After the U.S. invasion and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraqi politics coalesced around the identity groupings of the exile opposition: Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and smaller minority groups. As factions competed for power during the following two decades, rivals in each community never even tried to distinguish themselves by politics or ideology. Nor did any significant faction successfully reach across identity divides to recruit leaders or constituencies from other communities.
Iraqis have repeatedly tried to challenge sectarian modes of power, but sectarian factions have successfully defended a system in which identity trumps all other axes of political affiliation. What’s good for sectarian factions is not the same as what’s good for a population that lives in mixed communities whose security and livelihoods depend on national stability. The persistent sectarianism of Iraq’s political factions contrasts with the apparent preferences of many Iraqis, perhaps a plurality, who want effective services and security on a national, not communal basis.
If so many Iraqis are tired of sectarianism and identity-based politics, and yearn for better governance, how has sectarian and ethnic factionalism so completely swallowed ideological and programmatic politics?
The factions with the most resources after 2003 found ethno-sectarianism the easiest route to power. In the ensuing decades these factions have defeated increasingly sophisticated challenges to the ethno-sectarian system, aided by an electorate whose fears often, justifiably, have an ethno-sectarian character: armed groups often threaten Iraqis on the basis of their identity, and factions distribute resources on a community basis.
Sectarian and ethnic parties dominate for three primary reasons: their use of violence, structural advantages in the political system they built, and their continuing appeal with a significant share of the population who seek protection from persistent extremist attacks from sectarian groups such as the Islamic State.
In this report, I first tour the post-Saddam Hussein political history to demonstrate that many schools of anti-sectarian and non-sectarian politics have competed against sectarian factions for power, but have failed to make serious inroads. Then, I look in detail at the most recent episode in which sectarian politics was enforced, the 2022 confrontation in which the Shia Islamist factions in the Coordination Framework overturned a trans-sectarian grand bargain and imposed the logic of each sect for itself. I characterize this imposition of identity politics as a “sectarian relapse.” Finally, I venture some possible explanations for the political success of reductive sectarian disciplining.
The Sectarian Paradigm
Iraq’s sectarian relapse is all the more striking and puzzling in light of the widespread frustration with identity-group politics and factions that profess no discernible political or ideological program.
Political factionalism, based on sectarian and ethnic identity, has successfully dominated Iraqi politics and the distribution of power, despite the widely expressed popular contempt for sectarianism. Identity politics, sectarian or ethnic, have emerged as a dominant norm, crowding out programmatic politics based on ideology, policy, or more plastic group affiliations.1
The desire to reduce or minimize sectarianism, however defined, does not remove it as a factor. Today, there is a struggle between Iraqis who want to marginalize sectarianism, or remove its sting, and those who find sectarianism the ideal tool to mobilize followers and mete out violence. That struggle is perhaps more visible than before because the anti-sectarians have gained strength. As a result, there is now a viable nationalist narrative, which holds that after the rise of the Islamic State, Iraqis of all identities banded together and sacrificed their lives to liberate the mostly Sunni Arab areas conquered by the extremist group. According to the nationalist, anti-sectarian narrative, the government of Haider al-Abadi (prime minister 2014–18) and then the Tishreen protest movement represented a widespread yearning for a coherent state and better governance. Abadi briefly won accolades from Iraqis who wanted the state to work on behalf of citizens rather than for a cartel of sectarian factions. One of the main slogans of the Tishreen movement was “We want a nation.”
The sectarian counternarrative, perhaps cynically but with some truth, holds that even when Iraqis are done with sectarianism, sectarianism is not done with them. Groups like the Islamic State kill and displace on sectarian (and sometimes ethnic) grounds. While sectarian leaders might seek to erase nuance and complexity, they draw on genuine wells of affinity and fellowship that, for example, unite Shia around common rituals and clerical teachings, or make it hard for Kurds to fully disavow the pull of kurdayeti (“Kurdishness”), or which in today’s Iraq require Sunni Arabs who seek the trust of mixed company to preemptively disavow the Islamic State.
The counternarrative, perhaps cynically but with some truth, holds that even when Iraqis are done with sectarianism, sectarianism is not done with them.
In times of sectarian strife like the 2006 sectarian war, the later years of Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership, and the rise of the Islamic State, sectarian identity and loyalty are—tautologically but nevertheless truly—the first although not the only markers of whom to trust. As the quick overview of Iraq’s last half century suggests, identity politics in Iraq form as much in reaction to genuine outside threats, like the genocidal campaigns of Saddam and the Islamic State, as they do in response to communal solidarity and the machinations of identity demagogues within communities. Even the protest parties that won seats in parliament in the October 2021 elections mobilized within communal lines. In the drama of 2021–22, the Shia parties banded together to impose sectarian discipline on Iraq; but during that crisis, every faction in Iraqi politics, including movements representing Kurds, Sunnis, and smaller identity groups, operated in the illiberal, ethno-sectarian paradigm—each group claimed members from only one identity group, and none of the factions possessed even a trace of internal democracy or transparent decision-making.
The terms themselves serve as important signals. In the early years of Iraq’s transition from Saddam to a post-U.S. occupation political order, the ambitious returned exile Ahmed Chalabi used the term Shia House to describe an inchoate coalition of Shia factions, including his own Iraqi National Congress.
Since then, the term’s use waxed and waned. In 2005, a grand alliance of Shia factions campaigned as the United Iraqi Alliance, but some politicians in the grouping referred to it as the Shia House. Influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani denied that he supported the coalition, but did not stop it from using his image in its campaign.
