The populist cleric appeared to be garnering attention before October’s election
Iraq’s populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr told his followers on Monday he would be “killed”, words analysts said were to garner pre-election support and send a warning to Iran.
Mr Al Sadr has a huge following on the Iraqi street and has a history of making bombastic statements to shore up support against foreign intervention, specifically against US troops.
He also wields the power, through his family’s religious legacy, to encourage thousands of his followers to take to the streets.
“It seems that something will activate the Sadrist movement, which is my death or my killing. I will be a martyr and my death will revive something that has disappeared,” Mr Al Sadr told a group of clerics during a meeting.
“I’ll give you good news that my death or martyrdom is close, if God grants me success,” he said.
Mr Al Sadr portrays himself as a nationalist, fighting for the benefit of his country by leading the Mahdi army against the US presence. In recent years he also voiced concerns about Tehran’s growing influence over Iraq’s internal politics.
Many of his supporters hail from eastern Baghdad slums and share the same grievances as many Iraqis over a lack of job opportunities, poor healthcare and education.
People who claim to be Sadrists are most probably not acting in the way he would want them to, so the statement was a scolding to his followers to adhere to his commands, Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based fellow at The Century Foundation, told The National.
“He is concerned for his own safety. It’s a warning to his supporters that they should be worried and prepared to defend and support him. It really is to mobilise his supporters and push them to be more passionate,” Mr Jiyad said.
As election season approaches, the cleric wants to ensure his supporters are on board and are aware of his expectations, he said.
Mr Al Sadr holds no official position in Iraqi government or politics but remains one of the most powerful figures in the politics of the country.
“He is concerned that people in Sadr City are complaining about the state it is in, with poor electricity supplies; municipality services and security are not great, water supplies are not secure,” Mr Jiyad said.
Mr Al Sadr is concerned that supporters may blame the Sadrist movement for the poor services they are getting as they control many ministries, Mr Jiyad said.
“He’s worried about it picking up momentum, so he’s making these comments about being killed or his death will galvanise people as a way to appeal emotionally to his supporters.”
The cleric is one of the biggest obstacles to Iran’s growing influence in Iraq as he stands at the head of a mass movement that has deep roots in the country’s largest and fastest growing demographic cohort, Nicholas Krohley, author of a book on the Sadr movement and an adviser to the Iraqi Security Forces, told The National.
“From Iran’s perspective, Mr Al Sadr is much more formidable than the protest movement, because the protesters are not organised [or armed] well enough to compete in the Iraqi political system,” Mr Krohley said.
“The danger for Mr Al Sadr is that he stands alone at the head of the Sadr movement. If Sadr is killed, there’s a very real prospect of the movement coming unravelled,” he said.
The cleric’s statement is a way of warning Iran and its proxies in Iraq that “if you kill me, you will not be killing off the Sadr movement. Instead, you will be unleashing the Mahdi Army,” said Mr Krohley.
Updated: July 5th 2021, 11:20 AM