“…I now walk with my head down…”

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It was the expression of Muqtada Al Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric and leader of the Sadrist Movement, on August 30th, commenting on the Green Zone’s two days’ mayhem. This was an armed confrontation between Saraya Al Salam (Shiite armed groups and staunch followers of Al Sadr) on one side and members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Imam Ali brigade of Shibl al-Zaydi (another Shiite sect militias followers of the pro-Iranian Coordination Framework leaders) on the other.

The armed confrontation began after the latter started firing on peaceful Sadrist protesters roaming freely inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. The protesters were already camping inside and in front of the Iraqi Parliament for the last month and even stormed the Republican Palace, where the shooting started. In retaliation, Sadr’s followers deployed their armed groups with light and heavy weaponry (mortars and RPG-7 rockets). Heavy fighting around the GZ followed for over two days. Witnesses say Saraya Al Salam was close to getting inside the GZ and controlling the area. Though, the sudden order of their leader Muqtada to withdraw and end the whole movement in 60 minutes was a surprise to many.

This latest event was a continuation of a long series of disagreements and armed violence throughout the last two decades between followers of Sadr and followers of his allegedly Iranian-backed opponents in Iraq like Maliki, Qais Al-Khazali and other affiliated parties and individuals. The disagreements intensified especially after the 2021 election, where the Sadrist Movement won over 73 parliamentary seats. On the other hand, the election results failed Sadr’s primary opponents like Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (33 seats) and Al-Ameri’s Fatah Alliance (17 seats).

It laid the ground for Al Sadr to continue his movement for a “reform” and an “independent political process” in Iraq against pro-Iranian parties and affiliates, exemplified by such tweets, which solidified the intent to have an independent Iraq. This showed his determination to oust his direct, Iranian-backed opponents in Parliament no matter the cost. As a result, the armed fighting in the GZ occurred because of several escalated events throughout the first half of 2022.

The situation has become inscrutable with the possibility of many scenarios. Yet, aside from the overwhelming political analysis found all over the media, it is beneficial to point out a third “self-marginalized” party: the people.

It is well known that Iraq has witnessed all kinds of destructive events and tragedies on every level more than any other nation for the last four decades. The population is barely improving living conditions with issues laid out at the basic services level, safety and corruption still existent. On top of that, foreign interference aided by armed proxies roaming freely in the country takes away any political will for a change that primarily benefits Iraq and Iraqis.

The latest mobilisation stormed the Green Zone, having a substantial impact on the current Iraqi political scene; even considered by some analysts as a kind of a coup d’état, it did not echo well within the Iraqi society. The only support the Sadrist protesters had was through a few social media accounts, which does not account for much on the ground. Aside from that, Iraqis did the opposite of the great 2019 Tishreen movement and took the stance of spectators.

The reasons for that are several. In short, Iraqis do not trust Muqtada as a leader due to his shaky stances and sudden decisions throughout the previous years. For example, Sadr has announced his withdrawal from politics six times in the last nine years. This back and forth between Muqtada and consecutive governments after elections and during times of appointing cabinet members has turned into an expected series of events with an obvious ending to these “crises”. These Iraqi “crises” do not affect any ordinary Iraqi citizen’s life but the crooked politicians fighting tooth and nail for Cabinet and Parliamentary seats – hence “crises”. Another more important reason is that Al Sadr took the role of aborting one of the most significant societal movements in modern Iraqi history against harsh and unacceptable living conditions, and that is the Tishreen Movement of 2019. Therefore, many Iraqis believe Al Sadr will betray them again if they take to the streets. He will call for a sudden withdrawal of his staunch followers, leaving unarmed protesters in the face of the mercy of unknown merciless and immune militiamen. As predicted, he eventually did call for a withdrawal.

However, the Shiite cleric has persisted in this one direction for more than a year while calling it “the path of reform”. He insisted on publicly and aggressively stating the need for an independent Iraq without any foreign interference (as much as that is politically viable). Al Sadr has not lost his influence on a substantial portion of Iraqis. Al Sadr city alone (1.2 m est. 2018) is fully embraced by the word of Al Sadr. This is added to thousands in the southern parts of the country. Al Sadr has implicitly shown strength in numbers and obedience by his followers on numerous occasions. The last show of force was on August 5th, calling for a Friday mass prayer on the streets of the GZ under the usual scorching heat waves, surpassing 51°C at noon. Thousands of followers came from the farthest cities like Basrah (5 hours drive to Baghdad) to join the mass prayer that overall lasted one hour. In addition, Sadr still has leverage on consecutive government formations with many ministries considered Sadri followers.

If these facts show anything, they offer the unrelenting position of Al-Sadr on the Iraqi scene. However, despite that, he was still persistent in walking this path of so-called “reform” despite his comfortable never changing position throughout the political process. This leads us to point out the population’s role.

The fact that Iraqis were watching Sadrists protesting for over a month inside the Green Zone, which all Iraqis consider as the fortified hub of corruption and schemes against their country, was puzzling. There was a need to see this kind of event as an unprecedented historical opportunity -also directly stated by Al Sadr. That is why a mobilisation should have taken place regardless of the need to be in accord with Al-Sadr and his followers on different issues. As stated before, the situation can hardly get worse than the constant destabilisation in these last decades. Moreover, not many similar occasions in modern Iraqi history demonstrate a mobilisation of society – aside from the Tishreen Movement in 2019, the last of such marches took place in 1948 against the then ruling monarchy. There is always a long-awaited heavy role for Iraqis to take the initiative of removing the corrupted ruling elites through a direct act. Nevertheless, the lack of a robust civil society ingrained within Iraqis due to consecutive unfortunate contexts is another reason for stepping up once an opportunity provides itself.

The previous analysis might show a tendency toward supporting Al Sadr, but one needs to have a Machiavellian approach due to the complex Iraqi situation. As the case already passed endurance, any mobilisation that calls for the ousting of certain parties and individuals known to have facilitated the disturbance of the country should have been received sagaciously. Moreover, that would have avoided Al-Sadr’s statement at the beginning of this article. Instead, most of the population’s unfortunate bland approach took place, narrowing the scope of fighting towards “reform” that concerns the Iraqi nation to the usually armed fighting between two rival parties on an Iraqi scene.

Lastly, there is a difference between a baseless hope and a more plausible one, and the country started moving away from the prior toward the latter. Right now, the scene in Iraq has been slow. Still, the gradual mobilisation of people impacted by the “Arab Spring” protesters coming down the streets in consecutive years starting from 2011 onwards is one crucial sign. The way young peaceful protesters in the Tishreen movement faced live bullets amounting to more than 700 deaths, another important indication that the current corrupted government is in decline. Protesters and armed groups were storming and participating in an exchange of fire inside the Green Zone (headquarters of the Iraqi government) while broadcasted live for millions to watch worldwide is another essential attestation of the coming decline. Additionally, this more plausible hope is also reinforced by the spread of the spirit of civil society movements in the country; the awareness and identification of the real adversaries; the fresh memory of sectarian and ISIS wars where the shared tragedies between different components will eventually bring Iraqis together instead of the recent division.

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