Iraq faces a pressing roster of crises, including government dysfunction, factional tensions, unabated terrorism, and Covid-19 infections that are spiralling dramatically upwards.
But prominent Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who has emerged as Iraq’s most powerful leader, says he aims for his beleaguered country to end its prolonged misery and halt its tumble into chaos.
To that end, Al-Sadr is proposing sweeping changes to the way the country has been run since the US-led invasion in 2003. But first of all, Al-Sadr needs to be in charge.
Al-Sadr’s party was the largest vote-winner in the Iraqi parliamentary elections in October. The party, Saaroon, won 73 seats in the 329-seat parliament, more than any other and up from 54 in 2018. It beat an alliance of Iran-aligned militias led by the Fatah Coalition.
The election victory has given Al-Sadr major influence in the formation of Iraq’s next government, and he is relying on that to extend his hold over the country for as long as he deems fit.
Beyond that, no one really knows how he plans to steer the country through its multiple crises.
Al-Sadr, 47, hails from one of the most prestigious Shia religious families in Iraq and is widely seen as one of the most influential Shia political leaders to have emerged from the shadows of the US-led invasion.
For nearly two decades, Al-Sadr has outmanoeuvred other Shia leaders by manoeuvering himself into a position of power and individual prestige within the community. He has reinvented himself not just as the leader of a Shia faction, but effectively as a king-maker.
Al-Sadr has helped form Iraq’s successive governments, controlled one of the biggest political blocs in parliament, led a massive movement, and commanded a powerful militia. His power is undeniable, thanks to his grassroots party that is influential in working-class neighbourhoods across Iraq’s Shia-populated provinces.
Even more strikingly, Al-Sadr has installed allegiance to the legacy of his late father Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq Al-Sadr as the movement’s way of thinking. This has given him a platform to exercise more power and greater legitimacy among many Iraqi Shia.
Over the years, Al-Sadr’s political strategy has witnessed a sea change that has seen him shift from being a militant Shia cleric who advocates communalism to becoming a populist political leader who champions non-sectarianism in order to help forge a national-unity platform that can reform Iraq’s fundamentally flawed political system.
Since his Saaroon bloc came first in the country’s 2018 elections, winning 52 seats in parliament, the Sadrist Movement has come to control the Iraqi government. Through appointees in top posts, Al-Sadr has been able to clear government departments of unaffiliated bureaucrats and bring Sadrists in their place.
Through this carefully planned strategy to infiltrate the state apparatus, his followers have been taking up top jobs within local administrations and key ministries such as defence, the interior, communications, oil, electricity and transport.
In addition to being able to dominate Iraq’s huge civil service, Al-Sadr’s supporters now exert control over the country’s financial resources through the state budget and their own economic influence.
They wield enormous power in Iraq’s three state-owned banks and even in Iraq’s Central Bank.
Al-Sadr’s journey towards being Iraq’s paramount Shia leader was highlighted in the October parliamentary elections. Since he was declared the winner of most seats in the new assembly, he has refused to form a coalition with other Shia blocs as has been the norm after the polls since the US-led invasion.
Instead, Al-Sadr has been pushing for a “national majority” government that would put his Sadrist faction at the helm of an administration that would bring in Sunni Muslim and Kurdish representatives.
The formula would disfranchise nearly a dozen Shia political groups and their affiliated militias and give Al-Sadr overall authority.
Apart from his declared intention to uproot rival militias and rhetoric about fighting corruption and transcending sectarianism, neither Al-Sadr nor his top aides seem to have a desire to go into details about their strategy.
What Al-Sadr is working fervently to achieve is a dream project that flows from his intention to consolidate his power base among the Iraqi Shia and then to move to tighten his grip on the country as a whole in ways big and small.
To understand what is happening in Iraq following Al-Sadr’s bid to impose his model of leadership and ultimately to make it familiar to the region and the world, it helps to understand what Al-Sadr himself thinks, believes, and acts upon.
As Al-Sadr has started to signal his supremacy in Iraq’s politics, he has also adopted a more aggressive posture on the national stage, drawing new borders to circumscribe existing Shia power struggles and thus make Iraq well placed for further conflicts.
There is nothing that can explain Al-Sadr’s strategy better than his insistence on controlling the next government and running the country’s affairs. His worst nightmare is that his Shia foes will maintain their political power and have militias that may fight him over influence and authority in the country.
Therefore, Al-Sadr’s two imperatives are to exclude politically affiliated officials from government departments and to stuff them with his own cronies and to get rid of dozens of Shia militias and replace them with his own powerful Jaish Al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army, a paramilitary organisation.
The death of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shia clergyman, could create a tremendous opportunity for Al-Sadr’s leadership.
Al-Sadr is not a mujtahid, or scholar of theology, making him ineligible to join those vying for Al-Sistani’s succession, but his influence might still be more than that enjoyed by many of the presumed contenders.
In December, Al-Sadr issued guidelines for his supporters in Iraq to follow fatwas, or legal rulings, issued by his late father, who was assassinated in 1999. The instructions are important because they underline Al-Sadr’s intention to keep power over the Hawza, or Shia school of theology in the city of Najaf, within his family line.
Meanwhile, the world is watching Al-Sadr’s rise with keen interest. Some of Iraq’s neighbours and world powers have geopolitical grievances, particularly about Iran’s influence and the role of its proxies in Iraq.
World and regional powers have been sending signals of support to Al-Sadr, whom they believe could stand up to Iran and the Iran-backed Shia groups in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the Western media, which used to describe Al-Sadr as a hardliner and a radical, has started to promote him as a moderate politician and the “face of reform in Iraq” in an apparent attempt to accept him as Iraq’s next leader.
The New York Times has even dubbed Al-Sadr as an “unlikely US ally.”
Al-Sadr may have grand ambitions and the self-confidence to match, but he has yet to show how he will deliver. He has no clear strategy for rebuilding the Iraqi state and nation or for consolidating its democratic and federal system as stipulated in its post-invasion constitution.
Al-Sadr remains a controversial figure, and to many of his critics he is out to remake Iraq’s order in his image. For all the bold headlines and focus from the media and the Iraq expert community about Al-Sadr transforming himself into a statesman, he is still a Shia clergyman with a strictly religious agenda that stokes sectarian politics.
When newly elected lawmakers from Al-Sadr’s parliamentary group arrived at the inaugural session of the new parliament in Baghdad last week, they donned the white shrouds that Muslims use to wrap their dead bearing inscriptions of Jaish Al-Mahdi on their backs.
The scene was reminiscent of numerous episodes of the rise to power of others, most strikingly the ascent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 that began the newly established Islamic Republic in Iran.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.