It looked to many Iraqis like the beginning of a civil war, but the fighting that broke out last week was over almost as quickly as it started. But there’s a difference between stable and stuck, and Iraq is still in the same political stalemate that sparked the violence. And at the center of it all is Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his unexpected retirement from politics. Is Iraq in the calm before the storm, or will cooler heads prevail once again?
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In this episode:
- Imran Khan (@ajimran), Al Jazeera senior correspondent
- Ali Hashem (@alihashem_tv), Al Jazeera journalist
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It has been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions; our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: It might seem like the violence in Iraq has died down. But to many people, including Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, we’re in the calm before the storm.
Imran Khan: Many Iraqis thought they were about to witness the beginning of a civil war.
Halla Mohieddeen: On August 29, fighting broke out in the heart of Baghdad between two major factions, both Shia.
Newsreel: The fighting comes as a result of a deadlock in forming a government some 10 months after parliamentary elections.
Halla Mohieddeen: By August 30, it was over almost as quickly as it started.
Newsreel: After two days of violence, Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone is empty of protestors. A sharp contrast to earlier scenes.
Halla Mohieddeen: But there’s a difference between stable and stuck. And none of the political rivalries that caused the fighting have been resolved.
Imran Khan: Zero. Nothing.
Halla Mohieddeen: Iraq has been stuck in political paralysis since last year’s elections, if not much longer. So, what could this outburst tell us about where the country is headed next?
Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Mohieddeen, and this is The Take.
Imran Khan: My name is Imran Khan. I’m a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English and I predominantly, although not exclusively, cover the Middle East and South Asia.
Halla Mohieddeen: I caught up with Imran while he’s reporting in Baghdad. And it’s hot. 50C. That’s 122F.
Imran Khan: It is ridiculously hot here. I mean, 11:30am this morning, the temperature was like 44C. Imagine what that’s like in the middle of the day. In the evening, it doesn’t really cool down that much. So, no one was really expecting thousands of people to come out on the streets and that’s exactly what happened.
Halla Mohieddeen: Let’s start by talking about what happened in Baghdad. The scenes in the Green Zone were unlike anything we’ve seen in years. What happened?
Imran Khan: I certainly had not seen anything like that for a very long time. This inter-fighting going on between two very powerful blocs got to such a stage where it looked for all intents and purposes like war had once again broken out in Baghdad.
Halla Mohieddeen: Those two factions have been fighting for control of the government for months. And at the root is a power struggle between two Shia leaders and rivals: Muqtada al-Sadr and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Imran Khan: The people who were armed, the people who were actually fighting, were in their hundreds, but surrounding them were thousands of people; and they could have got more people out in the streets, but the army managed to lock the outskirts of Baghdad down, and they actually managed to lock the interior of the Green Zone. Just to give you the geography of this, Green Zone is where all the international embassies are, it’s the home of the politics of Iraq, and it’s in a very small concentrated area but a very fortified area that can easily be locked down. So, if it wasn’t for that fighting would’ve spilled out in front of the parliament, in front of foreign embassies.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran says the fighting came as a complete surprise – but just in the timing. This has been building for months. About a year ago, Iraq held an election that never led to a stable coalition in parliament and this summer, the stalemate came to a head.
Imran Khan: People were predicting this for a long time. There’s been a lot of infighting between very powerful political groups who each have very powerful militias. So, it was perhaps unsurprising that when you have that kind of mix, that something like this was gonna happen.
Halla Mohieddeen: And about those high temperatures – they tell you something about the political situation as well.
Ali Hashem: Interestingly, in Iraq, anytime there are protests, they happen in the summer.
Halla Mohieddeen: Ali Hashem is a senior journalist covering the Middle East, particularly Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. He’s based in Doha for Al Jazeera.
Ali Hashem: Because people lack electricity – you know, a country that’s one of the richest in the world in energy, in oil, lacking electricity.
Newsreel: Temperatures in the city of Basra have soared to about 45C, bringing misery to residents already plagued by chronic power cuts.
Ali Hashem: This is something that makes Iraqis feel, like, crazy. How would this happen?
Halla Mohieddeen: And yet, Ali says many of the people fighting last Monday and Tuesday had already been in the streets protesting for a month to reject the nomination of a new prime minister. They’d been called there by the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
Newsreel: Sadr is one of Iraq’s most important figures, wielding enormous influence over many aspects of public life.
Newsreel: His party was the biggest winner in October’s election, but he failed to form a majority coalition.
Halla Mohieddeen: He was the man at the center of last week’s violence – and then stopped it at a moments notice. Here he is speaking to his supporters last Tuesday.
Muqtada al-Sadr: There are some brutal militias, but the Sadrists shouldn’t be vulgar. I still believe that my supporters are disciplined. That’s why, if you don’t withdraw from the parliament within 60 minutes, I am not going to be the Sadrist movement leader again. I don’t even want you to stage a peaceful demonstration.
Ali Hashem: So, imagine those people who responded to Muqtada al-Sadr. They stayed there for a month until the end of August to see how much they’re loyal to him.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, to understand the root of the violence, we have to understand Muqtada al-Sadr’s position in Iraq.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran says it all comes down to his political legitimacy.
