To put his favoured candidate in office, Moqtada al-Sadr has agreed to bring an end to protests, sources involved in negotiations told MEE
Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is attempting to end four months of anti-government demonstrations to uphold a broader agreement which guarantees Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as Iraq’s new prime minister, three Shia heads of political blocks involved in the deal told Middle East Eye.
The agreement, made in Qom in Iran last month, was one Iraqis widely understood to have been made, stirring protesters who resent the lack of transparency as the country’s future path forged in backroom deals.
However, this is the first time details of the agreement have been revealed.
Among the details are that Allawi – who has promised to implement many of the protesters’ demands including fighting corruption and bringing the killers of demonstrators to justice – has a limited set of tasks, outlined in the deal.
‘ [Allawi] is weaker than Abdul-Mahdi, and they chose him precisely because he is weak’
– Shia political bloc leader
These tasks include restoring the prestige of the state and imposing security, creating conditions required to hold parliamentary elections within a year, abiding by the parliament’s decision to remove foreign forces from Iraq, and proceeding with the integration of the Hashd al-Shaabi militias into the Iraqi army ordered by former prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, according to the Shia leaders.
His mandate, however, does not cover the promises he has made to protesters, and he has been chosen to replace Abdul Mahdi because he can be easily managed, they said.
“He is weaker than Abdul Mahdi, and they chose him precisely because he is weak,” one of the leaders told MEE.
“He is not allowed to open any real corruption files and his government is not authorised to make any strategic decisions, including removing foreign forces from Iraq.”
He added: “His government will be transitional, and Najaf [where Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani is based] clearly said that the transitional government is not allowed to make any strategic decisions that may harm the country later.”
Protests, assassinations and deals
For the past four months, Iraqis have been protesting in Baghdad and nine Shia provinces in southern Iraq, calling for basic services and more jobs, leaders to be held accountable for corruption, new electoral laws and the end of foreign interference.
More than 550 demonstrators have been killed and about 25,000 injured as the Iraqi government and its allies, Iranian-backed armed factions, have led a bloody suppression campaign.
At the end of November, Abdul Mahdi submitted his resignation after Sistani, representing the supreme religious authority in Najaf, called on the House of Representatives to withdraw their confidence from his government.
Sistani’s call came after security forces killed 32 protesters with live bullets within hours in Nasiriyah without clear justification.
Since then, the country has been led by a caretaker government which had been in power for just weeks when the US assassinated top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, near Baghdad International Airport on 3 January.
The deal was made on the sidelines of a reconciliation meeting in Qom held in early January between Sadr, who has long positioned himself as a nationalist opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq, and representatives of the Iran-backed armed factions.
During this meeting, they agreed to form a “united resistance front” led by Sadr against the United States, in response to the US assassinations of Soleimani and Muhandis on Iraqi soil.
Immediately after the groups pledged allegiance to Sadr as the front’s leader, negotiations developed on the agreement that would bring Allawi to power, the Shia leaders told MEE.
Eight weeks of talks
The negotiations, which lasted for around eight week, were held between Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Iranian-backed Fatah bloc and the leader of the Badr Organisation, one of the largest Iraqi armed factions.
MEE understands that most of the meetings were held in Sadr’s home in Qom exclusively between Sadr and Amiri, with the occasional attendance of Sadr’s top aides. Iranian officials were not directly involved or present, those involved told MEE.
In the end, the two men agreed that the nominee for prime minister would be decided by political consensus, rather than being the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc as the Iraqi constitution requires, and, more specifically, that those involved would support Sadr’s candidate of choice.
In exchange for these elements, the government would bring an end to the demonstrations, regain control of the country’s security, and ensure that state institutions, including schools and universities, would reopen, three top Shia leaders familiar with the talks told MEE.
‘We did not ask him to end the demonstrations, but he offered it. He wants to be a leader for everyone, so we told him: Please’
– Shia political block leader
“The rapprochement [with al-Sadr] came under the umbrella of the unity of the position against the Americans, then it developed into a political consensus,” a prominent Fatah leader and a commander of an armed faction involved in the talks told MEE.
The demonstrations started with demands from the people, the leader said, but have increasingly devolved largely into acts of sabotage. Roads are blocked, private and state buildings have been burnt down and those who refuse to participate in sit-ins have been threatened. Two-thirds of these acts, he said, were the work of Sadr’s followers.
“So, any treatment of the situation without getting Muqtada [al-Sadr] to be involved, would not succeed. His people had to be neutralised . . . We did not ask him to end the demonstrations, but he offered it. He wants to be a leader for everyone, so we told him: please.”
Immediately after all the details were agreed upon, Sadr asked his followers to return to major demonstration areas on Friday, including Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Hours later, thousands of Sadr’s armed wing, the Saraya al-Salam fighters who are known as the “blue hats”, were deployed in all demonstrations arenas “to secure the squares and protesters,” Sadr said in a tweet.
