Over the last few weeks, virtually all the political winds were blowing favourably for the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. A country hit by deepening political deadlock appeared poised to hand power to a leader morphing into a national saviour.
Al-Sadr, the country’s most powerful man and the scion of a dynasty that has long been prominent in politics and religious leadership, seemed ready to mobilise his mass populist movement the “Sadrist Trend” to take up the challenge.
As Iraq plunged into disarray nearly 11 months after inconclusive elections, Al-Sadr, whose faction won the most seats in the voting but was then blocked from forming a government, opted for a more radical course to upend Iraq’s messy political system.
Yet, the big question has been whether Al-Sadr, sometimes seen a mercurial politician, can succeed by striking a “knockout blow” in halting Iraq’s tumble into chaos and remake the country’s political order in a new image through the sweeping changes he has been proposing.
First, Al-Sadr tried to outmanoeuvre his Shia rivals to form a new government. Then he quit parliament to create a political vacuum, and finally he declared a “reform revolution” only to call it quits later.
None of these tactics have helped Al-Sadr to consolidate power, and his movement may now have been exposed for the overstretched, intellectually ill-equipped, and incompetent populism that it is.
Far from offering himself as an inspirational leader to the Iraqi people, Al-Sadr has appeared weakened even in the eyes of many of his supporters, especially with the poor and slum dwellers who were the most disappointed by his failure to steer their anti-establishment protests into victory.
Since the parliamentary elections in October last year, political gridlock has left Iraq without a new government, prime minister, or president, due to disagreements over the formation of a coalition. The country’s parliament has not been in session due to repeated squabbles between the various factions, and it now faces the threat of dissolution.
Iraq’s two main rival Shia political blocs, the Sadrists and the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, remain locked in a zero-sum competition over forming a coalition government. Neither faction seems willing to compromise to end the 11-month-old political crisis, the longest since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country rocketed them to power.
For now, Iraq remains in a dangerous stalemate, as there seems to be no way out of a crisis that has paralysed the war-battered nation and is threatening a bigger conflict that could tear the country apart.
While the political crisis is an outcome of the disastrous policies that have paralysed the country for nearly 20 years, the present conflict is a war of choice. It is the decision of the ruling Shia elites to engage in cock-fighting instead of deal-making.
The story of Iraq’s last 11 months shows that its Shia political leaders, who forged a united front following the US-led invasion to reshape Iraq politics under their control, are now facing a moment of truth, sharply divided and fighting fiercely for power.
As for Al-Sadr, he was determined to use the showdown to establish himself as the sole political leader of the Iraqi Shias, a goal he set for himself after he emerged as a patron of Shia populism after US-led forces toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
When Al-Sadr’s party won the most seats in the Iraqi parliamentary elections in October, he thought his moment had come and declared that he would form a government of his choice rather than the broad consensus government that has been the norm since 2003.
He also promised that once he was in charge he would end Iraq’s prolonged misery and halt its tumble into chaos. To that end, Al-Sadr has proposed sweeping changes to the way the country has been run since the US-led invasion.
Al-Sadr even received veiled support from world and regional powers, who sent signals that he was the nationalist Iraqi leader they had been looking for to start reforms and to stand up to Iran and its proxies in the country.
Yet, it would soon appear that there was more than a whiff of wishful thinking in these reveries and an almost willful forgetting of the fact that Al-Sadr is not the strong and tactful leader that he has tried to portray himself as being and that his rivals are not at all as weak as he has made out.
When predictions of Al-Sadr’s victory were proven false, he resorted to increasingly aggressive tactics as his opponents showed resilience and managed to stall his endeavours.
Frustrated, Al-Sadr ordered his bloc of 73 MPs to resign from the parliament in early June and then commanded thousands of his followers to occupy the parliament buildings and called for early elections and constitutional amendments. He gave the country’s judiciary an ultimatum to dissolve the legislature.
Faced with further defiance, Al-Sadr gave the nod to his followers to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified government Green Zone on 30 July, paralysing state institutions and preventing his political rivals from proceeding with the formation of a new government.
The escalation unleashed a worrying dynamic as angry Al-Sadr supporters briefly occupied government buildings and later clashed with the security forces and traded fire with members of pro-Iran Shia militias.
Some 30 people were killed in the clashes, prompting Al-Sadr to condemn the fighting and give his own followers one hour to disperse. “This is not a revolution because it has lost its peaceful character,” Al-Sadr said later.
While Al-Sadr’s rhetoric remains uncompromising, scepticism abounds about whether his “oscillating” strategy can give him victory over his Shia foes and if it will yield a lasting solution in Iraq.
Al-Sadr’s actions usually follow the playbook of the escalation and de-escalation he has repeatedly used in order to gain political power since he rose to prominence after the US-led invasion.
This time, however, we may be witnessing the first sign that Al-Sadr’s strategy, tapping into the public anger at the Shia ruling elite and even the political system itself which has allowed him to build an unparalleled bond with large segments of the electorate, may be in trouble.
After he decided to pull the protesters from the Baghdad Green Zone, declaring that he was retiring from political life and closing his political offices, there has been speculation that Al-Sadr’s grip on his supporters may be slipping, citing in particular their frustration and anger at the lack of progress in making changes.
Many of his followers, mostly among the urban poor, have felt betrayed by Al-Sadr, who portrays himself as a champion of the downtrodden, for not pressing ahead with the “revolution” which they had hoped would end their hardships and provide them with jobs, public services, and the decent life they aspire to.
The number of people coming out onto the streets in the scorching summer heat in response to Al-Sadr’s call has been remarkable, but instead of using the mobilisation rooted in grievances to advance the mass movement, he ordered a sudden de-escalation as the protests reached fever pitch.
It is not clear why Al-Sadr ordered his followers to end their protests, by far the most formidable anti-establishment movement since the uprising in 2019, but he has certainly left most of his supporters in bitterness and despair.
However, at this point there is little evidence to suggest that Al-Sadr is in eclipse, despite the undeniable setback. He still maintains his grip on his movement, and he is playing a crucial role in its mobilisation despite his declaration that he is resigning from politics.
On Sunday, Al-Sadr warned Iran against turning an annual ceremony commemorating a founding figure of Shiism and drawing millions of pilgrims to the holy city of Karbala next week into a show of Iranian power.
Since Saddam’s fall, Iran has used the Arbaeen ceremony to send millions of pilgrims to Iraq, using the event to assert its role and send a message about its regional reach.
Many Iraqis see the massive Iranian influx during the festival as a way of burnishing Iran’s image and expanding its influence in Iraq through its proxies and huge investment in Shia religious cities like Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra.
“You are only guests. Do not behave like hosts,” Al-Sadr wrote on Twitter.
The warning, coming two days after thousands of pro-reform protesters took to the streets in Baghdad demanding an end to corruption and Iran’s influence in the country, appeared to be a signal that Al-Sadr is still in command despite predictions about his future.
Over the years, Al-Sadr’s political strategy has witnessed a sea-change that has kept people guessing about his next move. Each time, observers predicted that it was the beginning of the end for Al-Sadr, only for him to then prove them wrong.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.