The Antichrist: An outlaw turned kingmaker

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman meets Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 30, 2017.REUTERS

Moqtada Al Sadr: An outlaw turned kingmaker

Iran is unhappy about Al Sadr’s recent political popularity given his outreach to Gulf states and Iraqi Sunnis

Sami Moubayed, Correspondent

12:02 June 9, 2018

Damascus: Once described by TIME magazine as the “most dangerous man in Iraq,” maverick Iraqi politician Moqtada Al Sadr is being showered with praise today, peddled as a “Iran critic” and hailed as “kingmaker” after his list won 54 out of 328 seats in parliament last May.

His Sairoun list campaigned on anti-Americanism, for which Al Sadr is well-known, anti-corruption, anti-sectarianism, and clipping the wings of Iran in Iraqi domestics.

He is still short of a majority, however, which would require 165 seats in the Iraqi Assembly, but given the mediocre-to-poor performance of all his main rivals, Al Sadr is likely to be highly influential in choosing who the next prime minister will be. As the cabinet formation unfolds, Iraq is dealing with the usual list of grievances.

Security issues are still a top concern, even though the terrorist group Daesh which swept over a third of the country in 2014 has been largely eradicated.

On Wednesday, twin bomb blasts targeted a mosque in Sadr city, killing 18 and wounding 100.

Many have accused the Interior Ministry, stacked with staunch Iranian allies, for orchestrating the attack.

Over the years Iran’s influence has also evolved. Now, Iran is less able to cobble together grand electoral coalitions compared to 10 years ago. This is not because Iran has been left out of the political loop or is unable to pursue its interests in Iraq, but because the internal and external players are more dynamic than before.”

 – Fanar Haddad | Iraqi specialist at the National University of Singapore   

Observers believed the attack intended to send a message to Al Sadr for his newfound relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional ally.

Al Sadr was quick to call for calm among his supporters during this politically crucial time.

Al Sadr’s political journey

Al Sadr has come a long way since described as an “outlaw” by Paul Bremer back in 2003, when he led an armed insurgency against the Americans in southern Iraq and the Shiite slums of Baghdad.

Ten years ago, he disbanded his loathed Mehdi Army, and last week, his top aide Diaa Al Assadi said that there was no coming back to militia-rule.

Al Sadr now carefully chooses his words, trying to come across as a populist and well-crafted Iraqi statesman, rather than a thuggish warlord.

He still banks heavily on his Shiite credentials, however, never missing the chance to remind people that he is the son of revered Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999.

Last summer, Al Sadr visited Jeddah, meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and in Abu Dhabi, he went on to meet His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in an attempt to shed his image as a sectarian Shiite warlord.

Hearts and minds

He hoped by reaching out to powerful Sunni states, Al Sadr would be able to win back the hearts and minds of disenfranchised Iraqi Sunni voters.

Observers explain that Al Sadr’s shift towards the Gulf could be a direct result of a cutback in Iranian funds to Shiite politicians in Iraq, having shifted the bulk of its resources in recent years to more pressing issues like sustaining its war efforts in Syria, where it is bolstering the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the reconciliation with Al Sadr also came with opportunities.

Observers believed it was a strategic choice on their part in order to confront Iranian meddling in its own backyard given Tehran’s long-held grip on Iraqi politics since 2003, when Saddam Hussain was toppled.

However, the Gulf was not planning to put all its eggs into one basket.

It also reached out to Iraqi Foreign Minister Ebrahim Al Ja’afari and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi — both members of the ruling Iran-backed Da’awa party — as well as Ammar Al Hakim, another Shiite cleric, who for years had been on Iran’s payroll under his party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Non-sectarianism

In fact, last year Al Hakim broke ranks with his party, forming another party which campaigned on non-sectarianism.

The Iraqi political scene has evolved and become more complex over the years, explains Fanar Haddad, an Iraqi specialist at the National University of Singapore.

In 2003, after Saddam’s fall, the issues were more straightforward and one-dimensional — mainly the de-Baathification of Iraq and restoring Shiites as a majority power.

“Over the years Iran’s influence has also evolved,” Haddad tells Gulf News.

“Now, Iran is less able to cobble together grand electoral coalitions compared to 10 years ago. This is not because Iran has been left out of the political loop or is unable to pursue its interests in Iraq, but because the internal and external players are more dynamic than before,” he says.

Opponents of Al Sadr claim that gross fraud took place during last May’s elections, and 173 parliamentarians have voted for a manual recount, blaming the error on electronic counting machines, which were used for the first time.

Approximately 11 million votes will be recounted, but on Thursday, Iraq’s election commission said it would appeal parliament’s order.

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