Twisting and Turning

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From 2003 to 2009, the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr waged an insurgency against American troops who had invaded his Middle Eastern country in 2003. Today, the soldiers are mostly gone. But al-Sadr is still arguably the most powerful force in Iraqi politics.

After almost a year of political wrangling in the capital of Baghdad, Iraqi officials still haven’t been able to form a government as “growing drought, crippling corruption and crumbling infrastructure” continue to remain major problems, the New York Times reported. That’s the case even though the oil-rich country has more than $80 billion in cash reserves, a sum that is expected to grow by $10 billion by the end of the year, Reuters wrote.

In July, al-Sadr, a member of the country’s majority Shiite community whose political allies won the most seats in parliament in elections last year, quit leadership negotiations and called on his followers to storm parliament. More than 100 people were injured in the civil unrest, CNN reported, in a story that featured angry protesters occupying the parliamentary chambers.

As a result, the Iraqi government has been mostly immobilized. Justices on the country’s top court recently ruled that they couldn’t help alleviate the situation, according to Al Jazeera.

Iraqis have been regularly protesting for the past three years but the earlier demonstrations, in 2019, focused on the lack of services such as trash pick up, power blackouts and other issues. These days, it is more about politics.

That has led some Iraqis to stay home.

“I don’t understand, really, why people still have (the) energy to go for these protests when all the people at the top are looking after themselves, and they don’t really care about us,” Mohammad Mahmoud, a 41-year-old electrician, who said he barely has electricity in his home in Baghdad, told Al Jazeera. “Maybe the only reason I’d go is that I heard there’s air conditioning in the parliament building. It would be nice to have some cold in this weather.”

Still, Iran is the major player in these recent contretemps – with a twist. Both al-Sadr and his rivals want to reform Iraq on Iran’s ultra-conservative theocratic model. But al-Sadr is a nationalist who advocates for Iraq’s independence from the mullahs in Tehran. His rivals meanwhile enjoy their support and presumably would make Iraq a close Iranian ally, the Associated Press wrote.

Note that both sides want to reduce the influence of the US in their country despite American leaders spending trillions of dollars over the years in a bid to create a new ally in the region, a cost that equates to $8,000 per American taxpayer, explained Insider. “The US has relatively little to do with what’s going on in Iraq, and has few ways to influence it in a positive or negative way,” Arab Gulf States Institute President Douglas Silliman told Middle East Eye.

Iraq’s top cleric, the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been conspicuously silent during the crisis because he doesn’t want to appear to take sides in what is an acute internal crisis. He’s monitoring the situation extremely closely, however, the AP reported separately.

Rather than being a force for instability, the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board argued, al-Sistani might be a calming force in Iraqi politics. He apparently even met with al-Sadr in a bid to cool tensions and avoid more bloodshed or, worse, a full-fledged civil war.

Whether they can put their differences aside suffice to keep chaos at bay in the country remains to be seen.

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