By Jed Babbin
Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s rise to power has not yet reached its zenith. The May 18 Iraqi parliamentary election, in which his Sairun political block won a plurality, has elevated him to the position of de facto leader of the Iraqi nation. Mr. al-Sadr won’t become prime minister because he didn’t run for a parliamentary seat, but he will control the formation of the next Iraqi government.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr. al-Sadr has been a sidebar to the main stories, making harsh anti-American statements and leading (from a safe distance) Shiite militia forces that fought repeatedly with U.S. troops. At times he appears (incorrectly) to be a mere tool of Iran, but at others his hazy commitment to Iraqi nationalism takes over from whatever loyalty his mind harbors to Iran.
Whatever else he is, Mr. al-Sadr is a complex man whose violent and virulently anti-American track record is worth examination in order to project Iraq’s short-term future.
Mr. al-Sadr first gained notoriety because of his involvement in the April 2003 murder of rival Shiite cleric Sayyid al-Khoei. Mr. al-Khoei was hacked to death by a mob allegedly under the orders of Mr. al-Sadr. An arrest warrant for Mr. al-Sadr was issued by an Iraqi judge a year later, but he was never arrested far less tried for the murder because, as one of the leaders of Iraq’s Shiite majority, he is above the law.
As our nation-building strategy dissolved into failure in Iraq, Mr. al-Sadr’s militias, generally known as the Mahdi Army, became the greatest threat to our troops in 2006-07. Fearing possible U.S. action against him, Mr. al-Sadr fled to Iran in 2007 purportedly to study to become an ayatollah.
Since his 2011 return, Mr. al-Sadr has often proved himself able to mobilize much of the Shiite population especially among the three-and-a-half-million residents of the slums of Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad. Sairun’s campaign promised relief to the poor and a fight against government corruption.
Mr. al-Sadr’s followers in Sadr City and elsewhere are his co-religionists, sufficient in number to assure his continued rise.
Mr. al-Sadr’s father, also a Shiite cleric, was reportedly murdered by Saddam Hussein’s thugs for his opposition to Saddam’s regime. The younger al-Sadr’s four-year stay in Iran, the epicenter of Shiite Islam was — as his followers said — primarily for religious study. But it was also a political act.
Mr. al-Sadr’s wishes to eventually replace Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is now 88 years old and one of the most revered ayatollahs in Shia Islam. Mr. al-Sistani refused to speak with U.S. officials, including proconsul Jerry Bremer when, after the U.S. invasion, they were trying to form an interim government, and thereafter.
Mr. al-Sadr, who is only 44 years old, evidently covets Mr. al-Sistani’s position but is too young to replace him even in the event of his death.
Some pundits are promoting Mr. al-Sadr as a unifying force in Iraq opposed to Iranian influence. To say that is akin to saying Iran will be a unifying force for peace in the Middle East. Sairun is more like Hezbollah in Lebanon: A terrorist movement trying to appear to be a political party. Mr. al-Sadr renamed the Mahdi Army as “peace companies” in time for the election.
Though he may be skeptical of Iran’s influence in Iraq, Mr. al-Sadr’s militias have been oriented toward support of Iran and have been supported for years by Iran.
In truth, Iraq is no longer a nation. It is divided among the Kurdish area in the north, the Sunni center and the Shiite-dominated Sadr City near Baghdad and to the south. The government — before the election — was headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose party finished third in the May election. Mr. al-Abadi’s government tried to rule all three sections, attempting, for example, to control a portion of Kurdish oil exports. It failed.
At this point there is no government that can unify Iraq. Any attempt by Mr. al-Sadr to form an Iraqi unity government would have to grant independent powers to the Kurdish north which jealously guards its autonomy and control of oil resources. It would similarly have to accommodate Mr. al-Abadi’s party in the Sunni regions around Baghdad and deliver on his promises to the poor in Sadr City and beyond.
That sort of coalition-building is probably beyond Mr. al-Sadr’s skill and influence. He launched a trial balloon by hinting that he may support Mr. al-Abadi for prime minister, but after campaigning hotly against government corruption, that can only work if Mr. al-Abadi is willing to surrender control to Mr. al-Sadr.
All the participants in such a government (with the exception of the Kurds, who are fighting the Turks) are strongly influenced by Iran, which is trying to make Iraq its satrapy. Iran’s influence on Mr. al-Sadr cannot be affected by outsiders — especially the U.S., which he despises — but will be determinative of the success he has in forming a government as well as its longevity.
Any Iraqi government controlled by Mr. al-Sadr or Iran will be our enemy and — with financial and other outside aid — a sanctuary for various terrorist networks. The only question that remains is, which ones?
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”