Sadr’s challenge to Iraq’s sectarian politics

The political deadlock in Baghdad strengthens Sadr’s political re-emergence and undermines ethno-sectarianism in Iraq.

Supporters of Muqtada Al-sadr carry the Iraqi national flag during a demonstration and sit-in at Tahrir square, in central Baghdad, Iraq [EPA]
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr carry the Iraqi national flag during a demonstration and sit-in at Tahrir Square, in central Baghdad, Iraq [EPA]

As Iraqi Security Forces secure the environs of Mosul, positioning themselves to challenge ISIL’s grip on the city, a political impasse threatens to paralyse the Iraqi government, ultimately delaying the final military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

As a result of renewed protests led by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, calling for a new government that can deal with pervasive corruption at the state level, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had attempted and failed to get approval for a new cabinet from a recalcitrant Iraqi parliament.

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The current political standoff represents the first serious attempt by a leader at the top of Iraq’s political system to address a problem inherent to the new Iraqi government since 2003; the quota system that empowers politicians based solely on their ethno-sectarian background.

An Iraqi Shia nationalist

Sadr has always tried to assert himself as an Iraqi Shia nationalist, independent of Iranian influence. Iran has always tried to get the various Iraqi Shia parties to unite, with the caveat that they form a united front that augments Iran’s influence in Iraq. 

Ultimately the deadlock has benefited Sadr’s political standing.

READ MORE: Iraq – the reinvention of Muqtada al-Sadr

By fomenting a protest movement and delivering an ultimatum to Abadi, Sadr has successfully pitted his two Shia political rivals, the Dawa Party of the prime minister, and the politicians of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in parliament, against each other, undermining Iran’s overarching goal of maintaining a unified Shia alliance in Iraq.

By fomenting a protest movement and delivering an ultimatum to Abadi, Sadr has successfully pitted his two Shia political rivals ... in parliament, against each other...


In the past week, Abadi has presented a list of technocrat candidates to form a new Iraqi cabinet, ranging from new ministers of electricity, finance, oil and water.

It is in ministries such as these where the potential for corruption is the greatest, and it is corruption in these ministries that affects the public services ordinary Iraqis desperately need, such as water and electricity.

Abadi refrained from replacing the Minister of Defense and Interior, given that such a change would damage both institutions’ role in the current military campaign against ISIL.

None of the candidates in Abadi’s list came from the major political parties, but were nominated owing to their technical expertise. For example, the qualifications of Abadi’s nominee for Minister of Finance, Ali Allawi, include his career in finance, international banking, and in the World Bank.

Allawi is an independent, and thus is not beholden to any of the Iraqi parties. Other candidates for the cabinet had similar technocratic backgrounds.

Nonetheless, a new cabinet of technocrats threatened the power of career politicians already ensconced in cabinet positions. Those incumbent cabinet leaders rallied their fellow party members in parliament to obstruct the approval of a new cabinet, thus creating the current political deadlock.

Sadr’s rise

After the Iraqi parliament failed to approve this new technocratic cabinet, a demand of Sadr, he ordered the members of parliament who belong to his Ahrar or Freeborn Faction to boycott any future sessions until this measure is reintroduced.

Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr [Reuters]
Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr [Reuters]

Sadr also called on protesters loyal to him to continue holding their sit-in outside the Green Zone, the location of Iraq’s parliament and where most of Iraq’s politicians reside, to pressure them to accede to his demand.  

Nonetheless, Sadr has already scored a political victory, despite the Iraqi parliament’s failure to accede to his ultimatum. Abadi’s new technocratic cabinet would have entailed the resignation of career politicians, including among Shia politicians.

For example, an ISCI party member, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, is Minister of Oil, and he was to be replaced by a Kurdish technocrat. Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Shia ISCI party, a rival to the Shia Dawa Party, stated: “if we have a totally technocratic cabinet, then PM Abadi must be a non-partisan technocrat or PM Abadi must go”.

READ MORE: Iraq’s popular demobilisation

Abadi engaged in a political gamble by taking on a measure calling for all parties to relinquish their control over the ministries. ISCI called his bluff by demanding that the prime minister should then resign, given his connections to one of the entrenched parties in Iraq’s political landscape, the Dawa party.


Regardless of the outcome, Sadr’s ultimatum has precipitated an intra-Shia conflict among his rivals, allowing him to emerge as a grassroots Shia and Iraqi nationalist leader, who stands above the fray of partisan Shia politics.

It has also undermined Iran’s objectives in Iraq of ensuring Shia political unison, a policy that Sadr believed deprived him of asserting his own presence on the Iraqi political landscape.

The American legacy

The current power-sharing formula in the Iraqi government is a legacy of the US attempt to rebuild the state after 2003.

After years of instability, Iraqis seek leaders who are qualified to rebuild the nation...


To inaugurate a break from Saddam Hussein’s Arab Sunni-minority rule of Iraq, a political system developed under US tutelage where after each Iraqi election the new government would be “inclusive” of all of the nation’s communities.

This notion of inclusivity led to a quasi-mathematical equation where each new Iraq cabinet allocated a proportional percentage of positions to the nation’s Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities, such as Christians, Turkmens, and Yazidis.

Nowhere in the Iraqi constitution does it stipulate that the prime minister must come from the Iraqi Shia Dawa party, the president from the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and another token position given to an Arab Sunni.

This proportional system affected the allocation of cabinet positions as well. This distribution of power according to sect and ethnicity since 2003 has simply evolved as a norm owing to US preference and Iranian consent.

Abadi’s introduction of a cabinet based on a minister’s technical skills rather than his ethnic or sectarian background indicates that governing consensus over the muhasasa, or the ethnic and sectarian quota system, is breaking down. 

The muhasasa system guaranteed to Iraq’s Shia that they would never be ruled by an oppressive minority. However, Sadr, himself a Shia, has challenged this system, demonstrating once again that analysing Iraq’s politics as a simple conflict between Arab versus Kurd, and Shia versus Sunni, is reductive at best.

As of 2016, Sadr and his followers, who include Shias and other disenfranchised Iraqis, have communicated that a politician’s sect or ethnicity is not a prerequisite to administer Iraq.

After years of instability, Iraqis seek leaders who are qualified to rebuild the nation, opposed to career politicians looking to safeguard their political careers and patronage networks.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.