West’s hopes for Iraq rest on Moqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rousing cleric who fought occupation | World
The troops are still there but, in a sign of how Iraq has changed, London and Washington are now pinning their Middle East strategies on election success on Saturday for Moqtada al-Sadr, whose name was once rarely mentioned without the epithet “fiery cleric”.
Mr Sadr, a rabble-rousing populist from a leading family of Iraqi ayatollahs, was described by the Pentagon at the height of the insurgency in 2006 as the biggest threat to stability in the country, greater even than Isis’s predecessor, Islamic State in Iraq.
He remains hostile to the Western presence in the country. However, in the last five years he has also become a figurehead of opposition to Iranian-backed politicians in the country and decried the sectarian Shia politics he was once seen as representing. That has put him on the same side as the West in parliamentary elections which may determine whether Britain and America retain influence in the country.
“He wants a coalition of people who want a civil, non-sectarian state,” Dhiaa al-Asadi, who leads the Sadrist party in parliament, said. Mr Sadr is the party’s spiritual head and does not stand for election himself.
The British and American diplomats who are monitoring the election and its effect on the fight against Isis are not open about any relationship they might have with Mr Sadr. However, no one doubts that they are keen for the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to be re-elected for a second term. That means also hoping that Mr Sadr, an acknowledged kingmaker with a strong support base among working class Shia, does well. His party is unlikely to win power, but has indicated it is prepared to throw its weight behind Mr Abadi.
Mr Sadr has completed a strange political journey. The son and son-in-law of prominent ayatollahs, after his anti-Western insurgency he sought retreat in Qom, the Iranian city that is one of the pre-eminent Shia seats of learning. He returned full of anti-Iranian rhetoric, and he now says he wants to see an Iraq free from Iranian domination and where the government is secular, clerics stick to religion, and the question of whether you are Sunni or Shia ceases to have any political meaning.
“His final objective is to see these labels disappear,” Mr Asadi said in an interview in Baghdad. “He would like to see election campaigns that depend on programmes and agendas.”
Mr Abadi’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, presents a paradox. On the surface, he has presided over a transformation in his country’s fortunes. When Mr Abadi came to power in 2014, Isis’s “caliphate” was at its zenith, having swept aside the weak and corrupt Iraqi army and occupied most of the country’s north, as far as the borders with the Kurdish autonomous region.
Last year, Mr Abadi was able to declare victory as his troops, re-trained by the Americans, drove Isis out.
In some areas once under Isis control, life has returned to near normal, with trade thriving in places such as east Mosul and Fallujah. In places the group did not manage to reach, like Baghdad, security is better than it has been at any time since the 2003 invasion, with a marked reduction in car bombs and kidnappings.
Mr Abadi has also presided over a popular relaxation of social controls. Under his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, vigilante militias smashed up bars and murdered men suspected of being gay.
But Mr Abadi also lacks the power base of Mr Maliki, who deeply resents being removed from office and whose Dawa party has, in one form or another, held power since 2005. Mr Abadi is also a member of Dawa, but has formed a breakaway faction whose success in the election is far from certain. He will have to rely on support from Mr Sadr, another new “moderate Shia” party called Hikma, also led by a cleric, and Kurdish parties.
He is also a victim of his own success. Now that security is no longer a life or death issue for most Iraqis, they have turned their attention to Iraq’s other long-term crisis — the corruption that has stolen years of oil profits from its collapsing public services. This reached a peak under Mr Maliki, by almost all accounts, but ironically it is his successor whose future is now at risk from popular disillusionment.
“I don’t believe in any parties,” said Abu Hassan, 45, a metalworker in Baghdad’s working class Shia suburb, Sadr City. The suburb is named after Mr Sadr’s family and was once packed with his supporters, but Abu Hassan, like many others, said he would not vote for anyone, so disgusted was he by the notorious venality of Iraq’s MPs.
The corruption is open: in a television interview two years ago, one MP, Mishan al-Jubouri, admitted that he had taken more than a million dollars in bribes and said he would have been stupid not to, since everyone else did. Mr Sadr has been leading anti-corruption campaigns for years, but his own MPs have been complicit.
The only group that stands to gain is the so-called “Liberation Alliance”, the party of the Shia-majority militias which joined the army in taking on Isis and were largely trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. New and militarily victorious, they have a measure of popularity and would almost certainly enter a pro-Iran government with Mr Maliki. That would also mean the militias remaining an independent force, leaving Iraq like Lebanon, with a politics defined by sect and a private army answerable to Tehran.
That is all the more reason the West hopes that Mr Sadr’s supporters, who once fought the British army into the ground, will come out and vote. He has vowed not to join any coalition that contains Mr Maliki and wants the militias assimilated into the army.
“He doesn’t want a relationship with America, and wants America to change its policies in the Middle East,” Mr Asadi said. But he added: “Iran wants to see Iraq reflect its foreign policies, but it should be agreed that Iraq has its own interests.”
For the West, my enemy’s enemy may well be my friend, even if he is also an enemy.