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Why Iraq could be approaching another civil war, explained by an expert

This isn’t the first time Muqtada al-Sadr has said he’s leaving politics. Here’s what it means for Iraq.

A supporter of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr waves the Iraqi flag in Baghdad on August 29 as dozens of angry supporters of the powerful cleric stormed the Republican Palace, a ceremonial building in the fortified Green Zone, shortly after Sadr said he was quitting politics.
Ahmad Al-rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

This week, Iraq’s capital city has been caught in lethal violence between political factions.

On Monday, influential leader Muqtada al-Sadr resigned from political life, and in response, his supporters stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. Armed militias dispersed protesters, and in the ensuing conflict, more than 34 people were killed in Baghdad and other cities.

This is the closest that Iraq has come to civil war in recent years, says Marsin Alshamary, an Iraqi American political scientist who is a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The ongoing conflict that has paralyzed the country is grounded in complex domestic politics — Sadr himself has long been a powerful figure in Iraqi politics. Its most recent roots, though, start about a year ago in a parliamentary election where Sadr’s movement won the most seats. In the ensuing months, Sadr was unable to secure a majority coalition to his liking, and in July, he urged the parliamentarians from his bloc to resign. But Iraqi politics quickly moved on, and as other parties jostled to form a new government, Sadr’s loyalists held protests outside of government buildings, at one point even occupying the parliament. Meanwhile, religious politics came into play as a prominent cleric in Iran urged his Iraqi followers to break with Sadr.

“For the average Iraqi who was living through that night of terror [Monday], it really felt like going back to the war, in which there was the constant sound of gunfire throughout the night,” Alshamary told me. “We didn’t know whether we would wake up to a civil war in the country.”

To understand why the resignation of a man who has resigned from politics several times before led to street violence, why elite politics in Iraq are so volatile right now, and why many Americans are misunderstanding both (hint: They’re overplaying Iran’s role in the crisis), I spoke with Alshamary, who had just returned from Iraq where she is based. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What happened Monday in Iraq, and why is it so important in terms of political dynamics there?

To really explain this, I’ll have to go back to October 2021. Iraq had an early election, which came because of a protest movement that demanded a change in the electoral law and an early election — because everyday Iraqis were getting fed up with the state. So we had these early elections, a new electoral law, which had a lot more districts than the previous law. It really changed the way in which people campaigned and the way in which parties form themselves.

After that election, the emerging winners were the Sadrist movement. They had 73 seats.

The Sadrist movement’s leader is Muqtada al-Sadr, who everyone knows as the man who ran the insurgency in 2003-4 against the US occupation of Iraq. He is a cleric, a social-movement leader, and a politician. And when his party won that many seats, he decided that he wanted to create a government of majority rather than a government of consensus. Iraq has been built around governments of consensus because of the large number of different ethnic and religious groups that produce parties.

In a consensus government, power is shared among different groups, and they agree on certain candidates for various important positions in the government. But Muqtada al-Sadr wanted to change that. He wanted to [form his own majority] in coordination with allies from the Kurdish Democratic Party, the largest Kurdish political party in Iraq, and with some of the Sunni political parties [effectively pushing the other parties out of government positions and into the opposition].

Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr makes a speech in Najaf, Iraq, on August 30, calling on his supporters to withdraw from the government quarter in Baghdad.
Anmar Khalil/AP

He failed to do so for many reasons, because his longtime rivals, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the other Shia political parties, opposed many of his attempts to do so. And there was a lot of contention. It took nine months, until we reached a point, in July 2022, in which Muqtada al-Sadr was so fed up with a lack of ability to form this government of majority that he threatened to actually withdraw his parliamentarians and have them resign.

And this has never happened before in Iraqi politics.

No one believed that he’d go through with this, by the way. No one. And then he actually does it.

Rather than everyone running to him and saying, “We’ll bring you back in, how can we have a dialogue about this?” what the parties end up doing is proceeding normally. They bring in the second winners of each of the districts, and then you have an entire new set of 73 parliamentarians. It boosts the numbers of his rivals. So they become really the force that is forming the government. And they proceed to nominate someone for the premiership. All of this really angers Muqtada al-Sadr.

In early August, he sends out his followers to storm the Green Zone, the heavily fortified zone where there’s the US Embassy, other embassies, and key Iraqi government offices, as well as palaces and the presidential palace. It’s peaceful, but everyone is worried that it will turn to violence. The protesters demand a new election. They say that the entire system is corrupt, that Iraq needs to change its entire political system. And everyone is worried that a civil war will erupt overnight because Muqtada al-Sadr’s rivals — known as the Coordination Framework — have paramilitary groups, and Sadr himself has a paramilitary group. And there is a deep concern in Baghdad that we are facing a civil war.

