Iraq 10 years on:

The Shia are in power in Iraq – but not in control

The Legacy - Day 4. The Shia - On paper Iraq's religious majority also runs the country. In reality, sectarian divisions make it virtually ungovernable

Iraq is the first Arab country to be ruled by a Shia government since Saladin overthrew the Fatimids in Egypt in 1171. But Shia rule is deeply troubled, and Shia leaders have been unable to share power in a stable way that satisfies the Sunni, the Kurds and even the Shia community.

This is not wholly the leaders’ fault. They fear the Kurds want independence and the Sunni hope to regain their old dominance. Qusay Abdul Wahab al-Suhail, the Sadrist deputy speaker of parliament, says “the problem is that the Sunni do not accept power in the hands of the Shia”.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s response to all this has been to grab as much authority as he can, circumventing agreements that would parcel out power in a nominally fair way, that, in practice, paralyses the state machinery. The government in the Green Zone, the great fortress it inherited from the Americans, is not shy about its sectarian allegiance. Shia banners and posters of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein decorate checkpoints and block-houses in the Green Zone and much of the rest of Baghdad, including prisons and police stations.

Mr Maliki’s efforts to monopolise power – though less effective than his critics allege – have alienated powerful Shia individuals, parties and religious institutions. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shia religious leader of immense influence, whom the Americans at the height of their power found they could not defy, will no longer see the Prime Minister’s emissaries. The marji’iyyah – the small group of men at the top of the Shia religious hierarchy – have come to see the Prime Minister as a provoker of crises that discredit Shi’ism and may break up the country. Iran, the only other large Shia-controlled state, with strong but not overwhelming influence in Iraq, says privately that it is unhappy with Mr Maliki, but does not want a political explosion in the country while it is facing ever-mounting pressure over Syria, its other Arab ally, and its economy is buckling under the impact of sanctions.

Iran tells Iraqi politicians it would like Mr Maliki to stay in office until the parliamentary elections in 2014 but maybe not thereafter. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support has been crucial for Mr Maliki in the past, says he wants the Prime Minister to go, though the Sadrists remain an important part of his government. The idea of including all the opponents of the government within it may have seemed a good way of giving all interests a share of the cake, but means a leadership so fragmented that no decision can be taken.

The Sadrists’ position is the most interesting and significant because they have so frequently made the running in Iraqi politics before and after Saddam Hussein’s fall. They are highly religious, but also nationalistic and populist. In the 1990s, after the crushing of the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in the wake of the Gulf war, it was Muqtada’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (sometimes called Sadr II), and his movement who provided the most important internal resistance to Saddam. He was killed by government assassins, along with two of his sons, in Najaf in 1999. In 1980, Saddam Hussein had executed Muqtada’s cousin and father-in-law, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr (called Sadr I), a founder of the al-Dawa party which Mr Maliki now leads.

After the US and British invasion, Muqtada opposed the US-led occupation and founded the Mehdi Army. When the US occupation authorities unwisely moved against him, his militiaman took over much of southern Iraq, an uprising that culminated in the siege of Najaf in 2004. I visited their cemetery – part of the Wadi al-Salaam, which is for all Shia and the largest cemetery in the world – where some 5,000 Mehdi Army fighters are buried. Large colour photographs of the dead, usually sincere-looking young men staring straight at the camera, form the headstones for the dead. Not far away, worshippers pray at the glittering tomb of Sadr II who was also called “the white lion” because of his snow-white beard.

The appeal of the Sadrists is also tribal and social: in the cities and towns the shopkeepers in the market oppose the Sadrists and the porters and labourers support him. The devout strongly feel the appeal of a dynasty of Shia martyrs who combine religious activism with a strong sense of Iraqi identity. Sadrist veterans say that their striking power and unity is enhanced by strong tribal bonds, particularly in places like Sadr City, their biggest stronghold with a population of three million people.

The Mehdi Army became the ruthless cutting edge of the Shia offensive against the Sunni after the blowing up of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006. Thousands of tortured bodies were picked up in the streets of Baghdad over the next two years. For Sunni, Muqtada became a living symbol of the perpetrators of these atrocities against them, though he says the Mehdi Army was by then out of his control and he stood the militiamen down in 2007. It was later dissolved after bloody confrontations with government and US forces.

The Sadrists are seeking to transform themselves from a feared paramilitary organisation into a respected political movement. There are parallels here with the way Sinn Fein and the IRA in Northern Ireland demilitarised during the 1990s in order to gain power constitutionally and share it with their former enemies. Earlier this year Muqtada attended a Christian service in the Our Lady of Salvation Church in central Baghdad where some 50 worshippers had been slaughtered by al-Qa’ida in 2010. He later prayed in the Sunni Abdul-Qadir al-Gailani mosque in central Baghdad. He supports the protests in Anbar and Sunni areas on the condition they do not demand regime change. He said: “We support the demands of the people but I urge them to safeguard Iraq’s unity.” He attacked Maliki for giving the impression that the Shia want domination over Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Mandeans and Jews in Iraq. He added that “what was happening in Anbar is not a crisis, but a healthy phenomenon that reflects a popular and democratic movement.”

The Sadrists have gone back and forth with Mr Maliki over the last two years. They often denounce him but observers note that at crucial moments they appear to pull their punch. Muqtada, though often labelled by the Western media as a “firebrand cleric”, has always been a subtle and cautious politician, underestimated by the Americans during the occupation (“they never figured out that he was anti-Iranian”, says one Iraqi observer). Critics say the Sadrists are eager to have it both ways, simultaneously supporting and opposing Mr Maliki. In their defence, it should be said that the Kurds and other political parties behave similarly and this is the nature of Iraqi politics. Mr Maliki plays the same game, and, although the Sadrists have several ministers in his cabinet, he holds 600-1,000 of their militants in jail for fighting Americans and government forces before Muqtada reconciled with him.

