Iraq’s second most populous city Basra is literally on fire as months of protests have boiled over into violent acts of rage. Demonstrators initially took to the streets to protest the lack of drinkable water in the city as well as overarching issues of mass unemployment. At least five protesters have been killed after Iraqi troops fired on demonstrators.
Perhaps most worrying, the protesters have torched multiple government offices in the city and the offices of all major political parties with the exception of offices belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr’s controversial political movement. With al-Sadr seeking to form a government in a broad coalition which would include an alliance with the factions loyal to current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, many have suggested that the protests are part of al-Sadr’s infamous strategies to mobilise the genuinely disgruntled masses in order to hold the powers that be hostage, all so that he can extract vast political concessions. Not only does al-Sadr have a history of doing such things, but he has expressed disappointment in the progress of talks regarding the formation of a new government following the 12 May general election.
But beyond this, there are multiple geopolitical ramifications to the protests. Many of the protesters who are loyal to al-Sadr have joined his calls to break up the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). The PUMs were formed in the midst of Iraq’s war against the Daesh terror group and received training and support from the Iranian government. The Iraqi PMU leader Hadi Al-Amiri is al-Sadr’s most bitter political rival and as such both have very different geopolitical patrons.While just months ago the PMUs were considered national heroes, today the PMUs have become politicised in light of the political rivalry between their leader Hadi Al-Amiri and al-Sadr.
Hadi Al-Amiri speaks fluent Farsi (Persian) and is considered Iran’s top political ally in Iraq. By contrast, in spite of the fact that he is a Shi’a cleric, long running doctrinal difference between the Islam of the al-Sadr clan and that of the Islamic Revolution in Iran have led al-Sadr to gravitate towards Saudi patronage. Furthermore, in spite of leading forces against US troops and killing many US soldiers in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is believed that today, al-Sadr is on good terms with the US as is demonstrable due to his pro-Saudi stance and his statements condemning both the Iranian government and that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Making matters more complicated, Al-Amiri’s Fatah movement have now called on officials of the current al-Abadi led government to either fix congenital problems or resign. Thus, one is witnessing the phenomenon of the pro-Saudi al-Sadr and the pro-Iran Al-Amiri lambaste one another’s factions while both are also condemning the current government. On top of this, multiple conflicting reports from Basra have come in with some suggesting that some members of the Iraqi Army have joined the protests while others have claimed the opposite is true.
Taken in totality, no matter how many Iraqi optimists say otherwise, the country still has not recovered from the 2003 invasion. While the invasion led to a prolonged civil war which then turned into a war against Daesh, the rare moments of unity that the virtually pan-Iraqi fight against Darsh ushered in have now ended and the situation on the ground has reverted to inter-factional rivalries each backed by various major regional and international players.
On top of this a genuine lack of any economic opportunity, no functional state welfare system, poor hospital facilities, widespread lawlessness, frequent arson attacks and political corrupt have meant that there is plenty of genuine anger for domestic and international political forces to exploit for a distinct advantage.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq also helps to shed light on the false analysis of Iraq’s socio-political situation as being a purely “Shi’a vs. Sunni” phenomenon. With three Shi’a politicians effectively at war with one another and with a mostly Shi’a army shooting at the overwhelmingly Shi’a population of Basra it is high time to revisit the false analogies widely invoked to apologise for Iraq’s political chaos.
Throughout the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s the oil rich coastal Iraqi city of Basra was devastated both in terms of its human population and its physical infrastructure. After the US led war on Iraq in 1990, the Shi’a Muslim majority city and wider region openly rebelled against the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. This rebellion was mercilessly quashed as was another attempted rebellion in 1999.
During the 1990s, much of the internal narrative issued by Basra’s Shi’a rebels, the Iranian narrative on the matter and ironically also the American narrative, all pointed to a repressive sectarian (aka anti-Shi’a) crackdown by the Sunni Muslim President Saddam Hussein. While it is beyond doubt that Saddam’s government directly targeted prominent Shi’a clerics and political figures during the crackdown, it is also true that many of these leaders were openly conspiring against the legitimate central government.
