AAs night fell on Baghdad on Monday, many Iraqis wondered if their country would wake up to another civil war. Much of the city lay awake sleepless, listening to the sound of heavy machine gun fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades echoing through the deserted streets.
“The air conditioner was exploding, but we still couldn’t sleep. It was as if we were on a battlefield,” said Dina al-Saadi, a university professor who lives in a neighborhood near the heaviest fighting.
Iraq has been on a collision course for months. After the escalation of political tensions between rivals Shia festivals crippled the formation of a new government, the power struggle spilled onto the streets as fierce fighting erupted between supporters of Shiite populism cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran-aligned groups in the heart of the Green Zone, an ultra-secure area housing embassies and government institutions.
The clashes have stirred memories of the deadly chaos that engulfed the streets of Baghdad following the 2003 invasion, stoking fears of renewed violence. “You immediately think back to 2004,” Saadi said. “There is no security, there is no protection, there is no state. Who will protect us?
Nearly 20 years after the US invasion, Iraq is still struggling to find peace. The latest crisis has once again laid bare the weakness of its institutions and the fragility of the post-2003 political order.
At the heart of the conflict is a power struggle between the country’s elites. Since 2003, Iraq has been governed by consensus, with ministerial posts divided between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties according to a sectarian power-sharing formula that ensures equitable access to resources. But this practice has institutionalized corruption and hollowed out a bureaucracy that once functioned and is now unable to deliver even the most basic services.
Mass protests erupted in 2019, calling for an overhaul of the political system. In response, the government held snap elections in October last year. But rather than paving the way for change, the vote sparked a new crisis.
Sadr emerged victorious and, claiming to want reform, attempted to form a majority government without his Iran-aligned Shia opponents. His rivals saw the move as a power grab, while many Iraqis accuse the two sides of bickering over government posts at the expense of ordinary citizens.
“They are all looking out for their own interests. None of them are thinking about Iraq,” Saadi said, rattling off a list of grievances including the dilapidated state of Iraq’s infrastructure and the declining quality of higher education.
The clashes began moments after Sadr announced his retirement from politics on Monday, giving his supporters carte blanche to express their anger. Sadr’s devout base consists of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the poorest sections of society, but he also commands a militia called Saraya al-Salam. On the opposite side are the powerful armed wings of Iran-aligned parties, including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Staccato machine gun fire, interspersed with the thump of rocket-propelled grenades, continued to echo through central Baghdad on Tuesday. Security forces were stationed in the main streets, but they did not appear to intervene in the clashes between rival Shia forces, which had established positions on either side of the green zone.
“We are fighting corrupt militias under the eyes of government security forces,” the Sadr Abbas Ali supporter said as smoke filled the sky in the distance.
There was a strange routine in the chaos. Neighborhoods had been cordoned off with concrete barriers to enforce the curfew, bored soldiers checking identity cards to ensure only residents were allowed through. Streets that would typically be jammed with traffic were nearly empty except for the vehicles ferrying the young men to the front lines.
“People are used to it,” passerby Rashwan Fouad said as he lit a cigarette. “Iraq has been through so much. It is nothing but a snapshot of our history.
Commercial life had meanwhile come to a standstill, with only a few shops open for business in a country where most people live on daily wages. “We just want to live. Everyone has a family, everyone has rent to pay,” said Abdallah, a shopkeeper and father of three who had defied the curfew in hopes of earning a living. His usual 20-minute journey had taken him two hours on foot.
As he spoke, the television in the corner began broadcasting a live press conference, during which Sadr condemned the violence. The cleric’s reconciliatory tone seemed to signal a path to de-escalation. “Thank God,” Abdalla said, heaving a sigh of relief. “We just want a peaceful solution.”