However, that doesn’t immediately happen. There are various calls for dialogue from people within the Iraqi government as well as Sadr’s rivals. He refuses all dialogue, and this is really the state that Iraq remains in — paralyzed for a few weeks until a few days ago, when we wake up to news that Muqtada Al-Sadr has left politics.

He resigned in a tweet on Monday. Does that mean he’s left politics?

Excellent question, because really, he doesn’t make it clear. Muqtada al-Sadr has “left politics” several times before. Usually it’s before elections, because he’s trying to get concessions. We’re not sure what it means this time, because his members of parliament have already resigned. So what more does it mean? That he’s going to withdraw bureaucrats and high-level officials within the government institutions and tell them that they’re no longer participating in the government in any way? Does it mean that he will not make any political statements going forward? He doesn’t clarify.

After Muqtada’s statement on Twitter on Monday about how he’s quitting politics, all hell breaks loose in Baghdad and in the south.

The clashes between the protesters and paramilitary groups grew increasingly violent. We see the kinds of weapons that you would see on a battlefield being brought out. There’s a curfew imposed in Baghdad. The conflict extends beyond the Green Zone, it moves to neighborhoods in Baghdad, particularly ones where the Sadrists are, and we hear news of conflict in cities like Basra, which is the southernmost city in Iraq, Nazriya, and Diwaniya, other important cities in southern Iraq.

For the average Iraqi who was living through that night of terror, it really felt like going back to the war, in which there was the constant sound of gunfire throughout the night. We didn’t know whether we would wake up to a civil war in the country. Most analysts thought that this was going to be a long confrontation between Sadr’s militia — Saraya al-Salam, or the Peace Brigades — and other militias, other Shia militias in Iraq.

Armed members of Saraya al-Salam, the military wing affiliated with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, take aim during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Baghdad’s Green Zone on August 30.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

But the next day, a little past noon Baghdad time, Muqtada al-Sadr holds a press conference. In this press conference, he looks chastised, he’s apologetic, he apologizes to the Iraqi public for the violence, for what they had to go through that night. He chastises his followers, saying that their movement isn’t violent, that they shouldn’t drag Iraq into corruption and violence, like Iraq is already corrupt, we don’t need more problems. He even reaches a point where he says both those who were killed and the killers are all in hell, which is a very, very strong condemnation of his own followers.

He also gives his followers an hour to leave the Green Zone and to stop all violence. And the effect is instantaneous, by the way. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he told them to go because we knew they would follow him.

That’s quite a turnaround. What triggered all of this?

Can I get in the weeds of Shia political authority for a bit? Muqtada al-Sadr, although he wears a turban and looks very much like a cleric, doesn’t have the clerical authority to become a spiritual guide for Shia.

Shia Muslims have to find a particular high-ranking cleric who is able to direct them in personal matters, social matters, and sometimes even political matters. In order to become that person, though, you have to go through a lot of training and reach this level, where you become an ayatollah essentially. Muqtada’s father, who formed the base of the Sadrist movement that we see today, he was both an ayatollah and a social-movement leader.

Muqtada inherited this movement but couldn’t fill in that void of being a spiritual guide. The person who stepped in was someone named Kadhim al-Haeri, who was a student of his uncle’s and who became the spiritual guide for Muqtada and the movement. Him and Muqtada have had an on-and-off relationship; there were points of disagreement. But prior to Muqtada’s tweet, and what really prompts the tweet, is that last week Haeri releases a statement — keep in mind, he lives in Iran right now — and in the statement, there’s two things that are important.

First, he makes the unprecedented move of abandoning his office and saying he no longer wants to be a spiritual guide for anyone, and that if any of his followers are looking for where to go next, they should go to Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. This is unprecedented in the Shia religious establishment; no one gives up their position as a spiritual guide and tells someone to go elsewhere. And it’s very strange why it’s Khamenei who he picks to be the next spiritual guide. This is the first blow in the statement for Muqtada al-Sadr, who built his entire movement around being an Iraqi nationalist and anti-Iranian, to be told that he and his followers should turn to Khamenei.

The second big blow is Haeri criticizes Muqtada in the statement. He says that he is not a true inheritor of the legacy of the Sadr family, this illustrious family of clerics who has been involved in Iraq for decades. He also says that Muqtada al-Sadr is creating this strife and chaos and a lot of tension among the Shia. He never says [Sadr’s] name, by the way, but it’s very clear who he’s talking about.

And this letter must be a slap in the face to Muqtada al-Sadr, to be so criticized by someone so close to your father, that the next day we see this response. So that’s the trigger point.

A supporter of Muqtada al-Sadr carries items past a banner featuring Sadr as as they dismantle their encampment in Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone on August 30.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

Many observers in Washington frame all of this around Iran. And obviously, we’re talking about a very influential cleric who is based in Iran, but you’re saying a lot of this has much more to do with Iraqi domestic politics and the complexities of a parliamentary system in a post-civil war country than with outside powers?

