A power struggle within Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority has intensified as attempts to form a new government flounder, threatening to turn violent and ruin US-led efforts to defeat ISIS.
For the first time since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011, Shiite factions came close to taking arms against each another last month, when followers of powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Rival Shiite militiamen took up positions nearby, raising the specter of intra-Shiite fighting similar to events in the southern city of Basra in 2008, in which hundreds of people were killed.
Trucks carrying those militiamen, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, patrolled the capital in clear view of the security forces, video published on the website of Iranian-backed group Saraya al-Khorasani showed.
The crisis presents the biggest political challenge yet to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shiite Islamist who took office in 2014 promising to defeat ISIS, mend rifts with the minority Sunnis and Kurds, and root out corruption eating away at state income which has already been eroded by a slump in oil prices.
Sadr, the heir of a revered clerical dynasty, says he backs Abadi’s planned political reforms and has accused other Shiite leaders of seeking to preserve a system of political patronage that makes the public administration rife for corruption.
His followers stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone on April 30 after rival political groups blocked parliamentary approval of a new cabinet made up of independent technocrats proposed by Abadi to fight graft.
A commander in Saraya al-Khorasani, which deployed near the Green Zone in response, made it clear that they would fight rather than allow Sadr’s followers to occupy the district which houses parliament, government offices and embassies.
“We are here to kill this sedition in its cradle,” the commander, dressed in green camouflage and a black turban told his fighters, the online video shows.
The prospect of violence receded a few days later as the Sadrists left the Green Zone and the rival militiamen were replaced by army and police.
But the episode offered a glimpse into a struggle for dominance within the Shi’ite community which is supposed to be united in the push to defeat ISIS, the ultra-hardline group that seized around a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014.
“We were only inches away from a violent, bloody scenario,” said a senior Shiite lawmaker, echoing comments from security and government officials who all declined to be named speaking about internal divisions.
At a meeting on May 1 by members of the National Alliance, a loose political umbrella group formed in 2010 by the main Shiite groups including Sadr’s, the other Shiite leaders “were convinced he had crossed a line”, the lawmaker said.
Sadr did not attend the meeting but those present “sent him a warning” that his supporters could be removed by force if necessary, said the lawmaker who took part in the meeting.
Two other politicians who attended confirmed the message was sent to Sadr, a 42-year-old whom critics often deride as an upstart, accusing him of trying to dictate terms to the rest of the National Alliance.
“Unfortunately there are politicians ready to burn Iraq for their own interests and ambitions under the pretext of reforms,” said Ammar al-Hakim, a prominent Shi’ite cleric who has ties to Iran and heads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the main components of the National Alliance.
Sadr has mobilized tens of thousands of followers over the past few months to pressure Prime Minister Abadi to follow through on his reform pledges, which are also backed by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatalloh Ali al-Sistani.