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Why Iraq is Facing a Political Crisis and How OSINT Can Help

What’s happening?

Over the last few weeks, Iraq’s political crisis—which started in October 2021—has escalated into a series of public protests that some analysts believe are headed towards political collapse and violence.

The crisis centers on Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won Iraq’s 2021 parliamentary election. Sadr is a populist and is opposed to Iranian and United States’ influence in Iraq. Here’s a breakdown of the events leading up to recent protests in Baghdad:

  • In October 2021, Sadr’s political bloc, the Sadrist Movement, won Iraq’s parliamentary election but fell short of a majority with 73 out of 329 seats. His opposition is composed of the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-backed Shia politicians and paramilitary groups.
  • The Iran-aligned factions, which have dominated the country’s politics for years, tried and failed to overturn Sadr’s election victory. Sadr pursued a majority rather than a coalition government, which would exclude those loyal to Iran, by attempting to elect a Kurdish president.
  • Iran-aligned factions successfully blocked this move, denying the two-thirds majority needed to elect a president—the first step in forming a government in Iraq.
  • Unable to secure a majority, Sadr ordered his party to quit parliament, ceding its seats to the Iran-aligned factions. Then in late July, the Coordination Framework nominated Mohammed Al-Sudani as prime minister. 
  • These developments sparked protests from Sadr’s supporters, who stormed the parliament’s Green Zone (a fortified area containing government buildings and embassies) on July 27th.

Now in its tenth month, the political gridlock is the country’s longest since 2003. While protesters are responding directly to the Coordination Framework’s takeover and nomination, some experts say the issue is rooted in Iran’s influence over Iraq.

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What’s the impact?

As it stands, Iraq’s political crisis is in a tough spot: whether Sadr or the Coordination Framework are excluded from government, a backlash on either side is likely—especially given the loyalty of Sadr’s supporters. Protests have remained peaceful so far, but analysts believe they could become violent, potentially involving both sides’ heavily-armed militias. 

According to Ranj Alaaldin, a nonresident fellow at a Washington, DC think tank, “Iraq’s political system is on the brink of irreparable collapse and the country is headed toward a civil war between Sadr and his Iran-aligned rivals.” 

A destabilized Iraq could affect Iran’s influence and interests in the country. Iraq is also a strategic partner for the US, which supports a stable Iraqi government and aims to prevent any Islamic State resurgence in the region. Additionally, a conflict escalation could disrupt oil production in Iraq, the world’s fifth-largest supplier, further inflating the global crude market.

Despite the country’s oil wealth, Iraq’s population is already facing an urgent public service crisis with high poverty levels, food insecurity, and power and water cuts. Without a stable government, Iraq has been unable to budget and invest in much-needed infrastructure and economic reforms. For Iraqis, a continued political crisis will only exacerbate these issues and stoke further civil unrest.

How can OSINT help?

Throughout Iraq’s political crisis, social media has played a significant communication role. Protesters left parliament only at Sadr’s request via Twitter. Social media was responsible for leaking unsavory recordings of Nuri al-Maliki, the country’s Iran-aligned former prime minister. Sadr’s criticism of Maliki on Twitter even caused the former PM to abandon a nomination attempt.

For the US and other governments with interests in Iraq, open-source content like social media helps intelligence teams monitor new events in real-time as the crisis unfolds. At scale, this data can uncover other types of open-source intelligence (OSINT)—for example, public sentiment and grievances within Iraq’s population or new military infrastructure and technology trends via regional defense forums.

This information is crucial for improving situational awareness, understanding Iraq’s information environment, and gaining an information advantage—especially as the US navigates geopolitically sensitive activities in the region, like a revived Iran nuclear deal.

To learn more about OSINT solutions and data sources relevant for regional intelligence teams, book a call with Echosec Systems.