icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Irak : La guerre civile, les sadristes et l’intervention américaine
Irak : La guerre civile, les sadristes et l’intervention américaine

Irak : La guerre civile, les sadristes et l’intervention américaine

La baisse spectaculaire du nombre de morts en Irak – tout du moins jusqu’aux dramatiques attentats à la bombe dans un marché de Bagdad de la semaine passée – est due en grande partie au cessez-le-feu unilatéral adopté par Moqtada Al-Sadr en août 2007.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Synthèse

La baisse spectaculaire du nombre de morts en Irak – tout du moins jusqu’aux dramatiques attentats à la bombe dans un marché de Bagdad de la semaine passée – est due en grande partie au cessez-le-feu unilatéral adopté par Moqtada Al-Sadr en août 2007. Prise sous une intense pression de la part des États-Unis et de l’Irak et en réponse au mécontentement croissant de son propre soutien chiite, la décision de Moqtada Al-Sadr de réfréner le mouvement indiscipliné dont il est à la tête a été une démarche positive. Mais la situation reste très fragile et pourrait bien changer. Si les États-Unis et d’autres cherchent à profiter de leur avantage pour porter un coup fatal aux sadristes, ils risquent fort de gaspiller les bénéfices qu’ils auront tirés en provoquant une nouvelle explosion de violence dans le pays. Il faudrait plutôt s’efforcer de convertir le cessez-le-feu unilatéral en un cessez-le-feu multilatéral et plus global afin de créer les conditions permettant au mouvement sadriste d’évoluer pour devenir un acteur politique légitime.

Les sadristes ont connu une ascension fulgurante en 2006 et au début de l’année 2007. Ils ont pris le contrôle de nouveaux territoires, en particulier à Bagdad et dans les alentours, ont attiré de nouvelles recrues, accumulé de vastes ressources et infiltré la police. Mais alors que la guerre civile s’abattait sur une bonne partie du pays, les Irakiens ont découvert le côté le plus brutal des sadristes. Leur milice, l’Armée du Mahdi, de plus en plus violente et indisciplinée, s’est compromise dans d’abominables crimes sectaires et dans le pillage. Des militants se réclamant de cette milice ont exécuté un nombre indéfini de sunnites sous prétexte de répondre aux attaques sans pitié menées par Al-Qaeda mais, le plus souvent, leurs victimes sont mortes parce qu’elles étaient sunnites.

Les sadristes ont cependant été les victimes de leur propre succès. Depuis que sa richesse, le nombre de ses membres et la portée de son action se sont considérablement étendus, le mouvement connaît une plus grande corruption et une cohésion interne plus faible et s’est aliéné une bonne partie de la population. Les divisions se sont accentuées au sein du mouvement ; les groupes dissidents (souvent à peine plus que des ramifications criminelles) ont proliféré. Par contrecoup, un sentiment anti-sadriste a vu le jour, y compris parmi les chiites habituellement favorables à Moqtada Al-Sadr. L’intervention américaine, avec les milliers de soldats venus renforcer les troupes présentes dans le pays, en particulier à Bagdad, a aggravé la situation des Sadristes en enrayant et dans certains cas en inversant l’expansion territoriale de l’Armée du Mahdi. Finalement, en août 2007, des affrontements violents ont éclaté dans la ville sainte de Karbala entre des membres du mouvement sadriste et son rival chiite, le Conseil suprême islamique irakien (ISCI), qui ont érodé davantage encore la position des sadristes.

La réaction de Moqtada Al-Sadr fut d’annoncer le gel de toutes les activités de l’Armée du Mahdi pendant six mois. Cette décision s’applique à tous les groupes affiliés de près ou de loin à ladite armée et Moqtada Al-Sadr aurait dépêché ses combattants les plus fidèles pour dompter les éléments récalcitrants. Surtout, cette décision a permis de lever le voile de légitimité et l’impunité dont jouissaient de nombreux groupes – gangs criminels agissant au nom de l’Armée du Mahdi ou unités sadristes sorties du droit chemin.

Le cessez-le-feu a tenu et, avec la présence militaire accrue de soldats américains et irakiens à Bagdad, a contribué à faire reculer la violence de manière spectaculaire. Mais ce répit, s’il est le bienvenu, est quelque peu trompeur et excessivement fragile. La décision de Moqtada Al-Sadr est sans doute le reflet d’un calcul pragmatique : un arrêt des hostilités aiderait à restaurer sa crédibilité et lui permettrait de réorganiser ses forces et d’attendre le départ des soldats américains. En dépit de leur retraite, les sadristes restent bien ancrés et extrêmement puissants dans un certain nombre de régions. Fuyant la pression militaire à Bagdad, les combattants de l’Armée du Mahdi se sont redéployés dans le sud, risquant ainsi de provoquer une éventuelle escalade dans l’affrontement de classe qui oppose les sadristes à l’ISCI soutenu par les Américains.

