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Iraq grappling with goverment crisis, pressure from Iran

September 30, 2022

Armed attacks near the border with Iran, rockets into Baghdad and an arduous path to a potential government spell an instable autumn after a violent summer.

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter inspects the damage following an Iranian cross-border attack
According to news agencies, at least 13 people have died in missile and drone strikes from Iran into IraqImage: AFP/Getty Images

Tensions resulting from the ongoing uprising in Iran have spilled over to Iraq's Kurdish Region, leaving 13 people dead and around 70 injured.

Amid the violent crackdown on demonstrators in Tehran and other cities, Iran has accused Kurdish forces in Iraq of fueling the current demonstrations that followed the death of 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish womanMahsa Amini.

Despite the international outcry on the violence in Iran and the rockets into Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan regionGeneral Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Iranian ground forces, vowed this week that the bombardments [on Iraq] would continue until "the complete disarmament of the anti-Iranian and separatist terrorist groups," according to the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency IRNA.

However, in contrast to the global condemnation of the attacks, Iraq's Foreign Ministry in Baghdad only chose to summon the Iranian ambassador to hand him "a strong note of protest as a consequence to the continuous bombing operations," Ahmed Al-Sahhaf, spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.

For Hamzeh Hadad, a political analyst in Baghdad and visiting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, this doesn't really come as a surprise.

"The Kurdistan Regional Government's security is separate from the federal government in Iraq, and they also pursue their own foreign policy. This results in weak responses from Baghdad to such attacks," he told DW.

Domestic instability

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Iraqi parties are still struggling to form a government. Iraq is home to three major demographic factions: A Muslim Shiite group, a Muslim Sunni group, and a Kurdish ethnic group. While no official power division has been implemented in the country's constitution, the groups traditionally adhere to a political agreement, that divides the Iraqi government into a Shiite prime minister, a Kurdish president and a Sunni parliamentary speaker.

However, following the elections in October 2021, the bloc of the Shiite Cleric Muqdata al-Sadr had won the most seats in parliament, but then failed to form a majority.

As a result, the country has remained under the rule of caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Khadhimi, who had taken office ahead of the elections in May 2020.

The politically instable situation was further exacerbated this August.

Violent clashes erupted between Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, known as the Coordination Framework, and loyalists of the [Iran and US-critical] Shiite al-Sadr. He had called on his followers to raid parliament in order to block the oppositional parties from forming a government.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr has announced his resignation, but there is no doubt over his ongoing significant influence on his followers.

A supporter of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr holds up Sadr's portrait
Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are loyal to him, despite his removal from politics.Image: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

For the past two months, parliamentary sessions had been suspended and politics had all but been on ice.

Only this Wednesday did parliamentarians convene for the first time since August and were asked to cast their vote on the resignation of the Sunni parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi.

Halbousi, who was initially one of the Sadr-backers, had broken with him after the clashes this summer.

The vast majority —  222 of 235 lawmakers —  voted against Halbousi's resignation.

For Hadad, this resembles a "public vote of confidence from his new political allies who did not vote for him originally. It also frees him from being counted as part of the Sadrist Movement's Coalition since they are no longer in parliament."

From his point of view, this could pave the way for forming a new government.

Members of the new Iraqi parliament convened again in parliament after two months.
Parliament was suspended after clashes in August until this week, when a majority voted against the resignation of parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. Image: Iraqi Parliament/Handout via Xinhua/picture alliance

International interests

And yet, it is way too early to expect the instable situation to end.

"This very situation takes us back to the step where government formation stalled before.That is choosing a president," Hadad said.

This view is echoed by Sajad Jiyad, a political fellow at the New York-based think tank Century Foundation. "The political crisis is not over yet though progress has been made," he told DW.

He expects another few months for a new government to be in place. "The problem for the political elite is how to keep the Sadrists in the game after they resigned from parliament," he said.

Meanwhile, foreign powers are likely to continue taking advantage of the instable political situation in Baghdad. "The more stalemates, the easier it is for foreign intervention, especially during government formation," Hadad told DW. "We saw not only Iran try and influence government formation this past year but also Turkey," he added. 

It remains to be seen in what way this could further affect the country's Kurdish north. However, as for Baghdad, Jiyad fears that "protests will be taking place which could destabilize the situation again."

The current  situation in Baghdad seems to prove his point.

Security forces close a bridge leading to the Green Zone government areas during anti-government protests, in Baghdad
Security forces closed a bridge leading to the Green Zone government areas during anti-government protestsImage: Hadi Mizban/AP Photo/picture alliance

At least three rockets fell into Baghdad's Green Zone, which is home to the parliament, during the first parliamentary session.

Seven people were injured; nobody has claimed responsibility so far.

Also, after the parliamentary session, police clashed with al-Sadr-supporters, and on Friday afternoon, "more barriers have gone up on several bridges and roads," analyst Jiyad tweeted.

Supporters of Moqtada al Sadr storm Iraqi parliament: Yasmine Mosimann from Baghdad

Edited by: Nicole Goebel

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
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