During various periods of conflict with his rivals, Muqtada al-Sadr invoked the Shia House as an ordering concept, suggesting in 2018 that, in Iraqi political negotiations, the Shia had to sort out their competition first, before engaging with parties from other sects.
In 2021, Shia politicians made explicit the Shia-first formula that had hitherto been implicit. As in Lebanon, leaders in Iraq followed the sectarian ordering of top government positions, without such an order anywhere being written in law. A new way of selecting the prime minister was proposed by Qais Khazali, an important Shia factional head and militia leader who represents an Iraqi nationalist constituency as well as a maximalist strain close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Instead of negotiations between competing Shia blocs, all Shia blocs would have to come together and choose a consensus candidate.2 Over time, Khazali and other Shia leaders—even those who disagreed with the proposal—began to refer to it as the Shia House. And while “Shia House” entered public discourse as a common term, the grouping’s ethno-sectarian counterparts did not adopt similar formulations. Politicians spoke of “the Sunnis” and “the Kurds” as political groupings, but not of a Sunni House or Kurdish House— perhaps testifying to the enduring effect of early political formulations after Saddam’s ouster from power.
Anti-sectarianism and Relapse
During the quarter century that Saddam Hussein dominated Iraqi politics, identity played an inescapable role in Iraqi life, although it was not the sole determinant of status and security. Saddam built his power on overlapping networks: familial, tribal, regional, and ideological.
The Ba’ath Party, in the abstract, transcended identity. In practice, Saddam’s regime accorded special privileges to members of his clan, and, over time, proved especially advantageous to Sunni Arabs from tribes and communities that served Saddam’s interests. The regime singled out Kurds and Shia Arabs for genocidal persecution, although it inflicted repression and violence on Iraqis from every identity group if they were perceived to oppose the regime.
Yet while Saddam’s closest aides tended to come from his family, tribe, or region, his regime drew on support from loyalists from every community. So there was truth to the claim that Saddam’s regime was not sectarian, or not solely sectarian, just as there was truth to the claim that Saddam targeted Kurds and Shia Arabs, on the basis of their identity.
Exile politics reflected the regime’s ambiguous sectarianism. Groups like Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord fashioned themselves as nationalist movements that happened to be led by non-sectarian Shia. (Allawi proved to be anti-sectarian over time, whereas Chalabi eventually embraced a sectarian role.) Kurdish exile groups tended to reflect the divisions within Kurdish politics. Meanwhile, groups like the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq defined themselves as Shia Islamist. Most of the exile groups worked together, united in their opposition to Saddam and their support for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
U.S. policy first embodied and then entrenched a lazy sectarianism. The U.S. military and then the occupation authority classified Iraqis first and foremost by identity group, rather than by any other affiliations or agendas.3 The practice might have begun as a convenient shorthand rooted in ignorance, but also in prejudices shared by some Iraqis; but U.S. actions quickly elevated ethno-sectarianism to the prime organizing principle of politics and armed groups. At the prompting of exiles who benefited from a sectarian power-sharing system, the U.S. occupation authority chose to allocate seats in the inchoate Iraqi government by sect and ethnicity, rather than by political party, social class, region, gender, or literally any other more complex formula.
The sectarianism of American occupiers and Iraqi exiles functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy. American officials held power directly from 2003 to 2005, and continued to exercise outsize influence until the withdrawal of most U.S. troops in December 2011. Occupation officials inaccurately conflated Saddam, the Ba’ath Party, the Iraqi military, and Sunni Arabs—an essentialist recipe that guided poor policy decisions, in particular the choices to disband the military and to adopt Chalabi’s vague but broad approach to de-Ba’athification.4 Americans in the early period accorded privileges to Kurds, Shia Arabs, and small minority groups, while treating Sunni Arabs with suspicion. On a local level, U.S. military officers and provincial occupation officials formed transactional local alliances with more nuance.
By the time of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, ethno-sectarianism had become simultaneously more entrenched and at the same time increasingly muddled. Every single significant militia and political faction had an ethnic or sectarian identity, and drew its members almost exclusively from a single community. At the same time, these formations assembled in ethno-sectarian terms held views about sectarianism and nationalism that were widely divergent, and frequently contradictory. Kurdish parties freely allied with all manner of federal Arab factions, and seemed to simultaneously advocate incompatible frameworks: federalism and nationalism, Kurdish autonomy and Kurdish independence. Sunni Arab communities spawned sectarian extremists like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But repentant Sunni Arab sectarians also formed the Sunni Awakening, which turned against takfiri ideology to ally with the United States and with the Baghdad government. There also emerged Sunni Arab nationalists and reformers. Shia factions included outright Islamists, hybrid Islamist-nationalists, and militia-factions distinguished by their views about territory, economic control, and security rather than any discernible differences on identity and policy.5 Notably, despite major cleavages among Shia factions, all invoked nationalist rhetoric and all made efforts to partner with non-Shia factions, even though none made a convincing effort to recruit a trans-communal membership or serve a trans-communal constituency.
The sectarianism of American occupiers and Iraqi exiles functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ultimately, all Iraq’s factions supported the status quo created by the Americans and exiles: a sectarian power-sharing system in which positions were allocated first by identity (Shia, Sunni, Kurd, and so on) and only secondarily by faction. Security and services, at the individual level, were always distributed by factions from the same identity group as their constituents.
Complex People, Rigid System
This sectarian power-sharing system preyed on the insecurity created by the U.S. invasion, which shattered the remaining institutions of state and then put in place policies that prevented the reemergence of coherent and effective state institutions.
