Analysis: United against Al-Sadr

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 7 Oct 2022

Prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has a lot to worry about. He has created a mass movement only to turn out he is lacking the edge.

United against Al-Sadr
Iraqi protesters rally to mark three years since nationwide demonstrations erupted against endemic corruption, at Al-Habboubi Square (photo: AFP)


Over the last few years, the once-radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has reinvented himself as an unlikely moderating force in Iraq. He has a daring plan to get enough support across a range of Iraq’s political factions to be the country’s strongman and kingmaker.

Al-Sadr’s populist movement the “Sadrist Trend” won the most seats in national elections in October last year on a nationalist ticket and appeared certain to form a “majority” government with his Sunni and Kurdish allies with whom he vowed to govern for all.

That would have alarmed most of the Iranian-backed Shia factions that have controlled all “consensus governments” in Iraq since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

A year later, however, Al-Sadr has not been able to form a unified government under his control despite the advantages he has received as he has worked hard to soften his image and lead a party that rose out of the anti-establishment movement.   

As a result, the Iran-backed alliance, a long way behind the Sadrists with some 50 seats in the new parliament, has apparently now tilted the political table back in its direction and is threatening to ostracise Al-Sadr.

If it succeeds, the coup against Al-Sadr will be a key game-changer in Iraq’s politics that could drastically transform its messy political landscape with further complications on both the domestic and regional levels.     

Al-Sadr, Iraq’s most influential leader, seemed ready to mobilise his mass populist movement to be a key political broker in the country, challenging Shia political rivals and pro-Iran hard-liners who wish to pull the country closer to the neighbouring Islamic Republic.

He rose to a new height after last year’s elections when his party won 73 of the 329 seats in the country’s House of Representatives, setting the stage to form a new government of his choice with his Kurdish and Sunni allies.

But as the clock began ticking with no government in sight, Al-Sadr’s campaign to upend Iraq’s political system to conform to the new image he proposed has showed itself to be filled with failure, weakness, and chaos, and the potential coalition he promised to set up with the Kurds and Sunnis began falling apart.

Al-Sadr’s first misstep came after he failed to outmanoeuvre his Shia rivals to form a new government of his own and ordered his followers to resign from the parliament. The move apparently aimed to create a political vacuum in which he hoped to win a zero-sum game.

His next desperate step was to declare a “reform revolution” by mobilising his supporters and ordering them to occupy the parliament building to bloc rival MPs from holding a session to elect a new president and prime minister and put the power back in their hands.

The final straw came when Al-Sadr abruptly called on his supporters to call it quits and leave the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad that they had briefly occupied, also declaring that he was retiring from political life and closing his political offices.

The sudden de-escalation that brought Al-Sadr’s political judgement and tactics into question drove his followers to despair and threw their mass protest movement into disarray.

As the world watched him faltering in striking a “knockout blow” to his competitors, Al-Sadr appeared to have no plan to fix the self-made crises that had allowed his political rivals to team up to try to regain the initiative.

Al-Sadr has always been seen as a mercurial politician, but his erratic actions this time around have showed that they are not those of a secure leader and have raised speculation that his grip on his supporters may be slipping.

Inevitably, Al-Sadr’s opponents seized the initiative and mounted a counterattack by moving to fill the seats in the parliament left by Al-Sadr’s followers and resume the assembly’s work to take control of the political process.

What has made the coup by Al-Sadr’s Shia rivals successful so far has been the decision of his former allies, the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and Sunni Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi, to switch sides, dramatically changing the course of the conflict.

The first sign of the emerging coalition came last Wednesday when the parliament convened for the first time since deadly unrest in August and renewed its confidence in Al-Halbousi and elected his deputy to replace a Sadrist lawmaker who had resigned with other MPs.

The next important step will be the nomination of a new president and prime minister to be endorsed by a parliament that is now controlled by a majority of MPs who belong to pro-Iran factions.

Under a power-sharing understanding among the leaders of Iraq’s three main communities, the prime minister should be a Shia Muslim and the speaker of the parliament should be a Sunni Muslim while the job of president should go to a Kurd.

While the Iran-backed Shia factions have already named Mohamed Al-Sudani as the next prime minister, the agreement is expected to facilitate the nomination of a presidential candidate by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The political partners should also agree to share key posts in the government and the security forces such as the secretary-general of the cabinet, the governor of the Iraqi Central Bank, and intelligence and security chiefs.

While the terms of the deal between Al-Sadr’s rivals and the Kurdish and Sunni parties are unclear, the nature of Iraq’s post-Saddam political system, based on political horse-trading, means that the new arrangements will push the country’s most dominant leader into the sunset of his career.

Ostensibly, Al-Sadr’s blunders have emboldened his adversaries, who have sought to stall his endeavours to shake up the Iraqi system. But there also seem to be some other factors that have contributed to crippling his battle for political supremacy.

One explanation for ditching him by Barzani and Al-Halbousi was his failure to consult with them, especially on key issues such as ordering his followers to resign from parliament.

There have also been rumours that Iran, which Al-Sadr has positioned himself as one of its main foes in Iraq, has mounted pressure on the Kurdish and Sunni parties in order to block cooperation with Al-Sadr.

Esmail Qaani, commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force and its point-man in Iraq, reportedly offered a carrot-and-stick solution to convince the country’s Kurdish and Sunni leaders to join a new coalition with Iran’s allies.

The diminishing support for Al-Sadr by regional and foreign heavyweights during the crisis has also been notable and has been in contrast to the clear backing they gave him after his election victory, which they believed could save Iraq from Iran.

Instead, many signs now suggest that regional and Western powers that earlier favoured Al-Sadr as Iraq’s paramount leader are now less impressed by his performance and may even find him to be an unreliable ally after he was promoted by them as a moderate politician and the “face of reform” in Iraq.

One theory behind this change of heart has been Al-Sadr’s rush to push the new parliament to pass a bill to criminalise the normalisation of relations with Israel. While the US publicly condemned the move as “jeopardising freedom of expression and promoting an environment of anti-Semitism” in Iraq, many of the country’s neighbours who have established relations with Israel have also been dismayed by the resolution.

Nevertheless, Al-Sadr’s current dilemma could still be his opponent’s worst fear. His rivals are facing increasing opposition from many Iraqis who are aghast at the events of the past few months and have begun to make their criticisms public.

Thousands of protesters swept into the streets of Baghdad and other major cities in Iraq last weekend to mark three years since nationwide demonstrations erupted against endemic corruption, rampant unemployment, and decaying public services in the country.

The leaders of the protests gave the country’s ruling oligarchs until the end of the month to implement drastic changes including a transitional government that would redraft Iraq’s dysfunctional political system.

The present impasse pits the emerging coalition against the protest movement, and the situation could boil over and give Al-Sadr the opportunity to turn the game around and resort to whipping up street protests himself again.

At any rate, while Al-Sadr might have made some serious mistakes, it is still too early to write him off. He still enjoys popular support from a mass power-base, is in command of a powerful militia, and controls a huge apparatus in local administrations, key ministries, and the security forces.

Al-Sadr may have proved himself to be a poor student of “revolutionary” politics, but his dismissal will not end the crisis in Iraq. Instead, it will painfully remind Iraqis that only an overall change in regime can end their country’s quagmire.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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