A power struggle between two rival Shia political parties has stymied efforts to form an Iraqi government six months after parliamentary elections. The party with most seats, led by populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has broken with its erstwhile ally, the party in second place headed by militia leader Hadi al-Amiri.
The issue in dispute, the appointment of an interior minister, has stalled the parliamentary vote to approve 14 of 22 ministers.
Sadr seeks to block Amiri's candidate, arguing that no one with a political affiliation should be in the post, which is in charge of internal security. Both Amiri and his nominee are backed by Tehran, while Sadr is a nationalist who opposes foreign interference in Iraq.
Amiri's candidate is Falih al-Fayyadh, former chief of the national security apparatus and head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the mainly Shia coalition of militias that drove Islamic State (also known as Isis) from Mosul and other Sunni cities. Although pro-Iranian paramilitary factions had favoured Fayyadh for the premiership, Sadr and Amiri agreed in October on Adel Abdul Mahdi as a compromise premier to head a technocrat cabinet.
Sadr broke with Amiri when he insisted on Fayyadh with the aim of maintaining paramilitary grip on the interior portfolio. Sadr has urged Abdul Mahdi to present undisputed nominees to the assembly as soon as possible and threatened to order mass protests if there is further delay.
The failure to form a government has delayed reconstruction of the towns and cities liberated from Isis, the adoption of the 2019 budget and tackling unemployment grievances of Shias in the south.
Greta Berlin, a US citizen who spent five weeks in the south, told The Irish Times the situation was dire. Nothing grows due to pollution by heavy metals and pesticides, she said, the air is yellow and filled with greasy grit, water flows black from the taps and electricity is intermittent.
Last summer thousands in Basra demonstrated over the lack of electricity and potable water after hundreds were hospitalised with illness. As protests spread to the rest of the south, Basra residents attacked the Iranian consulate shouting, "Iran out!"
The split between Sadr (44) and Amiri (64) is not recent and is defined by loyalties. The son and grandson of revered Iraqi Shia clerics, Sadr – who grew up in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime – opposed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and raised a militia, the Mahdi army, to fight the occupation. Although he is loyal to Iraq and seeks its independence, many Iraqis are wary of Sadr, who lives in a heavily guarded compound in the Shia holy city of Najaf.
Battle against Isis
During exile in Tehran, Amiri joined the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and its military wing, the Badr corps, which was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and fought on Iran's side in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Along with other Shia opponents of Saddam Hussein, Amiri returned to Iraq after the US occupation. He took part in the battle against Isis as a commander of the Mobilisation Forces. Amiri is loyal to Iran.
Last December former premier Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over Isis, but it still operates freely in the north. This week, Isis fighters kidnapped and killed Sheikh Raghib Abid al-Hadi al-Badrani, the mayor of al-Amirini village, 20km south of Mosul. His tribe fought alongside the Iraqi army against Isis during the Mosul campaign. Villages are vulnerable because security forces are spread thin in the countryside. Isis carries out an average of 78 attacks a month.
Shia-Shia discontents in the south are matched by Sunni disaffection in the west and north due to neglect by the Shia-fundamentalist-dominated government in Baghdad.