In 2003, Iraqi communities were even more intertwined geographically than they are today. Different areas might have had predominant demographic groups, but neighborhoods and governorates were mosaics of ethnicity, sect, and class. Families, tribes, workplaces, and institutions were mixed—as they remain today. Kurds who were subjected to the Anfal campaign and Shia Arabs in the south who suffered the 1991 regime crackdown experienced Saddam’s regime as heavily ethno-sectarian. Other Iraqis, especially those who enjoyed favorable transactional relationships with the regime, might have described Saddam’s rule as authoritarian rather than sectarian. I do not mean to suggest that pre-2003 Iraq was a sect-blind utopia or melting pot—only that, for some Iraqis, ethno-sectarian identity was but one of many indicators of profession, politics, and status.
After 2003, raging identity violence reframed the lived experience of sectarianism for many Iraqis. Sunni takfiri groups targeted and murdered Shia communities with a degree of brutality that shocked Iraqis already steeped in the horrors of dictatorship and war. The takfiri groups (al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and lesser-known formations) also made a point of disseminating propagandistic depictions of their violence, which had the effect of spreading the takfiri sectarian narrative. During the same period, Shia death squads invoked sectarian iconography while pursuing a revenge campaign against their (usually Sunni) enemies. Iraqis with fresh memories of genocidal campaigns against Kurds and Shia Arabs sought protection from a reprise of recent, painful history. Whether or not Iraqis individually aspired to live in homogenous enclaves—and many very vocally detested this turn of events—protection often came in the form of sectarian militias (a catch-all category that can aptly describe official as well as hybrid and nonstate armed groups in Iraq). Even official security institutions were formed out of a patchwork of sectarian agglomerations, with security institutions controlled at the ministerial or unit level by specific factions.6
Iraq’s rigidly sectarian system seems to contradict the preferences of Iraq’s pluralistic, diverse population. The system certainly operates at odds with the interests of Iraqis, who desperately need security, effective governance, and coherent state institutions in order to address a panoply of ongoing crises. How to make sense of this apparent divergence?
In the course of twenty years of reporting and research in Iraq, and more recently, through Century International’s Shia Politics Working Group, I’ve seen irrefutable evidence that ethno-sectarian labels reveal almost nothing about values, governing programs, or preference—and that these labels, in Iraq, have proven especially sticky. (Our study of Shia Islamist politics documented the fuzzy malleability of both terms; the exercise would surely yield similar results with different specifics in a treatment of Kurdish politics or Sunni politics in Iraq.)
The persistence of sectarianism as an organizing principle for armed groups and political factions (usually one and the same) is all the more mysterious given the visible resistance to a sectarian political system from many quarters of Iraq. Many Iraqis, perhaps a plurality, perhaps a majority, have revealed a preference for a non-sectarian political system, through elections, protest movements, and high-risk affiliations with national causes like the war against the Islamic State. The sectarian system and its constituent parties grow ever more solid each time they successfully repel a challenge; I call these cycles “sectarian relapses,” in which the ethno-sectarian system and its identity-first principles triumph over mass popular demands for governance based on rules and not on identity.
Elections and Protests Challenge Sectarianism
Iraqis have organized many challenges big and small to the sectarian system since 2003, most notably in elections, protest, and commitment to national struggles.
Prominent electoral challenges to the sectarian system have been part of Iraq’s political scene since the first elections in 2005. Nationalist, trans-sectarian or anti-sectarian political parties contested the elections beginning in 2005. The American occupation authority positioned Iyad Allawi as its preferred ruler for Iraq: an exile and former Ba’athist but demonstrably a nationalist with a pluralistic, trans-sectarian base. Allawi served less than one year as prime minister, from June 2004 through May 2005, but finished in third place in the 2005 elections.
By 2010, Allawi’s nationalist coalition won parliamentary elections, but when it came time to form a government, he was outmaneuvered by Nouri al-Maliki—a pattern of sectarian relapse through backroom negotiations that has been repeated in more recent Iraqi history. While Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord has achieved the most success at the ballot box of any trans- or anti-sectarian political faction, many other leaders and factions have defined themselves in opposition to the sectarian system, including Adnan Pachachi, who eventually joined Allawi’s list; the Iraqi Communist Party; and the protest parties that have campaigned under the banner of the Tishreen movement, following the anti-system October 2019 protests.
While it would overstate the case to describe Muqtada al-Sadr as an anti-sectarian leader, he and his movement have, since 2003, fashioned themselves as a homegrown, nationalist alternative to overly sectarian returning exiles. Until 2022, the Sadrists partook in the sectarian spoils and patronage system while simultaneously critiquing that system. Sadrist parliamentary election campaigns in 2018 and 2021 made a decidedly outsider critique of the sectarian system and ultimately precipitated the 2022 challenge to identity-first politics.
Protests have more radically challenged the sectarian system, gaining steam after the American troop withdrawal in 2011. Protest camps in Anbar governorate in 2012–13 included anti-sectarian critics, but became subsumed by Sunni sectarians. During the period of the Islamic State’s ascendancy, anti-government protests were muted and sporadic.
Protests broke out every year from 2015 to 2018. Some cases, like the Sadrist takeover of parliament, tapped into popular anger but were part of an elite power struggle. Most of the protests, however, channeled popular rage at failed governance—most notably the protests in Basra in the summer of 2018 over lack of services and eventually, the poisoning of the city’s water supply.
The largest protests began in October 2019 and ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Those protests explicitly called for a new governing compact in Iraq, and featured reform movements from the north to the south. Notably, protests were absent from Sunni-majority areas, which were still reeling from the Islamic State war and possibly hesitant because of the history of insurgents operating under the cover of protest tents in Ramadi in 2012.7 The protest movements defined themselves in nationalist and reformist terms. Protest movement membership reflected regional demographics, so movements were predominantly Shia Arab in the south; Kurdish in Kurdistan; and mixed in the Baghdad area.
