In Iraq’s 2018 May 12 national elections, Muqtada al-Sadr surprisingly emerged with the largest bloc of seats in the Parliamentary election and won the right to form a new government. The Iranian-backed Fatah alliance came in second and the current government, headed by PM Hayder al-Abadi, came in third.
Muqtada al-Sadr is not unknown to me. I remember his long journey from being an Iranian tied militia leader to a pan-Arab hero. In this piece, and the following one, I will provide what I know about him.
I lived in Maysan, Iraq where I worked for the United States State Department performing the Iraqi reconstruction. I was the Rule of Law advisor there providing material, coordination and other assistance to the rule of law structures like the police, the courts, the prisons, the human rights officers, the real estate offices, the law schools and other associations and official groups in the province.
Maysan Province is in the South of Iraq on the Iranian border. Everyone there is a Shi’ite and many were and still are Sadrists. I was quartered for those years on the US Army base known as Garry Owen. When I first arrived, the province had excellent leadership and the US Army had largely stepped aside allowing the Iraqi forces to manage their own province in their own way.
I remember LTG Saad was the Iraqi Chief of Police and was a larger than life character. He traveled with a large entourage and had many items of interest in his headquarters showing off his collection of martial artifacts.
Having been in the Army myself when I was much younger, I appreciated the General and personally liked him. Saad Harbiyah was the kind of guy to which mothers would lovingly caution their children to eat their vegetables and go to bed or “General Saad will come.” He was an object of respect in the province for his toughness and ability to keep the peace.
Spring of 2010
In the Spring of 2010, The US First Infantry Division came to Iraq to manage the four southernmost provinces, of which Maysan was one. The Deputy Commander for Maneuver came to Garry Owen and was displeased that the base still suffered an occasional rocket attack.
With no more information than his own opinion, he accused the command of being lazy and instituted a plan to end the attacks and reassert control.
He was warned by absolutely everyone that this was a bad idea. Undeterred, he assembled a SEAL team and tried to serve arrest warrants in a sleepy village of Ali al-Sharky. Ali al-Sharky was well understood to be the center of the Iran/Iraq smuggling corridor in Maysan.
To control this area would almost certainly stop the traffic of Iranian rockets into Iraq. The idea made sense but the US Army no longer had any authority to act as the police much less to serve warrants and make arrests
So, the US Army brought several members of the Iraqi Army along to make the mission look legal and together they set out to serve the warrants. No warrants were served but there was resistance and there were Iraqi fatalities.
Three days of rioting followed in al-Amarah, the central city of the province. By the time that the smoke cleared, the Governor was well on his way to being replaced and the Provincial Council was shattered. The Sadrists had gained the foothold that they had long sought and Maysan almost became an all-but-break-away Province.
Worst of all, LTG Saad was fired by the Provincial Council because he could not control “his friends” the Americans and was replaced with a Sadrists Police Chief who has no interest in helping the Americans or protecting them.
Garry Owen went from one or two attacks a month to that many a week and had escalated to several each day by the time I left in 2011.
This was Muqtada al-Sadr first real success. Essentially, he had a province of his own and gave the Iranians a foothold in Iraq.
Muqtada al-Sadr (or “Mookie” as the Army called him then) had been fomenting this move for years and just need the opportunity to force a takeover. The US Army obligingly offered their unintentional but effective assistance.
After the next national elections, Maysan was all-but-formally given to the Sadrists by the al-Maliki government. A Sadrist governor was installed and all formal associations with the Americans ended.
Garry Owen became a besieged island in the desert as opposed to the font of reconstruction it was before the Sadrist takeover. We still worked occasionally with the local authorities but formal interaction at the Provincial level was ended, permanently.
Iran had its foothold and Sadr, at the end, had provided.
My next piece will tackle this topic: Al Sadr then and now, the difference between an Iranian agent and a pan-Arab hero.
Michael Patrick Flanagan represented the 5th District of Illinois in the historic 104th Congress. He sat on the Committees on the Judiciary, Government Reform and Oversight, and Veterans’ Affairs. Prior to his Congressional Service, Michael was commissioned in the United States Army Field Artillery. After leaving Congress, Michael and his firm, Flanagan Consulting LLC, have represented both large and small corporations, organizations, and associations. In 2009, Michael took a sabbatical from his lobbying business and entered public service again with the United States Department of State in Iraq as the Senior Rule of Law Advisor on the Maysan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Maysan, Iraq. For his work, Michael was awarded the Man of the Year by the Iraqi Courts, the Civilian Service Medal by the US Army and was also given the Individual Distinguished Honor Award. Michael is currently a consultant in Washington, D.C.