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Efforts to Form a New Government in Iraq Descend Into Chaos

June 13, 2022 Updated Mon., June 13, 2022 at 12:50 p.m.

By Jane Arraf The New York Times

Seven months of efforts to form a new government in Iraq were in turmoil Monday, a day after Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr directed members of parliament who are loyal to him to resign from the seats they won in an October election.

Al-Sadr, who has become one of the biggest political forces in Iraq since emerging in 2003, has no formal role but commands the allegiance of the single largest bloc in the 329-seat parliament. The 73 lawmakers of his movement submitted their resignations Sunday after the collapse of months of negotiations by al-Sadr to form a coalition government with Sunni and Kurdish partners.

On Monday, al-Sadr’s candidate for prime minister, Jaafar al-Sadr, a cousin of the cleric and currently the Iraqi ambassador to London, said in a post on Twitter that he was withdrawing his candidacy.

The talks on forming a government broke down amid disagreements over who would be president. Under Iraq’s parliamentary system, established after a U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the president nominates a prime minister and Cabinet ministers who must then be approved by parliament. The mercurial Muqtada al-Sadr suggested that in abandoning the negotiations, he was sacrificing his bloc’s hard-won gains in the elections last year so that a government could be formed.

“This step is considered a sacrifice for the homeland and the people to save them from an unknown fate,” al-Sadr said in a statement. “If the survival of the Sadrist bloc is an obstacle to the formation of the government, then all representatives of the bloc are ready to resign from parliament.”

His announcement culminated months of political paralysis that underscored the dysfunction of Iraq’s political system and the fragmentation of the multiple Shiite Muslim political blocs. Those inter-Shiite divisions have supplanted sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite groups in past years as a main source of Iraqi instability.

Al-Sadr, the son of a revered Shiite cleric assassinated during Saddam’s regime, formed a militia in 2003 to fight U.S. forces after the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into an occupation. He also battled Iraqi government forces in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra before disbanding his militia, called the Mahdi Army.

It was not immediately clear whether the resignations were merely a negotiating tactic on al-Sadr’s part or a real break with parliamentary politics. But his withdrawal and a related announcement that he was closing most Sadrist offices around the country raised fears that he could replace political negotiations with destabilizing street protests — something he has used before as a lever of pressure.

“With the Sadrists apparently out of the actual political process, their history is that when they are not engaged in politics, they’re out in the streets,” said Feisal al-Istrabadi, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University. “The question is — are they in the formal electoral politics or are they out in the street with their guns?”

Al-Sadr, who presents himself as an Iraqi nationalist, is considered the Shiite political leader least tied to Iran. His withdrawal opens the door for other, Iran-backed parties, to make headway in forming a government.

Analysts described the political turmoil kindled by al-Sadr’s move as one of the most significant and potentially destabilizing developments since Iraq’s Shiite-led governments were elected after Saddam was toppled. Although Shiite Muslims are a majority in Iraq, Saddam, who was executed in 2006, relied predominantly on Sunni Arabs to maintain his power.

Al-Sadr’s main Shiite rivals are tied to Iran-backed militias that were formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group and are now officially part of Iraqi security forces — though they are only nominally under government control.

“This is a major challenge to the post-2003 Shiite order because this is primarily an intra-Shiite political fight,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “Both sides are heavily armed now and both sides have shown in the past willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve the system.

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Another analyst, Zaid al-Ali, author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future,” said the divisions were a sign of Iran’s weakening influence on Iraqi politics. Tehran has tried to prevent splits among Iraqi Shiite groups that could dilute Shiite influence in a multisectarian, multiethnic Iraq or that could allow any one Shiite group to become too powerful.

“There is a huge amount of division in the Shiite political spectrum, and Iran hasn’t been able to resolve that at all,” he said.

Abbas Kadhim, a Washington-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that even if the move by al-Sadr led to fresh elections, that would not fundamentally change the persistent problems in a political system that, since 2003, has relied on dividing up power among the various ethnic and sectarian groupings.

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The resignations themselves will not prompt elections. Instead, the candidates who received the next-highest number of votes in October would replace al-Sadr loyalists in parliament, according to legal scholars.

Constitutional experts said the parliamentary resignations were effective after being accepted by the speaker, Sunni politician Mohammed al-Halboosi, and did not require parliamentary approval.

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A pro-al-Sadr media organization, Al Jidar, warned al-Sadr’s rivals Monday that they should not consider the resignations something that renders the Sadrist movement ineffectual.

“They forget that the gates of hell will be open in front of them and that the Sadrist movement is able to bring down any government they form within only a few hours,” it said in a Telegram post.

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