Amwaj.media spoke with Mr. Dhiaa Al-Asadi, a prominent Iraqi academic and politician, to learn more about the Sadrist vision for Iraq, including relations with neighboring states—and what the head of the growing movement is really pursuing.
Mr. Asadi led the Al-Ahrar bloc, affiliated with the Sadrist Movement, in the 2014 parliamentary elections. He has also acted as political representative to Muqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Movement.
Q: What does Mr. Sadr want?
From the very beginning, Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr said the situation in Iraq under the [US-led] occupation was not suitable for the formation of any government. So our first priority and demand were to confront the occupation—and when he said ‘our’, it meant all Iraqi partners, including those leaders who returned from exile to participate in the formation of the government. He said that we need American troops and all international forces to withdraw so that we can have our own government.
The second demand was that the model of Lebanon, with the formation of governments under the apportionment system known as ‘Muhasasa [Ta’ifia]’ in Arabic, would not work for Iraqis. Iraq can never be divided into Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, although it may seem to be geographically divided along those lines. Sayyid Sadr thought that such a formula for government is going to deepen the divisions among Iraqis and did not want this to be constitutionalized, institutionalized or otherwise ingrained or deepened in Iraqi society.
The third demand was that while we should work collaboratively with all our neighbors, we should not allow any of these countries to intervene in our daily business or in our government.
We have cultural, historical and religious ties with Iran. But this doesn’t mean that we should be an extension of the Iranian government. Mindful that Sunnis leaders previously ruled Iraq [from 1921 to 2003], we should neither allow Arab Sunni countries to control the Sunni decision of the Iraqi people. The Kurds were enjoying a very good degree of autonomy during the Saddam Hussein era (1979-2003), but this doesn’t mean that they should have separate relationships with Turkey which do not serve the national interest of Iraq as one country.
Unfortunately, Sayyid Sadr was confronted by some leaders who came from abroad and saw themselves as the “saviors” privileged enough to decide on behalf of the Iraqi people. They saw Iraqis as divided into two categories. In their view, those who stayed under the previous regime did not have the right to say how the government should be formed because they did not revolt against Saddam. That was something that the Iraqi people refused and resisted. Sayyid Sadr wanted to say that we are all Iraqis, and no one has the right to look down at those who were inside [Iraq], as if they don’t understand what politics is, and as if they don’t have the right to participate in decision making.
Q: Some observers say Mr. Sadr’s policy positions can at times be incoherent and sudden. What is your response to that?
People might say that he has changed his position frequently and that he contradicts himself. But his demands following 2003 were the same demands that he also expressed in 2012 [following the Dec. 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq].
Let me go back to 2005, when the constitution was voted on [in a referendum]. Sayyid Sadr did not accept it but did not refuse either because the Marjaiya was involved. [editorial note: Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani backed participation in the Oct. 2005 referendum on Iraq’s constitution]. He said that we have our opinion concerning the constitution because it was written during the occupation of Iraq and authored by people who were not aware of the development of Iraqi society in the 1990s as they were based abroad and also thought that the distinction between the components of Iraqi society must be made clear.
Although the constitution does not say anything about the division of the Iraqi people into Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, it was clearly written in this spirit. The preamble insinuates that Shiites are the majority of the population. This does not entail that Shiites should hold the prime minister position; that was something agreed upon [among key stakeholders] and became a convention rather than constitutionalized. The same applies to the speakership, which goes to the Sunnis, and the presidency of the country, which is held by Kurds.
Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr rejected this from the outset, and from 2005 until 2014 embarked on several attempts to change the [ethno-sectarian] “quota system.” He wanted to change the division of authority along sectarian and ethnic lines, and wanted some articles in the constitution to be revisited.
Q: Connecting the past to the present, could you specify which elements of the constitution that he believes need revision?
Generally, he felt that the constitution was written with the mentality of the division of Iraq into three main components. Specifically, there are certain problematic sections such as Articles 48, 73, 76, 106, 121, 138, 140 and 173. But there is also the question of how governments should be formed. This includes the explanation or definition of what constitutes the “largest bloc” after the announcement of election results. What is meant by the “largest bloc”? Is it the bloc that won the majority of [parliamentary] seats or the bloc that is formed via [political] alliances?
According to some observers, these are very minor issues that can be reformed by any legal committee in the parliament. But if the Shiites intend to change one of these articles, then the Sunnis would object, arguing that before any change they must assess whether it is going to affect their share of power.
