Muqtada al Sadr is the most important and well-known religious in Iraq and abroad. She is a Shiite, she is 48, she has been at the center of Iraqi events for a couple of decades and in the course of her life she has been a bit of everything: from the head of a violent militia that killed Americans in Baghdad, to a populist figure of reference for the Shia working class, a powerful nationalist leader capable of controlling large chunks of the Iraqi state.
However, Al Sadr has not only been relevant in the past. It is very likely that his faction, the Sadrist Movement, will become the most voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday, and that the coalition of which the Movement is a part, Sairoon, will emerge as the most decisive and influential for the formation of the next Iraqi government.
Sunday elections are early elections. They had been convened after the major anti-government protests that had taken place in several Iraqi cities between October and November 2019, and which had led, among other things, to the resignation of the previous prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and the subsequent appointment of the current, Mustafa al Kadhimi. These are the sixth elections since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime and introduced a new political system that has since always guaranteed power to the Shiites, who are the majority in Iraq.
2003 was also the year in which Muqtada al Sadr became known to the world, due to the countless attacks carried out by his militia, the Mahdi Army, against the US military occupying Iraq. At that time al Sadr had very close ties with Iran, a country also with a Shiite majority and an enemy of the United States since the late 1970s.
Muqtada al Sadr supporters chanting anti-American slogans and celebrating the withdrawal of US soldiers from Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood on February 9, 2012 (AP Photo / Khalid Mohammed)
The Mahdi army killed thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi government forces and participated in some of the most terrible sectarian violence (killings, torture, kidnappings) against Sunnis during the 2000s. Its base was in Sadr City, a very poor and overwhelmingly Shiite eastern district of Baghdad, named after the fall of Hussein in honor of Sadr’s family. Indeed, even before those years, Sadr was well known in Iraq. He came from a well-known and important Shiite family: a relative of his, the great Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Sadr, was killed by the Hussein regime in 1980, as well as his father and two brothers, who were killed in 1999 in the Iraqi city. by Najaf.
For years, therefore, Sadr was inevitably associated with Iran, and considered a terrorist by the United States. But over time his position changed.
The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, together with Muqtada al Sadr, in Tehran, Iran on 10 September 2019 (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
In the war that Iraq fought against ISIS, starting in 2014, Sadr changed the name of his militia, which had suffered a severe repression several years earlier ordered by the then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki: from the Mahdi Army to the Peace Brigades. The Brigades participated in the war against the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army, but unlike many other Shiite militias engaged in the conflict they received neither large funding nor a large number of weapons from Iran, and maintained an independent chain of command.
As happened to the other Shiite militias that fought against ISIS, the Peace Brigades were able to take advantage of the conflict and the subsequent defeat of the Islamic State. The paramilitary groups managed to gain more and more space in Iraqi politics: they were effectively integrated into the national army and various leaders began to acquire more and more political power. Sadr was one of them.
The Peace Brigades in Najaf, Iraq, June 2014 (AP Photo / Jaber al-Helo)
Sadr’s intention to change his image, and at least publicly distance himself from Iran, was clearly seen in July 2017, when he made a historic trip to Saudi Arabia (Iran’s great enemy). There he met the powerful prince Mohammed bin Salman, who still governs his country with few opponents: the photo of the two together ended up on the front pages of many local newspapers.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, left, together with Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In 2018, Sadr ran for elections within the Sairoon coalition, presenting himself as a populist leader with the aim of defeating corruption, one of the biggest and apparently unsolvable problems of the Iraqi state. He introduced himself by talking about the importance of reducing the influence of foreign countries in national politics, therefore both the United States and Iran, both allies of the Iraqi government. And it presented itself as the only openly anti-Iran Shiite coalition. His coalition, Sairoon, was the most voted: it won 54 seats out of 329, ahead of Fatah di Amiri (pro-Iranian, 48 seats) and the party of former prime minister Haider al Abadi (sided with both the Americans and the ‘Iran, 42 seats).
In recent years, Sadr’s influence in Iraqi politics has grown even more.
Today the Sadrists can count on a massive presence within the government and public administration. According to the American think tank Chatham House, the Sadrists and their allies occupy a large part of the intermediate positions, those that allow them to divert public money and use it for the needs of the Movement. To make sure this flow of money continues, he wrote the Washington Post, the Sadrists have also supported the appointment of ministers without party affiliations, who in fact do not exercise much power and have less authority than the officials under them.
The Sadrist Movement “has come to silently dominate the state apparatus,” he wrote Reuters, referring to the ministries of the interior, defense, communications, agencies dealing with oil, electricity and transport, and also the central bank of Iraq. According to the investigation by Reuters, Sadr would have managed to exploit the weakness in the Iraqi government after the resignation of Prime Minister Mahdi in November 2019 and after the death of the powerful Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, who was killed two months later in Baghdad by an American drone.
A photo of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani (AP Photo / Hassan Ammar)
Sadr has also finally managed to “normalize” his image in front of Western governments. Lahib Higel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told al Washington Post that «Sadr tried to sell himself as a viable option [agli occhi di americani ed europei], as well as central to Iraqi politics ». This normalization did not come only from the distancing from Iran, or from the meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
In recent months, Sadr has taken more moderate positions than other Shiite parties in the debate on the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq: in essence he said he was opposed to the presence of foreign troops in the country, but at the same time he left open the possibility of pursue other collaboration, including the training of Iraqi soldiers, the supply of weapons and the management of airspace.
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In Sunday’s elections, the Sadrist Movement aspires to obtain enough consensus to allow it to directly influence the choice of the next prime minister. Several Iraqi politicians think that today it is not possible to decide a head of government without the consent of the Sadrists, and the current prime minister, Kadhimi, is of the same opinion.
The results of the vote will most likely not lead to the rapid formation of a new government. The Iraqi political system and the country’s electoral law guarantee a wide representation in parliament, but also a great fragmentation. Negotiations between parties could take a long time and it is difficult to imagine what could happen. It is not even clear whether the Sadrist Movement will maintain its support for Kadhimi and will support the idea of his second term: much will depend on the outcome of the elections, but also on what other parties decide, especially the pro-Iranian ones and political groups. Kurds.