Theatrics were on full display at the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies on January 9, 2022, where parliamentarians met for the first time since the October elections. Their task was to elect a new speaker and open the floor for nominations for the Iraqi presidency. Members of civil society groups, also known as the Tishreen Movement, made their way to the Chamber in rickshaws (tuk-tuks) — a three-wheel vehicle now synonymous with their October 2019 Revolution. Members of the Sadrist bloc, Sairoun, who had won 73 out of 329 seats, walked into the house wearing white shrouds, symbolizing their readiness for martyrdom. They were mimicking the attire of Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, father of their leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who was killed wearing similar shrouds as he was leaving a mosque in Najaf back in February 1999.
However, the drama did not stop there. According to tradition, the eldest MP should open parliament, but as Mahmoud al-Mashadani approached the podium he was interrupted by a group of Iran-backed Shiite MPs known as the Coordination Framework. Their bloc includes the Fateh Alliance of Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization, the State of Law Coalition of ex-premier Nouri al-Malki, and the Nasr Alliance of ex-premier Haider al-Abadi. The Fateh Alliance had suffered a stunning defeat in the October elections, where its bloc was slashed from 48 to 17 MPs. It includes Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), also known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which takes credit for liberating Iraq from ISIS. Al-Malki’s State of Law Coalition was far more successful, whipping up an impressive 33 seats. Combined, they claim to have 88 MPs, insisting that their joint bloc is bigger than that of Muqtada al-Sadr. Subsequently, they asked al-Mashadani to recognize them as the parliamentary majority. Their request was immediately rejected by the Sadrists, and when al-Mashadani refused to accept their claim, Coordination Framework MPs intimidated the 73-year-old interim speaker by crowding around him, forcing his evacuation to the hospital.
Setback for Iran?
The results of the October elections reflect how divided the Iraqi Shiite community has become. Western pundits have framed those results as a major defeat for Iran, which is untrue. For starters, that assumption means that winner of the biggest bloc, Muqtada al-Sadr, is neither an Iran opponent nor an ally. Al-Sadr has indeed tried to project himself as an independent, coming across as a nationalist leader rather than a sectarian warlord. In April 2017, he called on Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to step down, and three months later, landed in the port city of Jeddah for talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Both stunts achieved al-Sadr’s desired objective to rebrand himself, especially in the Western press, but many observers failed to see through his comments and actions.
In September 2019, al-Sadr showed up in Tehran to attend a Shiite religious ceremony, where he was received by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Al-Sadr kissed his hand and sat at his knees, something that no Iranian critic would do. Furthermore, last summer, he was the first Iraqi politician to send a cable to al-Assad, congratulating him on his re-election as president. Last November, al-Sadr announced that he was disbanding his infamous militia, the Promised Day Brigade, projecting himself as a responsible and selfless politician. The Promised Day Brigade is the formal successor of the Mehdi Army —a ruthless force of Shiite militiamen that accompanied al-Sadr’s rise to influence after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein and presided over his hanging in December 2006. Before executing Saddam, they chanted: “Muqtada…Muqtada.” It is those exact same militias that made al-Sadr the man he is today, and he realizes that, without them, he wouldn’t have won 73 seats in the current Chamber.
One has to take all that in mind when analyzing power dynamics in Iraq’s new Chamber. The Shiite blocs might be at daggers-end over the spoils of power, but none of them are anti-Iran, and should not be projected as such. A majority vote in the Iraqi Parliament requires 165 out of 329 MPs, which al-Sadr does not have, forcing him to cooperate with other blocs. He had the choice of either working with the Coordination Framework or with Sunni parties and the Kurds. He chose the latter, allying himself the all-Sunni Taqqadum Party of Parliament Speaker Mohammad Halbousi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Halbousi was subsequently re-elected speaker with 200 out of 329 seats.
