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Iraq’s Political Paralysis Is a Result of a System the U.S. Helped Create

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A months-long effort to create a new government in Iraq fell into disarray after the influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr asked all 73 lawmakers in his political bloc to withdraw from parliament on Sunday. They followed through that day, with the Parliament Speaker accepting their request. Sadr’s candidate for Prime Minister stepped back from vying for the role, too.

The withdrawal significantly disrupts the make-up of the 329-seat legislative body—likely giving more parliamentary power to pro-Iran parties. It could also help align Sadr’s party with Iraqi protesters who have since 2019 condemned the country’s political system altogether, if the move is viewed as a rejection of the status quo.

Experts say the political paralysis since elections in October is partly due to long simmering discontent among Iraqis who feel the political system prioritizes keeping elites in power over providing essential services such as access to electricity and clean water. In the short term, it’s also caused by Sadr’s inability to push through political reforms that would have consolidated his party’s power.

Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s political system was set up under U.S. auspices as a consensus government that provides a seat at the table for all major political parties. “That may sound good in theory but what it amounted to was just a division of the spoils and political power, so corruption ran rampant,” says David Romano, a professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University. “No one really had to do anything or perform because they were guaranteed their share of power every election just by virtue of coming from major ethno-sectarian communities.”

Sadr, who is viewed largely as an Iraqi nationalist and populist leader, has argued that his call to withdraw his supporters from parliament is in service of the Iraqi people. “If the survival of the Sadrist bloc is an obstacle to the formation of the government, then all representatives of the bloc are ready to resign from Parliament,” Sadr said in a statement.

According to experts, having a consensus government is partly to blame for cementing a system that is unresponsive to the needs of the Iraqi people. Under this style of governance, elites pilfered state institutions and used them to build personalized patronage networks, says Fanar Haddad, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen and expert on Iraqi politics. “The elites in question claimed to represent communities but they never were representative of the communities,” Haddad says. “It raised the political relevance of ethnic and sectarian identities because they became the primary currency of political life.”

Sadr, whose party fared well in the October elections, wanted to use his electoral advantage to break that tradition so that the government could have a freer hand to pass legislation and enact policies, Haddad says. “Ultimately, [Sadr’s move is] about creating a system with less players that excludes some of his competitors and helps him assert dominance within the political system,” Haddad adds. Sadr has been blocked in his attempts to do that by opposition parties, who have resorted to derailing parliamentary sessions and other tactics.

As a result, little has changed. “Whenever you have an election, it’s the same leaders that come back, the same last names, the same people playing a game of musical chairs—shuffling their people around government. And so you don’t really see change coming from that,” says Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme and director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank focused on international affairs.

The primary divisions in Iraq are traditionally thought of as those along Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish lines—who make up 62%, 30%, and 16% of the country’s population, respectively, according to a 2014 Pew poll. (Kurds are almost entirely Sunni, meaning Iraq’s religious breakdown is roughly 60% Shia and 40% Sunni.) However, Mansour says that the main source of tension for the last decade has actually been between the political elites and Iraqi masses, rather than between the various sects and ethnic groups. “The paralysis is primarily due to an elite that is both economically and ideologically bankrupt and because of that the population is rising up against their own leaders.”

Between 2019-2021, mass demonstrations swept through Iraqi cities in protest of political sectarianism and the state’s failure to provide jobs or basic services such as electricity and sewage. Those protests prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the October elections that saw Sadr’s bloc win 73 seats.

Read more: Iraq Protests: What Do the Protesters Want?

Mansour says that because the protests are against the entire system, political parties like Sadr’s play close attention to securing the support of Iraqis on the street. Analysts suggest that Sadr, a populist leader, may have resorted to this relatively extreme tactic of withdrawal as a way to align himself with the masses. “The parliamentary bloc is not the only source of power. It also competes with military power and street power,” says Haddad. Sadr may want to project a message that his party was so against the system that they resigned altogether, Haddad says. “His plan may be not just to mobilize people but to call for demonstrations in order to bring down the forthcoming government and humiliate his opponents.”

Experts add that to deal with the vacuum left by the resignations, candidates who earned the second highest number of votes in the given parliamentary district would be able to replace them. However, there’s skepticism that Sadrists will actually entirely withdraw from the government. “I don’t think it’s irreversible and this is a tactic through which he can apply pressure on and possibly outflank his opponents,” Haddad says.

In the last few years, the Sadrists have become the most powerful party in the government—and subsequently one that many Iraqis blame for their grievances—but they simultaneously want to be the face of protest and opposition, Mansour says. “The fundamental dilemma the Sadrists are facing is that they want to do both.”

But for many Iraqis, these parliamentary squibbles are hardly top of mind, given the state of the country’s public services. “There is this deep sense that what should be on paper a fabulously wealthy country can’t even keep the lights on. It’s an unresponsive political system, [for] almost 20 years now,” Haddad says.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com