On observe parmi les troupes sadristes une impatience de plus en plus marquée face au cessez-le-feu. Les soldats le vivent comme une perte de pouvoir et de ressources ; ils pensent que les États-Unis et l’ISCI conspirent pour affaiblir leur mouvement et attendent avec impatience la permission de Moqtada Al-Sadr de reprendre le combat. Les dirigeants sadristes résistent à la pression mais cela pourrait ne pas durer. Des critiques accusent Moqtada Al-Sadr de passivité voire pire et celui-ci pourrait bientôt juger que les coûts de la stratégie qu’il a choisie dépassent les bénéfices qu’il en tire. Au début du mois de février 2008, de hauts responsables sadristes ont appelé leur chef à ne pas prolonger le cessez-le-feu, qui doit expirer dans le courant du mois.

L’on peut comprendre la réaction des États-Unis – continuer à attaquer et à arrêter les militants sadristes, y compris ceux qui n’appartiennent pas aux milices ; armer une force de contre-attaque composée de chiites dans le sud pour reprendre les territoires gagnés par les sadristes ; et se porter aux côtés de l’ennemi des sadristes, l’ISCI – mais elle n’est pas viable sur le long terme. Le mouvement sadriste, en dehors de ses difficultés actuelles, reste un mouvement populaire de masse profondément ancré, qui rassemble des jeunes chiites pauvres et mécontents. Il contrôle toujours des quartiers d’importance dans la capitale ainsi que plusieurs villes du sud ; même aujourd’hui, ses principaux fiefs sont quasiment imprenables. Malgré l’intensification des opérations militaires américaines et la plus grande implication des Irakiens, il n’est pas raisonnable de s’attendre à une défaite de l’Armée du Mahdi. Au contraire, une pression accrue provoquerait probablement à la fois une résistance féroce des sadristes à Bagdad et une guerre civile entre chiites dans le sud.

Quelles que soient les motivations de Moqtada Al-Sadr, la décision qu’il a prise offre la possibilité d’une transformation plus authentique et plus durable du mouvement sadriste. Dans les mois qui ont suivi l’annonce du cessez-le-feu, il a cherché à débarrasser le mouvement de ses membres les plus insoumis, à reconstruire une milice plus disciplinée et à restaurer sa propre respectabilité, tout en poursuivant ses principaux objectifs – notamment la protection de la souveraineté nationale en s’opposant à l’occupation – par des moyens parlementaires légitimes. Le défi qui se pose aujourd’hui est de saisir l’occasion au vol, chercher à ce que l’ajustement tactique de Moqtada Al-Sadr consiste en un changement de stratégie à plus long terme et encourager l’évolution du mouvement sadriste pour qu’il devienne un acteur politique non violent.

Bagdad/Damas/Bruxelles, 7 février 2008

Iraqi demonstrators gather during an anti-government protests against unemployment, corruption in Baghdad, Iraq on 7 October 2019. AFP via Anadolu Agency/Murtadha Sudani

Widespread Protests Point to Iraq’s Cycle of Social Crisis

A surge in street protests in Iraq has left some 110 people dead and exposed a rift between the government and a population frustrated by poor governance, inadequate services and miserable living conditions. To avert further violence, the authorities and protesters should open dialogue channels.

Street protests have engulfed Baghdad and southern cities such as Nasiriya and Diwaniya since 1 October, causing a staggering death toll of at least 110 victims in seven days. This deadliest outburst of violence from popular protests since the 2003 U.S. invasion has shaken the foundations of the already fragile government led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The prime minister is on thin ice. In the aftermath of the May 2018 elections, a drawn-out tug of war over government formation produced broadly acceptable but politically weak office holders. Neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet members belong to the main parliamentary blocs (al-Fatah, a Shiite Islamist coalition with links to paramilitary groups and Iran, and Sairoun, an alliance between followers of populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and the Communist Party). None enjoys significant support within his or her own party. Furthermore, Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and Tehran’s response are putting a severe strain on this government, a partner to both. Already squeezed by Iran and the U.S., the prime minister now also faces pressure from parliament and the street for not delivering the reforms that a significant part of the population has been demanding for some time.

Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

In order to break out of this dangerous dynamic, Iraq’s government and protesters need a framework for negotiating reforms and a common vision for the country’s future.