Similarly, the Kurds would jump in and say: “What about us?” That if an article is to be changed, they would need to agree on the basis of whether it is going to undermine their general position, or the oil law or the disputed territories law and other issues.
So Sayyid Sadr speaks about the way the constitution was drafted, and the circumstances that surrounded the process—including the US occupation. Although the Americans say they never intervened in the writing of the constitution, their presence and their influence on some of the players affected the drafting process. This was clearly stated by some of the partners.
I remember [Kurdistan Democratic Party leader] Mr. Masoud Barzani saying that the Americans expressed their visions concerning certain issues and that these were mistaken visions, for which the Americans were to blame. [Former prime minister] Dr. Ayad Allawi (2004-5) once stated that all the problems that we have faced post 2003—mainly the dissolution of the Iraqi Army, “De-Ba’athification” and other Iraqi laws—were influenced by the Americans.
I’m not evaluating whether these were right or wrong decisions. But according to Dr. Allawi, the decisions were influenced by the Americans.
Q: Could you further elaborate on the sought constitutional reforms? For instance, do they include a review of the definition of Iraq? At present, Iraq is not defined as an Arab country but rather a founding member of the Arab League.
So far, I don’t think he has been asked this question. But I remember that in many interviews and many meetings, he has stated that Iraq belongs to the Arab homeland. “Iraq is a member of the Arab League” is different from “Iraq is an Arab country.” And I am sure that the Kurds will be happy about this definition because they say: “We constitute one-third of the country and since we are Kurds we are not Arab—so why should we be defined under the Arab definition?”
There are so many other problems in the constitution, including the disputed areas, the consensus, the oil law, and even the definitions of certain concepts, as you just mentioned.
I think that Sayyid Sadr has not yet decided which specific articles should be changed.
In addition to determining the largest bloc, there is also the formation of the government. How many votes does any bloc need to nominate the prime minister? At present, it is two-thirds [of votes in the parliament], which is really difficult for any one component or winning party to obtain. Previously, it was understood that 50% plus one [vote] would be enough to form a government.
The current setup is really difficult and getting very complicated. Now our system is similar to the Lebanese, with this ‘obstructive third’ [in the parliament which can prevent a two-thirds majority]. And this was one of the problems that sparked the current demonstrations and Sayyid Sadr’s refusal of the interpretations of the judiciary [federal supreme] court.
Sayyid Sadr said that because we are the largest bloc, we have the right to form the next government. But he was confronted with this article and the court’s explanation of it. Now, this has become another problem that needs to be reconsidered.
Q: Do you think there is buy-in for the proposed changes?
The leaders of other movements have on different occasions confirmed that successive Iraqi governments have been dysfunctional and incapable of meeting the demands of the Iraqi people. They have not succeeded in building institutions nor building a state first and foremost.
So they say that we need to pump new blood into the political process and to reform it. They have all agreed on this. But in reality, they have resisted [change] because it has to do with power and the political gains that they have been enjoying since 2003.
And this was the main issue that led Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr to confront these leaders with the fact that they themselves said that they have failed. Why should we agree to the failure being repeated? Why should we accept the same people who described themselves as incapable of meeting the people’s expectations as new ministers?
The Marjaiya in Najaf has also repeatedly said that those proven to have been unsuccessful should not be nominated to any position again.
Yet those political parties and leaders are insisting on recycling the same people. It is as if they were telling the Marjaiya: We don’t care about what you say, we don’t care about what the Iraqi people says—all we care about is how we see the political process, how we look to our interest, how we look to our prestige.”
Now, Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr is telling them: “If you insist on this, then I am going to support the Iraqi people and let it decide for itself. If the Iraqi people says that it doesn’t want you, it doesn’t want this government, I will join and support it.” If the people on the other hand says, “No, we don’t want you Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr, we need and we want those parties,” then he has said that “I will keep quiet and I will sit at my home, and you will then not have the right to complain.”
Q: What does Mr. Sadr realistically expect from fresh elections? If we have new polls next year, does he believe the outcome will be very different?
The same parties that are now resisting the call for fresh elections themselves demanded new elections when the Sadrist bloc won in the latest [Oct. 2021] polls, alleging fraud.
At that time, Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr was telling them that the elections were monitored by international organizations, by the UN, and everybody showed that they were free and fair—so why should we repeat them?
Now, he’s telling them: “I’m demanding the same thing that you asked for. You wanted fresh elections [over alleged fraud], but my motive is that you failed to form a government.”
