The Antichrist mercurial militia leader turned kingmaker

Moqtada al-Sadr: a mercurial militia leader turned kingmaker

The scion of a revered cleric positioned himself as an outsider but has been drawn into Iraq’s corrupt politics

   October 15, 2021 3:33 pm by 

Last Sunday, Moqtada al-Sadr pulled on a black face mask and climbed into a decrepit-looking silver Mitsubishi. The militia leader-cum-cleric was heading to cast his ballot in Iraq’s general elections. Within 48 hours, he would command the biggest bloc in parliament.

The poll confirmed Sadr’s ability to marshal more electoral clout than any other Iraqi leader. His bloc grew from 54 seats in 2018, to 73 of the 329 available today. In a victory speech on Monday, he combined religion and nationalism with pledges to clean up the political system that his own followers are enmeshed in.

“[M]oving forward, the government and the parties will not control the money and resources, for they belong to the people,” he said, reflecting Iraqis’ bitter disillusionment with their post-2003 politicians, perceived to have looted the oil wealth of OPEC’s second-largest producer. It was not the first time the people of Iraq have heard these promises from him.

Militant, self-proclaimed champion of the downtrodden, kingmaker and scion of a revered clerical family from Iraq’s Shia majority, the mercurial Sadr has reinvented himself many times. Now 47 with a white beard, he no longer resembles the younger man who in 2004 led an insurrection against occupying British and American troops, and the sectarian bloodletting that followed.

Although he still commands the Peace Brigades, a paramilitary whose supporters insist they are a state-sponsored militia, Sadr intoned this week that: “It is now time for the people to live peacefully without occupation, terrorism, or militias that kidnap, terrorise, and detract from the role of the state.” 

Dhiaa al-Asadi, a senior figure in the Sadrist Movement, first met Sadr when he was working for his father in his twenties. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most revered Shia clerics, had instigated a religious revivalist movement blending Shiism with social justice. He openly challenged then-president Saddam Hussein, who oppressed the Shia. Fearing the ayatollah’s huge network of followers, Saddam had him assassinated in 1999, as he was driving with two other sons in a Mitsubishi — the same model Sadr symbolically rode in to cast his vote last week.

Asadi described the young Sadr as “very serious.” Despite having a lighter side — he once compared the Sadrist Movement to a football team — he largely remains private and austere. 

While lacking his father’s scholarly qualifications, Sadr inherited his movement after the 2003 US-led invasion. Unlike other Shia opposition figures, Sadr had stayed in Iraq during Saddam’s reign. His bastion was the sprawling Shia slum in Baghdad originally known as Saddam City — renamed Sadr City after the leader’s demise. Highly popular among working-class Shia Iraqis, Sadr built a seemingly “cult-like following that almost no other leader in the Arab world has . . . largely because of his father’s legacy”, despite being “unpredictable, recalcitrant, moody, undisciplined”, says a researcher who met him several times during the occupation and requested anonymity.

After initially supporting Saddam’s ouster, Sadr soon fell foul of the occupiers, who issued a “kill or capture” warrant for him over his suspected involvement in the 2003 murder of a pro-western Shia cleric. By 2004, he had decided to fight back. But the anti-US insurgency soon became bloody civil strife, with fighting between Sunni and Shia extremist groups, Iraqi state forces and foreign troops. Sadr’s Mahdi Army, with help from Iran, “was the cutting edge of the Shia military offensive against the Sunni”, according to Patrick Cockburn, author of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq

Sadr stood down the Mahdi Army in 2008 after the Iraqi government, supported by the US, launched a major offensive against it. He has since had an ambiguous relationship with Tehran, positioning himself as a nationalist opposed to all foreign influence while periodically studying and taking shelter in Qom, Iran’s Shia holy city. 

When he moved into politics, Sadr portrayed himself as a champion of the downtrodden. As Iraqis grew disillusioned with their kleptocratic politicians, he deployed street muscle in anti-corruption protests. In 2016, his supporters stormed the Green Zone — a walled off square-mile in central Baghdad housing embassies and Iraq’s parliament — and roughed up lawmakers. His growing influence attracted attention. In 2017, another young populist, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, invited Sadr to Saudi Arabia. 

But despite his outsider image, Sadr’s partisans have become part of the Iraqi state. In 2018 elections, he won the most parliamentary seats, giving his party control of ministries and top civil service positions, allowing it to distribute jobs and benefits to supporters. When widespread anti-establishment demonstrations erupted in late 2019, Sadr initially backed them. But he later turned on the youthful protesters, leaving them distrustful of the Sadrist movement. 

Sadr’s appeal is now limited to his diehard base. Yet his party’s electoral machine “skilfully [took] advantage of the new electoral system and fully [used] its voting power,” according to analyst Harith Hasan. Despite controlling parliament’s largest bloc, Sadr must haggle over a new cabinet with other factions, some of which are armed and reject the election results. And with many Iraqis arguing that his own people are corrupt, Sadr’s claim that “all the corrupt will be held accountable” will now be tested.

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