By Jon Lee Anderson
The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has never held elected office but has established himself as a key power broker in Iraq. Credit Photograph by Alaa al-Marjani / REUTERS
Beyond the gruesome military showdown with ISIS, politics in Iraq, such as it exists, revolves around a small cabal of former insurgents. All of them were political players long before the U.S. invasion of 2003, and they variously endured imprisonment, torture, exile, assassination attempts, and all-out warfare for their opposition to Saddam Hussein, and then survived to compete for the spoils of power. Some gained control of vast resources through their authority over lucrative government ministries. Some command their own militias as well as portions of the country’s security forces. The original list of players included the Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Mustafa Barzani, the secular Shiite politicians Iyad Allawi and the late Ahmad Chalabi, the Shiite Islamists Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki, and the late clerical Shiite brothers Muhammad Bakr and Abdulaziz al-Hakim. One of the most intriguing additions to this group is the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an arriviste of forty-two who has never held elected office but who now commands thousands and has established himself as a key power broker in the country.
A chunky, black-garbed, bearded man with a perpetually baleful countenance, “Moqtada,” as his followers call him, is a remarkable character. The son of a revered cleric who was murdered on Saddam’s orders, in 1999, Sadr forced his way into the political scene, when he was still in his twenties, with a calculated act of violence. On April 10, 2003, three weeks into the U.S. invasion, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a moderate Shiite cleric, whom the Americans had brought into the holy city of Najaf, crucial to the country’s majority Shiites, in the hopes that he would somehow help manage the city’s influential religious community, was stabbed to death. The word went out quickly that the assassination, which occurred in broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses, had been carried out by one of Sadr’s lieutenants, on his orders. The murder coincided with the appearance, on the streets of Najaf and Baghdad, of an armed rabble who called Sadr their leader and themselves his Mahdi Army. Within days, they had taken over the vast Shiite slum of Saddam City, which was renamed Sadr City.
As the blundering American occupation got under way, in the spring and summer of 2003, Sadr built up his power base. Then, in April 2004, coinciding with the Sunni rebellion that began in Fallujah, Sadr’s Mahdi Army rose up and attacked coalition soldiers in Najaf, Baghdad, and across southern and central Iraq and inside Baghdad, as well. The uprising had been sparked by the American arrest of one of Sadr’s aides, who was accused of Khoei’s assassination. As coalition troops and Sadr’s followers clashed, the Americans said that Sadr himself was wanted for the murder, and sent a large number of troops to surround Najaf. Sadr threatened to launch a full-fledged jihad if they entered the city. A standoff ensued. In the face of spreading violence, the Americans eventually backed off.
Coalition forces fought the Mahdi Army several more times, always without resolution. Sadr’s soldiers were heavily implicated in the brutal sectarian violence of 2006 to 2008, but he has since renamed his army the Saraya al-Salam—the Peace Brigades—and now controls a big bloc in parliament as well as his own political party. When two of his government ministers were accused of corruption, he ordered them to resign from their offices and to present themselves to the Iraqi courts. He is Shiite but has taken pains to show himself to be non-sectarian, embracing the Sunni-led “Arab Spring” demonstrations of several years ago, and more recently forming a committee, made up of secular Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish intellectuals, to come up with a “national plan” for Iraq.
Sadr knows how to choose his moments, and earlier this year he was back in the news, after a long and unexplained hiatus. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s failure to go through with promised reforms, including an overhaul of the government and new approach to tackling rampant official corruption, had been the focus of growing public discontent for some time when, in late February, Sadr resurfaced to demand action, and a hundred thousand of his followers joined him in one of Iraq’s biggest public demonstrations ever.
Sadr gave the government forty-five days to come clean, and as the clock ticked down thousands of Sadrists, a boisterous crew made up mainly of Shiites, camped noisily outside the Green Zone. Sadr threatened to storm the enclave with his followers if their demands were not met, but, in the end, he and the government agreed on a Solomonic denouement: Sadr alone stormed the Green Zone, allowed in by guards, who greeted him affectionately. Last Thursday, the Abadi government came up with an eleventh-hour planned government proposal, and the crisis ended. Sadr and his retinue departed, crowing victory, in a long convoy of S.U.V.s, which headed back to his stronghold in Najaf. Iraq’s parliament must vote on the proposal before next week. Depending on the outcome, Sadr, clearly, will keep his own counsel or hit the streets again.
Abadi, who acquiesced to Sadr’s latest show of force, is a more inclusive figure than his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who was hated by Sunnis and forced out in 2014, after the ISIS takeover of most of Sunni Iraq. How long Abadi survives, however, remains to be seen. At the least, he knows he will have to contend with Sadr in order to retain stability on Iraq’s streets, and power for himself. In the rumbustious mosh pit of Iraqi politics, knowing how to survive is everything. At the rate he is going, Moqtada al-Sadr could well end up as the last man standing.
BY Mohammed A. Salih
Even by the standards of the ever-dramatic world of Iraqi politics, today’s stakes are at a current high. On March 31, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi proposed a near complete reshuffle of his cabinet, with a list of 10 candidates chosen on the basis of “professionalism, competence and integrity” for ministerial positions. He wants to reduce the number of ministers from 22 to 16.
