Iraq, Twenty Years Later

A supporter of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr carries the Iraqi flag during a demonstration in Basra on August 29, 2022. Image: Hussein Faleh / Getty

How the militarization of politics continues to destabilize Iraq decades after the U.S.-led invasion.

Editors’ Note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Abbas stood in front of the state television station when the first bullet whizzed by. The thirty-something had been deployed there alongside hundreds of other soldiers from the prime minister’s special division, charged with protecting the government quarters known as the Green Zone. He instinctively reached for his gun, only to remember he didn’t have it.

It was August 29, 2022. Iraq had been on edge since a parliamentary election was held eleven months prior, paralyzed by political deadlock between rival Shia parties, the threat of clashes between their military wings hanging in the air. Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party had won the elections, had withdrawn from the political process after failing to form a government. The long-feared possibility of an intra-Shia war seemed to inch closer when reports circulated that the cleric’s followers, the Sadrists, were planning to take power by force.

Iraq was being run by a caretaker government headed by then-prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The day before the fighting began, the commander in charge of the prime minister’s special division ordered an entire battalion to the gates of the state television station, called Iraqiya, located on the edge of the Green Zone. Word among the soldiers was that the Sadrists would overrun the seat of government and storm Iraqiya to proclaim a coup d’état. “A state falls through the media. If Iraqiya fell, the government would fall as well,” Abbas later told me.

Abbas knew the special division had the military capability to defend the Green Zone from an incursion by Sadr’s zealous but poorly trained, ragtag militia. After all, his was a well-trained elite unit entrusted with the lives of the prime minister, visiting heads of state and even Pope Francis when he came to Iraq in 2021 in what now seemed a distant moment of peace and unity. The division consisted of thousands of soldiers who were equipped with U.S. weaponry, including 125 Humvees and 27 Abrams tanks.

Abbas and his fellow soldiers would have had no trouble foiling a potential coup attempt. There was only one problem: they had been told not to fight.

Upon Kadhimi’s orders, the special division in charge of protecting the Green Zone had been disarmed weeks prior. “They took away our weapons and told us it was forbidden to shoot. They said, ‘Whatever the Sadrists do, if they enter the Green Zone, if they talk badly about you, if they provoke you, if they steal, you don’t get involved. The matter doesn’t concern you,’” Abbas recalled. The soldiers put their U.S.-supplied M16s in storage and stood in the streets like scarecrows in a corn field, their military uniforms a mere mirage of the state Iraq had become since 2003, with institutions hollowed out by two decades of corruption, incompetence, and poor leadership.

Unarmed, Abbas felt utterly powerless as he watched throngs of Sadr’s militia, formerly known as the Mahdi Army and later renamed Saraya Salam, pull up in dozens of machine gun-mounted pickup trucks bearing mortars and other heavy weaponry. They stopped just a few yards away from the TV station, in front of the first gate of the Green Zone, near the Ministry of Defense, from where they tried to breach the fortified perimeter. Abbas and his unit huddled together and agonized over what they’d do if the Sadrists attempted to storm the building. Without weapons and orders, there was no point in resisting. “We told ourselves, ‘The government has fallen. It’s over. We have no more value,’” Abbas said.

While Abbas and the rest of the government forces stood unarmed watching the Sadrists flood the Green Zone, thousands of soldiers from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella of mostly Shia paramilitaries whose political allies competed with Sadr for power, braced for their arrival. They too were dressed in black. They too belonged to a well-trained elite unit. But unlike the prime minister’s special division, this force was heavily armed and had clear orders: protect the PMF’s institutions with lethal force.

As the sun set over Baghdad on August 29, heavy gunfire engulfed the heart of the capital. It broke out when Sadr’s followers stormed the so-called Republican Palace, which was the seat of government. From there they moved towards the PMF’s headquarters just a small distance away, where they clashed with heavily armed PMF troops. Government forces stood by as the two sides fought it out, a decision Kadhimi justified as an attempt to avoid escalation. But many saw the government’s passiveness as a sign of weaknesses, or even complicity, in Sadr’s attempt to seize power.

From my rooftop in an adjacent neighborhood, I watched the skies illuminate as the Sadrists lobbed projectiles across the government enclave. What began with the light staccato sound of machine gun fire evolved overnight into full-blown urban battle involving rockets, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. It was the fiercest fighting the capital had seen since the United States carried out its shock and awe bombing campaign in 2003 and a stark reminder that this fractured, war-ravaged nation was still struggling to find a new steady state. My neighbors and I stayed up all night, listening to the sounds of war echo through the deserted streets amid fears that the country was on the cusp of a new conflict.

