No way out as Iraq’s dangerous post-election stalemate deepens

BAGHDAD (AP) — Eight months after national elections, Iraq still has no government and there does not appear to be a clear way out of the dangerous stalemate.

Political elites are embroiled in a fierce competition for power even as the country faces growing challenges, including a looming food crisis resulting from severe drought and war in Ukraine.

For ordinary Iraqis, everything is delayed. The caretaker government is unable to make crucial electricity payments or develop plans for much-needed investments before the critical summer months. Investments to upgrade water infrastructure have been halted as unemployment, water shortages and food security concerns spark public anger.

The election came months ahead of schedule, in response to mass protests that erupted in late 2019 and saw tens of thousands rally against rampant corruption, poor services and unemployment.

The vote brought victory to powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and was a blow to his Iran-backed Shia rivals, who lost around two-thirds of their seats and rejected the results.

Personal vendettas spanning decades underpin the Shiite rivalry, pitting al-Sadr and his Kurdish and Sunni allies on one side against the Coordination Framework, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shiite parties, and their each other’s allies. In the middle are the Independents, themselves divided amid attempts by rival factions to lure them to either side.

“It’s not about power; it’s a matter of survival,” said Sajad Jiyad, a Century Foundation fellow based in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraqi public anger grows as food prices soar and power cuts worsen.

Acting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was forced out of a famous poet’s funeral in Baghdad last month after mourners began chanting anti-government slogans and bombing convoys of other government officials .

“Political obstruction impacts the work of the government and the state, and lowers the morale of citizens,” al-Kadhimi told reporters on Tuesday, blaming the stalemate for hampering his reform plans.

UN envoy for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert last month warned Iraqi political leaders that “the streets are about to overflow” and said national interests “take a back seat to short-sighted considerations of resource control”.

Al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in the election, was unable to muster enough lawmakers in parliament to secure the two-thirds majority needed to elect Iraq’s next president – a necessary step before appoint the next Prime Minister and select a box.

Al-Sadr’s three-party alliance includes Taqadum, a Sunni party led by Mohammed Halbousi, elected speaker of parliament in January, and the Kurdish Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani. The bloc intends to form a majority government, which would be a first since a consensus-based power-sharing system was introduced after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple dictator Saddam Hussein .

The government would exclude Iran-backed Shia rivals from the coordination framework, which includes former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s rule of law and the Kurdistan Patriotic Kurdish Union party.

Al-Sadr and al-Maliki, longtime bitter political adversaries, have amassed loyalists in all ministries to advance their political agendas and fear that if they are in power, the other will use government resources. state – including the judiciary and anti-corruption committees – to purge rival institutions.

In addition, al-Sadr and Qais al-Khazali, whose powerful Iran-backed militia is part of the Framework alliance, are engaged in a deadly feud, with assassination campaigns targeting members of their militias across the country. the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.

Paradoxically, the current stalemate is partly a consequence of parties moving away from sectarian-oriented groups. In the past, Shia alliances formed a united front to negotiate with Sunni and Kurdish blocs. But this time, the alliances crossed sectarian lines, stoking tensions within each sect.

Without a deal, many fear violent protests by al-Sadr’s broad supporters and potential clashes with Iran-backed militias.

In a May 16 speech, a visibly frustrated al-Sadr pledged never to strike a deal with his rivals. He also hinted at the capabilities of his own militia, Saraya Salam, which recently opened the doors to recruits in Babylon and Diyala provinces.

In a sign of hardening stances, al-Sadr again vowed on Thursday not to back down and called on lawmakers in his bloc to prepare their resignations, although he refrained from asking them to step down.

Al-Sadr was also angered by a recent Iraqi Supreme Court ruling barring the caretaker government from drafting and passing laws. This effectively canceled an emergency food bill needed by the caretaker government to use public funds to pay for food and buy energy from Iran in the absence of a budget.

Al-Sadr, who had pushed the bill, saw the court’s decision as a leaning move towards the framework. However, in a small victory for al-Sadr, parliament convened late Wednesday and passed the food security bill.

Iraqi militia leaders speak privately about concerns the standoff could trigger street protests by al-Sadr supporters and escalate into violence between them and rival armed Shiite militias.

Iraq has in the past seen protracted political wrangling between rival groups over the choice of a new president and prime minister, although the current stalemate in electing a president is the longest in this day.

This time, Iran has been unable to mend divisions between Shia rivals – a role that fell to Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in January 2020. At least three trips to Iraq by successor Soleimani to mediate among the Shiites failed to produce a breakthrough.

Recently, Tehran cut off 5 million cubic meters of gas exports to Baghdad, citing non-payment issues. Iraqi Electricity Minister Adel Karim told The Associated Press last month that he had no idea how Iraq would pay the nearly $1.7 billion in arrears before the hot summer months.

Meanwhile, the independents – parties emerging from the 2019 protest movement that ran under the so-called Imtidad list and won nine seats in the 329-seat legislature – appear to have lost their way. They had vowed to become a formidable opposition force to represent protesters’ demands in parliament.

The leader of the movement, Alaa Rikabi, recently froze his post after members resigned following his vote in favor of electing Halbousi as speaker of parliament. Protesters view Halbousi as an accomplice in the killings of activists during the protests.

An Imtidad spokesman, Rasoul Al-Saray, said the two Shiite blocs want to use independents “to cover up their failure to form a government”.

Some independents said they were threatened and feared for their lives; one said he was offered tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to side with the anti-Sadrist group. The Independents spoke anonymously, fearing for their safety.

As the prospects for a consensus government dim, some have raised the option of new elections.

But Jiyad, the Century man, disagrees.

“It’s starting from scratch and it’s a risk for everyone,” he said.

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