Iraq Political Paralysis Result of System U.S. Helped Create

months-long effort to create a new government in Iraq fell into disarray after the influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr asked all 73 lawmakers in his political bloc to withdraw from parliament on Sunday. The Parliament Speaker accepted their request. Sadr’s candidate for Prime Minister stepped back from vying for the role, too.

The withdrawal significantly disrupts the make-up of the 329-seat legislative body—likely giving more parliamentary power to pro-Iran parties. It could also help align Sadr’s party with Iraqi protesters who have since 2019 condemned the country’s political system altogether, if the move is viewed as a rejection of the status quo.

Experts claim that political paralysis after October elections may partly be due to the long-standing anger among Iraqis about the way the political system treats them. They feel it prioritizes the power of the ruling elite over basic services, such as electricity or clean water. In the short term, it’s also caused by Sadr’s inability to push through political reforms that would have consolidated his party’s power.

Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s political system was set up under U.S. auspices as a consensus government that provides a seat at the table for all major political parties. “That may sound good in theory but what it amounted to was just a division of the spoils and political power, so corruption ran rampant,” says David Romano, a professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University. “No one really had to do anything or perform because they were guaranteed their share of power every election just by virtue of coming from major ethno-sectarian communities.”

Sadr is seen mainly as a populist leader and a nationalist in Iraq. He has claimed that his request to have his supporters removed from Parliament is for the benefit of the Iraqi people. “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,” Sadr said in a statement.

Experts say that a consensus government can be partly responsible for creating a system that does not respond to the demands of Iraqi citizens. Fanar Haddad is an expert on Iraqi politics and assistant professor at University of Copenhagen. He says that this type of governance saw elites take over state institutions to create personal patronage networks. “The elites in question claimed to represent communities but they never were representative of the communities,” Haddad says. “It raised the political relevance of ethnic and sectarian identities because they became the primary currency of political life.”

Sadr was an ally of the party that did well in the October election. Haddad claims that Sadr wanted to take advantage of that electoral advantage so the government would have more control over legislation and policies. “Ultimately, [Sadr’s move is] about creating a system with less players that excludes some of his competitors and helps him assert dominance within the political system,” Haddad adds. Opposition parties have prevented Sadr from achieving his goals by threatening to obstruct parliamentary sessions or using other methods.

The result is that little has changed. “Whenever you have an election, it’s the same leaders that come back, the same last names, the same people playing a game of musical chairs—shuffling their people around government. And so you don’t really see change coming from that,” says Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme and director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank focused on international affairs.

The primary divisions in Iraq are traditionally thought of as those along Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish lines—who make up 62%, 30%, and 16% of the country’s population, respectively, according to a 2014 Pew poll. (Kurds are almost entirely Sunni, meaning Iraq’s religious breakdown is roughly 60% Shia and 40% Sunni.) Mansour believes that the primary source of tension in the last decade was between Iraqi political elites, the Iraqi masses and various sects, not among them. “The paralysis is primarily due to an elite that is both economically and ideologically bankrupt and because of that the population is rising up against their own leaders.”

Between 2019-2021, mass demonstrations swept through Iraqi cities in protest of political sectarianism and the state’s failure to provide jobs or basic services such as electricity and sewage. Those protests prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the October elections that saw Sadr’s bloc win 73 seats.

Continue reading: Iraq Protests: How Do Protesters Feel?

Mansour says that because the protests are against the entire system, political parties like Sadr’s play close attention to securing the support of Iraqis on the street. Analysts think that Sadr is a populist leader and may have used the extreme withdrawal tactic to gain support from the mass. “The parliamentary bloc is not the only source of power. It also competes with military power and street power,” says Haddad. Haddad suggests Sadr might want to send the message that his party is so opposed to the system, and that they have resigned. “His plan may be not just to mobilize people but to call for demonstrations in order to bring down the forthcoming government and humiliate his opponents.”

Experts say that candidates with the highest vote total in a given district could be replaced to fill the void left by resignations. However, there’s skepticism that Sadrists will actually entirely withdraw from the government. “I don’t think it’s irreversible and this is a tactic through which he can apply pressure on and possibly outflank his opponents,” Haddad says.

In the last few years, the Sadrists have become the most powerful party in the government—and subsequently one that many Iraqis blame for their grievances—but they simultaneously want to be the face of protest and opposition, Mansour says. “The fundamental dilemma the Sadrists are facing is that they want to do both.”

But for many Iraqis, these parliamentary squibbles are hardly top of mind, given the state of the country’s public services. “There is this deep sense that what should be on paper a fabulously wealthy country can’t even keep the lights on. It’s an unresponsive political system, [for] almost 20 years now,” Haddad says.

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