The plot whispers that set Iraq's crisis on fire
In May 1994, Iraq witnessed a traumatic and bloody fratricidal war. Back then, tensions and competition between the Kurdistan region’s two major parties was at its zenith.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were essentially in control over the semi-autonomous region. Yet despite the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, they failed to unite their 80,000 men and considerable arsenals, instead seeing each other as the principal threat.
'What was leaked about this agreement is what provoked Sadr's madness, and prompted him to storm the Green Zone and occupy the parliament building for the second time'
- Senior Iraqi official
That tension could be felt in almost all major Kurdish cities and towns, whose residents' loyalty and affiliation were divided between the two parties, a Kurdish political leader told Middle East Eye.
In Qalat Deza, a town in northern Sulaminiyeh province on the Iraq-Iran border, a chicken lost its way and crossed from the house of a PUK fighter to one owned by his KDP neighbour.
A quarrel broke out between the two men. The PUK fighter, “without thinking”, pulled out his weapon and shot his neighbour dead, the Kurdish leader recalled.
The “chicken incident'', which the elders of the Kurdistan region recall bitterly, led to what they sarcastically call the "brother's war", a conflict that lasted for almost four years and led to the killing of hundreds and displacement of thousands.
Twenty-eight years later, the threat of intracommunal violence in Iraq looms large once again. But rather than Kurdish parties threatening violence, Iraqi Shias are teetering dangerously close to the edge.
On Friday, mass demonstrations brought parts of Baghdad and central and southern provinces to a standstill. Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers were demanding the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
Those protests were matched by even larger and more numerous counterdemonstrations by his Iranian-backed opponents, who framed their cause as a will to preserve the legitimacy of the political system and judiciary.
Though fraught, the day nonetheless passed peacefully. Sadr’s supporters maintained their sit-in protest at the parliament building in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. And outside the district’s blast walls, his rivals began an encampment too.
For most political leaders, officials and diplomats, Friday’s scenes were a show of force - and though there appeared no will for direct confrontation between the camps, everyone was holding their breath nonetheless.
Because one moment in Iraqi history could not be ignored: the chicken incident.
"Unfortunately, all the factors of civil war are available. The tension between the conflicting parties is at its height, and there is a complete absence of logic, the dominance of intransigence and arrogance, and the availability of weapons," a senior Iraqi official told MEE.
"The Green Zone is currently surrounded by rings of weapons and militants. The amount of weapons that entered Baghdad over the past two weeks is staggering.”
What would happen, the official asked, if a chicken was to cross from Sadr City, the stronghold of the Sadrists, to Palestine Street, where Iranian-backed armed faction Kataeb Hezbollah holds sway?
A leak reaches Sadr
No one in Iraq is under any illusions - something needs to shift.
The country has been in limbo ever since last October’s parliamentary elections, when Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance emerged as the biggest party. The cleric struck a deal with the KDP and Sunni bloc, and for a moment it looked as if the Iranian-backed parties that make up the Shia Coordination Framework alliance would be marginalised and Iraq’s traditional power-sharing system of government overturned.
Yet the Coordination Framework managed to block, frustrate and impede government-formation efforts at every turn, until an exasperated Sadr ordered his MPs to resign in June.
Those resignations shocked Iraq and left the Coordination Framework as the largest bloc in parliament. Now able to take the lead, on 25 July the alliance nominated Muhammad Shia al-Sudani, who has long been associated with Sadr’s chief rival Nouri Maliki, as prime minister.
In response, the Sadrists flooded the Green Zone with protesters. Sadr personally called on his supporters to retreat, and they filed out of the district after a raucous few hours.
But 72 hours later they were back, after the cleric called on the Sadrists to occupy parliament - where they have been ever since.
Neither Sadr nor any of his leaders have revealed what happened in those three days to make the cleric send his men back in.
However three Shia leaders, one of whom is close to Sadr and the other two close to the leaders of the Coordination Framework, told MEE that the decision to storm the Green Zone for the second time was directly related to a leak.
According to the sources, Sadr discovered that several Coordination Framework leaders, including Sudani, had struck an agreement that guaranteed them control of several key ministries and governmental bodies after a new government was formed.
The interior ministry, the counter-terrorism service, the intelligence service, and the state-run oil marketing company SOMO, were among the most prominent positions agreed upon, the three leaders said.
The sources were not able to determine the exact date or location of the meeting where this agreement was struck, but it is certain that it took place in Baghdad during July, and that Hadi al-Amiri and Haider al-Abadi, two of the Framework’s key leaders, did not attend and were not part of the pact.
"What was leaked about this agreement is what provoked Sadr's madness, and prompted him to storm the Green Zone and occupy the parliament building for the second time," a senior Iraqi official familiar with the leak told MEE. Sadr currently controls many powerful state organs, and his authority and influence would be greatly damaged if the Framework leaders were successful.
“The agreement aims to dismantle and isolate the Sadrist machine within state institutions,” the official said.
"The Americans are the ones who leaked the details of this agreement. It is unreasonable for them to stand by while the armed factions seek to control the interior ministry and the intelligence and counter-terrorism apparatus."
Middle East Eye has asked US officials in Iraq for comment.
Attempts at deescalation have been hindered by Sadr’s complete refusal to receive any calls or visits from anyone that isn’t a Sadrist leader since his MPs resigned.
Despite multiple attempts to communicate with him, and initiatives suggested by political powers that are not involved in the conflict, he will not open any channel for dialogue.
