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FLASH ALERT: IRAQI POLITICAL STALEMATE ERUPTS INTO VIOLENCE IN THE GREEN ZONE

Alberto Suarez, Elizabeth Leoce, Nereida Pérez, CENTCOM

Additional Authors: Christine Saddy, Gioia Torchia, Paige Biebas, Mitchell Dallas, Peter Roberto, Isaiah Johnson, Andreea Troneci

John Smith, Editor; Julie Jones, Senior Editor

August 30, 2022



Muqtada al-Sadr during a press conference[1]



The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT for Iraq after supporters of Shia cleric Imam Muqtada al-Sadr stormed government facilities in Baghdad following his decision on Monday, August 29, to retire from politics.[2] A nationwide curfew was declared for 19:00 local time on Monday, August 29.[3] The death toll is very likely to rise in the upcoming hours and days, almost certainly destabilizing the political situation in Iraq. Violence appears to be spreading into southern Iraq, increasing the likelihood that the situation will develop into a sectarian civil war.[4]


CTG is on HIGH alert due to the HIGH likelihood of increased violence in Baghdad’s Green Zone. While this is not the first time supporters of Shia cleric Imam Muqtada al-Sadr have stormed government facilities, the escalating number of casualties, the establishment of a curfew, and the use of rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse protestors are VERY LIKELY to increase tensions between supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and anti-Sadrists protesting against the storming of government facilities. Such clashes in Baghdad are ALMOST CERTAIN to result in heightened violence, compromising the stability of Iraq.


Introduction

On Monday, August 29, 2022, Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he was permanently withdrawing from the Iraqi political process.[5] Following his withdrawal, Sadr’s followers breached Baghdad’s Green Zone and ransacked multiple government buildings, including the Presidential Palace. Unknown groups attempted to disperse the protests with tear gas before escalating to gunfire, killing at least 30 protesters throughout the Green Zone.[6] The Sadrist militia Saraya al-Salam mobilized throughout Baghdad ostensibly to defend Sadrist protesters from further violence.[7] Protests have also broken out across Basra, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces in southern Iraq, with no reported casualties.[8]


Pro-Sadr groups such asSaraya al-Salam will almost certainly violently clash with Iraqi Shia paramilitary groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH). KH and other Iran-backed militias, such as Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (AAH), will very likely retaliate against Sadrist political offices and Saraya al-Salam garrisons across southern Iraq. Protesters will likely target government buildings such as the Iraqi Parliament. Al-Sadr supporters previously stormed the Iraqi Parliament on July 27, 2022, to oppose the nomination of a rival candidate for Prime Minister of Iraq and are almost certainly replicating this tactic to further al-Sadr’s agenda.[9] Muqtada al-Sadr is opposed to the participation of the Iran-backed Shia political party, the Coordination Framework Alliance, in Iraq’s government, blaming them for the current political deadlock.[10] Iraq has had an interim president and prime minister since October 2021, when no political groups achieved a majority in the elections. Muqtada al-Sadr obtained the most votes but refused to form a coalition government with pro-Iranian political parties.[11] The storming of government buildings on July 25, 2022, and on August 29 2022, the very likely increased death toll, and the ISF's use of rubber bullets and live ammunition almost certainly indicate that the deadlock will continue and remain unresolved in the short term.


ISF is unlikely to intervene in clashes between Saraya al-Salam and Iranian proxy militias unless those forces fire upon ISF units. The ISF’s non-intervention will very likely result in the exchange of small arms fire in Baghdad between both factions, likely escalating to heavier weapons, such as truck-mounted weapons and rockets. This will almost certainly worsen the security situation and will likely develop into a pre-civil war scenario, with rival militias establishing checkpoints in Shia neighborhoods. Existing mistrust in the government and support for Sadr will almost certainly increase after today's storming, the ISF’s response, and the very likely increased death toll. Such mistrust is almost certain to radicalize his supporters, likely resulting in armed clashes with anti-Sadirist militias. Sadr’s supporters' distrust in the government is likely to complicate the Iraqi government’s de-escalation efforts, with a roughly even chance of Sadrisits militias clashing with ISF forces suppressing al-Sadr’s supporters in Baghdad's Green Zone. Such clashes are almost certain to worsen the security situation in Baghdad as anti-Sadr forces are very likely to join the ISF efforts to quell Sadrist supporters in the Green Zone.