Today, Iraq is ruled by a Shi’a Prime Minister and a majority Shi’a parliament and in spite of this very different political reality vis-a-vis the Saddam years, history appears to be on the verge of repeating in many respects. For over a week, violent protests in Basra against the generally poor economic conditions of the nation have become less of a collective political protest but more of a regional agitation against the current government whose status is something of a prolonged interim government as a manual recount of this year’s parliamentary ballots continues to drag on.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who himself was a member of the Basra based Islamic Dawa Party during the height of Saddam’s 1980s and 1990s crackdown on the Shi’a group now finds himself in a similar situation as Saddam in so far as al-Abadi has now sent the armed forces into Basra in order to attempt and restore order in the midst of an early stage rebellion that shows no signs of stopping.
Today, is widely understood that political leader and Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is behind the rebellion as many of his political enemies have been targeted by rioters while he has been vocal regarding the fact that he believes the recount of votes from the election in which his coalition won a plurality is designed to minimise his electoral impact.
During the last election, al-Sadr coalesced around a rather awkward group of Shi’a politicians, anti-Iranian politicians (something somewhat unusual but by no means unheard of in Iraq’s Shi’a Islamic politics), radical feminist groups and the always controversial Iraqi Communist party (known more for its open opposition to Arab Nationalism than its namesake might suggest), all while courting Kurdish groups from the opposite end of the country. What this proved more than anything is that while al-Sadr’s family background is clearly ideological and arguably highly sectarian, when it comes to his political manoeuvring, he excels at pandering to the downtrodden, the angry and the disenfranchised although without providing much of a meaningful solution to the problems of this rag-tag socio-political coalition. Clearly such a reality is as much of a threat to the weak Shi’a Prime Minister al-Abadi as it was to the strongman presidential rule of the Sunni Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Putting himself in a unique position of alienating Iran, Syria, the United States and now the current Iraqi government, Sadr’s obstructionist role is much the same as that of his powerful family during the Saddam years – after all the Sadr clan had open doctrinal differences with the Islamic Revolutionaries in Iran dating back to the early 1980s. The difference today is that one cannot blame a Sunni Iraqi leader for cracking down on the Shi’a population of Basra because the Iraqi government is now a Shi’a majority government led by a man with close ideological links to prominent movements which originated in Basra.
Inversely, while Saddam blamed Iranian elements for fomenting rebellion in Basra during his time in power, today such an allegation would not hold any water as Iran is a close and important ally of both the current government and Sadr’s main rival, the Iraqi Fatah Alliance led by the fluent Persian/Farsi speaker Hadi Al-Amiri.
What this proves is that Iraq’s internal problems were always more complex than a “Shi’a versus Sunni” narrative and also more complex than an “Arab vs. Iranian” narrative. The fact of the matter is that the modern borders of Iraq which were drawn in 1916 in the secret Anglo-French agreements between Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot are in reality an amalgamation of three Ottoman Vilayets (provinces) which each had (and retain) unique social, ethnic, religious and cultural dynamics.
In this sense, it is in many ways more helpful to think of Iraq as a country divided by the former Vilayet of Basra, the former Vilayet of Baghdad and the former Vilayet of Mosul, rather than a country strictly divided on Sunni vs. Shi’a lines let along on Arab vs. Kurdish lines. With some suggesting that a regional civil war could be the outcome of the current Basra rebellion if matters are not brought under control by the legitimate security services, it speaks for itself that the decades old narratives regarding Saddam’s position vis-a-vis Basra clearly need to be revised.
While the current events neither vindicate nor condemn any specific leaders or political movements of the recent past, they do serve as a reminder that the simplistic sectarian narrative was always insufficient at best and patently dishonest when taken to its logical extreme.