The Rise of Hakim al-Zamili
This was the first time since 2003 that a deputy speaker serves two consecutive terms, thanks to al-Sadr. The Coordination Framework objected and stormed out of the Chamber, but the session did not lose its quorum and went onto its second task — electing the first and second speakers of parliament. In return for al-Sadr’s support, his right-hand man Hakim al-Zamili, was elected first deputy speaker of parliament and Shakhwan Abdullah of the KPD was elected second. It is not the first time that a Sadrist assumes this job which, since 2018, had been held by another Sadrist-appointee, Hasan al-Ka’abi.
Al-Zamili is an infamous name in Iraqi politics whose record proves that both he and his boss are radical hardliners, never to be mistaken for democrats and doves. Al-Sadr had appointed him Deputy Minister of Health back in May 2006, where he used ambulances to abduct Sunni opponents in Baghdad. In February 2007, al-Zamili was arrested on charges of providing arms to private Shiite militias and kidnapping his colleague Ammar al-Saffar, another deputy health minister from the rival Dawa Party. Al-Sadr intervened on his behalf and then-Prime Minister al-Malki released him from jail after clearing him of all charges. Last year, al-Zamili raised eyebrows in Iraq by saying: “If the premiership goes to any party other than the Sadrist movement, it means that the elections are rigged.”
The chamber’s next task will be to elect a new president — the fifth since Saddam Hussein — if the incumbent Barham Salih does not nominate himself for a second term. Floor nominations for the presidency are now open. Since 2003, the office of president has been exclusively reserved for an Iraqi Kurd (with the brief exception of Ghazi al-Yawer, who assumed the presidency in 2004-2005). However, the Kurdish president is largely a figurehead, with real power resting with the Shiite Prime Minister. He is chosen by two-thirds of the chamber and if no candidate gets it in the first round, a simple majority suffices in the second. Al-Sadr will likely endorse whomever the KDP nominates for the presidency, in exchange for them supporting his nominee for the premiership.
A more difficult task would be finding a replacement for Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi. Al-Sadr had played a crucial role in bringing him to the premiership back in May 2020, and would not mind his reappointment, given Kadhimi’s excellent relations with the United States. The Coordination Framework would never allow it, however, given Kadhimi’s adverse stance against the PMU and their affiliates in Kata’ib Hezbollah. Shortly after assuming office, Kadhimi raided their offices, confiscated their arms, and arrested one of their top commanders, making their disarmament a cornerstone of his domestic policy. The PMU are not hiding their desire to bring him down, describing him as ungrateful and treacherous. They are believed to be behind a failed assassination attempt on his life last November, when his home was attacked by explosive-laden drones, similar to the ones used by the PMU in their repeated attacks against US targets in Iraq.
A handful of nominations are currently making the rounds as potential candidates for the premiership, including ex-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was nominated by PMU. Another nominee is Mohammad al-Sudani, a former human rights minister who served under al-Malki’s tenure in 2010-2014 and had previously served as governor of the Maysan Province in southeastern Iraq. He and his family are life-long members of the Dawa Party, and he is a nominee of al-Malki’s State of Law Coalition. Third on the list is As’ad al-Eidani, the current governor of Basra, a banker-turned-politician who had fled to Iran during the Saddam era in the 1990s, returning after the 2003 US invasion as a member of the de-Baathification Committee and top official in the Iraqi National Congress. Both he and Sudani were previously nominated for the premiership in 2019.
Alternatively, an entirely new nominee could emerge in the upcoming weeks, should al-Sadr and his interlocutors fail to agree on any of the current candidates. Al-Sadr seems to be getting along well with the Sunnis and Kurds, supporting their nominees for parliament and the presidency, in exchange for their vote for his choice as premier. However, he will also have to strike a deal with fellow Shiites in order to come up with a win-win solution that pleases all components. No cabinet is possible without the Sadrists and Coordination Framework. They might have lost their ability to dictate state policy, but they still can destabilize any government if they are not properly represented or consulted on its formation.
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