Al-Sadr secures key Shia support for early elections in Iraq

Influential Shia cleric aims to form ‘national government’ with radical reform agenda

Iraq’s powerful nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has divided Shia opponents by securing the support of two top Shia figures for early elections after competing blocs failed to form a government since October’s parliamentary election.

The defection of influential Shia militia commander Hadi al-Ameri and ex-prime minister Haidar al-Abadi of the pro-Iranian Co-ordination Framework has also undermined anti-Sadrist ex-premier Nouri al-Maliki, who rejects a new vote.

However, those demanding early elections do not agree on how a government would be formed. Mr Sadr insists on a majority “national government”, a coalition of parties with a radical reform agenda, while others want to continue with a consensus cabinet of leading factions.

In last year’s election, Sadrist candidates won 73 of the 329 assembly seats, the largest number, but were unable to form a “national government” as the Co-ordination Framework refused to provide the quorum needed to elect a president who would appoint a prime minister. In June, Mr Sadr’s deputies resigned and were replaced by candidates next on lists, the majority from Co-ordination Framework factions.


On July 31st, Sadrists retaliated by staging an indefinite occupation of the parliament building and grounds in the fortified green zone, where ministries and embassies are located. Counter demonstrations have not budged the Sadrists.

The Sadrists have stepped up popular pressure to achieve their leader’s objectives by storming squares and streets in oil-rich southern provinces to protest over the lack of electricity as the temperature soared to 50 degrees.

By calling for a “change in the current political system”, Mr Sadr has also courted the populist Tishreen (October 2019) movement, which demands an end to the ethno-sectarian model of governance imposed in 2003 by the US occupation regime. Under this system, Iraq’s president is always a Kurd, prime minister a Shia and and assembly speaker a Sunni.

This system is seen as being responsible for Iraq’s turbulence over mismanagement, graft and deteriorating infrastructure despite rising oil revenues.

Mr Sadr’s call has not only alarmed entrenched Iraqi politicians who have benefitted from the communal system but also regional powers Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which seek to maintain influence in Iraq via proxies. The US and Britain, which imposed the ailing power-sharing system, have not commented publicly. However, the UK-based Amwaj media quoted an unnamed British official as telling an Iraqi source: “We will stand in Sadr’s way should he consider moving forward with toppling the [political] system or threaten it.”

Separately, the US embassy in Baghdad has protested against crackdown on press freedom and demonstrations against delayed payment of civil servant’s salaries in the Iraqi Kurdish region. German and British consulates in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, urged all sides to “avoid escalation”.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times