Halla Mohieddeen: This all happened because of one man, the political leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. He’s always painted himself as an outsider to Iraq’s political elite, and there is some truth to that, but for those who’ve never heard the name Muqtada al-Sadr, what should we know about him?
Imran Khan: He is a very mysterious figure. He shrouds himself in religion. He has enormous amounts of respect from his followers. He has enormous amounts of legitimacy within Iraq itself and he derives that legitimacy because, quite simply, he is an Iraqi nationalist. He doesn’t want US involvement in Iraq, unless it’s diplomatic. He doesn’t want Iranian involvement in Iraq, unless it’s diplomatic and that’s been his unique selling point as a politician.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that stance of independence, Ali says, also comes from Sadr’s background. His family is well known in the region.
Ali Hashem: Muqtada al-Sadr comes from the famous Sadr family. This family is controversial in Shia history. Muqtada al-Sadr’s father was assassinated along with two of his sons in Najaf in 1999. So, Muqtada, until that moment, Muqtada wasn’t in the picture, but after 2003, after the fall of Baghdad – US invasion – suddenly, there was someone called Muqtada who came to the scene.
Halla Mohieddeen: Ali says Sadr became very controversial very quickly after the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Newsreel: To US troops, he is the deadliest thug facing them on the streets of Baghdad. The Pentagon threw the gauntlet at him: you must desist, disband or die. Muqtada responded to those three D’s by issuing a call to arms.
Halla Mohieddeen: But Sadr took on not only the Americans, but Iraq’s Shia establishment as well. It didn’t make him very popular in Iran either.
Ali Hashem: The first thing that he did was challenging the Americans and challenging the clerics to change their approach towards the American invasion, calling on them to issue fatwas for jihad.
Halla Mohieddeen: His militia, known then as the Mahdi Army, played a major role in the fight against the US occupation and the civil war.
Ali Hashem: He was notorious. His group was notorious for sectarian killings. Later on, he decided that he wants to do politics and his movement became a political movement.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran says that combination of religion and political power is key to understanding Sadr’s base today.
Imran Khan: In 2018, he won a huge amount of seats and it was a surprise victory.
Newsreel: It’s the first election where the poorest part of Iraq’s capital has elected the winning party.
Imran Khan: But he did that because he sold himself as an Iraqi nationalist and he crossed over divides. He made deals with Sunni parties. He made deals with even the communist party. But remember the weird thing about Muqtada al-Sadr is that he doesn’t hold any political office. He’s not an MP. This is a man that doesn’t appear on talk shows and doesn’t do any of the traditional things that politicians or leaders might do. He strictly derives his authority from religion and from nationalism.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it was the political game Sadr has been playing that contributed to the fighting.
Halla Mohieddeen: In June, he pulled his MPs from parliament over who should form the government. In July, his supporters occupied the parliament. Then, on August 28 eyes turned to Iran. A Shia cleric who was Sadr’s spiritual advisor withdrew his support in a surprise retirement announcement. In a tweet, Sadr alleged the announcement was not of the cleric’s own will and then he made his own dramatic announcement.
Newsreel: Protests broke out after Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced he was quitting frontline politics.
Newsreel: This resignation, at this time, it comes at a time that the political crisis in Iraq has reached an elevated stage.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it wasn’t the first time he’s resigned. As for pulling his MPs, it’s a way of triggering a new election.
Imran Khan: It’s a political tool that he uses more than any other party incredibly well. And the reason for that is his MPs are loyal. Where you can just withdraw, you know, the majority of the parliamentarians in your party at one stroke, you’ve got more power than perhaps should be in a democracy, but that’s the way Iraqi democracy was set up.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s interesting you make this distinction between, you know, religion and the fact that he’s an Iraqi nationalist. Certainly, a lot of people who don’t know a lot about this conflict, they see Iraq going up in flames again and think this must be an interreligious squabble or something – the Sunnis versus the Shias. That’s not the case here. This is Shias versus Shias, in some sense.
Imran Khan: It is. It’s an inter-Shia conflict between two very strong political blocs.
Halla Mohieddeen: The Sadrists being one, and the Coordination Framework being the other. That bloc is linked to former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and backed by Iran.
Newsreel: A pro-Iranian bloc called the Coordination Framework has nominated Mohamed Shia’ al-Sudani for prime minister. These protestors have linked him to former premier Nouri al-Maliki.
Imran Khan: But to understand this, you’ve gotta go back to 2003 and the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Imran Khan: Before 2003, the Shias were, although the majority, in terms of population, they had no political power. Saddam Hussein was it. He was a Sunni, he looked after his own people. He’d fought a war, a bloody war, with Iran, which came to a stalemate.
Archival tape: The war that’s shaken the whole Gulf region and the wider world beyond.
