The reinvention of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s new face of reform
Once hated by the US and tied to Iran, the Shia cleric’s bloc won the most votes in elections
Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr: did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister – but made clear whom he considers natural political allies. Photograph: Karim Kadim/AP
Iraqis are still haunted by memories of black-clad death squads roaming Baghdad neighbourhoods a decade ago, cleansing them of Sunnis as the country was convulsed by sectarian violence. Many of the mass killings in the capital were done in the name of Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric best remembered by Americans for fiery sermons declaring it a holy duty among his Shia faithful to attack US forces.
The militia he led was armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, and al-Sadr cultivated a strong alliance with leaders in Tehran, who were eager to supplant the US presence in Iraq and play the dominant role in shaping the country’s future.
Now, the man once demonised by the United States as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in Iraq has come out as the surprise winner of this month’s tight elections, after a startling reinvention into a populist, anti-corruption campaigner whose “Iraq First” message appealed to voters across sectarian divides.
The results have Washington – and Tehran – on edge, as officials in both countries seek to influence what is expected to be a complex and drawn-out battle behind the scenes to build a coalition government. Al-Sadr’s bloc won 54 seats – the most of any group, but still far short of a majority in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament.
Even before final results were announced early on Saturday, al-Sadr – who did not run as a candidate and has ruled himself out as prime minister – had made clear whom he considers natural political allies. At the top of his list is prime minister Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shia leader who has been America’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State group and whose political bloc finished third in the vote.
Pointedly absent from al-Sadr’s list of potential partners: pro-Iranian blocs, as he has insistently distanced himself from his former patrons in Iran, whose meddling he has come to see as a destabilising force in Iraq’s politics.
Early Sunday morning, the prime minister met with al-Sadr in Baghdad. They discussed forming a government, and aides from both sides said the men saw eye to eye on prioritising the fight against corruption. While al-Sadr has all the momentum going into negotiations over the governing coalition, there is no guarantee his bloc will be in power. And it is too early to tell what the election may mean for Iraqi stability or US national security goals.
But the upset has clearly weakened the sectarian foundation of Iraq’s political system – and helped transform al-Sadr’s image from the paragon of a militant Shia into an unexpected symbol of reform and Iraqi nationalism. As the head of the Sairoon Alliance for Reform, al-Sadr presides over an unlikely alliance that pairs his pious, largely working-class Shia base with Sunni business leaders, liberals and Iraqis looking for relief from the country’s long-simmering economic crisis.
For those joining the alliance, it was important to be convinced that al-Sadr’s shift from Shia firebrand to Iraqi patriot was sincere, and likely to last. Late last year, the cleric began reaching out to groups outside his base with an offer to form a new political movement, and the country’s embattled leftists and secularists – once his staunch enemies – faced a moment of reckoning.
They remembered how a rogue Sharia court he had established passed sentences on fellow Shias deemed too submissive toward the US occupation of Iraq. And they recalled the countless Iraqis killed in battles between the country’s security forces and al-Sadr’s militia.
But a ragtag group of communists, social democrats and anarchists have come to embrace al-Sadr as a symbol of the reform they have championed for years – an image that the cleric has burnished, seeing it as the best path to political power.
“Let me be honest: We had a lot of apprehensions, a lot of suspicions,” said Raad Fahmi, a leader of Iraq’s Communist Party, which is part of al-Sadr’s alliance. “But actions speak louder than words. He’s not the same Muqtada al-Sadr.”
Isis changes everything
The change in al-Sadr was prompted by the political and security crisis set off by the Islamic State group’s takeover of large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, according to Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, al-Sadr’s spokesman. The ensuing violence led to an overwhelming shift in the public mood: a feeling that sectarianism was at the root of much of the country’s suffering.
Al-Sadr, the scion of an eminent clerical family, has portrayed his changed political philosophy in starkly pragmatic terms. In his only extensive interview before the elections, given to his own television channel, al-Sadr put forth a manifesto largely adopted from his new secularist allies. He said his goals were to put professionals – not partisan loyalists – into positions of power as a way to build national institutions that serve the people instead of political insiders.
“We have tried the Islamists and they failed terribly,” al-Sadr said, a rebuke that his aides said included his own movement. “So let us try another way in which the independent technocrat or independent Islamist or secular technocrat, whoever is best for the job, takes over a ministry and makes it productive. We should try that.”
Whether al-Sadr can succeed with his reform agenda is an open question, said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East programme, as building a majority coalition will mean partnering with some of the established faces that voters expressed dissatisfaction with at the polls. Those other politicians “have much to lose from an effort to curb corruption”, Hiltermann said.