I think the simplicity around the Iran rhetoric is that everyone looks at this conflict as though Sadr was this anti-Iranian hero, and the Coordination Framework are the pro-Iranian villains — when in reality, everyone in the story is a villain. Everyone’s relationship with Iran is very complicated. The relationship that’s often portrayed to exist between Iraq and Iran is very much simplified.

To take Muqtada al-Sadr as an example: In many of my meetings and conversations with the Western diplomats, I’m astounded by the degree to which they want to believe that Muqtada al-Sadr will be an anti-Iranian force in Iraq, completely forgetting his violent history against Iraqis, against Americans, and how at the time, he was supported by Iran in those endeavors. Now, I expect them to look away as Iran seems responsible for manipulating Sadr to end the violence. I think they are misunderstanding Sadr’s intentions in being anti-Iranian. He is just trying to capitalize on popular sentiments in Iraq that are anti-Iranian.

There’s also a simplistic narrative around the Coordination Framework that they’re all pro-Iranian militias, when in fact, in the Coordination Framework, you have someone like Haider al-Abadi, the former prime minister during the ISIS war who was close allies with Washington, as well as Ammar al-Hakim, who was a cleric and a politician with ties to the West. So not everyone in the Coordination Framework is a staunch pro-Iranian politician, and Muqtada al-Sadr isn’t reliably anti-Iranian either.

Regardless of all that, what I find really mystifying is the willingness to allow Iraq to burn just so that Iran would lose a little bit of influence, when there is another opportunity to build on the civil society in Iraq, on the protest movement in Iraq that produced new members of Parliament and that produced independent MPs, and to actually support them because they represent the Iraqi street. Actually, they’re anti-Iranian too, but they don’t do it in a way that invites violence and confrontation, but they do it in a way that places Iraq’s interest front and center.

As a political scientist, what do you see as different scenarios out of this political deadlock that’s paralyzing the country?

Right now, everyone is talking about a new election, a snap election, to set the slate clean and to move forward. It’s important that whatever the next step is, it does not antagonize Muqtada al-Sadr, because even though he looks defeated, he demonstrated that he does have the power to incite a civil war in the country. You never want to humiliate an already defeated person with street power — and this is a lesson that I hope the Coordination Framework learns as they move forward.

In the long term of the country, one thing that really worries me is that Iraq has had a tough time selling democracy to its people, for obvious reasons — mainly, the poor performance of the government over the last 20 years has made people feel very wary of democratization. The feeling that Iraqis have that you can’t have both stability and democracy is something that keeps increasing the more violence they have to live through.

A Muqtada al-Sadr supporter carries the Iraqi flag as he walks down a road blocked by burning tires during a demonstration in Iraq’s southern city of Basra on August 29.
Hussein Faleh/AFP via Getty Images

My concern is that if we have another election, no one will be compelled to go out and vote because they won’t believe that these elections really produce results. Because they fought so hard for an early election [in 2021], Iraq lost so much in that protest movement to get a change in electoral law, and it seems like one disgruntled political elite [Muqtada al-Sadr] and basically a tantrum he threw is enough to get Iraq to do that all over again. Keep in mind that elections take about a year to be planned and executed, and the government formation always takes months after. Iraqis continue to live in this limbo, where nothing is ever done and the government is incapacitated and their life doesn’t seem to move on, but the shadow of violence always hangs over their heads.

In spite of all of this, I was surprised that you’re somewhat optimistic about Iraq.

My optimism in Iraq’s future held up until recent days, if I have to be completely honest. The reason I’m optimistic is because when you’re invested in the country personally you can’t do anything but try to be optimistic and work with whatever resources you have left.

But a lot of my optimism prior to this comes from the fact that I’m a political scientist. So I know, for example, that the average civil war lasts 10 years, and the Iraqi civil war was wrapped up pretty quickly. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t bloody or that it wasn’t costly and it didn’t hurt to watch. But the fact that it didn’t linger on for a decade made me feel like we can move on past sectarianism. And actually, the rhetoric on the street has become very anti-sectarianism, so there was that development.

As a political scientist, I also know that the process of democratization is a very long process. It’s always, you know, one step forward, four steps back. So I held on to these bits of optimism, up until the last few days.

The events of the last few days made me feel that we can move on, have elections, form a government, but the costs that we’re paying is that the Iraqi public is less and less interested in voting, less and less trustful in institutions, and doesn’t see that the power that they have is able to give them the government that they want. And that’s understandable — we were on the verge of a civil war. So I don’t blame the average Iraqi if they look at the next election and say there’s absolutely no point at all in voting.