The bloody standoff lasted less than twenty-four hours, but it shed light on where Iraq stood twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. It was the ugly byproduct of an ethno-sectarian power-sharing system that has fueled relentless competition over state resources between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties who used government positions to line their pockets at the expense of the public good. It highlighted the enduring weakness of the Iraqi state two decades after the Coalition Provisional Authority dismantled institutions like the army, creating a power vacuum that was quickly filled by armed groups who continue to vie for power today. It shed light on the dangers of a system where many political actors maintain armed wings as an insurance policy should their interests not be secured through peaceful means. It also set a precedent for the future: for the first time since 2003, a political impasse had been settled through violence, with a new fault line tearing through Iraq’s Shia community.

To some, what happened inside the Green Zone didn’t come as a surprise. When I first moved to Baghdad in 2018, a military officer who had just returned home after years of fighting ISIS told me that the next war would be fought between the Shia. Now that the Sunni jihadists had been defeated, he predicted, it wouldn’t take much for longstanding tensions between the Shia to boil to the surface. He knew the different factions well, having fought against them in some of Iraq’s wars and together with them in others. He faced the Sadr’s Mahdi Army in 2008, when former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a campaign to drive the militants out of Iraq’s southern port city of Basra. Years later he shared the battlefield with the PMF after the paramilitaries were mobilized through a religious edict to help defeat ISIS. I asked him which side would prevail. “The PMF is better equipped, but the Sadrists have experience in urban battles,” he said. “Ultimately, it will depend on which side the government takes.”

Indeed, the government’s role in the August clashes deserves closer examination, not least because prime minister Kadhimi was Washington’s man in Baghdad. That alliance was forged when he served as the head of Iraq’s spy agency, which enjoys close cooperation with the U.S. government. Kadhimi was appointed prime minister in 2020 on the back of mass protests calling for an end to corruption and Iranian influence. Sadr made his rise to power possible: the cleric had successfully co-opted the demonstrations by positioning himself as a reformist who wanted to meet protesters’ demands, though in reality he used the movement to strengthen his hand for the coming elections. Kadhimi seemed like a good choice to help execute Sadr’s plan. His reputation as a liberal human rights defender would placate Iraq’s streets and Western capitals alike, while his lack of a political base made him firmly beholden to Sadr’s agenda. Kadhimi’s promises to rein in Iran-aligned groups earned him plaudit among Western officials, who remained steadfast in their support even as allegations of corruption and abuse of power began to surface. Kadhimi’s office didn’t reply to requests for an interview.

Iran-aligned parties and the PMF, on the other hand, eyed Kadhimi’s ascension to the premiership with suspicion. They disliked his close—in their eyes unbalanced—relationship with the West. They accused the former spy chief of having provided the intelligence for the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and deputy PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a drone stroke near the Baghdad airport in January 2020. The initial distrust evolved into a sort of cold war when Kadhimi began cracking down on the PMF, ordering raids on bases and arresting individuals he accused (sometimes wrongfully) of targeting U.S. forces and activists. PMF commanders could not comprehend why the United States would back a government controlled by Sadr, whose Mahdi Army had not long ago been the American’s biggest foe, carrying out attacks on American forces and bearing responsibility for many casualties. “Isn’t it ironic that the U.S. is now supporting Sadr, while Sadr fought against them after 2003?” one PMF commander asked me.

Kadhimi had been appointed for a transition period and was tasked with holding early elections. Although he publicly renounced any electoral ambitions, it was an open secret that he sought a second term. This hinged on Sadr dominating the next government. For a while, the odds seemed in Kadhimi’s favor. The Sadrists took advantage of a new election law which increased the number of electoral districts and swapped party lists for a first-past-the-post system, a change that catered to parties with a strict hierarchy and ability to mobilize and control their base. The Sadrists set in motion their electoral machine, funneling votes to strategically placed candidates and winning a plurality with 73 of out 329 seats. It was a major gain for Sadr, while the PMF’s political allies—in particular, Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah Alliance—paid a heavy price for allowing multiple candidates to compete against one another in the same district.

Emboldened by his victory, Sadr wanted to assert himself as the sole leader of the Shia in Iraq. He announced plans to form a majority government with a tripartite alliance with Sunnis and Kurds, while excluding other Shia parties. Unsurprisingly, Sadr’s Shia opponents, a loose coalition of parties that become known as the Coordination Framework (Frame in short), refused to be sidelined.

