Kark Marx famously said that history repeats itself — first as tragedy, then as farce. In Iraq, which has always done things its own way, the tragic farce of recent history is stuck on repeat.
So while we take our seats for the next act, let’s remind ourselves of some key events of the past couple of years. First, the political failure of the Haider Al-Abadi government — put in power by an elite deal between Iran and the key Iraqi Shiite parties — to achieve internal reform. The defeat of ISIS was principally a military achievement of the US and the genuinely professional parts of the Iraqi security frces, not of Abadi.
This was followed by elections from which Moqtada Al-Sadr seemed to emerge as the kingmaker. Then the nomination and confirmation as prime minister of Adel Abdul Mahdi — the result of another deal between Iran and the Iran-aligned Shiite blocs — followed by the predictable failure of that government to deliver on any of the many promises it had made, and its collapse as it failed to either come to terms with or crush the growing wave of popular discontent across majority-Shiite areas.
Then the dramatic assassination of Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandis, two men of violence who had been instrumental in keeping the fissiparous Shiite militias and their associated political wings in line. This was preceded and followed by rocket attacks — which continue — on US targets (military and diplomatic) throughout the country, and renewed brutal attempts by militias, most recently Sadr’s Saraya Al-Salam rebadged as “blue caps,” to intimidate and disperse demonstrators from Baghdad to Basra, Najaf to Nasiriyah. Then promises from everyone that this time it will be different, but the same old elites caucusing each other in metaphorically smoke-filled rooms to produce a replacement prime minister who would safeguard their interests while making it look as if things had really changed.
Lots of names were churned out by the Iraqi rumor mill. And eventually the mild-mannered, decent but also Shiite Islamist-inclined and politically weak Mohammed Al-Allawi emerged. After his nomination by the president, Allawi publicly promised to call early parliamentary elections, be inclusive, respond to popular discontent, tackle corruption, restore justice, bring the perpetrators of violence to account and govern in the interest of everyone. Just as Al-Mahdi did. And more or less as Abadi did. And Maliki before him. Allawi may well have the best of intentions. But it’s still a stuck record.
So let’s get real. First, the demonstrators aren’t going to be satisfied with anything other than a remaking of the entire Iraqi political system, the toxic legacy of 2003. And they won’t be as easily dispersed as their predecessors were in previous years. They have shed too much blood. They are angry. And they have learned well the lessons of the recent past.
After the latest attacks on them by Sadrists, who had previously posed as their protectors, they have regrouped. Even those individuals who emerge from time as time as distinctive personalities have little authority over them. This is new. And it makes the task of suppression that much harder.
Second, Moqtada Al-Sadr has tarnished his particular brand of idiosyncratic and self-advertising nationalism. He can certainly mobilize larger groups on the street than pretty much anyone else. That’s the power of his name. But like everyone else, it looks as if he too wants political influence so he can advance his own rather than a truly national agenda. And Iran can discipline him whenever it wants.
There were indications of that in the past, but in recent months it’s become clearer. He may from time to time take refuge in Qom — perhaps on the paradoxical grounds that only there is he truly safe from Iranian thugs. But Iran still gets to him there. And he remains erratic, blowing hot and cold on the issue of the US presence and indeed on the demonstrations, which he may have believed at one point he owned but must now realize he doesn’t. His followers may at various points have stepped back from applying the sort of sectarian violence that his competitors have. But that was tactical. They’re back now. And they remain prepared to beat and even kill in pursuit of their master’s interests. That’s not a good look.
Third, the absence of Mohandis in particular may be opening the way to more open intra-Shiite competition and perhaps even conflict. Mohandis seems to have been successful in marginalizing Hadi Al-Amiri and his Badr Organization in key decision-making areas. In doing so he probably became the most powerful man in Iraq. And Kata’ib Hezbollah, his instrument, have been responsible for many of the attacks on the US over the past year or so, including those that sparked the US drone strikes a month ago — whatever fake news The New York Times credulously buys from militia commanders. Central control over the Tehran-aligned Hashd militias is now up for grabs. That could get nasty.
Fourth, Ayatollah Ali Sistani has been preaching the same Friday sermon for months. Be nice to each other. Popular legitimacy. Reach a sensible political accommodation. End corruption. Protect the demonstrators. That’s wonderful. And he’s right. But people only listen these days when it serves their own interests. We’re moving into a new political world.
Fifth, Allawi will now try to do what each of his two predecessors did — look like the candidate of change while being in effect the continuity Tehran candidate. It probably won’t work, though if he is brave enough and gets sustained support from the US, EU and UN he does for a time have the power to make a difference, at least in who he chooses for his cabinet. But he will still need parliamentary approval. The militias have been allowed to embed themselves in the state. And Iraq’s finances are desperate. Just as you can trace the impact of the collapse of the Lebanese economy through the shortage of US dollars in Syria (whatever Bouthaina Shaaban may claim), in the same way we shall see the erosion of Iraq’s fiscal position reflected in dollar shortages — not just in Iraq but also in Iran, which has sought to use Iraq as an economy safety valve to mitigate the effects of isolation and sanctions.
Sixth, the issue of US forces remains a live and deeply contested one. The Kurds have made it clear they want America to remain. So have some Baghdad politicians. And the Americans themselves still believe — quite correctly — that they have a job to do in keeping ISIS contained. But Iran urgently needs them to go so it can claim victory over the country that killed its favorite general.
Neither Al-Mahdi nor Allawi — as caretaker and PM-designate respectively — had or has the power to make any decisions for the moment. So a showdown is postponed. The Iranian elections are looming. The regime there is doing everything it can to ensure loyalists predominate. That is papering over the internal cracks. In the meantime there will continue to be provocations. And if one of these is misjudged, then the US might well react. And it won’t be pretty.