A mob loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sacked Iraq’s parliament on April 30, exacerbating the country’s seemingly permanent political crisis and bringing the tenure of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to a new low. The government’s political paralysis is severe even by Iraqi standards, with parliament struggling to make quorum, and the legal legitimacy of its leadership in question. While a new military operation to free Fallujah from terrorist control has temporarily grabbed media attention, Iraq’s political crisis continues.
Several misconceptions surround the origins of this paralysis—including that Abadi’s efforts to create a cabinet of technocrats were a reaction to Sadrist protests, that these demonstrations can be broadly identified with last summer’s anti-corruption protests, and that the fight between Abadi and rival figures within the political elite is substantially related to his efforts to push anti-corruption reforms. Rather, while both the Abadi and Sadr “reform” initiatives failed, the current crises facing both the parliament and Abadi’s cabinet result from a struggle for power and all sides’ disregard for the rule of law.
Abadi had announced various reforms in response to popular protests in August 2015, but the only one that was actually implemented and had wide-ranging impact was his August 16 decree deleting four ministries, merging eight other ministries into four, and effectively firing eleven cabinet members.1 Abadi did not submit a request to parliament but simply took the action by decree. All other parliamentary blocs correctly argued that this was unconstitutional—according to Article 75, the prime minister can remove ministers only with parliament’s approval—and uniformly opposed it.
By the beginning of 2016, recognizing that popular support for him had collapsed—in part because his few concrete “reforms” were just austerity measures, such as public sector downsizing and salary reform, resulting from the state’s lack of funds—Abadi tried to restart his tenure with a new “technocrat government” initiative. First he hosted a Three Presidencies meeting on January 28 with President Fuad Masum and Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Jabouri that concluded with vague rhetoric of cooperation, unity, and reform. But then he went out on his own, and declared on February 9 that he would present his own cabinet to implement reforms. Because ministers in the current cabinet—as in previous governments—are senior political figures in the blocs that dominate parliament, Abadi was in effect asking them to hand total control of the government over to him.
Only after Abadi announced a new technocratic cabinet did Sadr launch his current initiative during a speech on February 13. The essence of it was to turn himself into a popular leader—a leader of the masses transcending a specific political party or sectarian group—supporting reform on behalf of “the people” and not just the Sadrist current. He put forward 26 reform demands and said that his bloc would support Abadi’s effort to form a technocrat government, though he would call for a no-confidence vote in this government if Abadi failed to deliver within 45 days. Yet of Sadr’s 26 items, all but one—the replacement of Abadi’s acting appointments, which are de facto permanent appointments that bypass parliamentary confirmation—overlapped with Abadi’s stated agenda. Most were widely supported general statements to “promote investment,” fight corruption, and the like. Nor should the no-confidence threat be taken seriously: Sadr has always viewed Abadi as a balance against former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, his true rival, and when pressed on the issue his political representatives have never indicated a desire to remove him.
Sadr followed this speech with a series of escalating protests in Baghdad that turned into a sit-in encampment outside the Green Zone. On February 26, he spoke before the Baghdad crowd, breaking precedent by appearing in person. He adopted an increasingly demanding tone, and went from signing off as “a demander of reform” (talib al-islah) in his February 13 speech to declaring himself “the overseer of reform” (ra‘i al-islah).
Even though figures in Sadr’s parliamentary bloc repeatedly insisted they were attempting to strengthen Abadi, the protests in fact made it harder for Abadi to restructure the cabinet. The presence of such a huge crowd, protected by Sadr’s own militia, highlighted Sadr’s effort to make himself the sole arbiter of what constituted reform or not. This created a crisis within the Shia bloc and ensured that no slate he backed could pass, because passing it would make him successful and establish his supreme authority over them. Factions that had their own militias were visibly disturbed, and the official Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd) leadership, which is dominated by the Badr Organization and other rival militias, issued a highly unusual statement warning against what they viewed as the Sadrists’ attempt to impose their will on government. Likewise, the Islamic Dawa Party–Iraq Organization criticized the Sadrists strongly, making it unlikely that any initiative Sadr supported could pass parliament.