Archival tape: An estimated 500,000 soldiers from both sides were killed, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
Imran Khan: And he didn’t want any kind of Shia power, particularly any Iranian influence. Then came 2003. Effectively, what that did was hand over power, not to the Americans, as most people might think, but actually to Iran. Iran saw an opportunity because there was no Saddam anymore and frankly, the Americans really didn’t know what they were doing when it came to a post-occupation Iraq. So Iran, without firing a weapon, became one of the key players. All of these Shia clerics had fled to Iran. They lived in Iran, they were given, you know, sanctuary in Iran and then post 2003, they all came back to Iraq and that’s really where the Shia power blocs came into place.
Halla Mohieddeen: Ali says it’s now a battle to be the strongest among the weak in Iraq’s fragmented power-sharing system, where no one party dominates and outside powers all have their say.
Ali Hashem: Many of the political elite in Iraq think that there should be a new sociopolitical contract in Iraq rather than this system that’s dysfunctional. But still, there is no decision, because we know Iraq is not only a country whose decisions are made inside. Iraq is a country that represents a kind of an intersection between regional and international players, who all have interests. And without a regional and international consensus, it’s very unlikely that the Iraqis could get out of this misery and these problems.
Halla Mohieddeen: Which brings us, as Imran called it, to the calm before the storm.
Halla Mohieddeen: Let’s talk about the bigger picture of Iraq. It’s been various stages of political paralysis and al-Sadr made this gamble to break it. What’s happened?
Imran Khan: Well, right now in the immediate future, there’s two key things that happen. The Supreme Court is going to make an announcement on whether elections should be held. They’ve already put that announcement off. Clearly, there’s a lot of political machinations going on. It’s likely that they’ll put that election off again. Then, we have a religious festival called Arbaeen, a religious commemoration and very, very sacred to the Shia. That’ll last until the middle of September.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran says all of the Shia groups have said they won’t take action until Arbaeen is over. But there have also been indications that after that, there may be violence.
Imran Khan: So that’s what everybody is now waiting for right now.
Halla Mohieddeen: And how much does Iraq’s future depend on what al Sadr does next? Is he the one who has the power to make or break this?
Imran Khan: Well, he’s certainly a key player but in order to fight with somebody, you need somebody to fight with and you know, that is Nouri al-Malki, who’s turning into this – once again, a bigger politician than anybody was ever expecting. If he comes back, he is, that’s an extraordinary comeback.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran says there is a real chance of civil war – but for now it’s still just a chance.
Imran Khan: There is a spark here potentially, however, cooler heads always seem to prevail in Iraq and that’s what we’ve seen in the past. So, I mean, if a political deal can be made, then I’m sure the Iraqis will take it.
Halla Mohieddeen: Ali sees the potential for a deal as well – because that’s what keeps Sadr influential. At the end of the day, he’s part of the same political elite that he has built a following railing against.
Ali Hashem: The leverage Sadr has today is because he can get people to the street to protest, to demonstrate. But when there is a civil war, no one is going to demonstrate anymore. It’s going to be weapons that are going to decide who’s going to win and who’s going to be a loser, and who’s going to be the biggest.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran, I want to talk about where all these political machinations leave the people. You’ve spent a very long time in Iraq and while we often talk to you about what’s behind the latest violence, I know you’ve seen so much potential for the people and the country there. Can you remind us what’s at stake for people there?
Imran Khan: Basically, here you have this country that should be incredibly rich. It’s the second largest oil producer in OPEC. It has religious tourism, which is, it could be a mass industry, there’s a huge amount of Islamic history here. I mean, this is the home of Babylon – the city of Babylon. This is Mesopotamia. You know the amount of people that would love to come and see that, but just can’t?
Imran Khan: It’s a country that has so much potential. It’s very young. It’s youthful. There’s an energy here. Like I say, this idea that people wanna build a better, more modern Iraq – I see it.
Halla Mohieddeen: But what he also sees is that potential draining away because people can’t get jobs for a better life. When he’s at Baghdad airport, watching the cars pull up, it’s happening in front of him.
Imran Khan: You see these young Iraqi kids, who clearly aren’t going on holiday, you know, they’re leaving the country. They look like they’ve had enough and that I think it’s always been the most heartbreaking thing, is watching the future literally leave in front of your eyes.
Halla Mohieddeen: Imran says it all comes back to what brought Iraq to this point in the first place: the US-led invasion that broke a country.
Imran Khan: I hate saying this, it gets really boring, but it’s like, you lay the blame at the Americans’ door.
Imran Khan: The potential is all here, but once again, because of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, because the opportunity Iran took to meddle in the internal affairs of Iraq, because of the short-term thinking of Iraqi politicians, we keep getting to this position where there is some peace, it lasts a couple of years and everybody pulls down the security barriers and hotels open up again, and then suddenly, within the space of 24 hours, like we saw the other day, Iraq becomes poised for something.
Imran Khan: And that is the curse, I think, of a post-occupied country.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Chloe K. Li, Ruby Zaman, Amy Walters, Negin Owliaei, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer, Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back on Friday.
This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Chloe K. Li, Ruby Zaman, Amy Walters, Negin Owliaei and Halla Mohieddeen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.