets what was happening in Iraq, stressing that both sides of the conflict are to blame. However, several days later, protests erupted again in Baghdad, calling to put an end to corruption and Iranian interference in the Iraqi affairs.
On 29 August 2022, supporters of al-Sadr approached the Presidential Palace for the first time during a protest. The protestors made their way to the "international zone" during a series of demonstrations in recent weeks. The palace, located in the heart of the zone, is a symbolic site for receiving foreign dignitaries, noting that some government functions are carried out in the palace offices. More importantly, the palace’s surrounding streets also house offices and barracks belonging to Iranian-backed militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which are groups designated by the United States as “terrorist” militias. Furthermore, these groups receive wages from the Iraqi government, because these forces constitute a part of Hashd. When the Sadrists began pouring into the area, these Hashd units started firing against the protestors and forced them to the northern entrances of the Green Zone.
The clashes renewed after Sadrists returned to the Green Zone. However, the Iraqi security forces participated this time. Reporters from the clashes site stated that Hashd snipers continued to fire on al-Sadr's supporters, who responded in turn. By nightfall, the chaos engulfed the place and al-Sadr's supporters completely got out of control and attacked the "international zone" with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. When the battle calmed down, the death toll approached twelve Sadrists, while twelve Iraqi security forces were also killed. In addition, six members of Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces) died.
Al-Sadr's history of withdrawals
This is not the first time that al-Sadr has withdrawn from political life. Over the past few years, the Shiite leader has surprised his supporters more than once by announcing his withdrawal or resignation from political activity. In 2007, al-Sadr announced his resignation from politics; however, he travelled later to Iran to protest against the presence of US forces in Iraq and to devote himself to his religious studies. At the time, al-Sadr promised that he would not reconsider his decision until the last US soldier withdrew from Iraq. But in 2010, before the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, al-Sadr returned to the political scene when his party won 39 seats in the elections.
Three years later, following clashes between Sadr's supporters and other armed factions, al-Sadr announced again that he would leave political work, only to return and retreat shortly afterwards. But he withdrew again in 2014 and in 2016, and has repeatedly threatened to withdraw on multiple occasions over the past decade.
The need for a stable government in Iraq
The latest unrest in Baghdad has demonstrated that the Iraqi security forces are unable to prevent Hashd from interfering militarily within the Green Zone during emergencies. Moreover, the ongoing conflict also shows that even with the reduction in Hashd members, the militias can still cause chaos and severe damage to Iraq's international relations. Because of the lack of discipline in these forces, a comprehensive one-night battle erupted in the heart of the "Green Zone", returning Baghdad to a situation that resembles the civil war.
This is not the first time that Hashd has exploited its position within the Green Zone. Iranian-backed fighters instigated attacks against the US and British embassies and Iraqi officials, including the prime minister. Moreover, Hashd attempted to overrun the US Embassy in December 2019, threatening to erupt a devastating battle in Iraq. However, the Hashd leaders are still languishing in the centre of the government, and no orders have yet been issued to expel them. Keeping also in mind that Hashd fighters were the first to use live ammunition during the conflict.
It is true that the political scene in Iraq has been chaotic and foggy at times, but the possibility of holding early elections is an important step in resolving the political deadlock. In the event of constitutional amendments, beside implementing some changes in the electoral commission, an Iraqi government may be successfully formed. Of course, there are no guarantees that these changes will actually solve the long-established problems among the major political blocs, but they will likely lead to a return to politics by al-Sadr who will be eager to re-engage in the electoral process alongside his supporters. This is especially the case if the amendments allow the political blocs to form alliances after the elections. In this case, analysts expect that the amendments will greatly benefit al-Sadr during the formation of the next government, giving him dominance in the political field.
By Yara Barazy - MENA Consultant and Arabic Linguist