Furthermore, neither Abadi nor Sadr are making any real effort to fight corruption. Abadi appointed Hassan al-Yasseri, a member of his own Dawa Party, as head of the anti-corruption Integrity Commission, so unsurprisingly there has not been a single prosecution of a political insider from any Shia Islamist or Kurdish faction, or even from any Sunni Arab faction on good terms with Baghdad. Even if he wanted to work with parliament to pursue more reforms, as a consensus pick for prime minister who did not run at the head of a political bloc, Abadi has no electoral mandate or even a governing coalition in parliament. Other bloc leaders are actively blocking tangible reforms. Maliki and the militias backing him have actively attempted to undermine him by spreading false stories of military negligence. Former prime minister Iyad Allawi criticizes Abadi incessantly and has refused to support what reform measures he has produced. And Osama al-Nujaifi, head of the largest Sunni Arab bloc, has eschewed support for structural reforms and instead focused on Sunni communal demands and his own autonomous region agenda. Likewise, though Abadi acted unilaterally on his one serious structural measure (a public sector compensation bill), the mess he made of this left his reform effort dead last November.
Sadr, similarly, is not the outsider he is now portraying himself to be, as in two successive governments the Sadrists held several ministries. Nor does he represent the Iraqi people outside of his one, notable share of the Shia population. Though the seats won by his electoral list increased from 30 seats in 2005 to 40 in 2010, parliament had also increased in size, and Sadr’s share took from the competing Sadrist Fadhila Party. In 2014 Sadr’s candidates won 34 of 328 seats, edging out the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) 31 seats but well behind Maliki’s 95. Despite rhetoric about non-sectarianism, this list never won a seat in a Sunni-majority area. Thus Sadr is “revolting” against a corrupt, sectarian establishment of which he is an integral part.
Overestimating their own weight, the Sadrists tried to establish Muqtada as the “popular leader” he has always sought to become. During three chaotic sessions of parliament from April 12 to 14, they first demanded that Speaker Salim al-Jaburi present Abadi’s March 31 technocrat slate for a vote though it had no chance of passing. When Jaburi refused, Sadrists joined with MPs loyal to Maliki and Allawi in a sit-in of parliament itself aimed at removing Jaburi, Abadi’s main Sunni ally. In a farcical event, they “impeached” Jaburi on April 14 even though it was clear from video of the proceedings that only 131 MPs were present, short of the legal quorum of 165. The sit-in effort was doomed from the start because the three main components—the Sadrists, Maliki loyalists, and Allawi loyalists—were each in it for the mutually exclusive goal of making their own chief the country’s paramount political leader.
What followed was a second, more damaging Sadrist effort at pressure politics. When parliament again met on April 26, voting to replace five ministers with Abadi nominees, prominent Sadrist MP Hakim al-Zamili ominously stated during debate that protesters—in fact a Sadrist mob—were waiting outside to storm the Green Zone if the vote failed. Thus Abadi’s cabinet victory legitimized mob rule. When parliament refused to meet to remove the remainder of the cabinet on April 30, Sadr gave a speech in which he declared that he awaited “a popular revolution,” and at that his supporters broke into parliament. Despite a broad backlash across the political spectrum, Sadr remained undeterred, and on May 20, Friday protests led to cabinet administration offices being vandalized.
Abadi’s announcement of the operation to liberate Fallujah came two days later, allowing him to give speeches surrounded by military officers—and even tour forward bases wearing a military uniform—to try to create a “rally around the flag” effect. Yet the crisis of institutions remains, and only on June 7 was he again able to get a majority of ministers to attend cabinet meetings and indisputably establish legal quorum. Parliament, now in recess, has likewise made quorum only once since April 26, with Jaburi’s status as speaker presently under legal challenge. The Sadrists, meanwhile, retreated from the fore after the May 20 mob event led to fatalities among protesters, and the country’s population has rallied around the military effort in Fallujah, if not Abadi personally. It remains unclear whether Abadi can use the current breathing space to get political institutions back on track.
Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that the Islamic Dawa Party–Iraq Organization does not have a militia, though the Forces of Sadr the Martyr, a militia group, has publicly affiliated itself with this organization.
1. These included three deputy prime ministers.