The slated cabinet overhaul by Abadi had come on the back of last month’s massive street protests and sit-ins in front of the main government compound, known as the Green Zone, that hosts Iraq’s major state institutions. The crowd was mostly made up of followers of the once-shunned—but now powerful—Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. On March 27, Sadr had called for a sit-in, inside the Green Zone. A day later, in a moment of high drama—and while declaring himself “a representative of the people”—Sadr entered the Green Zone to demand an end to the chronic corruption that has crippled state institutions. He and other protesters said they wanted nothing short of radical reforms that would shake up Iraq’s dysfunctional political system. And well they might; Iraq had fared 161 out of 168 nations on Transparency International’s corruption index in 2015.
The herculean task of setting Iraq on a new path largely rests on the shoulders of an embattled Abadi. When Abadi unveiled his cabinet overhaul proposal in front of Iraq’s parliament on March 31, it was something of a sop. Sadr made a victory speech of sorts, and then called on protesters to go home. He and Abadi then exchanged mutual praise during separate speeches.
Both the prime minister and Sadr had called for a cabinet of technocrats and independents, hoping to improve governance practices. But in a country gripped by conflict, deep sectarian and ethnic divides and constant political strife, such ambitious reforms are no easy task.
Even someone such as Dhiaa Al Asadi, the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, admits such calls for fundamental reforms are “idealistic.” “But what is important to us is whether this vision of reforms will save the country or worsen it? We believe it will improve the situation,” Asadi tells Newsweek Middle East.
Asadi warns that after years of government mismanagement and incompetence, Iraqis are more radical in their views than those espoused by his group.
“In the past, protests used to call for the collapse of the government,” he says. “Today we are not demanding that. We want to reform it. We are trying to salvage Iraq.”
Despite the concurrent push by Abadi and Sadr for change, the two do not necessarily share the same visions for what reforms should exactly entail, and the strategy under which they should be carried out is still largely vague. Ideas for reform have been generally confined to broad outlines such as fighting corruption, justice and accountability. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 by the United States and its allies, Iraq has had no shortage of such slogans while seeing corruption grow and the country’s situation further deteriorate. Whereas Sadr insists on reforms with or without the blessing of political factions, the prime minister seeks a national consensus for his efforts. In mid-February, Sadr threatened Abadi with impeachment if he failed to actually enact change. Unsurprisingly, that push for reform has further fragmented the Iraqi political scene.
Kurdish parties in parliament have unanimously rejected any overhaul of the cabinet that would usurp political factions. They insist parliamentary blocs should get to nominate new individuals if Abadi insists on shaking up his current cabinet. There are currently two Kurds among the 10 ministers Abadi has proposed.
In a sign of establishment’s influence over the fate of the reform process in Kurdistan, Nizar Numan Doski who was Abadi’s Kurdish candidate for the powerful Ministry of Oil announced that he will not take the coveted office if Kurdish parties do not endorse his candidacy.
“What is the point of such [cabinet] change,” Arez Abdullah, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s parliament, tells Newsweek Middle East. “We have asked Abadi to give us names of ministers who have not been competent so we can change them. He says they are competent but he still wants to change them.”
“We don’t think just by changing ministers you can achieve reforms. If he has anything against them [serving ministers] we are ready to take action, even let them be put on trial,” he adds.
Regardless of whether Abadi is actually satisfied with the performance of the Kurdish ministers, Abdullah’s remarks illustrate the extent of Kurdish opposition to his reform efforts. In a meeting of Kurdish political groups in Baghdad on March 27, they demanded that Kurds should get no less than 20 percent of ministerial portfolios in any new cabinet, a ratio that they believe is proportionate to their share of the Iraqi population.
A statement in the name of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leader Massoud Barzani questioned the wisdom of an expected cabinet reshuffle branding it as “not important because the principle of partnership in the Iraqi government has been violated and rendered meaningless.”
Going even further, Ala Talabani, a Kurdish MP, said appointing Kurdish ministers without consulting Kurdish political blocs would be a duplication of Saddam’s method of appointing minority representatives in his government that had no popular support. As it stands now, Kurdish groups might even suspend their participation in the Iraqi government if Abadi does not heed their demands.
But it’s not only the Kurds who are alienated by Baghdad’s passion for reform. Many in the country’s Sunni Arab community are just as dubious.
Much of Iraq’s Sunni areas are still dominated by Daesh and hundreds of thousands have been displaced as a result of the militia’s growth. The Sunni community feels more desperate than ever and many fear the reforms will actually affect their representation in national institutions.
“Abadi himself is a politician. He has been born out of the womb of the [Shiite bloc] Iraqi National Alliance. How can he chair a technocratic cabinet?” asks Mohammed Nasir, a parliamentarian from Anbar. “His ideas to overhaul the cabinet are just impractical. Parliament blocs have to vote on any reforms or cabinets. Any cabinet reshuffle without parliament blocs will only result in complications and hurdles.” On the day he presented his list of ministers to parliament, Abadi gave MPs 10 days to investigate his choices and vote on them.
Amid the ado over reforms, the question of practicality weighs heavily on the minds of many. Given the myriad challenges ahead, and with many stemming from political factions who have deep roots in the state institutions and oppose major changes, how far can reforms go?
