New spats shake Iraq’s teetering stability — and its PM

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BAGHDAD: As fissures within a powerful paramilitary force go public for the first time and a revolving door of top politicians consults Tehran, Iraq’s fragile political balance is crumbling, analysts say, with worrying consequences for its premier.

It has been a shaky 11 months for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government since it was painstakingly stitched together in the prolonged wake of May 2018 elections.

The administration’s power rests on the curious coupling of firebrand cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr with Fatah, the political arm of the Hashd Al-Shaabi armed network.

But a cocktail of new pressure points — from Sadr’s frustration with the Hashd to purported Israeli strikes targeting the force — are fraying this tenuous deal, said Ihsan Al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Center for Political Thought.

“The situation is messy. The political parties are repositioning themselves and the major alliances have broken apart,” Shammari told AFP.

He predicted the “tactical partnership” between Sadr and Fatah will collapse amid the cleric’s escalating criticism of the Hashd’s possession of arms and moves to create its own air force.

Sadr even dramatically tweeted last week that Iraq was turning into a “rogue” state.

Days later, he appeared in an unannounced visit to Iran, the influential power broker consulted during times of crisis in Iraq’s political scene.

Sadr was likely there to complain about the Hashd or lobby for more support, including having a say in selecting Iraq’s next premier in case the government falls, said Shammari.

Sadr would also probably use the specter of popular protests to secure his political goals.

“Sadr remains the government’s biggest sponsor, but if it doesn’t make progress, he’ll put the possibility of protests forward — and we’re starting to see him hint at that,” Shammari said.

In a sign of what may be to come, Iraq’s Sadr-backed Health Minister Alaa Alwan resigned on Sunday out of frustration with what he said was a corrupt administration.

Since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled by the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq’s Shiite parties have revived and thrived.

For years, they were broadly split between those loyal to Iran and its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against those supporting Iraq’s own Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said Renad Mansour, a researcher at the Chatham House think-tank.

“Now, it’s murky and much more fragile. The biggest credit for that goes to the challenge facing the Hashd in becoming a post-Daesh Iraqi institution,” he said.

The Hashd was established in 2014 from mostly Shiite armed groups and volunteers to fight Daesh militants, who had swept across a third of Iraq. But that common enemy was defeated in 2017.

“Because the front has dried up, the groups are no longer able to profit and are now competing with each other for profits and political positions,” Mansour said.

And this summer, purported Israeli strikes on Hashd bases exposed another rift, this time between the force’s official leader Faleh Fayyadh and his deputy Abu Mehdi Al-Muhandis, who is much closer to Iran and is said to hold the real power.

Muhandis was quick to blame Washington and Israel for the strikes, but Fayyadh publicly walked back his statement and said the accusation didn’t reflect the Hashd’s position. Weeks later, a decree signed by Muhandis appeared to authorize the Hashd to create its own air force, later denied by the force.

It was “the first time” the leaders had publicly clashed like this, said Mansour.

“The divide was not a big deal until Muhandis decided that Fayyadh needed to do a better job in protecting Hashd from these strikes,” he told AFP.

“That’s the most important thing — because if Muhandis determines that the leadership is not protecting him, he’ll make moves to remove them,” he said.

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