Despite public anger, there is no progress in Iraq’s political stalemate

Al-Sadr has called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and constitutional amendments. He has given the judiciary a deadline of the end of the week to dissolve the legislature.

Its Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed camp have their own conditions. He has been accused of violating the constitution, sparking counter-protests that have sparked fears of bloodshed.

Neither faction appears ready to commit to ending the 10-month political crisis, the longest since the 2003 US invasion that restored political order. The caretaker cabinet, unable to pass laws or issue a budget, grows weaker by the day, while citizens protest poor services, including power cuts during the scorching summer heat.

When al-Sadr ordered thousands of followers to storm the heavily fortified government zone in Baghdad on July 30, he paralyzed state institutions and prevented his political rivals from forming a government.

Al-Sadr may have been emboldened by the silence of the 92-year-old al-Sistani, a revered spiritual figure whose word holds enormous sway among leaders and ordinary Iraqis.

Three officials at al-Sistani’s seminary in the holy city of Najaf said he has not used his influence because he did not want to appear to take sides in the most acute internal Shiite crisis since 2003. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to inform the media.

“The Marjaiya is watching the situation with concern,” one of the officials said, referring to the ayatollah. He said al-Sistani “will not interfere at this time. His entry may be perceived as benefiting one party over another.”

Al-Sistani has rarely intervened in political matters, but when he has, he has altered the course of Iraqi politics.

In 2019, his sermon led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi amid massive anti-government protests, the largest in Iraq’s modern history. Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s administration was sworn in with the aim of holding early elections, which took place in October.

The ayatollah has grown tired of the current Iraqi political dynamic, the Najaf official said. He has not resumed his usual Friday sermons, suspended during the pandemic. Its doors remain closed to Iraq’s political elites, a sign that it disapproves of them.

The seminary in Najaf is also divided by al-Sadr. Some fear his boldness is deepening the Shiite divide, while others agree with his anti-corruption and reformist rhetoric. Dozens of seminary students have recently joined the protests.

Al-Sistani has red lines that, if crossed, would compel him to intervene, the officials said. They include bloodshed and attempts to erode what are seen as Iraq’s democratic foundations.

“Muqtada knows these red lines and will not cross them,” one official said.

Even if the Shiite rivals were to agree to hold elections, fundamental differences persist over electoral rules. There is no legal precedent to guide decision makers.

Al-Sadr has hinted that he will increase the protests if the judiciary does not dissolve the parliament by the end of the week. The judiciary says it has no power to dissolve the legislature.

His rivals in the Coordination Framework alliance, made up of Shiite parties largely backed by Iran, say al-Sadr’s pressure on the judiciary is unconstitutional. They are not opposed to new elections, as long as there is a national consensus on how the vote will be conducted.

This consensus seems unattainable.

Ordinary Iraqis are increasingly frustrated that the interim government is struggling to provide basic services such as electricity and water.

The political crisis comes at a time of growing unemployment, especially among Iraqi youth. The country has suffered back-to-back droughts that have severely damaged the agriculture and fishing industries, further reducing employment prospects.

Protests in southern Iraq turned violent last week after stone-throwing protesters clashed with security forces outside oil fields in Missan and Dhi Qar provinces. More than a dozen demonstrators were arrested and more than a dozen members of the security forces were injured.

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