Iraq continues to grapple with political crisis, street protests

Populist Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for a mass protest in Baghdad and for sit-ins near the fortified Green Zone.
Sunday 02/02/2020
A file photo of Iraqi President Barham Salih. (DPA)
Amid crisis. A file photo of Iraqi President Barham Salih. (DPA)

LONDON - Iraq continued to grapple with its protracted political crisis amid street protests as demonstrators sought the removal of the ruling elite, which they perceived as corrupt, and an end to foreign interference in Iraqi politics, especially by Iran.

At least 500 people have been killed in the unrest that began in October, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people.

Leading Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the use of force by security forces in their crackdown against demonstrators and renewed calls for early elections.

“It is imperative to hurry and have an early election for the people to have their say and for the next parliament to be formed from their free will, to take the necessary steps towards reform,” he said January 31.

Sistani said the next parliament would be able “to take decisive measures that will determine the future of the country, especially regarding the preservation of its sovereignty and the independence of its political decisions.”

Populist Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for a mass protest in Baghdad and for sit-ins near the fortified Green Zone to protest the delayed formation of a government, without specifying when the demonstrations should take place.

“I find that it is beneficial to renew the peaceful reformist revolution,” al-Sadr said in a statement.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, on January 30, threatened to unilaterally name a new prime minister if parliament did not nominate a candidate within three days.

“I call on you, as parliamentary blocs concerned with the nomination of the prime minister, to resume constructive and serious political dialogue in order to agree on a new candidate,” he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned in December after months of anti-government protests, although he has continued in a caretaker role until a replacement is determined.

Reports stated that two figures emerged as prime ministerial candidates: the Iraqi National Intelligence Service Director Mustafa al-Kadhimi and former Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi.

Allawi reportedly had the backing of the Sairoon parliamentary bloc led by al-Sadr, the rival Fatah coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. While Kadhimi was reportedly securing backing after media reports suggested that Salih would nominate him if parliament missed his deadline.

Following Salih’s announcement, protesters took to the streets in Baghdad to reject Allawi, viewed as being too close to Iran, something that has given many in the country concern amid growing tensions over Tehran’s role in Iraq.

Iraq’s constitution grants the largest parliamentary bloc the right to name a prime minister but the legislature is divided over whether this means the largest parliamentary coalition or the winning list in the 2018 elections.

The political manoeuvring in Iraq came against the backdrop of the resumption of joint military operations between US troops and Iraqi forces against the Islamic State. There had been a nearly 3-week pause that saw tensions between Washington and Tehran increase following the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and an Iranian retaliation, which involved missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing US troops.

Protests in Iraq erupted over the United States’ killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil, with parliament issuing a non-binding resolution calling on US troops to withdraw from the country. Anti-US sentiment appears to have since subsided as Iraq grapples with its political crisis.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper revealed January 30 that Washington was seeking to gain Baghdad’s permission to install Patriot missile defence systems to protect US troops against future missile attacks.