BAGHDAD – The leader of the Sadrist movement in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, offered on Wednesday to help with Qatar’s efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together for dialogue. The move immediately raised eyebrows, with many questioning whether the Shia cleric was exaggerating his ability to play a regional role to help resolve complex files and disputes between nations.
Observers of Iraqi affairs said that the initiative of Sadr, who has been accused of behaving in a volatile and at times contradictory way, came as yet another attempt to win Iran’s blessing and gain recognition as the leader of the Shia political family in Iraq, instead of the leaders and heads of parties and militias that Iran has relied on to maintain and extend its influence in the country since 2003.
Sadr, who also leads the Peace Brigades militia, is thus trying to invest in the failure of his main opponents and rivals to lead the Iraqi state, especially after many of them have turned into a burden for Iran because of the Iraqi public’s hostility to them.
Sadr is also apparently trying to invest in Iran’s need to initiate a dialogue with Saudi Arabia by showing sympathy with Tehran towards that end, knowing that such a dialogue has no chance of success.
Sadr also knows that he cannot succeed in a task that other countries have already failed at. According to observers, the Shia cleric is aware that he will be unable to convince Saudi Arabia to reconsider its refusal to engage in dialogue with Iran, which has made repeated offers.
Saudi Arabia had previously insisted that Iran must concretely change its behaviour and policies in the region before dialogue could be considered.
However, Sadr’s proposal is linked to his preparations for Iraqi elections scheduled for October.
The Shia cleric has apparently set a very ambitious goal for his movement to participate in upcoming elections, with the hope that Sadrists will secure a majority of seats in parliament allowing them to control the formation of the next government.
In his attempt to win over the largest number of voters, including votes of the Sunni community, which often vote for candidates of their own sect, Sadr previously defended Iraqi Sunnis, which he acknowledged have suffered from the war on terror.
“There is an attempt by Qatar to open a dialogue between the two neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said the director of Sadr’s media office, Haider al-Jabri, during a news conference in Najaf. “Sadr expressed his readiness to cooperate in this regard, given the positive impact such a dialogue could have on Iraq and its people.”
Qatar had previously urged for comprehensive dialogue in the region, a call welcomed by Iran. This came weeks after the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit was held in Saudi Arabia, during which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt reconciled with Qatar years after a boycott was imposed by the four countries on Doha.
Since the reconciliation’s success, Qatar has seemed to want to extend its benefits to Iran and Turkey, which cooperated with Doha during the period in which it was boycotted and isolated.
Observers believe that the Iranian-Saudi conflict has a negative impact on Iraq, which is inhabited by a sectarian mix of Sunnis and Shias and has become an arena of competition for regional influence between Riyadh and Tehran.
Iraq has had close ties with Iran since the overthrow of the former Iraqi regime in 2003 and Shia parties close to Tehran took over the reins of power in Baghdad.
This Iranian-Iraqi rapprochement has long drawn the frustration of Riyadh, which resumed diplomatic relations with Baghdad in December 2015 after a 25-year break following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The Sadrist movement, which has been working to strengthen its leadership across the state and sectarian limits, is now defending Iraqi Sunnis, who have been marginalised under Shia parties’ rule and were subjected to severe pressure due to both terrorism and the fight against it.
On Tuesday, Sadr said that “the Sunnis in Iraq are under pressure from some parties under the pretext of fighting terrorism.” He wrote on Twitter that “the goal of these parties is to take advantage of this situation in the upcoming early parliamentary elections,” adding that” the people of the Sunni provinces are the ones who were affected the most by terrorism.”
After first pledging not to participate in elections, Sadr reversed his decision in November. “If I live and life remains, I will follow events closely and accurately,” he wrote on Twitter. However, “if I find that the elections will result a Sadrist majority in the House of Representatives, and that they [members of his movement] will obtain the premiership, then I will be able, with your help, as we pledged together to complete the reform project from within.”
Sadr, who is a cleric, justified going back on his pledge not to participate in elections by saying: “The reason that led to my oath not to run in the elections will disappear and I will be dissolved from my oath,” implying that perjury is justifiable since the man “will save Iraq from corruption, subordination and deviation” if his movement secures significant election gains and manages to control the government.
He added, “Religion, doctrine, and the homeland are in danger, and all of you are a shepherd, and all of you are responsible for the flock.”
The Shia leader stressed the need to “compete on legal, ethical, democratic and human foundations away from violence,” considering that “it is shameful for political forces to clash for elections at a time when Iraqi provinces live under the line of poverty, hunger, epidemic and fear.”
In recent years, some political parties and citizens have accused armed Shia factions of committing violations against Sunnis during the war against ISIS, which invaded the country in 2014 and occupied large parts of its land, most of which were in Sunni areas in northern and western Iraq.
Just as the residents of those areas suffered from the extremist organisation’s bloody violence, they also suffered the ravages of the war against ISIS, which left massive damage to the infrastructure and private and public property, and led to the deaths and injuries of thousands and the displacement of people to areas not affected by the war.
The militia’s alleged violations against the Sunni population, which international human rights organisations have also reported, ranged from field executions to torture and enforced disappearances.