Al-Sadr’s rhetoric will likely heighten violence between the factions, likely delaying any path towards de-escalation. Violence between groups will likely result in more deaths, raising concerns that military-grade weaponry is being used, which will very likely prompt countries to advise their citizens to evacuate Iraq. Increased tensions will likely drive Iraqi civilians to flee Baghdad and head north towards Kurdistan if violence continues to spread south near Basra Governorate.


CTG assesses that the current threat climate is HIGH due to the number of projectiles reported in the Green Zone area. Active sirens from the US Embassy in Baghdad suggest that missile threats are close to civilian and governmental targets. Iranian media, such as Fars News Agency, will very likely use the clashes to blame external influences, like the US, which will likely put NORTHCOM on HIGH alert.


Analysis indicates there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that violence will continue to escalate across the country, exacerbating sectarian and intra-sectarian tensions between supporters of Sadr and other Shia factions. ISF’s inability to prevent the breach in the Green Zone indicates they are unlikely to stop the spread of violence across the country.


CTG recommends that foreign citizens immediately leave the country. Embassies in the Green Zone, such as the US Embassy, should draft plans to evacuate diplomatic personnel and expatriates from Iraq by creating safe routes and collection points and securing transport for evacuation. Governments with a diplomatic presence in Iraq should coordinate efforts to ensure the evacuation is done with minimum loss of life. CTG also recommends that the Iraqi government peacefully enforce the curfew and not use rubber bullets or live ammunition to disperse the remaining protestors in the Green Zone. CTG strongly advises that the Iraqi government encourages a national dialogue in Baghdad with the representation of all political parties to break the political deadlock peacefully. CTG recommends that the Arab League intervene to act as a neutral mediator in talks to break the political deadlock should efforts by Iraqi authorities fail.

 

[1]Technocrat Lineup” by Reza Zemuni licensed by Creative Commons

[2] Clashes erupt after Iraqi Shiite cleric resigns, 5 dead, Associated Press, August 2022, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-religion-iraq-muqtada-al-sadr-7ca58a185c06d81131f74c5b7790cd1a?utm_source=homepage&utm_medium=TopNews&utm_campaign=position_2

[3] Iraq sets nationwide curfew to begin at 1900 local time- statement, Reuters, August 2022, https://www.reuters.com/article/iraq-politics-curfew-nationwide/iraq-sets-nationwide-curfew-to-begin-at-1900-local-time-statement-idUSC6N2XN02D

[4] Bilesa Shaweys (@Bilesa_Shaweys), Twitter, August 2022, https://twitter.com/Bilesa_Shaweys/status/1564349873951997954

[5] Four killed as Iraq`s powerful Sadr quits politics, loyalists storm complex, Reuters, August 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iraqi-cleric-sadr-announces-full-withdrawal-political-life-twitter-2022-08-29/

[6] Iraqis heed cleric`s plea toleave street after clashes, Associated Press, August 2022, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-religion-iran-iraq-baghdad-0ed4c3378b0257091a7b1d70b9e3fb35

[7] Clashes erupt after Iraqi Shiite cleric resigns, 15 dead, Associated Press, August 2022, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-religion-iraq-muqtada-al-sadr-7ca58a185c06d81131f74c5b7790cd1a?utm_source=homepage&utm_medium=TopNews&utm_campaign=position_3

[8] Gunfire and explosions in Baghdad as rival militias face off, The National, August 2022, https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/2022/08/29/iraqi-cleric-al-sadr-announces-political-resignation-and-closure-of-offices/

[9] Iraq: Muqtada al-Sadr supporters storm parliament building in Baghdad, BBC, July 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-62324296

[10] Iraq chaos as al-Sadr supporters storm Green Zone after he quits, Al Jazeera, August 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/8/29/al-sadr-withdraws-from-iraqi-politics-after-months-of-tensions

[11] Six months on from elections Iraqis frustrated by political deadlock, France 24, April 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220419-six-months-on-from-elections-iraqis-frustrated-by-political-deadlock

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