When the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr met with a group of his lieutenants at his base in the Shia holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq earlier this month, he had a message he wanted them to convey nationwide.
“If the Sadrist trend is a football team, where should I fit in? Shouldn’t I be the manager?” Al-Sadr, known by his supporters as “His Eminence the Leader,” asked rhetorically.
Al-Sadr’s remarks, part of a series of videoed speeches aimed at mobilising his followers ahead of upcoming national elections, were shorthand for saying that over the course of recent years he has masterfully consolidated the Sadrists into a cult of personality.
Because of his growing weight politically and militarily, which has allowed his grassroots Shia Movement to dominate the apparatus of the Iraqi state, Al-Sadr expects to be given his due as a national leader.
With elections due in October, Al-Sadr has claimed that his Sadrist Movement will secure the majority of seats in the 319-member parliament, allowing him to nominate Iraq’s next prime minister.
Al-Sadr’s muscular speeches to his followers was clearly designed to send a signal to the Iraqi people that the time has come for a change in the political system, which has been under the control of an alliance of Shia blocs since the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
For months, senior Sadrist officials have been expressing their confidence that the movement will win a landslide victory in Iraq’s autumn elections and will have the final say on who will be in the country’s next government.
But in a surprise move on 15 July, Al-Sadr reversed course on the elections, which many expect will be a decisive battleground that will shape Iraq’s politics for years, or probably decades, to come.
Al-Sadr unexpectedly announced that he will not take part in the vote, denying his support for all politicians, even those affiliated with his movement, in this government and the one that will be formed after the elections.
Al-Sadr attributed his withdrawal from the elections to his wish to “safeguard the country from the corrupt.” But his announcement fell short of addressing the core issue of what he will do if he stays away from politics.
This is a tricky subject among many Iraqis, including those close to Al-Sadr, who do not believe that the populist cleric will stop trying to maintain his relevance to Iraq’s politics.
Al-Sadr is widely considered to be one of the most powerful Shia political leaders to have emerged from the shadows of the US-led invasion in 2003. Over the years, Al-Sadr’s political strategy has seen a sea change that has seen him change from a militant Shia cleric into a populist political leader.
But analysts believe that any attempt by Al-Sadr to rock the boat in a crucial election year will have a serious impact on Iraq’s shaky political establishment and the country at large.
To begin with, Al-Sadr has made the headlines before by speaking out against Iraqi politicians and declaring that he will quit politics only to quickly change his mind and return to build his power base.
Al-Sadr, 47, has long been known for his unpredictability. His maverick image, which is quite familiar to most Iraqis, has always stirred some uncertainty in Iraq’s troubled politics.
But Iraq’s smoldering political crisis is working differently now compared to how it did after 2003, meaning that Al-Sadr’s bid to invest in the future distribution of power will have very different consequences.
Since his Sa’aroon bloc came first in the country’s 2018 elections, winning 52 seats, the Sadrist Movement has come to control the Iraqi government. The Sadrists’ key opening in what has become a political chess game was implanting Hamid Al-Ghizzi, a Sadr loyalist, as secretary-general of the prime minister’s office.
Al-Ghizzi’s main job was to clear government offices of unaffiliated bureaucrats and bring Sadrists into the offices in their place in order to infiltrate the state apparatus. Soon Sadrists were taking top jobs within most ministries and local administrations.
Notably, the Sadrists have been able to dominate the bureaucracy in key ministries such as defence, the interior, communications, oil, electricity and transport. They wield enormous power in Iraq’s three state-owned banks and even in Iraq’s Central Bank.
In addition to being able to dominate Iraq’s huge civil service, the movement now exerts control over the country’s financial resources through the state budget and its own economic influence.
Most importantly, Al-Sadr controls two powerful militias, the Peace Companies and the Promised Day Brigade, both vaguely linked to Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was established after 2003 but allegedly disbanded in 2008.
Today, Al-Sadr is the most powerful Shia leader in Iraq with tremendous hopes of ruling the country in the future. Through his masterful playbook, Al-Sadr has set the country on the path of taking his omnipotence as a given.
In recent weeks, the Western media, which used to describe him as a hardliner and a radical, has started to promote Al-Sadr as a moderate politician and the “face of reform in Iraq” in an apparent attempt to accept him as Iraq’s next leader.
Under the headline, “Firebrand cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and America move closer in Iraq,” the UK Economist magazine reported in April that some in the Biden administration were encouraging America’s political allies in Iraq to align with Al-Sadr before an election in October.
The Reuters news agency also suggested in a lengthy report this month that some Western diplomats would now prefer to deal with an Iraq dominated by Al-Sadr, whom they believe is the only leader able to enact reform.
Both reports, which could underscore a shift in Western thinking, are based on the assumption that Al-Sadr is on the ascendant and that he has become “a more nationalist Shia figure” and could stand up to Iran and the Iran-backed Shia groups in Iraq.
However, the problem with this narrative of Al-Sadr’s making a U-turn to make Western policy-makers feel better about the man they have long demonised as a pariah is that it seems too far-fetched, if not utter analytical heresy.
While Al-Sadr may have succeeded in dominating many of the Iraqi state bodies, he is far away from being able to ensure that his group remains in complete control of the country.
Indeed, much of the blame for Iraq’s woes, such as the collapse of the health system, the electricity failures, and the falling living standards caused by a devalued local currency, has been placed on Al-Sadr’s ministers and their poor statecraft and corruption.
Al-Sadr has also sparked controversy in another way. He tried repeatedly to suppress the anti-government protests that took place in Iraq last year through intimidation, threats and sometimes even sheer brutality, all with the aim of stamping out their movement.
The crackdown on the pro-reform and anti-Iran protesters sparked public outrage against Al-Sadr and reversed his image as an anti-corruption nationalist leader, underlining his naked power-grab ambitions.
Analysts say that the Sadrists’ overall performance has damaged their leader’s once-rising popularity and ruled out the possibility that the movement could garner 100 seats in the next parliament that they hope would allow them to name their own prime minister.
Now, apart from a few Sadrists who have gathered to burn their electoral cards to show solidarity with their leader, no single Sadrist candidate has officially pulled out of the race.
Ministers and hundreds of Sadrists in top jobs in the government have also not stepped down and are still in their posts, some of them powerful enough to determine the October polling.
Given Al-Sadr’s background of unpredictability and contradiction, his declaration to withdraw from Iraq’s politics may not be a major turning point as many have predicted.
Al-Sadr will once again realise that the Iraqi state is too fragile to be controlled by one man or one group, and the machinations of recent months are unlikely to make him play a lose-lose game and let the band he has assembled stop the music playing.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.