Viral Anger Fuels a Protest Wave

Street protests have erupted on a regular basis since 2015, in most cases motivated by manifest failures of governance, lack of services and miserable living conditions. This time around, what helped the protests gain strength was Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi’s decision at the end of September to demote a popular senior commander of the war with ISIS, General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), who had become a national icon for his heroism and integrity. Anger greeted the decision on social media, with many interpreting it as yet another expression of the prime minister’s feebleness in standing up to corruption in the security forces. The CTS is in competition with al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an array of paramilitary groups, the most powerful of which are linked to Iran. Those critical of Iran’s role in Iraq additionally saw the prime minister as giving in to the Hashd by demoting the general.

The affair quickly blossomed into something broader. As anger over the prime minister’s decision went viral online, social media influencers, largely Facebook users, encouraged people to join protests. On 1 October, protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in cities across the south, and security forces opened fire to disperse them. The next day, security agencies banned access to social media. The heavy-handed response caused the first casualties, adding to popular fury. On 3 October, early in the morning, the authorities imposed a curfew in Baghdad and southern cities, blocked access to major street intersections and government buildings, and shut down the internet. Fear of repression acted as a disincentive in some areas, including in Basra, which had been a protest hub during previous rounds.

Tensions increased further over the weekend of 4-5 October. Protesters torched the offices of leading Shiite Islamist parties in Nasiriya (including Daawa, Hikma and Asaeb Ahl al-Haq) and paramilitary groups, and masked men in civilian clothing attacked media outlets in Baghdad. The number of victims grew quickly, mostly on the protesters’ side but also among the security forces.

Protests, Politics and Participation

For a growing part of the population, resorting to street action has become the only meaningful form of participation in politics. Recurrent failure of governance and blatant incompetence and corruption, manifested most glaringly in the army’s humiliating collapse in the face of the ISIS onslaught in 2014, have left most Iraqis deeply disillusioned about politicians of all stripes, and disdainful of the notion that voting in elections can deliver change. By contrast, many see street protests as a more effective way to force politicians’ collective hand, as evidenced by government efforts to improve the water supply in the south after riots in the summer of 2018 over the lack of clean water.

The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population.

This trend is amplified by a generational factor. The large majority of protesters are millennials under 30, an age group that makes up 67 per cent of the population. They came of age seeing the same faces taking turns and failing at governance. They did not experience the Saddam Hussein regime’s repression. Nor are they inclined to give much credit to current leaders for the roles they claim to have played in resisting that regime, regardless of how accurate those claims may be.

But though many come from the same age bracket, the protesters otherwise represent a cross-section of society that spans both sectarian and class differences. They include lower middle-class youths with no access to quality education or state employment as well as well-educated, English-speaking, upper middle-class individuals involved in private-sector initiatives and civic organisations. They share the experience of growing up in a political system dominated by a narrow elite that has failed to create prospects for a liveable future, despite the country’s enormous resources; they distrust formal politics and its democratic mechanisms such as elections, which they see as directly manipulated by those in power. Street protests are their effort at advancing a political agenda by other means.

Whether they can succeed is another question. Thus far, protests are proving to be an effective means of challenging the political system and leadership, but it is less clear how they can advance the radical change for which protesters are calling. They present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies, whether for improving governance, bettering service provision or reforming the entire political system.

Protests [...] present the government with a mission impossible: delivering immediate solutions to problems that require long-term strategies.

Against this backdrop, Baghdad has tended to focus on ad hoc, short-term fixes. On 6 October, for example, the prime minister gathered his cabinet for an emergency meeting and adopted a seventeen-point plan that included housing programs for low-income families and monthly stipends for the unemployed. The government does not, however, appear to have a strategy for coming together with the protest movement around a shared vision for the country’s future.

Protesters, for their part, lack an intermediary who can bring concrete proposals to the government. Their interest in maintaining their autonomy from a political system they oppose has kept their movement leaderless. As the government fails to address the protesters’ real concerns and the security forces move to suppress the protests, killing scores, protesters’ rejection of any sort of engagement with the government only hardens, and the movement begins to respond to violence with violence.

For the time being, the country is caught up in a destructive blame game. Protesters blame the leadership for the repression. Security officials blame the protesters for resorting to violence. Political and religious leaders blame each other for the crisis without themselves taking responsibility. On 4 October, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ paramount religious leader, denounced the largest political blocs and the government for failing to deliver long-promised reforms. On the same day, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads the biggest parliamentary bloc, Sairoun, called on the prime minister to resign and for new elections to be held under international supervision; he also instructed his party’s lawmakers to boycott the next parliamentary session.

