Populist cleric viewed in west as potential buffer against Iran determined to cement power
For a brief window this summer, Moqtada al-Sadr, the former US foe who is now one of Iraq’s most influential political figures, withdrew his party from next month’s parliamentary elections. But in a sign of both his erratic nature and the political theatrics in which he frequently indulges, the leader of the largest bloc in parliament reversed the decision two months later. Far from turning away from politics, he hopes to double his share of seats and name the next prime minister. Sadr “announced that we want the position of the prime minister”, said Dhiaa al-Asadi, a senior member of the Sadrist movement, referring to a position typically agreed through parliamentary negotiation in the absence of a majority.
Sadr’s group has, in recent years, emerged as one of the biggest political forces in Iraq and he is determined to use October’s election to cement this growth. For some western policymakers worried about Iranian influence in Iraq, the man once dubbed the most dangerous in Iraq by US news media may prove an attractive alternative to more pro-Iran groups. “The relationship between Sadr and the west has improved significantly over the last few years,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraq analyst at Crisis Group. “Sadr is increasingly being seen as a nationalist alternative and a potential buffer against the more Iran-leaning parties.” Illustrating how much the group has changed, Sadrists working in the Iraqi government have met western diplomats. “The orientation of the Sadrist movement is to open up to the world,” Asadi said. This should be on the basis of mutual interest, he added. “No country should have the right to intervene in the Iraqi business.” From militia to parliament In the early days of the US-led occupation in 2003, Sadr, the fourth son of a famous Iraqi Shia cleric killed by the country’s former dictator Saddam Hussein, mobilised supporters to lead an unwieldy paramilitary in armed resistance. Members of his Mahdi Army were accused of atrocities against Sunnis in the sectarian civil war that engulfed Iraq after the US invasion. But over the past decade, Sadr has reinvented himself as an anti-establishment defender of the downtrodden and has a broad following among working-class Shia Iraqis.
In 2018 a Sadr-led coalition won more seats than any other bloc in the 329-seat parliament. Helped by a low turnout, the group almost doubled its share from 2014, securing 54 seats, making it the biggest parliamentary bloc. Another low turnout could favour Sadr again this time. “Even if [Sadrists] are not going to score as much as the expected 100 seats,” said Asadi, “I think the number will increase.” Under the political system established after the ousting of Saddam, no single group has been able to secure a majority and rival factions have had to share power
While Sadr did not take a government position in 2018, his influence increased under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who relied on Sadr to balance the power of more pro-Iran lawmakers, some of whom are linked to militias. Iraq has long been an arena for proxy conflict between Iran and the US, whose 2,500 troops help Iraqi soldiers flush out Sunni extremists Isis, which once controlled swaths of the country. These foreign troops are often the target of Shia militias linked to Iran, a source of huge frustration to the US. ‘Is he really anti-Iranian?’ In the early days of the Mahdi Army, Sadr was viewed by many as an Iranian proxy, but that once close relationship has soured. Sadr now makes clear that his opposition to foreign involvement in Iraq includes Iran, which is welcome news to western ears. “They’re like, tell us more about Sadr, is he really anti-Iranian, what’s his position on the US, what’s the room for co-operation with him,” said Marsin Alshamary, a Baghdad-based fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “No one really buys that he doesn’t have ties to Iran, or that he wouldn’t shift towards an Iranian alliance,” added Alshamary. “But at this moment in time . . . he can point out the [pro-Iran militias] and say look, they’re the ones who are hurling rockets at the American embassy . . . we must be the rational, reliable actors who have Iraq’s best interest in mind.”
One western diplomat said that in the past year, Sadrists “made a deliberate decision to reach out to the UK and the US”, recognising that if they take a more prominent role in government, tentative relations with western powers would be beneficial. However, a US embassy spokesperson denied contact from Sadrists. The UK declined to comment. Grip on power Not everyone is convinced Sadr will win big again. His erratic behaviour and the thuggery of his supporters could lose him voters. Crisis Group’s Higel said his withdrawal of support for popular protests that broke out across southern and central Iraq in October 2019 may have backfired. While he appeared before 2018 to have a “reformist agenda . . . much of this image was shattered”, Higel said, when he withdrew support. “It will be difficult for him to secure the same amount of seats or increase them.” In any case, his grip on power is already evident in the control his allies have over large parts of the graft-riddled Iraqi state, including the health and electricity ministries. Research published by Chatham House in June suggested Sadrists had the greatest share of “special grade” positions, powerful civil service posts that are shared out between political parties. A Sadrist also heads the secretariat of the cabinet. Although operating under the radar, Sadrists have “been equally destructive as any of the other players in undermining the fabric of the Iraqi state through corruption and asset stripping”, according to Toby Dodge, professor at the London School of Economics and co-author of the Chatham House research. If anything, the rise of the Sadrists reveals the evolution of Iraqi politics since the 2003 invasion, as factions that previously wielded power through violence have been integrated into the state. “The Sadrists today are no longer the Sadrists of 2004, their methodology is different,” said Farhad Alaaldin, chair of the Iraq Advisory Council. Despite positioning themselves as outsiders, he said, “this movement strongly believes their survival is to be in government and part of the system”. This story has been corrected to make clear that a Sadrist heads the secretariat of the cabinet, not the prime minister’s office.