How Inter-Shia Conflicts Threaten Iraqi Security

Iraq this week saw its worst political violence since 2019, with clashes between Shiite groups raising fears of a wider internal conflict. Street fighting in Baghdad has killed at least 30 people after supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad where government offices and embassies are located foreign.

Members of Saraya al-Salam, a group linked to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, clash with security forces in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

What’s going on? “The struggle for mastery of chiastan has come to blows,” says Joel Rayburn, a former US Army intelligence officer who served as US special envoy to Syria from 2018 to 2021. Shiites are the largest sectarian group in Iraq, but they are divided between competing factions. Whoever controls the Shiite majority controls a nation of enormous strategic and economic importance: Iraq is not only one of the world’s top oil producers, but also a country that could either help or hinder the ambitions regional dominance of Iran.

What is driving the troubles?

More from our experts

The current confrontation began in October 2021, when elections were held for Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives. Sadr’s party emerged as the clear winner, with 73 seats out of 329. It then formed a coalition with the larger Sunni and Kurdish Arab parties, which together controlled the majority of the seats, to try to form a government.

Safer:

Middle East and North Africa

Iraq

Iran

United States

Politics and government

But Sadr, a nationalist who has said he opposes both American and Iranian influence in Iraq, has been blocked by a coalition of Iran-backed Shiite parties whose leaders include former Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki and Qais al-Khazali, leader of the powerful Asa ‘ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). Iraq’s Supreme Court has interpreted an ambiguous article of the constitution to rule that forming the government requires the support of two-thirds of parliament, which Sadr and his allies have been unable to muster.

On June 12, Sadr took the drastic step of asking his seventy-three deputies to resign in protest. He apparently expected the other Shiite parties to urge them to return. Instead, the Iranian-backed parties filled the Sadrist seats with their own representatives and proceeded to appoint a prime minister from their bloc.

Sadr followed that up with two dramatic moves this week: he announced he was quitting politics and sent his supporters to storm the Green Zone. No one in Iraq really believes that Sadr is done with politics because he has done so well to flex his muscles leading a grassroots movement representing poor Shia. Tens of thousands of his supporters took to the streets not only in Baghdad but also throughout the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, where they set fire to offices belonging to his rivals. The bloodshed in Baghdad was due to fighting between Sadrists and Iranian-backed militia fighters who are part of the Iraqi security forces. On Tuesday, Sadr ordered his militants out of the Green Zone and they did, once again demonstrating the control he wields over his supporters.

More from our experts

How did the United States and Iran play a role in the tensions?

The two Shiite factions – one resistant to Iranian influence, the other subservient – ​​are the most powerful players in Iraqi politics. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is a Western-backed moderate Shia who has overseen an interim government since the previous prime minister resigned following massive protests in 2020. But Kadhimi is seen as a largely powerless figurehead . The general feeling among Iraqi officials and foreign diplomats in Baghdad is that Washington and Tehran exercise veto power over the Iraqi government and that whoever leads the country needs the support of the United States and Iran – a challenge from size given the long enmity between the two countries.

The fact that Washington and Tehran continue to negotiate over whether Iran will join the nuclear deal from which US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018 adds to the complexity.

Safer:

Middle East and North Africa

Iraq

Iran

United States

Politics and government

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias are launching attacks on US forces in Syria in an attempt to force them out of that country, and President Joe Biden has responded with airstrikes on Iranian militia targets in Syria. Biden has not bombed Iran-linked fighters in Iraq, even though there is evidence that at least one drone that attacked a US base in Syria took off from central Iraq, as his administration fears to further destabilize an already unstable country. About 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq and another 900 in Syria, but they are marginal players in both countries.

How should the United States react?

For the Biden administration, the situation in Iraq is an unwelcome distraction at a time when senior politicians are focused on broader priorities – especially Russia and China – and have little attention to pay to a country that is has always been torn by bigotry and corruption. since the American invasion in 2003.

Washington’s best bet would be to use its influence to build political support for Sadr – which would represent a significant turnaround from when US troops fought the Sadrists in the Iraq War – and exert additional pressure on Iranian-backed figures such as Maliki, who was already threatened with US sanctions in the final days of the Trump administration.

Ultimately, Washington cannot determine the fate of Iraq. The best he can hope for is to try to prevent the worst possible outcome, either the consolidation of Iranian power or the outbreak of another civil war. Having long since given up hope of making Iraq a showcase for democracy, the United States has no choice but to try to limit the chaos.