External Threats Rally Solidarity
External threats have mobilized solidarity across communal lines, beginning with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Many Iraqis who disliked Saddam’s rule still opposed the foreign war that brought regime change. Armed resistance to the American occupation sometimes had a nationalist flair, as when Sadr’s Shia militia extended solidarity to Sunni resistance groups fighting the Americans in Fallujah in 2004.
Several Iraqi prime ministers had what I call “national moments,” when they harnessed the widespread popular desire for state-building and service provision on a national, rather than communal, basis—essentially, for an Iraq that functioned like a modern state. Maliki initially consolidated power as a nationalist, taking power in 2006 and working with Sunni militias and the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda (he turned against both in later years). And Maliki demonstrated a willingness to ignore sectarian bonds when he went to war against Sadr’s Mahdi Army in 2008. However, Maliki’s national moment proved chimeric; once secure in power, he and his closest advisers pursued policies with sharp sectarian overtones.
Shia volunteers from the south fought and died far from home, in Anbar and Nineveh governorates, to liberate Sunnis and others from Islamic State rule. Fighting formations included all of Iraq’s communities.
Iraq broadly experienced a deeply felt national moment in response to the rise of the Islamic State. Shocked by the group’s extreme brutality, and reeling from the simultaneous collapse of so many Iraqi institutions (the military, the peshmerga, the police, the prime minister’s office), Iraqis mobilized against an existential threat to all. Shia volunteers from the south fought and died far from home, in Anbar and Nineveh governorates, to liberate Sunnis and others from Islamic State rule. Fighting formations included all of Iraq’s communities. Federal police, Ministry of Defense and Counter Terrorism Service troops avoided communal identifiers, but most of the other militias and paramilitaries in the fight grouped by identity. Most Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) forces were Shia, although there were notable Sunni, Christian, and other PMU groups. All the forces that fought the Islamic State deployed where they were needed, regardless of communal identity.8
This grand multi-sectarian coalition raised the prospect that the Iraqi state could organize in a similar manner, serving a national interest that would bring sorely needed dividends to regular people, in the form of security, jobs, and predictability. But the national moment of the counter-Islamic State campaign never translated into a national revival of state institutions. Even at the peak moment of sympathy for nationalist ideas, when the coalition against the Islamic State was liberating Mosul, many Iraqis voiced a fear that nationalism would bring chauvinism—a recurring reason to mistrust a strong national government, cited by members of historically persecuted communities in Iraq.9 Hints of the nationalist-chauvinist pairing were evident in federal Iraq’s quick pushback against the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum. Shia Arab factions had partnered closely with Kurds in exile and, since 2003, in Iraqi government. And in 2017, Iraq relied on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to host millions of Sunni Arabs displaced from Islamic State areas. Nonetheless, Haider al-Abadi’s government struck hard against the idea of Kurdish independence, deploying troops to contested areas like Kirkuk, and taking away the de facto autonomy that the KRG had previously enjoyed to set its own border and international trade policies.
Elections, protests, solidarity in the face of external threats: all have challenged power and threatened the status quo. They might yet develop enough strength to change Iraq’s political system. Until now, however, the guarantors of the sectarian power-sharing system have resorted to any means to smother dissent, including systematic abuse of state resources to persecute critics; kidnapping; and murder. The sustained and violent reaction of Iraqi factions invested in the system suggests it views anti-system and anti-sectarian movements as an existential threat; but the system’s maximalist response to calls for reform has, for now, kept that system in place.
Enforcing Sectarianism: The Shia House
In the most consequential and recent enforcement of a sectarian order, a coalition of Shia factions in 2022 successfully insisted that each major ethno-sectarian grouping (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd) had to select its own leaders first, before the identity groups could negotiate with each other to form a government. This reversion to a post-2003 sectarian norm was in no way inevitable; leaders resorted to a sectarian order as the surest path to power for their factions.
Government formation in Iraq has been messy in every cycle since 2005, but the 2021–22 episode was exceptional, because of the viable proposal to end the consensus system and the very plausible risk of widespread violence. The 2021–22 political crisis pitted a trans-sectarian nationalist alliance (the Tripartite Alliance) against a revanchist and reactionary coalition of Shia factions (the Coordination Framework) that insisted that the Shia House—the collective of all Shia factions—come to a unified position before any Shia faction could make an alliance beyond the sect.
The Coordination Framework’s success in this contest was a particular surprise because the massive protests of 2019 had shown that many Iraqis wanted change, and it seemed that the longing for a non-sectarian type of governance might finally triumph. But the Shia House factions beat back the threat, relying on three winning tactics: The first tactic was the use of violence to cow rivals. The second was to draw on the structural advantages they had accrued through corruption within two decades of unity governments. The third tactic was to appeal to Iraqis with the claim that the Shia House protected them from forces who would do them harm on the basis of their communal identity.