“It’s difficult for Sadr’s calls to be enacted,” says Ahmed Ali, a fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. “The political system is entrenched in Iraq and slow-changing.”
Abadi also seems to have given in to Kurdish pressure and has said Kurdish blocs in Iraqi parliament can nominate their candidates for three ministries to be given to Kurds. Other blocs might want to follow the example of Kurds and insist that their nominees be placed in ministerial positions.
With Daesh on the back foot in Iraq, many groups in the country are positioning themselves to gain the most from a post-Daesh order. Hence many see the current battle for reforms in Baghdad as a subtle manifestation of political rivalries and the desire for a larger piece of the pie.
“The current political environment is about competition among Iraqi [Shiite] parties as well in the upcoming post-Daesh stage,” explained Ali about the political scene in Iraq. “The Iraqi [Shiite] political groups are more fragmented now with different visions.”
With conflicting views for reforms at loggerheads, the concern among many Iraqis is just how much pressure the system can withhold before matters spiral out of control. Many political blocs are not happy with the changes and mass protests—if they were to emerge again—would consume much of the energy of the government and security forces in Baghdad.
Nasir, the Sunni MP from the Muttahidun bloc, says he has spoken to fellow MPs and political leaders about such a possibility.
“What are the guarantees that in the event of the Green Zone’s collapse, the fighters in the frontlines will continue fighting as they have so far in areas like Anbar and Salahaddin,” Nasir asks. “We fear the collapse of the political process might pave the way for Daesh to expand to other areas.”
The Iraqi forces had a successful year in 2015 rolling Daesh back in parts of Anbar, Salahaddin and Nineveh provinces. Despite his stated desire for bringing about change, Abadi is well aware of the risks. He has pledged his government’s priority will be to secure the nation, and made it clear he will not change defense or interior ministers who run the country’s security forces.
“We reiterate to our people that the government gives the main priority to the war against Daesh terrorists because it’s an existential war for Iraq,” PM Abadi said in a televised speech on March 29. “Until a decisive victory, this war will be our major concern.”
The coming days and weeks will prove crucial for Iraq’s future direction, a country that is no stranger to upheavals, but at the same time possessed of an enduring resilience. This could be Iraq’s make or break moment.
The Nightmare Scenario Facing Iraq – and the US
© Ahmed Saad / Reuters
By Riyadh Mohammed
April 5, 2016
Just as the Iraqi government announced the beginning of the operations to liberate Mosul, the country’s second largest city, Iraq’s internal political turmoil threatens to reverse what has been achieved against ISIS.
The Iraqi army launched an offensive 12 days ago to capture a group of villages south of Mosul. The battle of Mosul is being led by the Iraqi army’s 15th and 16th divisions; both are newly formed and contain a majority of Shiite soldiers. While Sunni tribes, Kurdish forces and U.S. airstrikes are supporting the effort, the outcome will be determined by the effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces. Results so far have been mixed, with reports of stiff resistance from ISIS.
Equally troubling is the growing political crisis in Baghdad.
Since last summer, thousands of Iraqis have been demonstrating against government corruption and the lack of public services. Despite the fact that Iraq made about $550 billion in oil sales between 2006 and 2014 under the leadership of the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the country is virtually bankrupt thanks to corruption, mismanagement and the collapse of oil prices. Iraq has no reliable armed forces to protect its people from terror groups and lacks basic services like electricity, clean water and a functioning healthcare system. The government struggles to pay its seven million employees and pensioners.
While the demonstrators who initially organized sit-ins in public squares across the country were mostly liberal or leftist seculars, their movement has been taken over in recent weeks by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr’s militia fought for years against U.S. troops and government forces in Iraq and was involved in the sectarian violence that raged in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Sadr fled to Iran in 2007, returned to Iraq in 2011 and is now fighting against ISIS. Sadr’s ministers have been a major part of every Iraqi government since 2005 and are as corrupt as the others.
Still, Sadr ordered a protest to force the government to implement much needed reforms—including the formation of a new government. There’s no doubt that Sadr wants a seat at that table again.
Last Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi presented 16 names of supposed technocrats to the parliament to fill his new cabinet. But many Kurds, Sunnis and even al-Abadi’s own party – controlled by former Prime Minister al-Maliki — have expressed their doubts about the new government, indicating it is unlikely to be approved. This could lead to the renewal of Sadr’s protest.
The weak al-Abadi has fired thousands of government officials, from vice presidents to army generals, but the deeply rooted corruption hasn’t been eradicated. Al-Abadi’s predecessor’s men are still in control of much of the country, and the other political parties are all involved in the corruption that is draining Iraq’s resources.
The power of both Sadr and al-Maliki is increasingly evident. Both have strong militias; both have enormous influence on the Iraqi army and police. Sadr has threatened to withdraw his support for al-Abadi if a new cabinet is not approved. If the al-Abadi government falls and Iraq is split between supporters of Sadr and al-Maliki, the country would face one of these three possible scenarios over the next few months:
The Iranian revolution scenario: If the new technocrat government isn’t approved by the parliament and Sadr orders his men to break into the Green Zone and seize the government — and if the Iraqi army allows that to take place — Iraq could go down a path similar to the one that swept Iran during the revolution of 1979: a complete meltdown of the government and absolute control of the country by a radical Shiite cleric.
