Al-Sadr’s Movement is now challenging the government of Iraq
Dust, ruins and entire districts burned to the ground; that is today’s Ramadi, the Sunni city that is the capital of the very turbulent Anbar Province. Freed by the Iraqi army at the end of last year, it now looks like a ghost city. Satellite photographs published in recent days by the Associated Press show the extent of the devastation, with over three thousand buildings destroyed, 400 roads seriously damaged, bridges reduced to dust and collapsing infrastructure. About 800 civilians have died in Ramadi and the challenge faced is now a political one.
Ever since the American invasion, Anbar Province, the heart of the Sunni community, has been the setting for the Sunni rebellion, first against U.S. occupation and then against the new Shiite government entrusted to the then Prime Minister al-Maliki. Now its reconstruction, which is first of all social, economic and political and then physical, is up to Baghdad and consists of reintegrating the Sunnis in the country’s decision-making fabric.
It is certainly not an easy objective, especially during an ongoing political crisis. The government is adrift and Premier al-Abadi is incapable of imposing on parliament a government reshuffle and the institutional reforms promised months ago.
Thus, the base has now reacted. A people’s movement, mainly but not only Shiite, inspired by the Sadrist movement, has been taking to the streets for months to apply pressure on al-Abadi asking for new anti-corruption legislation. Protests reached their peak on Saturday, April 30th when the crowds destroyed the cement walls that for over a decade have separated the Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad; four square kilometres in which the international community and Iraqi government have enclosed foreign embassies, parliament and ministerial offices. It is Iraq’s political heart, separated from the rest of the country and its people.
A few thousand protesters invaded the Green Zone and broke into parliament shouting “Victory for Iraq”, while the MPs present fled by car targeted by stone-throwing protesters. It was only the following day that these protesters left when specifically requested to do by the Shiite religious leader, Moqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr played the leading role in the resistance against American occupation using the powerful Mahdi Army and in 2014 announced his withdrawal from the political stage. A few months later, however, he returned in a different role, and, having converted the Mahdi Army into the Peace Brigades, he took part in the battle against ISIS, keeping his distance from the militias linked to Iran, to then promote a people’s movement aimed at opposing corruption, a plague that prevents the country from rising again and rebuilding after decades of almost uninterrupted conflict.
He now has a golden opportunity to change the Iraqi political system at its roots and definitively overcome the sectarianism that is destroying the country. Salah al-Nasrawi, the Iraqi journalist who reports for AP, the BBC and Al-Ahram is convinced of this. We spoke to him over the phone and he told us, “Moqtada al-Sadr has been able to create a mass movement that is not restricted to Shiite borders; the thousands of people who for months have been taking to the streets are not only followers of al-Sadr. These people are dissatisfied and among them there are also Sunnis and former Baathists, different levels of society that now have an opportunity to change the regime imposed by American occupation.”
“This situation is similar to that of the Arab Springs in North Africa; a peoples’ movement demanding change devoid of external interferences and the elite’s diktats,” added al-Nasrawi, “Al-Sadr has a chance to abandon his role as a Shiite religious leader to become a national and popular leader.”
This is exactly the opposite of Western strategic plans. Since 2003 the United States had aimed for a federal division of Iraq following unnatural sectarian separation, in a country in which every community – the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds – should be autonomously administered. In practice, such fragmentation would leave Iraq a slave to external influences, from the Gulf to Iran. The eventual advent from the base of a Sunni-Shiite platform would have devastating effects on such plans and would also crush the current political system, formed by sectarian political parties that aim to keep control over the ministries, the only source of legitimisation in a country slave to corruption, cronyism and pork-barrel politics.
“The battle for power is extremely complex. It would seem that the battle is restricted to forming a new government,” said al-Nasrawi, “But that is a limited analysis. What is at stake is the distribution of positions endangered by Prime Minister al-Abadi’s intention to form a technical government that is not linked to the various factions. What is also at stake is Iraq’s future and the political factions’ increasing fear of the so-called silent majority. The majority that is now on the streets. For example, in 2014 only 30% of Shiites having the right to vote participated in the elections, while 70% boycotted them due to their doubts concerning the political class’s legitimacy. There will be new elections in two years’ time and parties fear that the same will happen again. They are using ISIS to terrorise the population and have themselves re-elected, but it is not working.”
In such a context, the Sadrist movement has done nothing but increase the political crisis experienced by the traditional parties and expand the internal fighting between factions, no longer only between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, but also among Shiites themselves. A number of Shiite MPs have officially stated that they support al-Sadr’s strategy and Sunni MPs have done the same, bringing into parliament the outline for a Sunni-Shiite platform that is also being created among the people of Baghdad.
Translated by Francesca Simmons