The story starts with the October 2021 elections. Muqtada al-Sadr won the most seats of any Shia faction. The rival Shia alliance unified all the factions that opposed Sadr, including many strong militias, former premier Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance, and the Fatah Coalition. The United States preferred a government formed by Sadr; Iran preferred a government formed by Sadr’s rivals. Sadr formed the Tripartite Alliance, a coalition with the Kurdish and Sunni leaders who had won the most votes in their communities: Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and speaker of parliament Mohammed al-Halbusi’s Taqaddum Party.10 The Tripartite Alliance wanted to form a majority government, which would exclude the State of Law and Fatah; if they succeeded, it would be the first time since Saddam that an Iraqi government would leave any major factions in opposition. The Shia anti-Sadr forces formalized their alliance and called themselves the Coordination Framework.11
The brewing face-off between the Tripartite Alliance and the Coordination Framework was a historic moment for modern Iraq. Despite his own checkered and occasionally overtly sectarian history, Sadr was now calling for an end to the era of unity governments that included every party—electoral winners and losers alike. As recently as 2020, Sadr had called for the Shia House to urgently get in order, at a time when his influence was ascendant, and he perhaps thought he could make himself the preeminent Shia leader. In the wake of the October 2021 parliamentary elections, however, Sadr proposed a majority government; those excluded from the government would form an opposition, as in most parliamentary systems. Sadr had changed strategy, and had assembled what briefly appeared to be a potent, potentially system-killing coalition, uniting the leading Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parliamentary blocs. His Tripartite Alliance threatened, at its roots, the sectarian arrangement that had ruled Iraq uninterrupted since the end of the formal U.S. occupation. “Fundamental changes in the country’s power-sharing formula are being proposed that would sweep away the big-tent consensus arrangement that has governed Iraqi politics since regime change in 2003,” Iraqi analyst Raad Alkadiri wrote when Sadr’s negotiating position seemed at its zenith.12
The Coordination Framework parties, now threatened with a loss of revenue and legal cover, described a majority government in apocalyptic terms, as akin to a dictatorship. Although their main interest was—plainly—promoting the Shia House, they also framed their opposition to the Tripartite Alliance by appealing to the sectarian insecurities of every other group in Iraq. The Coordination Framework took the idea that Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties needed to stick together, and made it an iron principle. And the Coordination Framework supported this principle with maximalist threats and disruption.
Almost immediately after the October election results were tallied, the losing Shia factions in the Coordination Framework escalated their actions and rhetoric against Sadr and his Tripartite Alliance, and demanded that negotiations to form a government follow a sectarian path. Important leaders representing major political blocs, significant militias, or both joined the Shia House call, including Maliki, the former prime minister; Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization; Ammar al-Hakim, the cleric heading the Hikma Movement who had previously positioned himself as a conciliator; Falih Alfayyadh; and Qais Khazali, from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
The Coordination Framework’s response was swift and violent, beginning with an apparent assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi (an ally of Sadr) in November 2021.
The Coordination Framework’s response was swift and violent, beginning with an apparent assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi (an ally of Sadr) in November 2021.13 Pro-Coordination Framework demonstrators massed near the Green Zone beginning in October 2021, even before the election results were certified. Rhetorically, the Coordination Framework began making a “sect-first” case that the Tripartite Alliance was upsetting an order of operations that protected communal rights (no matter that, in the previous decades, the Iraqi status quo had neither protected identity groups from violence nor effectively brought them services). Also in October, as the rival alliances took shape, Maliki, known for his sectarian policies and rhetoric, returned to a position of powerbroker as leader of the Coordination Framework. He referred to the Sadrist coalition’s attempt to form a majority government as “regime change.” Other members of the coalition dismissed the electoral results as outright fraud.
The Tripartite Alliance nevertheless succeeded in reelecting Halbusi as parliament speaker on January 9, 2022.14 But the Coordination Framework was able to stop the next step necessary for the formation of a new government—the election (by parliament) of Iraq’s largely ceremonial head of state, the president, which requires a supermajority.
The showdown continued unfolding over the better part of 2022. The Coordination Framework factions backed their position with the credible threat of violence, up to and including civil war. Shia faction leaders issued an endless stream of sectarian threats. Alfayyadh spoke of a conspiracy “to tear apart the Shia House.” Maliki, Khazali, and others argued that Sadr’s trans-sectarian coalition was a foreign plot to disenfranchise the Shia majority. Hakim’s sectarian rhetoric was particularly significant, since he had previously styled himself as less sectarian than Maliki, Khazali, and the militia leaders. “The Shia nationalism, whose banner we have raised, and defended ardently, means first preventing division in our own house, preparing the way for opening to other dear demographic groups,” Hakim said in a speech in February 2022.15
Month after month passed and all attempts to form a new government failed. Parliament sessions deadlocked, stalled, or failed to muster quorum. Threats escalated, with important politicians and militia leaders speculating in public about a violent showdown between Sadr and the Coalition Framework.
Sadr (who did not hold a formal office) announced that he would completely withdraw from electoral politics, and ordered all members of his parliamentary delegation to resign, in an inexplicable forfeit of his greatest political advantage. On June 12, the Sadrist members of parliament formally submitted their resignation.16 Politicians with whom I spoke in Baghdad speculated that Sadr mistakenly believed that his Sunni and Kurdish allies would follow suit and resign as well, forcing a new election, but in fact what transpired was a windfall for the Coordination Framework and its sectarian-majoritarian Shia House strategy.17
Under Iraq’s rules, the seats were filled by the next-best-performing candidates from the October 2021 election, which suddenly gave the Coordination Framework a supermajority. The Kurdish and Sunni partners in the Tripartite Alliance reoriented, abandoned their lofty nationalist rhetoric, and cut deals with the Coordination Framework.
By August, both sides of the Shia dispute were openly preparing for civil conflict. Sadr called for new elections. Militias from the Coordination Framework deployed fighters in Baghdad, including in the Green Zone. Sadrists mobilized as well. On August 29 and 30, Sadrists stormed government buildings in the Green Zone, sparking violent clashes with Coordination Framework fighters.18 Mediation by outside figures, including senior Shia clerics, persuaded Sadr to call on his supporters to withdraw.