Several incidents indicate how influential Sadr is inside the ranks of the Iraqi army: The commander of the Iraqi army in Baghdad allowed the demonstrators to approach the Green Zone (and was fired for his decision). The commander of the Iraqi army units which guard the Green Zone was seen on camera kissing the hand of Sadr. (His troops were replaced by the units from the anti-terrorism forces that are Iraq’s only reliable force opposing ISIS.) The ministry of interior issued a strong warning against its staff, threatening them with execution in case they disobey their orders.
At the same time, the difference between the leader of the Iranian revolution, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khomeini, and Sadr is immense. Al-Khomeini was in his late seventies when he ruled Iran, with long political experience and the highest degree of Shiite Islamic education. Sadr is far less experienced and knowledgeable. Moreover, al-Khomeini was popular enough to make anyone challenging him an act of political suicide. Sadr lacks that undivided support.
This scenario would mean the end of every U.S. civilian and military presence and influence in Iraq for many years to come. It would be unacceptable to the U.S. after losing nearly 5,000 soldiers and non-military personnel in Iraq and spending nearly $6 trillion.
The massive U.S. embassy – the largest United States embassy in the world – would be closed and the nearly 5,000 servicemen and women in the country would go home. Iraq would be led by a man who is similar to the leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah in his enmity to the U.S., yet with no more experience than the leader of North Korea. ISIS would no doubt take advantage of the turmoil and restore what it has lost over the last year.
The civil war scenario: If Sadr forces his way into the Green Zone and al-Maliki’s men in the army and his militias try to stop Sadr by force, Iraq could experience a civil war similar to that of Yemen today.
In September 2014, the Houthis, an armed Shiite group backed by Iran, gained control of the Yemeni capital after a sit-in around the city. Collaborating with loyalists of the former dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Salih, the Houthis seized control of the government in early 2015. Full-fledged civil war broke out in March 2015, with Saudi Arabia leading an Arab coalition conducting airstrikes against the Houthis. The conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. The war has further destabilized the region, and opened to the door to al-Qaeda, which now controls a quarter of the country. ISIS is also gaining strength there.
If Iraq’s army and Shiite militias began fighting in Baghdad, the conflict could allow ISIS to not only restore what it has lost, but to march toward the capital once again.
The unstable status quo scenario: A third scenario would be a continuation of the current impasse — or even a brief easing of tensions with the formation of an acceptable technocrat government — that wouldn’t do much to change the state of affairs in Iraq in the long run. This scenario would mean that a large part of Iraq’s security forces would be consumed in monitoring Sadr’s men instead of ISIS, which would give ISIS a chance to breathe and plan its way out of its current defeats.
For the coming few weeks, the most likely scenario is the unstable status quo one. However, this could change quickly and heightened internal conflict is a real possibility. A religious revolution along the lines of Iran could lead to a full scale Shiite civil war between Sadr and al-Maliki. Overall, none of this is good for anyone other than ISIs.
Baghdad – On March 31, members of Iraq’s parliament gathered in the assembly building at the fortified Green Zone for an urgent matter. They were tasked with endorsing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s list of new ministers he was scheduled to present in keeping with a deadline set by the legislature earlier in the week.
The mood was tense. Powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters have besieged the Green Zone where the prime minister’s offices are located, had issued an ultimatum to Abadi to announce his reform plans and a new ministerial council by the end of the month.
Sadr also threatened to escalate the campaign in order to “uproot” corrupt and inefficient officials if the protesters’ demands were not met by the set deadline.
Overnight, tight security was imposed and hundreds of soldiers were deployed to police the Green Zone as Sadr followers blockaded its main entrances and vowed to remain there until Abadi concedes to their leader’s conditions.
The weeks before the parliament’s session, leaders of the Iraqi political factions failed to agree on a proposal by Abadi to form a new cabinet of technocrats as part of his reform package to meet pressing public demands after months of nationwide anti-corruption protests.
The government was stalemated as the country remained embroiled in a war to drive the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from towns they have been seizing since summer 2014.The two conflicts were made worse by a crushing economic crisis triggered by low oil prices.
When Abadi finally showed up at the assembly on Thursday afternoon he gave a sealed envelope containing the names of 16 ministerial candidates to parliament speaker Saleem Al-Jubouri following a speech to chamber.
“They were chosen on the basis of professionalism, competence, integrity and leadership ability,” Abadi said of his list of the proposed candidates.
Abadi said he will keep the defence and interior ministers in place for now owing to the country’s ongoing battle against the ISIL jihadist group.
Abadi also pledged to start reshuffling other top government jobs and lay off at least 100 senior managers. Abadi’s move showed easing tensions.
Sadr voiced support for the new cabinet, though not without conditions. He called off the sit-in but insisted that weekly demonstrations for reform will continue until parliament approves the new cabinet.
That said, it remains to be seen if reshuffling Abadi’s cabinet will end the impasse and make room for a lasting solution for Iraq’s chronic government crisis.
