The question once again facing Iraq’s politicians, which has occupied Iran and the U.S. since 2003, is how to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr.
The assumption is that he is a problem, something to be treated or opposed. This is an underestimation of the man and his mindset. Sadr believes he is the sole legitimate political representative of Iraq’s Shiite population and therefore should dominate the state. This belief comes from his background and experiences in Iraq.
He is the son-in-law of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the godfather of Shiite political movements in Iraq and his father’s teacher. His father, Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, led a revival of Shiite Islamism in the 1990s and was assassinated by the Saddam regime in 1999. Sadr lived under those difficult circumstances and believes most of the Shiites today are Sadrists or under their umbrella. This contrasts with the Shiite politicians who came back into Iraq after 2003, brought to power by the Americans and sponsored by the Iranians. They believe that Sadrists are a small component of the Shiite population, that the political alliance with Iran serves a strategic interest and that Shiite parties should act in unison when it comes to elections and government formation, to give them greater bargaining power.
Sadr has huge grassroots support — millions of people who are culturally, religiously, territorially and politically Sadrists, even though they may not be fervent Muqtada followers. This understanding of the wider Sadrist population and the distinction from the politically active Sadrist trend is clear to him but confusing to others. The success of the Sadrists in the October 2021 elections gave credence to his view that he is the political king of the Shiites in Iraq.
At every turn Sadr feels he has been betrayed and pressured by allies, leaving him out on his own.
When his father-in-law was killed in 1980, the Hawza in Najaf, where Shiite Muslim scholars are educated, did nothing to help his family and continued classes as if nothing happened. When the 1991 intifada against Saddam’s regime was beginning to be crushed, Iran and the U.S. did not intervene to save it or the tens of thousands who were buried in mass graves.
When his father was killed in 1999, the Shiite Islamist parties were relieved to be rid of a rival whom they saw as cooperating with the regime. In 2003 and 2004, as he clashed with the U.S. occupation, the religious authorities in Najaf did not back him and were glad his movement was defeated. In 2006, the Iranians began to splinter his movement, creating dozens of groups out of the Mahdi Army, and then used them to weaken Sadr. In 2008, the Iraqi government backed by the U.S. attacked his movement in Basra, Baghdad and elsewhere while the Shiite parties and Iran watched on.
Even his religious mentor Ayatollah Kazem Hairi turned his back on him. Hairi was his father’s designated successor who gave Sadr some religious legitimacy and cover for his political activities after 2003, but their relationship was strained over the years. On the morning of Aug. 29 Hairi released a highly unusual statement announcing his retirement as a religious authority, calling for his followers, especially Sadrists, to now follow Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolution of Iran, a move designed to rob Sadr of any legitimacy.
This is where the escalation into violence on Aug. 29 fits in with the greater arc of Sadr’s story. Frustrated by his opponents to form a government and constant Iranian intrigues to get him to fall in line, Sadr believes he can control the angry masses and prevent the worst excesses of the backlash against corrupt government but only if he can control the system.
His unleashing of the Sadrists for 24 hours was that message in graphic form, a demonstration of his ability to use street force if he can’t get his way politically.
Sadr’s main parliamentary rival is the Coordination Framework, the largest Shiite alliance in the national legislature and including Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) bloc (as the political arm of al-Fatah). The trouble is that while that coalition cannot accept Sadr’s domination, its members also do not have a workable alternative for freezing him out.
The Kurdish and Sunni parties are hesitant to join either side now, not wanting to be collateral damage in a Shiite power struggle.
What happens from here is unclear. Sadr withdrew his supporters but did not offer a political solution and may even choose to continue the protests. The other parties might try to form a government without him but would struggle to do so. Early elections need the Parliament to be dissolved and a new electoral law, something that would take a year to organize, and Parliament would have to meet first, which is still a tall order. There is no end in sight with a weak government, corruption unchecked and millions of young people with no prospects. Sadrists or not, protests against the ruling system will never be far away while no serious reforms are undertaken.
Sadr and his rivals have clashed before. From 2007 to 2008 Sadrists clashed with Badr, a pro-Iran militant Shiite organization established in the 1980s. Then for several years there were clashes between the Sadrists and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an armed Shiite militia that splintered from the Sadrists’ Mahdi Army in 2006.
But the situation today feels different because it came out of pure anger and frustration as an act of retribution.
Hairi was critical of Sadr in the Aug. 29 statement and challenged his legitimacy in being politically active. Subsequently Sadr’s supposed resignation set off the deeper incursion into the Green Zone, first to the government palace and then near Maliki’s office. The response from the security guards in that area was to shoot toward the protesters to push them back and dissuade them from encroaching. Inevitably this led to casualties and then the Sadrist armed response and escalation. Interestingly, the PMF did not mobilize in the significant way the Sadrists did and were restrained in their retaliation to the attacks on their offices, which involved shooting at their positions and bombing of the Green Zone. The Iraqi security forces, under orders from Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, did not engage with the Sadrists, even when they were launching rockets at the Green Zone.
This gives credence to the theory that Sadr was provoked, drawn into a confrontation where his group is portrayed as the aggressor and as outlaws, with the Hairi statement the latest act in a series of provocations. Sadr’s statement calling for the withdrawal of his supporters from the Green Zone was angry, regretful and passionate — a realization perhaps that he may have made a mistake but also intended to reassert control over his group.
So what next for Sadr? He again feels abandoned by allies and encircled by powerful parties and nations. But he has time on his side: He is younger than the other political leaders, and his grassroots support gives him political longevity. His disagreements with Iran have gained him some grudging domestic and international support, but he does not intend to be used as a pawn in that geopolitical struggle.
To keep the current political order functioning and prevent its collapse, Sadr wants to dominate it and reduce the power of some other parties. This is not for altruistic reasons but because a collapse of the system threatens his interests too. However, change must occur, and he is making it clear that if his opponents do not accommodate that change in a gradual, controlled manner, then it will happen in a sudden, violent one.
The average Iraqi is highly critical of the Sadrists, the Coordination Framework and every other political party, believing they are all components of the corrupt political system. What disheartens them is the state’s inability to uphold the rule of law and how invisible and ineffective the government becomes in the face of powerful rival militias.
But what worries them more is how much more dangerous the situation could become, the appetite for violence among young men with nothing to lose, and the willingness of parties to fight for power, patronage and positions even if the country burns down. Thankfully both sides have pulled back and the shooting and explosions have stopped, but there is still no resolution. Iraq may have dodged a bullet, for now. But tell that to the grieving mothers of the dozens killed in the past day.