In the absence of Sadr and his allies, parliament—now dominated by the Coordination Framework—elected Abdul Latif Rashid, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, as president in October 2022.19 Rashid then named Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, the Coordination Framework’s favored candidate, as prime minister, and he formed his new government at the end of October.
Explaining the Coordination Framework’s Success
The Coordination Framework’s formula to fend off the threat of the Tripartite Alliance was clear enough: it capitalized on violence, structural advantages, and fear. Yet its success still came as some surprise to those who thought the Tishreen movement might have heralded a new political era for Iraq.
The government-formation crisis illustrates sectarian persistence and the patterns of Iraq’s sectarian relapses, in which the sectarian system triumphs over a popular push for a less sectarian system. Sectarianism had never receded as a source of power and a means of organizing constituencies. For all its complexity, sectarianism has also remained a powerful driver of conflict and insecurity—not least in response to the deadly ur-sectarianism of the Islamic State and its predecessors.
The direct struggle within the Shia political spectrum in 2021–22 provided an almost too-pat coda to a multi-year study of the transformation of Shia Islamist politics in Iraq; but the power struggle was a natural outcome of a sectarian system that is anything but an organic expression of the political will of Iraq’s body politic. The sectarian system has to enforce itself over Iraq’s repeated and increasingly powerful efforts to shift toward a more national form of government. I believe this analysis would produce similar results if applied to other episodes of sectarian relapse involving Shia factions, and probably episodes involving Kurdish, Sunni, and other identity group factions.
Shia factions invoked the Shia House concept soon after Saddam’s fall. Shia politicians worried about efforts to undermine democratic elections and majority rule, and propagated the idea that Shia factions, regardless of programmatic differences, should unify during a transition period to ensure that the Shia majority was able to secure its share of government power, and to secure the restoration of the previously trammeled right to worship freely.
In the ensuing decades, Shia factions have expediently cited an imperative to revert to negotiations within the Shia House during power struggles with Shia rivals. Sadr’s maneuvering in 2020–21 suggests that for Iraq’s competing political leaders, political sectarianism and anti-sectarianism are both secondary to the pursuit of power.20
The direct struggle within the Shia political spectrum in 2021–22 provided an almost too-pat coda to a multi-year study of the transformation of Shia Islamist politics in Iraq.
The Coordination Framework’s sectarian rhetoric carried the day because it argued that a political coalition that transcended a Shia base posed a sectarian danger to the Shia. The Coordination Framework “holds an uncompromising sectarian view of politics in which demographic majority is identical to political majority,” wrote former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Rend al-Rahim in April 2022, as the crisis was peaking. “They arouse sectarian passions by sowing fears that a divided Shia front will strip the community of what they deem are its hard-earned gains. They have used this narrative to fan fears of Shia disenfranchisement.”21 And in the end, an outright sectarian political ordering prevailed yet again.
However, the outcome of the 2021–22 crisis broke with post-2003 tradition in two important ways. First, in the 2021–22 political conflict, the sectarianism that had operated implicitly now emerged into the open. Second, the majoritarian sectarians of the Coordination Framework formed Iraq’s first majority government since 2003. Previously, all governments had operated on a consensus basis, including representatives of every single faction. Now, for the first time, Iraq’s government excluded the Sadrists, a major faction that had finished first in the 2021 elections and had amassed the largest bloc in parliament before Sadr ordered his followers to resign.
These new precedents augur both good and ill for Iraq. The creation of a majority government, rather than national unity government, opens the path for future majority governments that aspire to govern Iraq more effectively . The precedent of naming a prime minister over the direct objection of a major, popular political movement, means that in future cycles other coalitions that can muster the numbers in parliament can force through a prime minister who lacks consensus support. After the next elections, for instance, a trans-sectarian grouping like the Tripartite Alliance can argue that Iraq now accepts the principle of a majority government instead of a consensus government, because of the precedent the Coordination Framework established by naming Sudani as a prime minister.
This development is not without downside risks: a strong government, of course, can use its power to engage in corruption and misrule even worse than what Iraq already experiences. Less ambiguously, however, the sectarian inflection of the Shia House tactics makes it even harder for non-identity political factions or alliances to take root in the political system, no matter how widespread the desire among Iraqis for better rule.
The Persistence of Sectarianism
Brilliant analyses have enriched our understanding of sectarianism and made the lazy determinism of the pre-2003 era unthinkable—at least for analysts and scholars. Fanar Haddad has usefully forced a reckoning over the definition of sectarianism, and has proposed more nuanced terms for Iraqi leaders who deploy sect as just one among many axes of self-definition and political mobilization. Zahra Ali has carefully documented the non-sectarian manner in which Iraqis see themselves and their political system, addressing multiple layers of class, and other hierarchies. But the gap between good faith theorists and public rhetoric is striking. Well-meaning thinkers might properly eschew the simplistic reductionism of sect and explain contemporary Iraqi politics with concepts like Haddad’s “sect-centricity,” Ali’s “politics of life” and death, and Maya Mikdashi’s “sextarianism.”22
But many Iraqi political actors, fighters, and citizens who shape their society habitually ascribe their loyalties, motives, or threats to sect. For all the laziness of the formulation, most Iraqis still use the shorthand of Shia, Sunni, and Kurd to refer to the major political groupings and areas of the country—even as they well know the mosaic of families, communities, governorates, and politics at all levels cannot be neatly distilled by these three imprecise and mismatched categories. Extremist takfiri movements like the Islamic State won significant support among Sunnis (in Iraq and worldwide) on a platform galvanized by genocidal campaigns against Shia Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis. Kurdish leaders sabotaged their own hard-won autonomy with a doomed, and polarizing independence referendum in 2017, despite hosting more than a million Arabs in the KRG region and purporting to represent millions more Kurds who live in federal (Arab-majority) Iraq. Some Shia factional leaders traffic in blatantly sectarian discourse and describe Iraqi politics in zero-sum terms as a contest for either Shia or Sunni supremacy, and many Shia fighters in both formal and less formal forces describe their motivation to fight in sectarian rather than national terms.
