Iraq’s ruling Shiite parties are already thinking about the day after the war with the Islamic State. They are positioning themselves for future political battles, which are breaking down old alliances and playing upon existing rivalries. There are growing signs of these divisions, and worries that they could turn violent. That happened in June when Sadrist protesters began attacking offices of rival parties raising tensions almost to the breaking point.
One sign that tempers were running high occurred when Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers stormed the Green Zone of the first time. On May 20, 2016 protesters went into the government section of Baghdad. In turn some Hashd groups put their men on the streets of the capital causing fears that their might be armed confrontations, but that didn’t happen. Sadr was attempting to establish himself as the new king maker in Iraq with this action. He wanted Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to become dependent upon him to push through his reform program, while also intimidating the other ruling parties of the consequences, public protests right in the seat of power, if they didn’t go along. Things only escalated from there.
In June, Sadrists upped the ante attacking rival parties’ offices in southern Iraq. On June 9, Dawa’s office in Najaf was sacked and burned. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) ended up shooting into the crowd to disperse them wounding three. The next day protesters broke into and shut down Dawa, Supreme Council, Reform Movement, and Badr offices in Basra city, Amarah in Maysan, Kut in Wasit, Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar, Najaf city, Karbala City, and Samawa in Muthanna. At first, a member of Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in parliament denied the movement was responsible, but that was quickly contradicted by Sadr himself who told his followers to stop, and said that anyone that used violence should be punished. Sadr had gone from taking over the government in Baghdad to challenging the other ruling parties. The Green Zone takeover was already verging on mob rule, but Sadr’s move in southern Iraq was exactly that as offices were ransacked as a political threat to his rivals. It also showed the changing political landscape amongst the Shiite parties. Sadr had long running disputes with Badr and Maliki’s faction of Dawa, but had given his nominal support to Abadi’s part of the latter. Now the Sadrists were taking on the Supreme Council and Reform Movement as well, which it had good relations with before and even an alliance with the former.
The response by the other Shiite parties verged on stern warnings to the threat of violence. The National Alliance, which is made up of the Sadrists, the Supreme Council, Fadhila, and the Reform Movement held a meeting at the home of Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and came out condemning Sadr’s actions. Premier Abadi warned demonstrators to stay away from the offices of his Dawa party. Nouri al-Maliki compared the mobs to the Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam, while Badr’s Hadi Ameri claimed they were like the Islamic State and Baathists. Ameri and a Dawa parliamentarian went on to say that Badr and Dawa had the right to self-defense if any more of its offices were attacked. Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, who are aligned with Maliki also gave a warning to Sadr. It seemed like the Shiite parties were on the brink of armed conflict. Taking the Green Zone was one thing, but assaulting their offices was something they wouldn’t stand for. If there had been another day of demonstrations things could have quickly got out of hand.
Sadr played his hand, but warned that more could come. On June 11, Sadr said his followers would hold off on any more demonstrations until after Ramadan. At the same time he threatened a million man march in Baghdad afterward. That could very well go to the Green Zone once again. The second time the Sadrists took over that area the ISF ended up killing four people. There could be another such deadly incident if Sadr followed through with his announcement. The Shiite parties and Hashd elements could decide to get involved as well leading to an even bigger crisis.
Sadr is walking a dangerous line. He is using his popular movement to push the Shiite elite to follow his lead or suffer the consequences of an angry mob. That threat has escalated from the Green Zone to attacking the parties in their base in the south. The problem is Sadr’s strategy has no chance of succeeding. Parliament is so divided right now that it can barely hold sessions. Neither Abadi nor the other lists will give into Sadr, and his protests are only adding to the political crisis. Sadr’s threats could quickly spiral out of control, and other parties have already warned that they will use force against the Sadrists. This is the war for power that many are afraid will break out after the war with the Islamic State is over. It may even start before the insurgents are defeated.
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