The Antichrist: Iraq’s political, religious force

Moqtada Sadr: Iraq’s political, religious force

December 1, 2021

When he raises his index finger and frowns, Iraq holds its breath: the mercurial cleric Moqtada Sadr has yet again emerged as kingmaker following last month’s parliamentary polls.

Today, as in past years following the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq cannot ignore the preacher who once led a militia against American and Iraqi government forces.

Now he wants his Sadrist movement to lead the formation of the next government.

Final results in the October 10 parliamentary vote announced by the electoral commission gave the movement the largest bloc, 73 of parliament’s 329 seats — up from the 54 it held before.

The results were announced over seven weeks after the polls, following fierce contestation by rival Shiite blocs, some of which alleged fraud in the ballots.

The composition of the next government, and who will be prime minister, will depend on the outcome of negotiations between Sadr and his opponents.

One of them is Nuri al-Maliki, a pro-Iran figure who gained the premiership in 2006 with support from Moqtada Sadr.

But the following year the cleric, who wears a black turban symbolic of a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, ordered his followers to pull out of Maliki’s cabinet, almost bringing down the government.

It was just one of several reversals the chameleon-like figure has made over the years, including in 2008 when he suspended activities of his Mahdi Army, which had been one of Iraq’s most active and feared Shiite militias.

Now Moqtada Sadr denounces the arms held by his adversaries, parties linked to the Hashed al-Shaabi network of former paramilitary forces, with whom he must negotiate on forming a government.

“Civil peace will not be destabilised,” he tweeted days after the vote, responding to calls on social media for violence, after the Hashed lost seats in the election.

Sadr also said “arms should be in the hands of the state, and their use outside of that framework prohibited”, in a clear reference to the Hashed.

On November 18, he addressed “political forces who consider themselves the losers of these elections”, and said their defeat “should not open a path to the ruin of Iraq’s democratic process”.

An ‘obedient base’

Sadr retains a devoted following of millions among the country’s majority Shiite population, including in the poor Baghdad district of Sadr City.

“He can occupy the streets. No one in Iraq can do it as well as him,” said Hamdi Malik, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Perhaps uniquely in Iraq, Sadr has “a very obedient base” which also comprises a formidable online presence attacking his rivals in cyberspace, Malik said.

“Everything is revolving around him. That in Iraq is very important,” he added.

During youth-led protests that erupted two years ago, Sadr sent thousands of followers to support the movement.

He then called them back, and later invited them to “relaunch the peaceful reformist revolution”.

Hundreds of activists died in the protests. The movement has blamed pro-Iranian armed groups for the bloodshed.

Sadr initially said he would not take part in the parliamentary election but then reversed course, saying his movement would participate in order to help “end corruption”.

“He might look a little bit crazy because of what he does,” said Malik, but for his supporters “this craziness of withdrawing from the elections, coming back to the elections, threatening people, it’s a sign of strength, charisma for many people”.

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