On Saturday, a few hours before Allawi was officially announced as the prime minister-designate, the blue hats, armed with sticks and knives, clashed with demonstrators and tightened their control on the Turkish restaurant building, a stronghold of the Baghdad demonstrators that overlooks Tahrir Square.
Hussein, one of the protest organisers who have used the building for a months-long sit-in, said the blue hats aimed to control the radio that demonstrators have been using to announce their positions on candidates and political measures related to their demands.
Later on Saturday, Sadr posted a series of tweets, calling on the blue hats to remove what he described as “the infiltrators” and “instigators” from the demonstrations, for roads, schools and government departments to reopen and for college students to return to their universities and cooperate with the security services to enforce security.
Over the next 48 hours, clashes between blue hats and demonstrators erupted in most of the governorates where protests have been most active, especially as protesters began chanting against Allawi and Sadr.
At least one protester was killed in Najaf and dozens wounded in other provinces, while the Baghdad demonstrators took the largest share of beatings and abuse, security sources and eyewitnesses told MEE.
‘It is a big disappointment. I don’t know how they (Sadrists) could turn against us like this’
– Ali, 22, demonstrator in Baghdad
“We have been demonstrating for more than a hundred days, lost more than six hundred martyrs, and they [political forces] tried all kinds of repression against us, but we did not stop because we demand our rights,” Ali, a 22-year-old demonstrator in Baghdad told MEE.
“Now the political forces have used their last cards [weapons] against us by sending the Sadrists to the squares to end the revolution and bear the consequences.”
He added: “It is a big disappointment. I don’t know how they [Sadrists] could turn against us like this. They were the ones who shared the pain, joy and food with us for the past four months.”
Allawi, 65, is a veteran Iraqi politician who started his political career with the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party before leaving the party. He was born in Baghdad, but he was forced to leave it in 1977, after being pursued by the Ba’ath regime.
At the time, the Ba’ath party had banned the political activities of communist and Islamic political parties, including Islamic Dawa. When Allawi fled the country, his family’s possessions and properties were confiscated.
He settled in Beirut and joined the American University to complete his studies in architecture in 1980. He holds Iraqi and British citizenship and holds a mix of Islamic and secular manners, maintaining close relations with secularists.
Allawi was elected as a member of parliament for two consecutive terms in 2006 and 2010 and was appointed minister of communications in the governments of the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, but resigned both times “due to disputes with the prime minister over corruption issues,” according to someone who worked for Allawi during both administrations.
Allawi is a cousin of the former Iraqi prime minister and secular politician Iyad Allawi, but he is also a relative of Sadr. Two of Allawi’s daughters are married to sons of Basil al-Sadr, Sadr’s cousin and director of foreign relations at the Sadr office in London.
Although the Qom agreement shows Allawi as a candidate for Sadr and Amiri, leaked details of the private sessions of Iranian-backed Shia leaders indicate that Sadr had been planning to nominate Allawi for the role since the end of December.
“Amiri and his allies noticed this desire and worked to develop it,” said one of the Shia leaders.
Allawi’s nomination “is a premeditated plan that started more than 40 days ago when the [Iranian-backed] political forces noticed that Sadr was convinced of Allawi’s nomination, so they sought to perpetuate and develop this conviction,” a prominent Shia leader told MEE.
“After the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis, Iranian policy in Iraq has completely changed. Soleimani was working to exclude Muqtada and keep him away all the time, but now the situation has changed.
“There is an Iranian tendency to contain Sadr and give him the role he desires.
“The [armed] factions pledged allegiance to Sadr in Qom as leader of the resistance, and this was part of the implementation of this policy.”
Violence and counter-violence
With Allawi’s ascension, the four-month-old demonstrations, which are the bloodiest in Iraq since 2003, face a sharp fork in the road, said analysts.
They may calm down and fade as a result of the repression by the Sadrists and their allies, or the situation may worsen and the demonstrations could take a more violent path.
‘[Sadr] failed to be a representative of the demonstrators, and he became a representative of the regime’
– Munqith M Dagher, Gallup International Research Foundation
“Allawi found himself an opponent of the uprising after being nominated by the same forces that brought Abdel Mahdi to the position,” Munqith M Dagher, director of the Middle East and North Africa at the Gallup International Research Foundation, told MEE.
“After what the blue hats did in the past few days, he failed to be a representative of the demonstrators, and he became a representative of the regime.
“All the deep state’s forces, militias, and institutions have failed to contain the uprising. Will blue-hats be able to do that?
“What the Sadrists are doing now … is to raise the level of the challenge for the demonstrators, who have come to love such challenges,” Dagher said.