The lawmakers have now 10 days to agree on Abadi’s nominees. That is not a foregone conclusion, however. The issue is unlikely to pass without hard bargaining, and it could fall victim to factional politics.
The biggest hurdle for the reshuffle is the parliament. In order for Abadi to form a new government, his current ministers should offer their resignations.
If any minister in Abadi’s present cabinet refuses to resign, an impeachment by an absolute majority of members becomes necessary. At least two key cabinet members, Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zibari, have reportedly been dragging their feet.
Under Iraq’s constitution at least 165 members, or 51 percent of the legislature’s 328 members, have yet to endorse the deal. Serious objections could be a key hurdle.
Though Abadi did not disclose the names of his new ministers, a list leaked to the press showed that most of the candidates are not seen to be loyal to Iraq’s existing political blocs that dominate the parliament.
Skepticism about their professional skills as well as their political independence was also raised.
But the most serious sticking point remains the existing power-sharing formula introduced after the US invasion in 2003 which ousted the regime of Saddam Hussein and empowered both Shia and Kurds.
The rationale behind forming a government of qualified professionals is to get around the ethno-sectarian quota system in order to push reforms stalled by government’s inefficiency, corruption and power struggles.
This seems to be impossible as long as the power-sharing arrangements which only benefit the ruling ethnic and sectarian class remain in place.
To underscore this challenge, a Kurdish geologist, nominated to be Iraq’s new oil minister, turned down the offer a day after his name appeared on the list of Abadi’s candidates. He apparently did that under pressure from Kurdish parties.
Even before going to the parliament, Abadi received a high-profile snub from self-ruled Kurds. Kurdish lawmakers said they will not support a government formed without prior consultation with their leadership.
Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, who is seeking full statehood from Iraq, had threatened that his autonomous administration would consider the reshuffle as irrelevant.
There is increasing fear that Barzani wants to exploit the government crisis to further his independence agenda and hold a planned referendum for breaking away from Iraq.
Sunni blocs, strident critics of what they see as the exclusiveness of the post-Saddam political process, will most likely feel they stand to lose out. Some Sunni politicians have voiced concern that a non-political cabinet will increase their community’s marginalisation.
Perhaps the big winner in this game is Sadr himself, who has emerged with a competitive edge over other Shia leaders. By showing a striking ability to mobilise masses flooding the streets of Baghdad and other cities against the government, Sadr has proved to be Iraqi Shia’s most prominent political leader.
His drive for reform has apparently won a blessing from Iraq’s most prominent Shia spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has demanded that Abadi gets serious about tackling corruption after a wave of protests swept across Iraq last summer.
Many believed that Sadr would bow to Iran’s pressure, yet he succeeded to whither Tehran’s influence.
As for the deal to end Abadi’s cabinet crisis, it could only be enough to stop the government collapsing, at least until the next parliamentary elections due in 2018.
This explains why there was little sense of celebration on the streets, where the main feeling was exasperation that the compromise had come only after such a tortuous and tedious process.
The best solution for Iraq’s fundamental problems may be a complete overhaul of its dysfunctional governance system to give the country a long-term stability.
At the heart of Iraq’s impasse is the ethno-sectarian political system that was forged by the American occupation authority and gave rise to the ethno-sectarian oligarchies who want to keep the status quo.
Unless Iraq’s ruling elites drop their distorted communal and regional agendas for the sake of rebuilding their battered nation, Iraq will remain particularly vulnerable to recurrent turbulence rattling its fragile political system and its broken state.
April 1, 2016 – 3:32PM
Baghdad: Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric whose militia repeatedly battled US troops more than a decade ago, is back in action in Iraq – this time as a battler against corruption who seeks to change the face of government.
On Thursday, after spending five days holed up in a tent inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to press his demands, he was handed a victory, in the form of a proposed new government presented to parliament by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The new, streamlined cabinet is to be composed not of politicians but technocrats with the skills required to run ministries – meeting one of Mr Sadr’s chief demands.
He has also demanded that the government “allocate a share for each Iraqi citizen from the oil revenues”, though how this might be done was not clear.
Whether a new government will be formed is also in question. Parliament won’t vote on whether to approve the candidates for another 10 days.
The proposal did mark a small first step toward a larger package of reforms long promised by Mr Abadi but never implemented because of resistance from the country’s powerful political blocs.
It was also a significant triumph for Mr Sadr, the scion of one of Shiite Islam’s most revered families and also the overall commander of one of the country’s more powerful militias, known in the earliest years of the US occupation of Iraq as the Mahdi Army and now called Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades.
Yet again Mr Sadr has demonstrated that he has the power to mobilise disenfranchised Shiites.
A decade after he first confronted US forces, Muqtada al-Sadr has again shown his power to mobilise Shiite masses.
“Our efforts have been rewarded,” Mr Sadr said, calling off the protests, in a televised speech beamed from his Green Zone tent to thousands of cheering supporters gathered just beyond the zone’s fortified blast walls.
“We will never be humiliated!” the crowd chanted back, pumping their fists at the screen on which his speech was being broadcast before dispersing into the night, tooting horns and waving Mr Sadr’s picture.
Mr Sadr headed back to his home in the southern city of Najaf in a 24-vehicle armoured convoy.
