The latest defection from one of most powerful Shia parties serves as revelation into Iraq’s post-Daesh future

Last week a split occurred within one of Iraq’s most powerful parties, the Badr Organization. Calling itself the Patriotic Badr Movement the emergence of this splinter group is just the latest event in a series of growing intra-Shia tensions in Iraq. While the media has always analysed Iraq’s Shia as a monolithic group in service of Iran, in fact, this split occurred within the pro-Iranian faction in Iraq’s parliament.

The latest event also has greater resonance when situated with the slew of media commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic. The Badr Organization’s genealogy can be traced to the heyday of Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire to export the Islamic Revolution throughout the Arab world.

Thus, the fracture within this Iraqi party is a reflection of not just domestic Iraqi politics, but that revolutionary period in the eighties.  

Badr’s Iranian Origins

The current crisis within the Badr Organization needs to be traced back to 1982, when the Islamic Republic of Iran sponsored the creation of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI. 

SCIRI was designed to serve as an Iraqi Shia umbrella organization, a means for the Iranian leadership to unite and control Iraqi Shia factions, as well as a government in exile that would assume control of Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s expected demise during Iran’s early military successes in the Iran-Iraq War.

SCIRI served as an exiled opposition party until the fall of Saddam Hussein and returned in 2003. Iraq’s first post-2003 plural elections took place in January 2005 for the 275-member Council of Representatives, tasked with drafting a new constitution as well as the formation of a transitional government. 

This was the only time when SCIRI joined other Shia parties to run under a single coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, and they managed to secure a plurality of the votes and seats in parliament.

Since then tensions broke out between parties of this coalition over the allocation of ministerial posts and budget allocations. SCIRI eventually rebranded itself as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or ISCI, indicating it sought to distance itself from its origins in Iran during Khomeini’s project to export the Islamic Revolution and adopt a more nationalist-sounding name as well.

Badr’s Break

The split that occurred within the Badr Organization last week is ironic, given that that Badr itself had split from its parent organization, ISCI, before the 2010 election. Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the new group, sought to maintain relations with Iran, and maintained its own militia, which later joined the other Shia militias to form the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to combat the Daesh threat in 2014.

As Daesh was defeated in 2017, the PMU candidates resigned from their militia posts to run in the 2018 elections. Hadi al-Amiri sat at the helm of this coalition, coming in second. Yet this victory was not enough to maintain cohesion within the ranks of Badr.

The breakaway faction of the Badr Organization accused al-Amiri, of “failing to maintain people’s hopes and those of its own members,” but most likely broke away due to the impasse in allocating the remaining ministerial posts.

While tensions have flared amongst the Shia militia-parties in parliament, a parallel conflict has unfolded amongst the militias themselves for turf and terrain.

The reality is after Daesh’s destruction, the various Shia parties and militias no longer have a united enemy to rally around. While the numerous Shia parties in parliament continue to vie for power, militias affiliated with these parties have turned against each other, sometimes violently.

The Legacy of Iran’s Revolution 

During the early years after the Iranian revolution, Khomeini sought to export the Islamic Revolution in the Arab world. He succeeded among the Shia of Lebanon, when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard helped form Hizballah in 1982, but failed in the same year to create an equivalent for the Iraqi Shia in the form of SCIRI.

SCIRI eventually witnessed success, not during Khomeini’s lifetime, but ironically due to American help in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. Yet while Hizballah remains the paramount actor in Lebanon’s politics, SCIRI failed to achieve the same status in Iraq, splintering into the Badr Organization, with that splinter breaking apart last week.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and continuing to the present day, the conventional wisdom in media as well as policy circles, particularly in Washington, has been the convenient description of Iraq’s society constituting three neat monolithic blocs, “Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.” Yet since the Shia majority rose to power after the 2003 invasion, there has been little political homogeneity amongst this community.

The enduring myth of Iraq’s tri-ethnosectarian prism is a simplification by outside observers which obscures the reality in Iraq. 

Identity politics has lost its appeal among the everyday Iraqis, who seek leaders who can implement meaningful and sustained policy reform. The most recent events undermine the pervasive and enduring myth of politics predetermined by sect, not only in Iraq, but throughout the region.

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