Iraq’s victory over the extremist group known as the Islamic State at the end of 2018 led to a rare sense of unity in the country. Iraqis came together to celebrate their military, mourn their dead and – in many ways – reject the idea of the sectarianism that divides their communities. In some cases, they were even questioning the role of religion in the country.
Iraq’s political class also reacted to those sentiments, forming surprising, cross-sectarian alliances as well as unusual partnerships within established sectarian blocs. However making these last has been far from easy. Today, partnerships inside the Shiite Muslim political bloc are fraying and Sunni Muslim politicians continue look leaderless and in disarray.
Instead the opposite has happened. Outrage over the Israeli bombings has made Shiite Muslim extremists stronger. Policies of openness toward other nations and neutrality have been criticized as failures.
After the federal elections of 2018, some of Shiite Islam’s most important political movements joined forces in a rare display of unity. The Sadrist movement, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came together with the Wisdom block, led by another young cleric, Ammar al-Hakim. The alliance headed by the former prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, was the third partner. The tenets of the alliance were clear: International and regional neutrality in foreign policy, an efficient and effective government engaged in much-needed reconstruction, and a general resistance to outside interference.
Importantly, the new alliance was also supported by the country’s most senior Shiite Muslim religious authority, Ali al-Sistani.
However, more recently disagreements and divisions have started to emerge between these forces, as a result of both internal and external factors. This has led to a new round of alliances, this time formed according to political self-interest instead of positive nationalist sentiment.
Eleven months after the formation of a government led by a mostly-neutral prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the groups led by al-Hakim and al-Abadi have come to understand that by making way for a technocratic government and not fighting for every high-ranking ministry, they had actually opened the door to Sadrist domination of many senior jobs in government.
And al-Sadr had also gone his own way, choosing to change sides and enter into an alliance with the less neutral Fatah group, headed by politician Hadi al-Amiri, a senior member of the Shiite Muslim militias, who is closer to Iran.
As a result, al-Hakim’s Wisdom group has gone into opposition and recently announced that they were preparing to question as many ministers and senior officials as possible, to ask them why they were failing at their jobs.
Al-Abadi’s group, known as the Victory alliance, has similar concerns about the Sadrists but seems unlikely to join al-Hakim’s declared move into opposition.
On the other side of the Shiite aisle, the party led by another former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is also upset. Al-Maliki is also known to be closer to Iran but he feels that he has been abandoned by al-Ameri’s Fatah group and that the Fatah politicians have taken all the best jobs for themselves. So al-Maliki has been busy criticising the government too.
None of these internal conflicts have been helped by foreign policy issues on the horizon. The escalation of tensions between two of Iraq’s most important allies, Iran and the US, have weakened pro-Iraq parties, like al-Hakim’s and al-Abadi’s, and strengthened the hand of the pro-Iran parties, like al-Ameri’s.
This was particularly true after the revelation that Israel had attacked weapons depots belonging to pro-Iran militias inside Iraq. Local politicians, no matter whose side they were on, were quick to blame the US – the latter’s forces are de-facto in charge of Iraqi airspace and they were viewed with suspicion, as foreign aircraft would have a hard time flying over Iraq without their knowledge.
The moderate, pro-Iraqi Shiite Muslim alliance was waiting for international and regional support for its position and for its stated aim of bringing an end to the era when Iraq was just a theatre for conflicts between other nations. Instead the opposite has happened. Outrage over the Israeli bombings has made Shiite Muslim extremists stronger.
All of these issues have resulted in difficulty and embarrassment for the moderate Shiite Muslim politicians and alliances. More radical Shiite Muslim politicians have accused them of treason and of being agents for another country (read: the US or Israel). Policies of openness toward other nations and neutrality have been criticized as failures.
Further discontent was sewn last week when Iraqi TV channel, Al Hurra, broadcast a documentary that looked at corruption within the religious establishment in Iraq. There are two organizations connected to the Iraqi government that supervise the financial affairs of mosques on both side of the sectarian divide. Almost all Iraqis are well aware that these organizations – like most other national organizations – engage in dubious practices. But the problem for many was that the controversial TV show also criticized a non-governmental organization affiliated with al-Sistani, the extremely influential religious leader who is generally seen as untouchable. Al Hurra is well known as funded by the US government.
It proved another golden opportunity for pro-Iran forces in Iraq to attack the US government. Even more moderate Shiite Muslim political parties made statements opposed to the US-funded channel.
Similar difficulties are cropping up when it comes to relations between Iraq and Gulf Arab nations like Saudi Arabia. In the interests of neutrality and a new foreign policy, Iraq had been making diplomatic overtures towards the likes of Saudi Arabia. But the thrill of that new relationship also seems to have diminished now.