Western observers and media have often mistakenly portrayed the Frame as a pro-Iranian alliance, even though it brought together a wide spectrum of Shia politicians including former prime minister Haider al-Abadi, moderate Islamist Ammar al-Hakim, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the political affiliates of the PMF, which had been formed with Iranian support and still maintained ties with Iraq’s eastern neighbor. The Frame’s members varied in their political views and could be best described as an anti-Sadr alliance. In the months after the elections, they used an effective combination of negotiation and coercion, eventually bringing about the collapse of Sadr’s tripartite alliance. In June 2022, Sadr withdrew from the political process, ordering his seventy-three MPs to resign. The Frame, now the largest bloc in Parliament, pressed ahead with forming a new government. They tried, in vain, to bring Sadr back into the fold by offering him control over several ministries. But they refused to keep Kadhimi on as prime minister.

Kadhimi’s prospects for a second term began to look slim. Few will say this on record, but many politicians, including senior officials who served in Kadhimi’s government, believe that he allowed the Sadrists to take over the Green Zone to engineer a state of emergency for political gain. “Kadhimi tried to invest in this crisis to extend his stay. He was counting on the Sadrists,” a senior government official told me. These suspicions only grew when Kadhimi disarmed the special division and neglected to take action after officials reportedly briefed him that the Sadrists were smuggling weapons into Parliament. Kadhimi’s adversaries—the Frame and the PMF— began to believe that he was betting on a conflict between the Shia to remain in power.

To many Shia leaders, an intra-Shia war was a frightening prospect that risked upending their two-decade dominance over government and could wreak devastating consequences on the community. In a society where party loyalties cut across tribes and households, such a conflict could potentially pit brothers, cousins, and neighbors against one another, with tribal law unleashing an endless cycle of retaliation. Not many were prepared to cross that red line.

Abbas knew what the Sadrists were up to from his brother Ali, a loyal disciple of Sadr’s. In late July, weeks before the clashes erupted, Ali joined thousands of Sadrists—at that point still unarmed—as they pulled down concrete barriers surrounding the Green Zone. Having withdrawn from the political process, Sadr had reverted to his old populist tactic of causing trouble in the streets. The Sadrists set siege to Parliament, trucking in food and tents while Sadr’s Saraya Salam militia guarded the entrance. They also brought in weapons, which were stashed away for later use. Ali called Abbas from inside the marble-floored halls of power. “We will take control of the government now,” he said.

While Abbas stood outside Parliament, disarmed and humiliated, Ali relished the Sadrists’ momentary triumph. Escaping the sweltering summer heat and power outages that afflicted much of the country, the rioters turned the siege into a celebration, dancing late into the night in rituals typical to mark the mourning month of Muharram. “It’s like heaven here; there’s twenty-four-hour electricity,” Ali told Abbas when they spoke on the phone. Ali blamed Sadr’s rivals for the deplorable state of Iraq’s services and infrastructure, even though the Sadrists, as part of a system of governance that divided ministerial posts between all political parties, had been in charge of the electricity and health ministries for years.

Abbas pleaded with his brother to go home. There were reports that the PMF, whose headquarters were located just a few hundred yards from the Sadrist sit-in at Parliament, was boosting its troop levels inside the Green Zone. He tried to convince Ali of the futility of Sadr’s “revolution.” Sadr was no better than the rest of Iraq’s self-serving elites, he argued, all of whom were using their followers to achieve political goals without providing anything in return. “You have a family and children. What good will Sadr be if something happens to you?” Abbas told Ali. But there was no room for reason. Ali was driven by his love for “the Sayyid,” the Arabic word for “sir” used to address religious men who claim to trace their lineage to Prophet Mohammed. Sadr’s word was his command.

Sadr has possessed a unique ability to mobilize a cult-like following ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq deposed Saddam Hussein. A descendant from an influential family of clerics, Sadr piggybacked on his late father’s religious clout to mount an insurgency against American forces in 2003. He then exploited his battlefield credentials to enter politics, but never dismantled his militia in what has become a common, though unconstitutional, model to compete for power in post-2003 Iraq. Sadr’s party has participated in elections since 2010 and has become a linchpin of the political establishment. But this never stopped him from staging protests against it. It was under the guise of reform that Sadr sought to consolidate his power in the wake of the 2021 election, arguing that Iraq’s broad consensus governments had failed Iraqis.

At the end of August, Abbas’s usual seven-day rotation was extended indefinitely. The soldiers “guarding” the Green Zone were told to remain on duty amid expectations that the Sadrists, having occupied Parliament in vain for weeks now, would seek escalation. Abbas’s frustration over not seeing his family blended with the unease of being caught between two armed groups whose eagerness to fight far exceeded his. Abbas, like many of his colleagues, had been drawn to the military by the prospect of a stable salary rather than a sense of duty to serve a country he saw as hijacked by a cabal of corrupt politicians and their militias. Kadhimi’s decision to disarm the unit further crushed the soldiers’ morale.

