The Shia cleric’s bloc emerged as the winner of the October legislative vote
He was once seen as one of the most dangerous militia leaders in the U.S.-occupied Iraq. Now, he has an outsized influence in deciding who should rule the country. When results of the October parliamentary elections were formally announced earlier this week by Iraq’s Independent High Elections Commission, Moqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc, the Sadrist Movement, won 73 seats out of 329. The elections were held amid high volatility. The country has witnessed protests for months. The government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was struggling to ensure law and order amid growing violence by different groups. The Popular Mobilisation Forces, militia groups backed by Iran, remained outside the state control. Above all, Iraq’s economy is in tatters. That Mr. Sadr’s bloc won the most number of seats in an election held in such circumstances shows the Shia cleric’s growing influence and popularity in a country that has never fully recovered from violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Mr. Sadr derives much of his authority and support from his family name. His father was the revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who stood up to Saddam Hussein and was executed by him. The fall of Hussein, whose Ba’ath party ruled Iraq under its tight grip for decades, opened political opportunities for other politicians, especially leaders from Iraq’s majority Shia community. Mr. Sadr mobilised his supporters and launched a political movement with a military wing — the Mahdi Army, named after Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Imam who Shia Muslims believe has disappeared (in “occultation”) and would return to redeem the world. Mr. Sadr rejected the post-Saddam provisional government and asked the U.S. forces to leave. In an interview with CBS immediately after the U.S. invasion, Mr. Sadr said, “Saddam was the little serpent, but America is the big serpent.”
In the post-Saddam chaos, when al-Qaeda in Iraq, under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, unleashed a wave of sectarian attacks against the Shias, Mr. Sadr’s militia emerged as a protector and defender of the Shias community. He built his base in Sadr City of Baghdad (previously Saddam City), particularly among the underclasses, and the Mahdi Army took the fighting often to U.S. troops. As Iraq slid into a sectarian civil war and the U.S. troops found it difficult to establish order, Mr. Sadr rose as a parallel authority among the country’s Shias.
But in Iraq’s fractious polity where it’s impossible for any political leader or bloc to establish dominance, Mr. Sadr has transformed himself to widen his base. He disarmed his militia, formed a political coalition and positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist, rather than a Shia religious leader. He remained opposed to both U.S. presence and Iran’s growing influence in the country. At home he allied with Sunnis, communists and political independents. He also called for improved ties between Iran and the Sunni Gulf kingdoms, including Saudi Arabia. The transformation was relatively successful. In the 2018 election, Mr. Sadr’s coalition won 54 seats. His bloc emerged as the main rival of Al-Fatah alliance, the bloc comprising the pro-Iran militias and political groups. Three years later, when Mr. Sadr’s seat share in Parliament went up by 19, the al-Fatah coalition suffered a crushing loss and secured only 17 seats.
The election victory doesn’t mean that it’s easier for Mr. Sadr to decide the future course of Iraq. Government formation in Iraq is a painful and prolonged process. Once the results are ratified by the Federal Supreme Court, President Barham Salih will convene the new Parliament, where the largest political bloc (the Sadrist Movement) will be invited to nominate the PM. Mr. Sadr could practically decide whether PM Kandhimi should get one more term or another leader should be chosen. But then, he should start negotiations to form a coalition that will have a majority in the 329-member Parliament. With the Fatah having already dismissed the election results, it would not be easy for Mr. Sadr to put together a sustainable coalition. But notwithstanding the difficulties of day-to-day politicking, the results underscore one thing — Moqtada al-Sadr is the most influential cleric-politician in today’s Iraq.