Mr Abadi, in his speech to parliament, thanked Mr Sadr for his role in organising the protests that helped him formulate the proposed new government.
“Everybody comes out looking well, which was what was needed,” said Sajad Jiyad of the Bayan Centre for Planning and Studies, who has advised Mr Abadi in the past. “Sadr has presented himself as an agent of reform. The prime minister kept his job and looked calm and reasonable, as if he is in charge.”
The deal culminated more than eight months of escalating unrest that has seen huge crowds gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand that Mr Abadi boot out corrupt ministers and abolish the practice of distributing government positions according to sectarian quotas, adopted after the US invasion in 2003.
The momentum stalled after reforms swiftly promised by the prime minister failed to materialise – until Mr Sadr stepped in. He gave Mr Abadi a 45-day ultimatum to appoint a new government, after which Sadr would order his supporters to storm the Green Zone.
To underline the threat, Sadrist supporters set up a tented protest camp just beyond the Green Zone’s fortified walls, echoing similar camps set up elsewhere in the region during the Arab Spring revolts – except that unlike those popular revolts, this one was underwritten by a private army.
When the deadline passed without result, instead of ordering an assault, Mr Sadr strode into the Green Zone, flanked by just a handful of aides, and declared that he was ready to sacrifice his life for the people’s demands.
The soldiers, ostensibly there to keep outsiders out, embraced him. The general in charge of security knelt and kissed his hand. Mr Sadr’s aides erected a tent for him. Then he took a selfie with five of his closest aides.
The message was clear: The political elites living in luxury behind their fortified walls cannot be protected from Mr Sadr’s wrath, and even the security forces could not be counted on to defend them.
Mr Abadi was never Mr Sadr’s target, his supporters say. Rather, they explain, the goal was to bolster Mr Abadi’s wobbly hold on power by pressuring the more powerful politicians blocking Mr Abadi’s reforms to acquiesce to changes that will presumably see them kicked out of their jobs.
“What we want to do is set Abadi free from the pressures of the blocs and the parties so that he can meet the people’s demands,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a Sadrist member of parliament and one of the select few who accompanied Mr Sadr on his Green Zone foray.
In his speech, Mr Abadi indirectly called on Mr Sadr to end the protests, which he said were burdening the security forces as they fight Islamic State, which still controls considerable territory in northern and western Iraq.
“Reforms should not be allowed to impact the military and security situation,” Mr Abadi said.
But graft is itself a significant drain on Iraq’s resources. Other Iraqi politicians, including some within Mr Abadi’s Dawa Party, have pushed back against a reshuffle, fearing it could weaken the patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade.
Mr Sadr’s bloc accounts for only 34 of parliament’s 328 MPs and may not be able to vote down Mr Abadi if other political parties decide otherwise.
Mr Sadr may also be seeking to reposition himself as rising stars in other Shiite militias soar to prominence because of their role in fighting IS.
Mr Sadr has demonstrated that “he has more popular support than those militias”, said Mohammed Naaina, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “No party right now would dare clash with Muqtada al-Sadr because they know they won’t win.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr greets Iraqi soldiers in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on March 31. (AFP via Getty Images/AFP via Getty Images)
By Liz Sly and Mustafa Salim March 31 at 6:34 PM
BAGHDAD — Moqtada al-Sadr, the troublesome cleric whose militia repeatedly battled U.S. troops more than a decade ago, is back in action in Iraq — this time as a champion of political reforms.
And what a comeback it has been, replete with high political drama, bold gestures of choreographed symbolism and moments of nerve-racking tension that have seen Baghdad brace for a potential new war.
Sadr’s return to the limelight began in February, when he emerged from years of self-imposed retirement from politics to lead a mass protest campaign calling for the creation of a new government and an end to the corrupt practices of the country’s despised political elite.
On Thursday, after spending five days holed up in a tent inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to press his demands, he was handed a victory, in the form of a proposed new government presented to parliament by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The new, streamlined cabinet is to be composed not of politicians but technocrats with the skills required to run ministries — meeting one of Sadr’s top demands.
Whether a new government will be formed is in question. Parliament won’t vote on whether to approve the candidates for another 10 days. This reform proposal may yet founder, like others before it, on the paralyzing squabbles of the country’s feuding politicians.
Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr answered the cleric’s call by filling the streets of Basra and Najaf in southern Iraq in March. They demanded the Iraqi government end widespread corruption and show that it’s serious about carrying out reforms.
The proposal did mark a small first step toward a larger package of reforms long promised by Abadi but never implemented because of resistance from the country’s powerful political blocs.
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It was also a significant triumph for Sadr, the heir to the legacy of one of Shiite Islam’s most revered religious families and also the overall commander of one of the country’s more powerful militias, known in the earliest years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq as the Mahdi Army and now called the Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades.
“Our efforts have been rewarded,” Sadr said, calling off the protests, in a televised speech beamed from his Green Zone tent to thousands of cheering supporters gathered just beyond the zone’s fortified blast walls.
“We will never be humiliated!” the crowd chanted back, pumping their fists at the screen on which his speech was being broadcast before dispersing into the night, tooting horns and waving Sadr’s picture. Sadr headed back to his home in the southern city of Najaf in a 24-vehicle armored convoy.