Observers of Iraq and the wider Middle East often see sectarianism as the product of primordial, atavistic conflicts between the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, or as the product of external manipulation. But critical scholars and analysts have emphasized the extent to which Iraq’s contemporary sectarian politics emerged from relatively recent historical developments.23
Faleh al-Jabar has argued that the suppression of the largely Shia but anti-sectarian Iraqi Communist Party under the Ba’ath, the exclusion of Shia from state patronage networks under Saddam, and the increasing targeting of Shia during the Iran–Iraq War gave that sect a fundamentally new political cohesiveness and sectarian orientation by the end of the 20th century.24 Toby Dodge suggests that Iraqi politics writ large did not come to revolve around sect until after 2003, when “sectarian entrepreneurs” emerged to fill gaps opened by the absence of state services.25 According to Jabar, the post-2003 apportionment and distribution of state resources along sectarian, clientelist lines generated widespread popular opposition to sectarian politics by the mid-2010s.26 But despite this popular opposition, Toby Dodge and Renad Mansour argue, sectarian patronage networks have become deeply entrenched and continue to drive Iraqi politics, even as politicians now refrain from overtly sectarian rhetoric.27
In 2019, Haddad wrote that “excessive focus on ‘sectarianism’ and the politics of the Sunni–Shia divide serves to unduly overshadow the far more relevant divide between elites and people.”28 Just a few years later, after a particularly acute episode of sectarian relapse, Haddad’s diagnosis remains as true as ever—the elites feast while the people starve—but also rings incomplete. The sectarian system, once again, has decimated the enemies that would reform it.
If Iraqis dislike the sectarian system, and if it serves them poorly, how has it managed to crowd out or squelch alternatives?
Observers of Iraq and the wider Middle East often see sectarianism as the product of primordial conflicts. But scholars have shown that Iraq’s sectarian politics emerged much more recently.
Iraqi factions seem to pursue power by any available strategy, alternating between sectarianism and nationalism based on short-term calculations. The same goes for foreign governments that have influenced political negotiations in Iraq. In the Shia House episode of 2021–22, for instance, Iran backed the Coordination Framework, and Iranian officials encouraged an outcome that would include all the Shia factions.29 However, after the Sadrist withdrawal, the Iranians supported a majority government, albeit one controlled by Iran’s closest allies. The United States, despite a policy that theoretically promotes national institutions and democratic political norms, has historically supported consensus governments—and has now evinced a willingness to work with the Sudani government. It isn’t possible to understand the interventions of the United States and Iran as purely nationalist or purely sectarian; it is easier to understand the intervening powers as pursuing short-term security and economic interests with whichever available partner is most immediately amenable.
Quite simply, the militant Shia factions that triumphed after the 2021 Iraqi elections used ethno-sectarianism because it worked. It is possible to argue that some Shia factions are more sectarian than others. On the other hand, it’s impossible to prove what the factional leaders actually believe—but it is possible to trace their rhetoric, their negotiating positions, and finally, the outcomes of negotiations (whether at the ballot box, in coalition talks, or in armed conflict). Every major faction, from every identity group, has, at one point or another since 2003, employed sectarian rhetoric. And these sectarian leaders have successfully enforced a sectarian code of politics, as well as a sectarian mode of organizing governments, despite a growing divergence from sectarian politics among the Iraqi electorate.
The leaders of the Shia House gambled and won, on the purported basis that they represent the unified interest of the Shia sect, and by arguing that they were enabling other identity groups to also protect their interests. But, in fact, the Shia House does not represent all Shia factions, and excludes the single most popular and powerful Shia faction, led by Muqtada al-Sadr. More pointedly, the Shia factions manifestly do not represent the interests of Shia Iraqis, many of whom don’t define themselves by sect and, in any case, aspire to see Iraq governed differently and more effectively—on the basis of popular demands for services, state capacity, and national institution-building.
In the post-Saddam era, sectarian factions in Iraq have entrenched themselves in power but have delivered none of the benefits they have promised their constituents. And increasingly, Iraqis are organizing not along ethno-sectarian but political and ideological lines. This next phase will pose a serious and welcome test for sectarianism in Iraq.
This report is part of “Faith and Fracture,” a TCF project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
Header image: Demonstrators paste wishes on post-it notes on the “wish wall” of what Iraqis call “The Turkish Restaurant” in Tahrir Square on November 22, 2019 in Baghdad, during the Tishreen movement protests. The unfinished building was taken over by the demonstrators and made into the movement’s central hub for art and free expression. Source: Photo by Erin Trieb/Getty Images
- Excellent fieldwork by researchers such as Zahra Ali and Omar Sirri details the complex, non-sectarian ways that Iraqis view political power and exclusion. See Zahra Ali, “Theorising Uprisings: Iraq’s Thawra Teshreen,” Third World Quarterly, 2023, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01436597.2022.2161359; and Omar Sirri, “Destructive Creations: Social-Spatial Transformations in Contemporary Baghdad,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series 45, February 2021, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/108866/3/DestructiveCreations.pdf.
- “Khazali: Selecting the Prime Minister Will Not Be Personalized,” Dijla TV, October 2, 2021, cited in Inside Iraqi Politics, Utica Risk Services, no. 228.