In addition to this new domestic philosophy, al-Sadr (45) has honed an “Iraq First” foreign policy. He has expanded his once singular anti-US focus to include diatribes against Iran. He also has built bridges with close American allies in the Arab world, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
The al-Sadr of today, his aides say, is remarkably different from the one President George W Bush called America’s greatest enemy in Iraq, on par with al-Qaeda. Diplomats from several western countries, including ones whose coalition troops were killed by al-Sadr’s militia, have met with him and say they are looking for ways to work with the newly influential leader. They are ready to draw the curtain on past events, they said, in hopes of finding common ground over containing Iran’s influence in Iraq.
But many Iraqis are not convinced that his new stance is here to stay. Among them are several senior commanders in the Iraqi security forces who are trying to build a centralised chain of command at the expense of sectarian militias. Those militias have enhanced their standing because of their role in helping defeat Islamic State, but continue to have a reputation for lawlessness.
In the week since the election, several senior political rivals of Sairoon have privately criticised al-Sadr, citing his militia’s long record of violence. None would speak publicly, however, given the delicate political jockeying under way to build a coalition government.
The broader Sunni population remains wary of al-Sadr. But many Sunnis did give their vote to al-Abadi’s bloc, so a governing coalition that includes both sides would represent a significant bridging of the country’s sectarian divide.
The first time many Iraqis heard the name Muqtada al-Sadr was soon after the Americans seized control of Baghdad in 2003. In the post-occupation chaos, al-Sadr emerged as a type of Robin Hood, deploying his recently formed militia to distribute food to the poor and defend Shias against what many came to view as acts of US aggression.
Amid this ferment, a leading Iraqi cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was killed in the Shia holy city of Najaf, shocking millions of followers. Many within the Shia clerical orders believed al-Sadr had ordered the killing to settle an old family feud.
The Americans secured an arrest warrant for al-Sadr, but found no one in the new Shia political leadership willing to support his detention, according to Iraqi and US officials. Al-Sadr has denied any wrongdoing. US officials came to believe that their reluctance to confront al-Sadr reflected a tacit acceptance of the sectarian warfare waged by his militia against Iraqi Sunnis.
Over time, respect for al-Sadr’s militia among many Iraqis turned to revulsion. Units became known for Mafia-style protection rackets, kidnappings and extortion, even in Shia neighbourhoods. A growing backlash prompted al-Sadr to leave for Iran in 2007.
In 2008, while al-Sadr was still in Iran, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki took decisive action. He ordered the Iraqi army to the city of Basra to stem militia violence there. An intense urban battle killed 215 militia members and wounded 600. The blow sidelined al-Sadr for a time. He ordered his militia into hibernation, but pointedly never had his men disarm.
By 2012, al-Sadr, who had returned from Iran, had regained enough influence to spearhead a vote of no confidence against al-Maliki, a manoeuvre that spun Iraq into a new crisis.
Then in 2014, another national crisis erupted: a security collapse as Islamic State took over one-third of the country. Al-Sadr called his militia back to the front lines, but this time as a partner of the diverse Iraqi security forces and the US-led coalition fighting the extremists. He also turned his attention to a small protest movement organised by leftists and secularists in the capital.
The demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Baghdad were on behalf of civil servants and pensioners, and against growing economic inequality and the lack of essentials like electricity and health care.
The protesters were mostly ignored by Iraq’s political establishment, but al-Sadr viewed their demands as an echo of the plaintive calls of his own base for better jobs and government services. So he looked to build relationships with these groups, despite their diametrically different worldviews.
Al-Sadr’s closest aide, Dhia’a Assadi, called the overtures sincere and logical. “His eminence has always been a voice for the poor,” Assadi said. “He saw that it was to the benefit for all Iraqis for those who share principles to come together.”
For the last two years, supporters of al-Sadr have banded together with communists, intellectuals and community activists in protest rallies, efforts that have built mutual respect. Last autumn, the Communist Party leadership visited al-Sadr at his headquarters in Najaf, the home of Iraq’s clerical establishment. Fahmi, one of the Communist leaders, said several of his comrades were initially cool to the idea of joining forces with someone perceived to have so much blood on his hands.
In the end, most members accepted that if radical political change was going to work in Iraq, it needed a popular leader to bring the masses on board. “So what if Muqtada al-Sadr is now the face of reform?” Fahmi said. “What should I care as long as the reforms happen? He’s a man who can motivate millions.” “If our society improves because of him,” he added, “I’ll be the first one to congratulate him.” – New York Times