Manoeuvring Between Tehran and Washington

If the prime minister manages to survive politically, he will be even weaker and more vulnerable to pressure from the largest political blocs. The fallout from the protests will further complicate his efforts to pursue a foreign policy aimed at insulating the country from the unfolding U.S.-Iran competition, as well as his attempts to carry out political reforms. If he loses his post and the government collapses, instability will almost certainly grow. The challenge would then be to form a new government with a prime minister sufficiently neutral to be acceptable to both pro-U.S. and pro-Iranian political forces.

Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos.

Neither the U.S. nor Iran would like to see the situation spin out of control. Iran may prefer a weak and dependable government in Baghdad, but it has no interest in Iraq descending into chaos. Iraq’s stability is key for Tehran to continue trading with its neighbour, a lifeline in the face of U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran has invested in forging relations with all Iraqi political forces represented in parliament, and strategically resorts to these allies (al-Fatah in particular) to exert pressure on the U.S. in order to remove or reduce the influence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Street protests introduce an element of uncertainty that worries Tehran. This may explain why its affiliated paramilitaries have taken repressive steps to contain this risk and reportedly participated in the crackdown. The fact that some protesters may be motivated by anti-Iranian animus – several have chanted anti-Iranian slogans – is of further concern to Tehran, whose influence in Iraq could be at stake. Many Iraqi Shiites look at the paramilitaries, the Shiite political parties and Iran as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption.

That said, the protests could also turn in Iran’s favour. If the Sadrists carry out their threat to boycott parliament or stage a no-confidence vote, the prime minister will be increasingly dependent on Iran’s ally al-Fatah, which has stood by his side during the crisis.

Pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

As for the U.S., it has every reason to want Iraq to remain stable. Its military presence helps prevent the resurgence of ISIS, whose fighters for now are lying low. It also counts on political forces in the country to stand as a counterweight to Iranian influence. But herein lies risk as well. Some in the Trump administration see protesters’ anti-Iran slogans, together with popular expressions of support for General al-Saadi, as an expression of mounting anti-Iranian sentiments. U.S. officials who deem Abdul Mahdi indecisive and powerless may push to replace him with someone more dedicated to reforms and, just as importantly, to signing contracts with U.S. companies that would decrease Iraq’s energy dependency on Iran. Yet pushing for a change in government could be like opening a Pandora’s box, given a stagnating political system, mounting popular frustrations and the perennial difficulty of forming a government.

Ultimately, any attempt by either Iran or the U.S. to manipulate the protest movement could further destabilise an extremely fragile situation and make Iraq’s teetering leadership less able to sustain the delicate balancing act between the country’s two powerful backers.

The Way Forward

Past attempts to change Iraqi governance from within have foundered on the resistance of a political class that has high stakes in its continuation. As things stand, it is unlikely that the prime minister will be able to deliver reforms, especially now that his already limited parliamentary support may crumble under the protests’ weight. Likewise, calls for change from outside the realm of formal politics, such as through street protests, have failed to compel the government to commit to concrete remedial action beyond applying band-aids. More dangerously, they are now leading to violent clashes with the security forces. The government and countries that have supported Iraq in the fight against ISIS (the U.S., EU member states and Iran) and care about its stability have reason for concern that this situation will lead to recurrent flare-ups and crises.

The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression.

To address the current crisis, the government should order the security forces to exercise maximum restraint in confronting the protests, ban paramilitary groups from policing the protests and launch an investigation into the excessive use of force, focusing in particular on snipers who reportedly targeted both protesters and members of the security forces. The larger parliamentary blocs also should shoulder their responsibility in defusing the crisis. Instead of calling on the prime minister to resign, Sairoun and Fatah should jointly press the government to prepare reform bills aimed at making the bureaucracy more agile in Baghdad and the provinces, bolstering accountability mechanisms to combat corruption, and encouraging government cooperation with the private sector and civic organisations.

Finding a long-term fix will be more difficult. The present crisis once again has illustrated that Iraq’s leadership cannot continue to buy social peace with a mix of oil-generated income distribution and repression. To break the crisis cycle, the government and the protest movement need to develop channels for dialogue and cooperation. Civic organisations, some of which are organised under the umbrella of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, as well as private-sector figures, should better organise the protest movement and operate as intermediaries to formulate a set of coherent proposals as a basis for discussions with the government. The government should take such an initiative seriously as a way to reach out to the protesters and prevent another (possibly violent) cycle of mass mobilisation. And Iraq’s international donors should help facilitate a dialogue to arrive at a common vision for the country’s future and then provide the necessary capacity and funding to carry it out.