When Sayyid Sadr withdrew from the parliament [in June 2022], he told the [Shiite] Coordination Framework: “I will allow you to form the government and support it, on one condition; that you present an independent person as prime minister. I don’t want you to [re-]introduce old faces.” In a very clear challenge to this, the Coordination Framework introduced Mr. Mohammed Shiaa’ Al-Sudani, who served as a minister several times, and who was very close to Mr. [Nouri] Al-Maliki.
This was not the reward Sayyid Sadr expected when the Sadrist bloc resigned from the parliament to prove that it is not clinging to power and will allow other parties to form a government freely and very comfortably. He discovered that there is an insistence on repeating the same failure and strategy. So he came to the conclusion that there is no solution other than resorting to the people, to the demonstrations, to the strikes until we see real change.
Q: Some observers argue that the next elections will see even lower voter turnout than last time. What is the real expectation here?
Most of the Iraqi people are afraid of being deceived by the political elites and don’t want to participate in any elections. They think that there is no hope. But once they understand that they can vote for new parties and independent people and that there might be change, I think most people would be encouraged to take part in the new elections.
On the Sadrists’ side, Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr said “I’m not going to let former people participate in the elections, I won’t let them participate in any government.” He also said [to the other side that it] can also introduce new people and asked why it would keep or recycle the same people who failed.
Q: Do you see a role for the Marjaiya in possibly helping find a way forward?
If it is not requested to give its opinion or express its position, the Marjaiya will mostly remain quiet and not intervene.
In 2005, the Marjaiya supported one of the Shiite coalitions and called on people to vote for the constitution. I think that [support] was there because there were some leaders within these parties who were very close to the Marjaiya and they managed to persuade the Marjaiya that they will work for the interest of the Iraqi people and for the interests of Shiites.
The late [leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq] Sayyid Abdulaziz Al-Hakim (1952-2009) and other Shiite leaders were at that time considered by the Marjaiya as people who represented the Shiite interest, who could defend or speak on behalf of Shiites. But I think the Marjaiya later discovered that most of those people were unaware of the reality of Shiite interests and what really defines those interests, because ultimately they ended up [instead] defending and calling for the interests of the [establishment] parties.
Deputies of the Marjaiya have spoken about the people’s suffering and people getting fed up with the current politicians. Their exact words that have repeatedly been stated are: “We are fed up as if we were calling on deaf ears. They don’t listen.” These words have been understood by the laymen as insults to the political elites. But the political elites…reacted in an indifferent manner, which reflects how disconnected they are from the Marjaiya.
Despite talking about Shiism and that they represent Shiism, in practice they are very far from what Marjaiya needs and wants.
Q: There is a tendency to highlight the Sadrist Movement as an anti-Iran current in Iraqi politics. How would you address that point?
I think that Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr will never betray or violate his father’s fatwas [religious edicts].
The late Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr (1943-99) was in the 1990s asked about Iran and how Iran reacted to his newly established Marji’yah [source of emulation for Shiites]. I believe his answer was that it is ‘haram’ [religiously impermissible] to weaken the Islamic Republic. He did not say that it is preferable not to weak the Iranian state or that it is not advised. He said that it is ‘haram’.
I heard Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr once saying: “If the Americans wanted to fight Iran, we will not accept this. We will fight the Americans if they wage a war against Iran from Iraq.” He said, “Iran is a neighbor country, Iran is a Muslim country, we are tied to Iran by cultural and religious ties and there are even economic interests.” So there is no way to compare Iran to the United States. There is also no way to compare Iran to Turkey or any other country.
But the problem is that we need to balance our relationships. While Iraq is a neighbor of Iran and there are these historical, cultural, and religious ties between the two countries, Iraq is also part of the Arab homeland and it is an Arab country. The majority of its citizens are Arabs and it also has tribal ties with counterparts in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen among others, and there are also relationships with Turkey.
Although it seems very much intricate and difficult, Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr is attempting to do his best to maintain this balance, to draw Iraqi politics in line with the mutual interest—the bilateral interest when it comes to Iraq and Iran, and trilateral interests when it comes to Iraq, Iran and Turkey. There is also a multilateral interest when it comes to Arab countries and Iran.
And as I said, there are privileges also [stemming from how] he is aware of the cultural, religious and all these other ties [with Iran]. But he is against [outside] intervention in Iraqi decision making. He does not want Iraq to be an extension of any neighboring country. Otherwise, he says there will be no place for a stable Iraq, there will be no existence for a secure and powerful Iraq.
This is the vision of Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr. It cannot be restricted to such dichotomy as pro or against Iran—at all.
Source: Amwaj Media, August 14, 2022