As a Shiite preacher, Moqtada Al Sadr used Friday sermons to rail against the invaders who deposed Saddam Hussein. “The little serpent has left and the great serpent has come,” he told a western journalist in 2004.
It led to him being labelled a firebrand cleric and, eventually, almost three years of self-imposed exile in Iran.
It has not been the easiest journey but the shape-shifting 44-year-old, whose political alliance appears to have won the highest number of seats in Iraq’s election, is on the verge of a remarkable transformation.
The corruption that plagues Iraq appears to have created his political opening.
Cultivating an outsider image, Al Sadr has navigated shifting allegiances, military
Embracing an Iraqi nationalist identity, staunchly against foreign influence, made him stand out in a field of post-invasion leaders at one time or another seemingly beholden to foreign states.
Born in the religious city of Najaf, the young cleric came to prominence after 2003 by raising an insurgent army, leveraging his influence as the son of a revered Grand Ayatollah killed for opposing Saddam.
Armed with Kalashnikov rifles and improvised explosives, the Mahdi Army led the Shiite resistance against the American invasion.
During Iraq’s brutal sectarian war in 2006-2007, the militia was accused of running death squads, seeking to remove Sunnis from areas of Baghdad.
The Pentagon once declared that the group had “replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence.”
Al Sadr later fell foul of the Iraqi government following violence between his militiamen and the rival Shiite group, the Badr Organisation.
It wasn’t until the Iraqi army cracked down on the Mahdi army in 2007 – years after an arrest warrant had been issued against Al Sadr – that the heat finally got too much.
He fled to Iran – studying to become an ayatollah at the preeminent Shiite religious centre in Qom – before returning in early 2011.
The Mahdi army remobilised as the Peace Companies in 2014 to fight against ISIS but today Al Sadr’s influence rests more on his ability to rouse his followers.
In 2016, he reasserted his political relevance when his supporters stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone in protests demanding better services and an end to corruption.
He drew upon that same support base and anger to mobilise voters last weekend.
Campaign slogans such as “corruption is terrorism” resonated across Iraq, but particularly in neglected areas of Baghdad such as the sprawling working class neighbourhood that bears his family name.
Sadr City was once Saddam City but was renamed in memory of the protests which were crushed there following Al Sadr‘s father’s murder in 1999. Uncollected rubbish piles and open sewers fuel resentment at the lack of development.
Like most Iraqis, his “Sadrist” followers want change, lacking faith in the post-invasion political elite to deliver.
But whereas many Iraqis stayed home on Saturday, either as a boycott or from apathy – turnout was only 44.5 per cent – the Sadrists voted in force, believing in his determination to tackle corruption.
He had earlier cleaned house within his own ranks, banning current MPs – accused of corruption – from running.
Instead, Al Sadr formed an alliance with Iraqi communists and secularists, allowing him to inject new faces and complete his move from sectarian militia leader to Iraqi nationalist.
The move worked, with his Sairoon bloc winning the nationwide popular vote with more than 1.3 million votes, and gaining an estimated 54 of parliament’s 329 seats.
“He has undergone a transformation – he is more mature now – but that’s also true of the atmosphere around him,” said Dr Muhanad Seloom, associate lecturer in international relations at the University of Exeter.
“I don’t think he’s a different beast as people say, he’s the same person, he still holds the same convictions, political and religious, but he’s a nationalist.”
Al Sadr immediately began negotiations to form a coalition government, another role he is familiar with. In 2010, after the Sadrist bloc won 39 seats in parliament, Al Sadr showed his ability to bury the hatchet, playing coalition partner to former enemy Nouri Al Maliki. The pact allowed Al Maliki to retain the premiership.
This time Al Sadr will be in a stronger position, though political office is not his aim. As he did not stand as a candidate himself, he cannot be named prime minister.
And as in previous elections, when prime ministers have been selected with the consultation of both the US and Iran, Al Sadr‘s bloc will have to contend with rivals.
The US will be wondering whether it can maintain influence with a man they once labelled a thug but may take solace in his strong stance against Iran.
Iran may be more inclined toward supporting Al Sadr‘s rivals, Shiite militia leader Hadi Al Ameri, and, once again, Al Maliki.
Ahead of the election, a senior Iranian official said: “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern Iraq,” a reference to Sadr’s allies in the Sairoon bloc.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has given indications it would be willing to work with Al Sadr, who visited the kingdom last summer to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi minister of state for Arab Gulf affairs and former ambassador to Iraq, Thamer Al Sabhan congratulated Iraq on its elections, tweeting: “You are truly on marching toward wisdom, patriotism and solidarity. You’ve made the decision for change towards an Iraq that raises the banners of victory with its independence, Arabism and identity.”
If Al Sadr were able to form a government, it could be a step in the right direction for Iraq, Dr Seloom believes: “He wants a technocratic government, he wants Iraq to be democratic and he wants to fight corruption.”