Far from being anti-sectarian, al-Sadr’s men were among the most sectarian of all Iraq’s death squads.
In the driver’s seat. Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gives a speech before entering Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2016. (AP)
Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who pulled off a shock election victory in Iraq, has had pundits believing that Iraq is on the verge of casting off the bloody sectarianism that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Running in an alliance with small secularist parties and the Iraqi Communist Party on an anti-corruption and anti-sectarianism ticket, al-Sadr has painted himself as something of an Iraqi nationalist.
He has railed against corrupt politicians and Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs and attacked parties well known for their ties to Iran. Undoubtedly, to many Iraqis tired of being ruled from Tehran, his campaign is a compelling pitch.
However, it would be wise not to be too quick to jump on the “al-Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist” bandwagon. After all, it was not that long ago that al-Sadr was setting up shop in post-invasion Iraq, bankrolled and armed almost entirely by Iran as he established his notoriously vicious militia, the Mahdi Army. His Shia jihadist fighters attacked invading US and British troops and targeted Iraqi civilians in bloody reprisal campaigns.
Former officials of the toppled Ba’athist regime were hunted and killed, even if they were civil servants and had nothing to do with repressive practices. Many Iraqis were compelled to become members of the Ba’ath Party because that was the way citizens were promoted to better jobs, not because they were ideologically Ba’athist. This would have been known to the Mahdi Army. Nevertheless, membership of the Ba’ath Party was deemed reason enough to kill.
Even worse was the Mahdi Army’s targeting of Sunni Arab civilians in central and southern Iraq, committing a hair-raising sectarian cleansing campaign in Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra that led to thousands of brutal killings.
Far from being anti-sectarian, al-Sadr’s men were among the most sectarian of all Iraq’s death squads, contributing directly to the radicalisation that would spawn the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organisation. It is of no surprise that another radical Iran-sponsored Shia jihadist, Qais Khazali, found his roots in the Mahdi Army before splitting off to found the hyper-sectarian Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq group.
Even in terms of his religious credentials, it is not as though al-Sadr was trained in the Iraqi Shia traditional seminaries in Najaf. His scholarly credentials are often mocked, with the cleric often derided as “Sayyid Atari,” for his alleged love of video games over committing himself to scholarship.
It was not until recently that al-Sadr decided to improve his status by studying in the Iranian seminaries in Qom. Hardly the actions of someone supporting his home country’s institutions.
Al-Sadr is inextricably linked to Iran, irrespective of his grandiose speeches and fiery rhetoric aimed at Tehran. Before he became a recurring nightmare in Iraq following the events of 2003, he was hosted by the Iranian regime that provided him with money, shelter and even a basic education. Such bonds are difficult to break.
It is arguable that he is only indulging in anti-Iranian rhetoric because Tehran decided to favour other radicals, including Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki and his Shia Islamist Dawa Party, over al-Sadr.
With his history of dalliances with Iran, it is clear al-Sadr is less a nationalist than a pragmatist. His fickle nature can easily put him back into bed with Tehran’s mullahs once again. Iran will ultimately want to maintain its influence in Iraq and, if it has to rehabilitate al-Sadr into its circle of friends and allies again, it will and al-Sadr will be a willing partner.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute in England.