The PMF fighters who repelled the Sadrists lacked neither morale nor weapons. Much of the fighting was done by recently recruited special forces. They stood apart from the PMF’s usual rank and file, many of whom were middle-aged, potbellied men who had joined the PMF en masse in 2014 when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling on all able-bodied men to stem ISIS’s sweeping advance towards the capital. I had seen them on the battlefield back in 2017. They lacked basic military etiquette and were deemed so unorganized and reckless that some journalists wouldn’t embed with them for safety reasons. The PMF’s special force, in contrast, was formed after the war against ISIS had ended. It consisted of young fighters who were handpicked by the PMF’s chief of staff and put through a year of intensive training. This would be their first mission.

I spoke to the commander in charge of the PMF’s special force months later, at the house of a Shia politician who had convinced him to meet me. The PMF’s leadership was still reluctant to engage with Westerners ever since 2020, when the United States had killed their second-in-charge Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. What’s more, the PMF’s role in the fighting had thus far been shrouded in mystery, and they preferred to keep it that way. The PMF was part of the state security apparatus and reported to the prime minister, but in engaging the Sadrists, it had acted outside the chain of command. Revealing its role could provoke a new backlash and spark calls for accountability. The commander spoke to me without approval from his superiors and didn’t want his name mentioned. During a two-hour conversation over a steady supply of tea and coffee, he gave his version of events.

The PMF didn’t want bloodshed between the Shia, he explained. It reluctantly stepped in to “protect the system” from collapse. Politically, this meant ensuring Shia dominance over the government by thwarting Sadr’s alliance with the Sunnis and Kurds. Militarily, it meant protecting government institutions from a violent takeover by the Sadrists. “The PMF didn’t have the intention to clash with the Sadrists. But there was preparation to protect our positions and to protect the Green Zone in case the government was paralyzed,” the commander said. The PMF had lost trust in Kadhimi as the commander in chief and began to act autonomously. “Everything we did during Kadhimi’s time was without his approval,” he said.

PMF reinforcements gradually trickled into the Green Zone months before the fighting. Some arrived dressed in civilian clothing; others were smuggled in with supply trucks. The mobilization reached its peak when the Sadrists first occupied Parliament at the end of July. A staggering twelve thousand PMF troops were packed inside the small government enclave at that time, distributed across the different PMF bases that were scattered between government buildings and foreign embassies. The most competent fighters, however, were concentrated in a single street. About two thousand soldiers from the PMF’s elite unit had been given the order to protect the PMF headquarters as well as the residencies of Nouri al-Maliki and PMF chief Faleh al-Fayadh, which were all located along the same stretch of road leading from the Ministry of Defense to the Republican Palace.

When the Sadrists stormed the Republican Palace, located just a few hundred yards away, the commander was inside the PMF’s headquarters. He and other PMF leaders kept track of the crowds on flashing computer monitors that screened live footage from security cameras. When the rioters approached the PMF headquarters, the commander took a small force of around 140 and went to meet them in what he described as a last-ditch attempt to avert bloodshed. “I told them, ‘Please change your path. We have two thousand deployed in this line. If you enter, they will shoot,’” he said. The Sadrists didn’t back down. The PMF commander gave the order to shoot in the air in an attempt to push them back.

The sound of machine gun fire first rang out around sunset. Reports quickly spread that the PMF was killing unarmed Sadrists. Videos of chaotic scenes from inside the Green Zone flooded social media, showing Sadrists running for cover from a relentless volley of bullets. The Sadrists fell back to their base in the Parliament building, where many grabbed the prepositioned light weaponry, taking up position outside the complex to mount their defense. Not long after, heavily armed Saraya Salam reinforcements began to arrive from Sadr City and the Shola neighborhoods, opening a second front near the Ministry of Defense where Abbas was cowering behind concrete barriers, and a third one near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within minutes, the Green Zone was transformed into a battlefield—the first time it had seen combat since the United States had bombed it in 2003.

