The Antichrist: Iraq’s controversial cleric

Muqtada al-Sadr: Iraq’s controversial cleric

A+ A-BAGHDAD – In late August, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in a characteristic about-face, announced his Sadrist movement would contest Iraq’s parliamentary elections, a month and a half after he had declared he would not run and withdrew his support for the government. 

The reason Sadr gave for his change of mind is a “reform paper” he received from several leaders he said he trusts. The promises made inspired in him hope for the possibility of ridding Iraq of corruption. “It came in line with the desires of the Iraqi people in achieving reform,” Sadr said

A member of Sadr’s Sairoon parliamentary bloc, Alaa al-Yasiri, told Rudaw on August 29 that measures outlined in the reform paper included ways to combat fraud in the elections, such as controlling campaign financing. It also included legislation of the Oil and Gas Law, which seeks to end “the dispute between the Kurdistan Region and the Federal Government.” The law has been pending since 2005 and every election, parties promise to vote on it, but it’s been stymied by debates over amendments. 

How Sadr became a phenomenon

The Sadrist Movement was formed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a populist party, it has a large public base, a private army, and a dominant influence over public life. 

“The Sadrist social base consists mainly of the poor and marginalized who come from the social classes that are less educated and influential in society,” said political analyst Rustam Mahmoud writing for Independent Arabia. 

Sadr supporters living on the margins of society are searching for “political paternity,” said Mahmoud, and have found it in the Sadr family, especially in Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada.

The elder Sadr was a popular figure who cultivated support by commiserating with the people’s grievances, which were doubled during the rule of the Ba’ath Party. His assassination at the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime inflated his sacred status among his supporters.

Muqtada al-Sadr has tried to continue his father’s legacy and the movement has grown in popularity, aided by Sadr’s rhetoric that combines of simplicity and directness with populism.

He is known for his hostility to United States presence in Iraq and he was one of the first to say that “resisting the occupier is a duty.” He formed the Mahdi Army in 2003, a militia that targeted US military convoys, but was also involved in sectarian crimes against the Sunni community in Baghdad. Sadr did not deny these accusations and disbanded the Mahdi Army in 2008, though from time-to-time he threatens to revive the force.

Sadr has a second armed force, the Peace Brigades (Saraya al-Salam in Arabic), which was formed in 2014 in response to the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS) and is a part of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic).

The Sadr movement is one of the Islamic parties that control the country’s institutions and wealth, yet it has rocky relationships with most of its political peers and Shiite establishment.

In 2003, Sadr was accused of the assassination of a prominent Shiite cleric in Najaf, Abdul Majeed al-Khoei. This was the beginning of the confrontation between Sadr and the Shiite religious authority in Iraq, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The US issued an arrest warrant for Sadr, but it was never carried out. 

Sadr followers also have disputes with the Dawa Party and its leaders, especially former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is affiliated with the Hakim family.

Sadr and reform

In 2015, civil society activists and some political parties, most notably the Iraqi Communist Party, called for massive demonstrations in Baghdad, condemning corruption and demanding major reforms. The momentum of these demonstrations increased after the Sadr movement joined them. That was the beginning of a rapprochement between the two sides and it led to a political alliance called Sairoon, which ran in the 2018 elections and won the most seats in the parliament.

Sadr supporters stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone several times in 2016, under their leader’s guidance, demanding former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi form a technocratic government. In September 2016, Sadr called on public sector employees to strike and put pressure on authorities to implement the demands of demonstrators.

In February 2017, Sadr called on the United Nations to protect demonstrators, accusing Iraqi forces of using “excessive force” against them. He continued supporting protests until 2019.

Collapse of the Sairoon alliance

In October 2019, another wave of demonstrations stormed Baghdad and southern provinces. The Communist Party declared its full support for the protests and participated in them and Sadr sent his supporters, known as the “blue hats” to protect demonstrators in the squares of Baghdad, Najaf and Nasiriya. 

But within weeks, Sadr’s position changed and the blue hats began attacking protesters, killing and injuring hundreds. This was the beginning of the end of the coalition between Sadr and the Communists.

On October 30, 2019, members of the Communist Party affiliated with the Sairoon Alliance resigned from parliament. In December 2020, Sadr said that the Communists were “traitors.” 

“We are the first to establish cooperation of Islamic civil society through political and electoral cooperation with civilians and communists, and how quickly they betray us and declare their hostility to us to this day,” Sadr tweeted

Upcoming elections

Sadr himself has never run for elected office, but he has been involved in the political scene since 2005 and his party is a current partner in the sectarian quota system. The movement secured 30 – 40 seats in each parliamentary election between 2006 and 2014. And it had no fewer than ten ministers between 2010 and 2014.

It has 90 candidates across Iraq competing in the October vote and is confident of victory, Sadrist member Hassan Faleh said in an interview with Rudaw.  

“The position of the next prime minister is the least that the Sadrist movement deserves, and we are certain that we will be the largest and strongest coalition in the next stage,” Faleh said.

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