Probably the Sadrists do not want to go into outright opposition to Mr Maliki until they know they can displace him. Diaa al-Asadi, a linguistics expert, former minister and the secretary general of the al-Ahrar bloc, as the Sadrist movement is called, says that in his personal opinion: “We are not talking about Maliki’s integrity or him being good or bad. He is a person who does not know how to plan. He is a simple-minded person. He is focused on undermining his enemies. He doesn’t have a vision of rebuilding Iraq.” He ticks off as acceptable the Sunni protesters’ demands, such as the release of prisoners, but adds: “There are some slogans used by the demonstrators saying there should be a revolution against the Shia because they come from Iran.”

The Sadrist movement is eager to show that it helps ordinary Iraqis who understandably do not believe that the state will do anything to aid them or, if it does, it will act only because of outside influence. At the Muhsin mosque in Sadr City last month two local Sadrist leaders, one a tribal dignitary, were sitting on a carpet with people, swiftly dealing with their requests and complaints.

“We use the tribal connection because of the weakness of the police,” said a Sadrist official. One man called Jassim al-Hamash said: “My house was destroyed in the fighting between the Americans and the Mehdi Army in 2008 and I am still looking for compensation.” He was told that the relevant government department would be contacted and asked to take action. Another man wanted squatters removed from his property and a third said that his community wanted to build three schools but was facing government obstructionism. He was told that a member of al-Sadr’s office would accompany government officials for discussions at the school construction site. He appeared satisfied. This belief that government will not do anything without backing or “pull” is correct and not so different from the operation of political machines in Boston, New York or Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Outside Baghdad in the overwhelmingly Shia south of the country, people are poorer than the capital, though security is better and the atmosphere more relaxed. There are more schools, hospitals, bridges and roads under construction. In the holy city of Najaf there is a continuing sound of drills and jack-hammers in the construction site in front of the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali. Until recently, business was booming and dozens of hotels are under construction to meet demand from hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visiting the shrine. But economic sanctions on Iran have hit business and shops selling mementos and religious items are sacking workers. Everywhere in Iraq there is a hunger for government jobs, the only reliable source of employment. Diaa al-Asadi says he receives about 150 calls a day and most of them are about getting people jobs. Where one party is in control, as the Sadrists are in Maysan province in south-east Iraq, there are more signs of economic activity.

Amara, the capital of the province with about 500,000 inhabitants, has the benefit of 24-hours-a-day electricity from Iran. Even so, in a province with a population of 1.1 million, 130,000 are unemployed. One lesson is that a permanent supply of electricity is essential for the restoration of a normal life in Iraq. Relying on small generators is not enough, particularly when people need air-conditioning and fridges in the scorching summers. Farmers lack power to pump water from the rivers to their fields and orchards, which they then abandon. Prices have gone up. It used to be said in Iraq that “if you are poor, live on bread and tomatoes” but tomatoes that once cost 40¢ a kilo now sell at the equivalent of over a dollar.

After visiting the cities of southern Iraq on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers I was left with the impression that in the Shia heartlands, development is painfully slow even if it is more evident than in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s wars and UN sanctions mean that very little was built for 30 years. People need jobs but lack skills. Slums in Basra looked terrible before 2003 and they still do. Heaps of rotting garbage line the streets often with empty garbage trucks mysteriously parked beside them. Herds of goats graze on them. A local official in Basra explained “the minister knows about this but can’t get his director generals to do anything.”

Iraqi politicians say the Sadrists may lose some votes in the local elections in April because of Muqtada’s openly expressed sympathy for the Sunni protesters. “But in the long term I expect they will be kingmakers who decide what happens after Maliki,” said one leader.

Yet, all these calculations may become obsolete if Iraq is destabilised by the reverberations from the war in Syria. The moderation of the Sunni protesters in Anbar and the sympathetic response of Sadrists is important because these were the two main protagonists in the sectarian civil war six years ago. But suspicions run deep and people fear the ingredients are there for a new sectarian war, however much the thought horrifies them.

Where are they now? Tariq Aziz

In the early 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran, Tariq Aziz was a friend of the West. He was often described as the international face of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and as deputy prime minister he was fiercely loyal to the Iraqi leader.

Aziz, a Christian from the city of Mosul, was an omnipresent spokesman for Saddam’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait – an adventure he later claimed to have tried to dissuade Saddam from undertaking. He was equally visible years later, haranguing the international media as he tried to prevent the 2003 invasion of his own country.

After surrendering to US forces on April 24, 2003, he was sentenced by an Iraqi court to 22 years for complicity in a bloody campaign against Iraq’s Kurds. He received the death penalty in 2010 for the persecution of Islamic opposition parties during Saddam’s rule.

Aziz, now 76, is currently being held at Camp Cropper in western Baghdad. His lawyers say he is suffering from depression, as well as diabetes and heart disease. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has previously said he will never sign off on Aziz’s death sentence.

Further reading:

Ten years on from the war, how the world forgot about Iraq  - The Legacy - Day 1:  A nation in crises

How Baghdad became a city of corruption  - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 2:  Money talks

The Sunni rise again - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 3:  A nation divided

From death to dollars: How Iraq’s Kurds struck it rich - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 5:  The Kurds

A disaster waiting to repeat itself - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 6: The mistakes

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