Jeneanine Hennis-Plasschaert, UN representative in Iraq, is the only person to have successfully spoken with Sadr after he agreed to receive her at his residence in Najaf last week.
Neither party has disclosed what happened in the meeting, which lasted for nearly two hours, but it was clear that Hennis-Plasschaert's efforts to persuade Sadr to open a dialogue with his opponents were not successful, according to a western diplomat.
In fact, Sadr only escalated matters further 48 hours later by demanding the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Faiq Zaydan, dissolve parliament within a week.
"Plasschaert's meeting with Sadr was not bad, but it did not produce tangible results," the western diplomat told MEE.
'The international community is confused and sees not many available outlets to resolve the crisis'
- Elie Abouaoun, United States Institute of Peace
“Sadr requires the parliament to be dissolved before starting any dialogues or making any settlements, and this is not acceptable for his opponents and allies.”
Two major powers, the United States and Iran, are yet to wade in. Despite being the most influential players in Iraq since 2003, neither have used their power to help dismantle the crisis, international observers, Iraqi politicians and western diplomats told MEE.
And they do not seem to have the appetite to intervene anytime soon: torturous negotiations over resuming the 2015 nuclear deal are Washington and Tehran’s main priority in the region.
Since the countries of the European Union do not have a particularly large influence in Iraq, the attention turns to the UK, which has good relations with everyone and is able to influence people in both camps.
"The international community is confused and sees not many available outlets to resolve the crisis," Elie Abouaoun, the director of the United States Institute of Peace, told MEE.
"The Americans will not interfere directly and will not invest any of their political weight in the interest of any party. They may support another mediator, but they will not interfere,” he added.
"Regional parties such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran may intervene… but no one will support an armed confrontation.”
It is not yet clear what the UK’s position is, Abouaoun said, “but there is great potential for an active British intervention.”
“The British have wide influence and arms in Iraq, and are now one of the most important parties that can play an active role in resolving this crisis."
Early elections are not a solution
Sadr wants early elections but so do many other political forces, including his Iran-backed opponents.
Yet the Coordination Framework wants polls to be held according to mechanisms that would see them do better than in October, which need to be implemented in parliament.
Sadr rejects all such proposals. And though he has demanded the Supreme Judicial Council dissolve parliament, everyone knows the body has no authority to do so. Zaidan said it himself on Sunday.
At the same time, Sadr’s political office has launched a campaign to file as many lawsuits as possible against President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi.
The lawsuits accuse the three men of violating the constitution by exceeding the post-polling day deadlines for the election of a president, nomination of a prime minister and formation of a government.
What Sadr, or any of his legal or political advisers, does not mention publicly is that holding early elections according to the same election law and mechanisms will not solve the problem and will not much change the current reality, political leaders, officials, diplomats and legal experts told MEE.
In October, the Iran-backed parties undermined their chances by failing to understand the new electoral law, poorly distributing candidates to districts and fighting among themselves. They performed very poorly as a result.
Another factor was the massive popular anger against them over their involvement in the bloody crackdown on the Tishreen anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
The Framework’s parties are not likely to make the same mistakes again, so don’t expect a repeat performance, politicians, legal experts and observers said. In fact, the biggest winner in any early elections will likely be the Coordination Framework parties.
"The forces of the Coordination Framework fully know their weaknesses that led them to this severe loss, and they will not repeat it again," a prominent Shia politician told MEE.
"Conducting the elections according to the same law will not produce significantly different results. Sadr's audience is almost fixed, and therefore he will get almost the same number of seats, while his opponents will get twice the number that the Sadrists will get.”
As for the independent MPs that emerged from the protest movement. “The biggest loser in any upcoming elections will be the forces emanating from Tishreen,” he said.
After entering parliament riding a wave of popular expectation and hope, the Tishreen movement has been ravaged by internal conflict. Its 25 MPs have been unable to score any notable achievements in their short term in office, with the paralysis imposed by the major blocs leaving them little chance of making an impact.
As a result, confidence in Tishreen’s politicians is at an all time low. “Their audience has started cursing them everywhere,” the Shia politician said.
Struggle over money
The main challenge Sadr could not overcome was a court ruling that said a president can only be elected by MPs when two-thirds of parliament is sitting. A government can only be formed after a president is elected, so when Coordination Framework parties began boycotting parliament the entire political process broke down.
But if elections are held without an adjustment to the constitution that would allow a president to be elected with a smaller quorum, Iraq could well face the same problem, legal and political experts told MEE.
Iraq is Opec's second-largest oil producer, and the financial surplus it has achieved from booming oil sales during recent months has reached $20bn.
'The current conflict, the real one at its core, is a struggle over money distribution outlets'
- Prominent Shia politician
Oil revenues are used illegally to finance the country’s political forces and paramilitaries, so ultimately control of this wealth underpins the current political crisis.
"All decision-makers in Iraq, including Sadr, know for sure that early elections will not solve the problem," a prominent Shia politician told MEE.
The politician predicted that none of the quarrelling parties will gain many seats on their own, and their bombastic statements on elections and the legitimacy of the state and parliament are “used to cover their real goals”.
“The real problem lies elsewhere. The current conflict, the real one at its core, is a struggle over money distribution outlets," he said.
"The existing forces, especially the Shia, have turned into mini-states parallel to the state, and they are all fighting to secure their financial resources,” he added.
"The conflict started from the areas where the oil companies, the border crossings and the banks are, and now it is moving towards the centre [Baghdad]. The current scramble aims to redraw the influence of each group in Baghdad, but within the state system, not outside it."