The decision by Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to have his supporters seize and then vacate parliament in Baghdad appeared to be the act of a man who—at least for now—wants to control rather than destroy the country’s political system, The Wall Street Journal reports:
But the breach is putting intense strain on the fragile democracy established in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Obama administration officials are concerned the situation could deteriorate just as the U.S. prepares for a critical military offensive to take Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, back from Islamic State.
“If Moqtada al-Sadr had wanted to bring down the system, he would not have ordered his supporters to leave the Green Zone. He had the opportunity to press for a full-on coup in recent days, and he did not pursue it,” said Nussaibah Younis, an Iraq expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “This is not about Sadrists taking control of Iraq by force. This is about him seizing on a very real and widespread dissatisfaction with Iraqi politicians.”
The best outcome is a negotiated compromise, backed by Sadr, which can restore order in Baghdad under a reform-minded coalition government, argues Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2005-2007. The new coalition government could announce a reasonable timeline for reform and even new legislative elections, he writes for POLITICO:
This is an outcome that Ayatollah Sistani, the United States, and perhaps Iran, could support. Despite much speculation that Tehran relishes instability in Iraq—if only because it hardens America—there is as much reason to think that Iran has concluded that the alternatives to a negotiated deal would be negative for its interests. A government takeover by Sadr would severely weaken Iran’s closer allies in Iraq while a takeover by the military would increase Shiite infighting.
Such a deal would strengthen Sadr’s position without handing him a total victory. Abadi might survive as prime minister, providing a sense of both continuity and reform. A new coalition government might also preclude the separation of the Kurdish region from Iraq.
“Abadi may lack the patronage-based popular traction that some politicians have secured and may not have succeeded in meeting the expectations of the momentous assertion of the Iraqi civil movement that broke the factional dominance last year,” notes Middle East Institute analyst Hassan Mneimneh (left):
Yet, Abadi has proven to be a determined executive in his drive to salvage the Iraqi political system through reform measures aimed at dismantling kleptocracy. His primary approach is the streamlining of a bloated government that has expanded manifold over the years in the service not of the public, but of politicians. He thus faces massive opposition from entrenched interests. Some of the ‘support’ that he has been receiving has also been questionable. The populist Sadrist movement has succeeded in sidelining much of the broad-based civil demands for reform, effectively hijacking the ‘street’ side of the anti-corruption movement.
“Abadi needs the support of Iraqi civil society in order to keep his efforts focused on reform and to avoid their inevitable derailing were they to be equated with Sadrist demands,” he suggests.
Al-Sadr was able to “demonstrate that you can’t ignore him and he can pierce the corridors of power, literally,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an expert on the cleric. “His objective would be to increase his own clout as a political kingmaker.”
The optics of protesters streaming into the Green Zone so soon after the vice president left was the result of “unfortunate timing,” said llan Goldenberg, a former State Department official now with the Center for a New American Security.
“It is unfair to put this on the vice president or to even argue that he’s misread the situation,” he said. “The protests that went on over the weekend were part of a trend that has been going on for months and were targeted both at Abadi and his opponents,” he told POLITICO:
However, Randa Slim, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, said the turn of events also suggested the U.S. isn’t too plugged in to the mercurial al-Sadr’s operation, even though there were signs the cleric was planning to escalate his actions. Regardless of what the administration knew and when, it “does not look good,” she said.
If the political turmoil continues in Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State could suffer. As a result, the U.S., which has thousands of forces advising and training Iraq troops now, may have to alter its strategy, at least for a while.
“The one impact I see in the short-term is to force the U.S. government to take more of a lead role, relying less and less on Baghdad to make the key decisions,” Slim said.
Two factors are necessary to broker a compromise agreement, writes Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
One is the endorsement of Sistani. Iranian policy goals are unclear given the involvement of various institutions such as the Quds force, but Sistani’s stance carries a great deal of weight with the Iranian leadership.
The second is, once again, dialogue and cooperation between the United States and Iran. Both Washington and Tehran should be interested in an immediate resolution to the political crisis in Baghdad and they will have to work in parallel for a quick compromise between the political parties and the prime minister. U.S.-Iranian cooperation would be furthered by a proactive American effort to consult Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who otherwise might be tempted to exacerbate the crisis in Iraq in an attempt to weaken Shiite power in the region.
It remains to be seen whether Ayatollah Sistani, the United States and Tehran can coordinate with each other and engage Iraqi leaders. But it is imperative to try, he concludes.