- Zaid Al-Ali, “Flawed by Design: Ethno-Sectarian Power-Sharing and Iraq’s Constitutional Development,” Chatham House, April 4, 2023, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/03/iraq-20-years-insider-reflections-war-and-its-aftermath/flawed-design-ethno-sectarian-power; and Ranj Alaldin, “Sectarianism, Governance, and Iraq’s Future,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper no. 24, November 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Sectarianism-governance-and-Iraqs-future_English.pdf.
- Beth K. Dougherty, “De-Ba`thification in Iraq: How Not to Pursue Transitional Justice,” Middle East Institute, January 30, 2014, https://www.mei.edu/publications/de-bathification-iraq-how-not-pursue-transitional-justice.
- Harith Hassan Al-Qarawee, “Iraq’s Sectarian Crisis: A Legacy of Exclusion,” Sada, Carnegie Middle East Center, April 23, 2014, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/55372.
- Safa al-Sheikh Hussein, “Iraq 20 Years On: Insider Reflections on the War and Its Aftermath,” Chatham House, March 20, 2023, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/03/iraq-20-years-insider-reflections-war-and-its-aftermath/iraqs-security-sector-twenty-years.
- Renad Mansour, “The Sunni Predicament,” Carnegie Middle East Center, March 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/CMEC_59_Mansour_Sunni_Final.pdf.
- James Verini, They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).
- Safa al-Sheikh Hussein, “Iraq 20 Years On.”
- Mustafa Saadoun, “Understanding Iraq’s Coordination Framework,” Al-Monitor, August 13, 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/08/understanding-iraqs-coordination-framework.
- Philip Loft, “Iraq in 2022: Forming a Government,” House of Commons Library (UK), November 2, 2022, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9605/CBP-9605.pdf.
- Raad Alkadiri, “Iraq’s New Sultans,” London School of Economics, February 4, 2022, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2022/02/04/iraqs-new-sultans/.
- “Iraqi Prime Minister Survives Assassination Bid with Drones,” Associated Press, November 7, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-fires-iraq-baghdad-embassies-4069e75a45ee9b4eaa5e93648fa15211.
- Sarhang Hamasaeed, “A Year after Elections, Iraq May Finally Be Set to Form a Government,” United States Institute of Peace, October 20, 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/10/year-after-elections-iraq-may-finally-be-set-form-government.
- “Speech by Ammar al-Hakim,” published to the YouTube channel Alforat HD (@alforat_tv_hd) on February 4, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0Wwr4e_Yzs, and cited in Inside Iraqi Politics, Utica Risk Services, no. 230.
- “Iraqi MPs from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Bloc Resign,” Al Jazeera, June 12, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/12/iraqi-mps-from-firebrand-cleric-moqtada-sadrs-bloc-resign; and “Iraqi Cleric Sadr Calls for Wider Protest as Supporters Occupy Parliament,” Agence France-Presse, August 1, 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220731-iraqi-cleric-sadr-calls-for-wider-protest-as-supporters-occupy-parliament.
- Interviews with the author, Baghdad, Iraq, January and May 2023.
- “Iraq: Staving Off Instability in the Near and Distant Futures,” International Crisis Group, January 31, 2023, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/iraq-staving-instability-near-and-distant-futures.
- Loft, “Iraq in 2022.”
- See this 2017 report on Shia politics, which makes a detailed case that Shia leaders compete for resources with little sectarian solidarity: Erwin van Veen, Nick Grinstead, and Floor El Kamouni-Janssen, “A House Divided: Political Relations and Coalition-Building between Iraq’s Shi’a,” The Clingendael Institute, February 2017, https://www.clingendael.org/pub/2017/a_house_divided/.
- Rend Al-Rahim, “Iraq Awaits the End of Its Political Deadlock,” April 18, 2022, Arab Center Washington DC, https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/iraq-awaits-the-end-of-its-political-deadlock/.
- Maya Mikdashi, Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022).
- Haddad’s work has rejected both primordial atavism and external intervention as adequate explanations for the sectarianization of Iraqi politics, emphasizing instead the interaction of domestic, foreign, top-down, and bottom-up dynamics. See, for instance, Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). Haddad’s theoretical approach to sectarianism aligns with Ussama Makdisi’s historical work on the emergence of sectarian politics in Lebanon. See Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism (University of California Press, 2000).
- Faleh al-Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq (Dar al-Saqi, 2003),
- Toby Dodge, “Seeking to explain the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East: The case study of Iraq,” Project on Middle East Political Science, March 9, 2014, https://pomeps.org/seeking-to-explain-the-rise-of-sectarianism-in-the-middle-east-the-case-study-of-iraq.
- Faleh al-Jabar, “From Identity Politics to Issue Politics—the Iraqi Protest Movement. The End of Conformity, the Beginning of Accountability,” Iraqi Economists Network, January 28, 2017, http://iraqieconomists.net/en/2017/01/28/from-identity-politics-to-issue-politics-the-iraqi-protest-movement-the-end-of-conformity-the-beginning-of-accountability-by-faleh-a-jabar/.
- Toby Dodge and Renad Mansour, “Sectarianization and De-Sectarianization in the Struggle for Iraq’s Political Field,” The Review of Faith and International Affairs 18, no.1 (2020): 58–69.
- Fanar Haddad, “The Waning Relevance of the Sunni-Shia Divide,” The Century Foundation, April 10, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/waning-relevance-sunni-shia-divide/.
- Lahib Higel, “A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse,” International Crisis Group, August 10, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/way-out-iraqi-impasse.