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In July 2022 Iraq marked its longest period without a government since an election, exceeding its previous record of 289 days. A caretaker government is in place, however. As of August, it is now more than 320 days since the 2021 elections, and political uncertainty has continued to grow.  

In June 2022, the largest Shia political bloc in the Iraqi parliament, led by cleric Al-Sadr, resigned from the parliament. In late August, Al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from political life. This was followed by violent clashes between his supporters, Iran-aligned militias and security forces. The UN and others have called for calm.

This briefing describes the election’s background and the outlook for Iraq.

Iraq’s post-2003 politics

Following the US-led military campaign in 2003, there was a redistribution of political power in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Muslim minority was awarded greater influence. But elections have seen increased representation for Shia Muslims and the Kurdish minority. Iran, as a Shia power, has also supported armed groups and others to increase its influence.

Post-2003 politics has typically operated on sectarian lines, but there have been growing divisions among Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni parties.

2019 protests and an early election in 2021

Elections scheduled for 2022 were brought forward to October 2021 following popular protests in 2019. These protests called for corruption to be addressed and invoked criticism of Iran’s influence in the country. In response, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, resigned.

According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, nearly 600 protesters were killed. Both state and paramilitary forces were blamed.

The UN judged the elections to be well-run overall. The elections saw some rebalancing within Shia political parties: Shia Cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr’s bloc gained at the expense of the Shia Al-Fatah alliance (the latter is backed by Iran). The Sadrist block won 73 of the 329 seats, being the largest party. Al-Sadr has opposed both the US presence in Iraq and Iran’s support for rival Shia groups. From 2003, his supporters, then known as the Mahdi army, conducted several attacks on US, coalition, and rival Shia forces.

Al-Fatah and some other Shia parties protested the results, alleging fraud. Iran-backed militias were also suspected of an assassination attempt against the Prime Minister in November 2021. Iran’s Government condemned the attack which, together with the losses for supportive parties in the election, suggested to analysts that Iran is losing some of its influence in Iraq.

Struggle to form a government

Al-Sadr, as leader of the largest political group, took the lead in proposing a government, in alliance with Sunni and Kurdish parties. However, these talks stalled. In June 2022, Al-Sadr’s representatives resigned their seats.

They were replaced by Al-Fatah and other parties, and the Shia Coordination Framework is now the largest bloc. They nominated Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani for Prime Minister in July. This was met by protests by Al-Sadr supporters, who are seeking to exert external pressure on negotiations. In August, Al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics. This was marked by further protests and violence. The risk of further confrontation remains high.

Any new Government also faces the challenge of addressing Iraq’s economic crisis, the risk of terrorism, and negotiating tensions with the US, Iran, Turkey, and the Kurdish autonomous region.

Update log

August 2022: Al-Sadr has announced his intention to withdraw from politics. This has been marked by protests and violence.

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