The Sadrists had not expected to face opposition. By several accounts, Sadr had been told that unarmed protesters could take the Green Zone within hours while Saraya Salam would remain on standby. In the end, reinforcements had to be called in from the northern shrine city of Samarra and places as far as the city of Nassriya, located 215 miles south of the capital. Seasoned Saraya Salam commanders were reportedly embarrassed by the level of disorganization. The Sadrists still resembled the motley insurgents who had faced off with American forces in messy street battles. In stark contrast, the PMF’s elite unit looked like a disciplined fighting force. Facing mounting losses and pressure from the Shia religious establishment to de-escalate, a deflated Sadr appeared on television the next day and called on his supporters to go home. The country breathed a sigh of relief as it stepped back from the precipice of civil war. At least sixty-three people had died, fifty-five of them Sadrists. Disenchanted, Abbas’s brother Ali returned back home to power cuts, unpaved streets, and his daily wage job. Sadr’s attempt to seize power had failed.

In November I got into a taxi and made my way to the slums of Sadr City, the cleric’s eponymous stronghold in northeastern Baghdad. The Frame had formed a new government on the heels of the PMF’s victory, appointing Mohammed al-Sudani as prime minister. Kadhimi had left the country. Sadr was laying low. He had turned his attention to religious matters and placed his politicians and military leaders under a gag order. I wanted to know if support for the cleric had waned following the debacle in the Green Zone and had arranged to meet the family of one of the fifty-five victims.

The car trudged along Sadr City’s potholed roads, the stench of sewage and trash dumps hanging in the air as we crisscrossed through the unofficial settlements that made up large parts of the sprawling, neglected neighborhood. Posters of martyrs who had fallen over the past two decades in Sadr’s name were pinned to poles lining the streets. Children played in muddy streets covered with a canopy of makeshift cables that supplied intermittent electricity. Sadr’s party had shared power in various governments for more than a decade, but there was little to show for it here.

The family stepped out to greet me and led me inside the modest hall of their house, where I sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor among several male relatives. Next to the entrance hung a picture of the martyr, fifty-year-old Ahmed Abdul Wahid. On the adjacent wall was a picture of Sadr and his revered father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, an ardent opponent of Saddam Hussein who was assassinated in 1999. The family’s decades of unwavering loyalty to Sadr were evident in the string of pictures Ahmed’s cousin Abu Zahra showed me on his phone. In one of them, Ahmed wore military fatigues and held a gun, posing in front of a Saraya Salam vehicle. Others depicted him during the many anti-corruption protests Sadr had staged over the years. The last pictures showed Ahmed alongside Abu Zahra in front of Parliament.

Abu Zahra then played me a video of the moment when Ahmed was shot dead. Judging by the dim light, it must have been around sunset, the time when the clashes first began. Blood streamed from Ahmed’s head as a group of men tried to carry him to safety. Ahmed had survived the 1991 Shia uprising against Saddam, years of imprisonment by the Baathists, an insurgency against the Americans as part of the Mahdi Army, and the war against ISIS, only to be killed in a squabble over power between the Shia. I asked Abu Zahra if Sadr bore any responsibility for his cousin’s death. “Sadr didn’t expect this kind of reaction,” he told me. “He didn’t expect that martyrs will fall.”

My hosts presented an alternative version of events inside the Green Zone, one that I heard repeated by other Sadrists in a uniformity typical for the movement. The revolution, as they still called it, was a popular uprising that represented a broad spectrum of Iraqi society. The Sadrists weren’t the perpetrators of a failed coup, they said, but the victims of a desperate attempt to reform a broken system. Although my hosts were all Saraya Salam members and present during the clashes, they told me there was no official order for Saraya Salam to deploy. Instead, the decision to take up arms was a spontaneous response by individuals and tribes after the PMF killed their relatives like Ahmed. Had Sadr unleashed Saraya Salam, they claimed, they would have annihilated their opponents within hours.

The Sadrists’ defeat, though they didn’t call it as such, had left a bitter taste in the family’s mouth. The bloodshed had yet to be avenged. They were still waiting for accountability for Ahmed’s death. As was often the case with sensitive matters, the government’s investigation had been swept under the rug. The Frame’s “militia government,” as they called it, didn’t represent them. “We are confident that they will not last. Their greed will fail their efforts,” one of the men told me. The family couldn’t imagine that the brothers of those killed could once again co-govern with the killers. The only option was for Sadr to retake power. They wanted fresh elections to be held within a year, under a new law that guaranteed for the winner to form a government. And if that didn’t happen, I asked? They were ready to answer the Sayyid’s call to arms once again.

The author has further detailed the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces during the post-election crisis in a forthcoming research paper for the London School of Economics Middle East Centre.

Simona Foltyn is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in Baghdad. Her work focuses on armed struggle, social justice, corruption, and human rights.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

©2024. Homeland Security Review. Use Our Intel. All Rights Reserved. Washington, D.C.