Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has fought his way to power from the streets since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to become one of Iraq’s most popular and polarising political leaders and a “tough guy” who claims to protect the country’s national interests.
His nationalist politics and his efforts to portray a strong image of his Sadrist Movement appear to have played well among the country’s Shia majority, particularly among disfranchised youth and in Baghdad’s low-income suburbs and Iraq’s southern cities.
Since he emerged as the biggest winner in Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections, Al-Sadr has been basking in the glow of the international media as the country’s rising political leader and its “best hope” for much-awaited reforms. He has even been seen as leading the movement against Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq.
Yet, a closer look at the Al-Sadr phenomenon shows that its high tide has been ebbing since the start of the largely Shia anti-establishment protests that broke out in Iraq in October after the leaderless protesters refused to align their mass movement with the volatile cleric.
The protesters even appealed to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shia leader, for support and protection after Al-Sadr’s followers attacked their sit-ins in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and several other southern cities.
At least eight protesters were killed and 52 were wounded in the holy southern city of Najaf last week after Al-Sadr’s followers stormed a protest site and fired live rounds. Three others were killed in the southern city of Nassiriyah in similar attacks, while many protesters were injured in similar attacks in Baghdad and Kerbala.
The question now is what Al-Sadr’s new bid to deliberately polarise the Iraqi Shia community and fire up his political base says about his strategy to position himself as the most powerful Shia leader in Iraq in the face of fierce competition and even opposition from other Shia factions.
After enjoying remarkable political success for many years by convincing many Iraqi Shias that he was the answer to their woes, Al-Sadr is now facing a difficult test of leadership that could determine his political future.
He has long been viewed as an unpredictable and enigmatic warlord who led an insurgency against US forces following the ouster of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
His militia, the Jaish Al-Mahdi, or “Army of Al-Mahdi,” became prominent when it organised a revolt against the US forces and the US-backed government in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Najaf and Kerbala that was later crushed by US troops.
The group expanded further in 2006 at the height of the sectarian violence that took place in Iraq in the wake of the bombing of a Shia holy shrine in Samarra and frequent attacks by the Al-Qaeda terror group.
The Jaish Al-Mahdi positioned itself as a guarantor of security for Iraq’s Shias. The militia controlled large areas of Baghdad and other Shia-populated cities, while increasingly appealing to the disenfranchised and low-income Shia population.
Iraq’s continued political and sectarian conflicts helped to transform the Sadrist Movement into a mass movement that resorted to demagogic gambits in a bid to attract attention from mainstream Shias.
Over the years, Al-Sadr remained active in politics, using his followers to make up a crucial swing vote in Iraq’s parliamentary elections and carving his way slowly but surely to power and the control of Iraq.
Al-Sadr scored a major victory in ousting former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki in 2014, refusing pressure from Iran to continue supporting him for a third term in office. By forcing Al-Maliki, the head of Iraq’s Islamic Daawa Party, to step down, Al-Sadr succeeded in getting rid of a main rival.
Al-Sadr further assumed a paramount role in Iraq’s politics when his political bloc won the country’s parliamentary elections in 2018, putting him in a position to have a strong say in policymaking. His Sa’roon electoral list captured 54 parliamentary seats in the 329-member assembly.
As the biggest winner in the 2018 elections, Al-Sadr began to take centre stage in Iraq’s politics, reinventing himself from being a radical cleric and the leader of a sectarian militia to finding a position as a more pragmatic political leader.
He also successfully recast himself as a nationalist leader heading a coalition of Iraqi secularists and communists that campaigned on a non-confessional platform and promises to rebuild the Iraqi state on a civic and democratic basis and promote anti-corruption policies.
Since Al-Sadr set a nationalist agenda for his bloc, he was able to capitalise on growing resentment at Iran’s increasing interference in Iraq. He displayed a willingness to stand up to Iran’s influence and contain its proxies, which he referred to as “insolent militias.”
He also expanded his once uniquely anti-American focus to include diatribes against Iran. He has built bridges with close American allies in the Arab world, including Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
All this was part of a remarkable comeback for Al-Sadr, who for years had been sidelined as a hardline and unpredictable maverick, a radical cleric and a sectarian militia chief. Instead, he suddenly became a nationalist leader, a populist politician and even Iraq’s saviour.
Yet, many Iraqis remained unconvinced that Al-Sadr’s new look would be there to stay. They believed that Al-Sadr would always have a coup in mind that could keep him in power and expand his authority among top Iraqi leaders.
That moment came with the outbreak of the popular protests in Iraq last October, when Al-Sadr tried to tighten his grip and to establish his leadership of the Iraqi Shias.
Al-Sadr sided with the anti-government protesters and backed the demonstrators’ demands for the removal of Iraq’s ruling elite and the overhaul of its dysfunctional political system.
However, many protesters believed that Al-Sadr was trying to ride the uprising in order to control the protest movement. They opposed him, like the rest of the Shia political class, seeing him as responsible for the miserable state of affairs that has paralysed Iraq and put its future in question.
The assessment that Al-Sadr was only a political opportunist fast gained ground when he turned against the protesters and demanded an end to the uprising, supporting his bloc’s nomination of Mohamed Tawfik Allawi as the country’s new prime minister.
When the protesters refused the nomination, Al-Sadr sent his “blue hats” supporters to help the security forces brutally crack down on the protesters and clear roads blocked during the months of sit-ins. The results were a bloodbath in Najaf and several other cities.
Al-Sadr’s dramatic u-turn came after the US killed Iran’s most powerful military commander Qassem Suleimani and pro-Iran Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in an air strike in Iraq on 3 January.
Whether he was working closely with Iran or acted to fill a leadership gap, Al-Sadr seized the opportunity to contain the uprising in a bid to achieve his long-sought strategic goal to be the supreme leader of Iraq’s Shias.
A further blow to Al-Sadr’s ambitions came when Al-Sistani condemned the attacks on the peaceful protesters and reiterated his support for their demands.
The protesters were energised by Al-Sistani’s support, and the anti-government uprising continued, with the demonstrators now also directing their ire towards Al-Sadr. Many other Iraqis also saw Al-Sadr’s efforts to crush the protests and realign his movement with Iran as demeaning.
The backlash was immediate, and it surpassed the outpouring of grief, anger and determination by the protesters. There was widespread condemnation of the violence used by Al-Sadr’s followers against the protesters.
Al-Sadr’s image now is that of a hypocrite who is seen as being hardly different from the incumbent Shia politicians he has long claimed to challenge. Instead, he is simply seen as being yet another cynical member of the Shia elite club.
Al-Sadr’s popularity has started to unravel, and his image as a nationalist leader has begun to wane. His followers’ crackdown using unbridled force against the protesters has exposed the deep flaws in Al-Sadr’s leadership.
The fallout from Al-Sadr’s coup attempt has been grim. Were free-and-fair elections to be held again today in Iraq, his Sadrist Movement would hardly enjoy the staggering victory it saw in the last elections.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.