Abadi, in his speech to parliament, thanked Sadr for his role in organizing the protests that helped him formulate the proposed new government.
“Everybody comes out looking well, which was what was needed,” said Sajad Jiyad of Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, who has advised Abadi in the past. “Sadr has presented himself as an agent of reform. The prime minister kept his job and looked calm and reasonable, as if he is in charge.”
The deal culminated more than eight months of escalating unrest that has seen huge crowds gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand that Abadi boot out corrupt ministers and abolish the practice of distributing government positions according to sectarian quotas, adopted after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The momentum stalled after reforms swiftly promised by the prime minister failed to materialize — until Sadr stepped in. He gave Abadi a 45-day ultimatum to appoint a new government, after which Sadr would order his supporters to storm the Green Zone and do the job themselves.
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To underline the threat, Sadrist supporters set up a tented protest camp just beyond the Green Zone’s fortified walls, echoing similar camps set up elsewhere in the region during the Arab Spring revolts — except that unlike those popular revolts, this one was underwritten by a private army.
When the deadline passed without result, instead of ordering an assault, Sadr strode into the Green Zone, flanked by just a handful of aides, and declared that he was ready to sacrifice his life for the sake of the people’s demands.
The soldiers, ostensibly there to keep outsiders out, embraced him. The general in charge of security knelt and kissed his hand. Sadr’s aides erected a tent for him. Then he took a selfie with five of his closest cleric and militia friends showing him inside the tent inside the Green Zone, which was transmitted across Baghdad via social media accounts.
The message was clear: The political elite living in luxury behind their fortified walls cannot be protected from Sadr’s wrath, and even the security forces could not be counted on to defend them.
Abadi was never Sadr’s target, his supporters say. Rather, they explain, the goal was to bolster Abadi’s wobbly hold on power by pressuring the more powerful politicians blocking Abadi’s reforms to acquiesce to changes that will presumably see them kicked out of their jobs.
“What we want to do is set Abadi free from the pressures of the blocs and the parties so that he can meet the people’s demands,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a Sadrist member of parliament and one of the select few who accompanied Sadr on his Green Zone foray.
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And indeed, although Sadr has portrayed himself as the champion of the people against the government, it’s more complicated than that. His challenge has revived multiple, long-standing feuds within the powerful Shiite establishment, many of them predating its ascent to power after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s more Sunni-oriented regime.
They include some of the rising stars in the other Shiite militias who have soared to prominence because of their role in fighting the Islamic State, and who are poised to play a significant role in the country’s political future — perhaps taking support and future votes away from the Sadrists.
Sadr has demonstrated that “he has more popular support than those militias,” said Mohammed Naaina, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “No party right now would dare clash with Moqtada Sadr because they know they won’t win.”
Political uproar over corruption pulls attention, resources from fight against Islamic State
BAGHDAD—Ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there have been two Baghdads. One a chaotic metropolis choked by traffic and tormented by bombings. Another is the so-called Green Zone, a placid expanse of empty avenues and verdant gardens that is forbidden to the average Iraqi.
There, beyond the checkpoints, razor wire and bomb-sniffing dogs, lie the country’s government and parliament, foreign embassies and the homes of most of the people who matter in the new Iraq.
That new Iraq is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations. And now that its economy is melting down amid low oil prices, popular rage with the Green Zone’s inhabitants has become a major—and potentially destabilizing—force just as the country begins to roll back Islamic State.
“Iraqi people have seen no change for the better since 2003,” when Saddam Hussein was toppled, “and the Green Zone is the heart of this corruption, a place where all the thieves hide behind the tall walls,” said Sheik Qasem al-Mayahi, a tribal leader from a suburb of Baghdad who is camping out with fellow protesters at the entrance to the sprawling enclave.
For several months, protesters like him have demanded that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dismantle the networks of political patronage that hollow out government institutions and punish the ministers and other officials complicit in frittering away Iraq’s oil wealth. Initially, such protests united Iraqis of all stripes.
Amazingly, this movement to clean up government and end sectarian quotas has now been taken over by a man who, to many, symbolizes some of the worst excesses of post-2003 Iraq: the mercurial cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The 42-year-old scion of a leading Shiite religious family, Mr. Sadr is far from an outsider. He controls a large parliament faction, with several ministers, and one of the country’s largest Shiite militias, which he calls the Peace Brigade. A decade ago, he also led an insurgent campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq and was responsible for unleashing some of the worst sectarian bloodshed.
“Yes, the people are ready to rise up,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a former deputy prime minister and leading Sunni politician. “But Muqtada al-Sadr’s ministers were probably the most corrupt of all the ministers. Now he wants to get rid of sectarianism and corruption—but he was part of it all.”
For weeks now, Mr. Sadr’s supporters have been camping in tent cities at entrances to the Green Zone. Friday rallies draw hundreds of thousands of protesters who, on one occasion, came close to breaching the enclave’s perimeter. Turning up pressure on Mr. Abadi, Mr. Sadr himself traveled to Baghdad from his home in Najaf and set up a tent for himself and his bodyguards inside the Green Zone.
So far, these protests have been peaceful. But Mr. Sadr has repeatedly hinted at his readiness to escalate. Most recently, he said that “we won’t remain handcuffed” if the Iraqi parliament doesn’t act on his demands when it meets Thursday.
His main one is for Mr. Abadi to fire the current government and name instead a “technocratic” administration from the roster his movement has selected. While Mr. Abadi promised a cabinet shuffle in February, it is unclear to what extent the political parties in parliament, which traditionally apportion cabinet positions according to sectarian and ethnic quotas, would allow him to do so.
“Reforms are very important for us. But Muqtada al-Sadr is exploiting the critical situation just to gain popularity and to pressure the prime minister into giving him more power,” parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri said in an interview. Several important political blocs have already said they oppose Mr. Sadr’s requests.
To many critics of Mr. Sadr, the protest movement is a particularly ill-timed distraction from the war against Islamic State, also called ISIS, which has stepped up a bombing campaign in predominantly Shiite areas and controls Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and many other Sunni towns. The government has had to pull elite forces from the front lines to help protect the Green Zone.
“This is a huge diversion from our main fight against ISIS. We need to mobilize all our resources toward getting them out of the country. But now each and every one is holding their breath to see whether the demonstrators storm the Green Zone, which represents the sovereignty of the state,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a prominent parliament member and former national security adviser. “This is an extremely dangerous game.”
That isn’t an argument that sways Mr. Sadr’s supporters, who point out that Islamic State managed to score its blitzkrieg victories in 2014 because of graft and incompetence in the upper echelons of the Iraqi army.
“The reason why we have ISIS is the corruption in the political process, the inability of the government to protect Iraqi borders, the inability of successive governments to deal with extremism,” said Dhiaa al-Assadi, the head of the Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi parliament. “To fight ISIS, we also need to reform the political process.”
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com
Prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has warned that his bloc in parliament would vote to withdraw confidence from Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi if the latter failed to appoint a new government by Thursday, while demonstrations by al-Sadr’s supporters continued outside Baghdad’s Green Zone.
“Parliament has given the prime minister until Thursday [to present a new government] and he must abide by this deadline,” al-Sadr said in a message to supporters camped outside Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone.
“If he [al-Abadi] fails to do so, we will… vote to withdraw confidence from him,” he warned.
Al-Sadr’s “Ahrar” bloc in parliament holds 34 seats in the 328-seat assembly and three ministerial portfolios in Iraq’s current government.
The move came amid large protests by al-Sadr’s supporters aimed at pressuring the prime minister to appoint a government of “technocrats” untainted by corruption or sectarianism — both of which, critics say, have hamstrung Iraq’s previous post-invasion governments.
– No Iranian mediation –
“No one has dared to negotiate with me or try to convince me to withdraw [demonstrations by my supporters] from outside the Green Zone,” al-Sadr told Al-Itesam daily on Wednesday.
“There is no Iranian mediation; I don’t think the Iranians would get involved,” he said.
Al-Abadi, for his part, says he has presented a reform program aimed at fighting rampant corruption.
“The program also includes mechanisms for choosing non-party technocrats for top [government] posts,” he said.
The prime minister, however, did not clarify as to whether he would abide by the three-day deadline set by parliament for him to present a new government lineup.
Last summer, Iraq’s parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms proposed by al-Abadi. The reforms are aimed at meeting popular demands to eliminate government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy.
Sadr warns Iraqi PM he will seek his impeachment unless reforms begin now
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold a sit-in outside the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad. Photo: AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s firebrand Shiite cleric, warned Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “stop giving futile promises” and start with grassroots government reforms if he wants to avoid impeachment.
“We advise the prime minister to stop giving futile promises,” Sadr said in a message, convoyed by an official from his Sadrist Movement before supporters in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where Sadr is staging a sit-in.
Sadr and hundreds of his supporters entered Baghdad’s Green Zone on Sunday to stage a sit-in to pressure the government on reforms.
Sadr warned in his message that if the embattled prime minister fails to move on reforms, he would go to parliament to seek his impeachment.
He has also warned Abadi not to “blow your anger on peaceful demonstrators, since they have been legally waging their opposition. Rather, he better blow his anger at the corrupt” officials.
Abadi pledged on Tuesday that he would announce a cabinet reshuffle shortly.
“We promise all parties that the reshuffling of the government cabinet will begin soon,” he said, explaining that “calls for reform should not worsen the security and stability of the government.”
But Sadr has been pressuring Abadi to implement a wider reform package that would include replacing several ministers with apolitical technocrats, in a bid to eliminate patronage and corruption.
In one instance of the wide corruption that critics say is eating up Iraq, early this month auditors in the Iraqi parliament revealed that the defense ministry had spent $150 billion on weapons in the last decade but only a fraction of that had gone to buying weapons, with the rest gong missing.
Iraq’s defense ministry “is one of the most corrupt ministries,” the spokesperson for the parliamentary auditing committee, Adil Nuri, told Rudaw.
The auditing committee conducted an inquiry into three new arms deals of the defense ministry last month, according to Nuri. He said he found “that the ministry had signed $350 million worth of contracts with Eastern European countries but the inquiries showed that there has been a lot of corruption in the price and types of weapons.”
Sadr warns he will seek Iraqi PM’s impeachment unless reforms begin now