BAGHDAD, IRAQ: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the volatile Shiite cleric who once sent his supporters into battle against US troops, has emerged as the unlikely kingmaker in Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
With his black turban, short grey beard and heavyset build, Sadr’s imposing presence looms over Baghdad literally and metaphorically as the final votes from this week’s poll are counted and campaign posters litter the streets.
Full results are due to be announced later on Thursday and if, as expected, the political bloc led by the 44-year-old comes out on top, it will mark an extraordinary transformation for a man best known for his ferocious opposition to the US occupation.
While Al-Sadr remains inextricably linked with his violent past, the steadfast loyalty of his supporters has enabled him to benefit from the low turnout that hindered his rivals in Saturday’s election.
For his legions of devoted admirers, the cleric’s reputation for independence and his status as the scion of one of Iraq’s most notable Shiite families are more important than his policies.
Ahmad Al-Anbaki, a 28-year-old Al-Sadr supporter, told Arab News: “We are Sadr’s followers. We do what he says without arguing or thinking.
“If he says die, we will die for him. If he says fight, we will fight under his banner. And if he says be peaceful, we will be peaceful. Al-Sadr’s orders are non-negotiable.”
With 92 percent of the votes already counted in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Sadr’s Sairoon alliance is on course to gain dozens of seats in the country’s 329-seat Parliament.
The cleric owes much of his strength to the legacy of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, a vocal opponent of former President Saddam Hussein, who was assassinated with two of his sons in 1999.
Building on his father’s reputation as a defender of the poor, the young Al-Sadr emerged on Iraq’s political scene after the 2003 US-led invasion.
His militia, the Mehdi army, fought pitched battles against American troops in Baghdad’s slums and the holy city of Najaf. It also struck fear into many Sunni Iraqis and was accused of carrying out kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings.
But when Al-Sadr began to distance himself from Iran, he found himself sidelined by fellow Shiite politicians more closely aligned with Tehran and his influence dwindled. He has participated in previous elections with limited success.
Saturday’s vote, however, could leave him with a key role in forming the largest parliamentary bloc, which has the right to nominate Iraq’s prime minister and form a government.
Abdulwahid Tuama, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News: “Sadr’s strength lies in the blind obedience of his followers. They are ready to follow him anywhere and do whatever he asks them to do without discussions.”
The Sairoon alliance includes Iraq’s Communist Party and is anti-Iranian but also anti-American, while Al-Sadr portrays himself as a nationalist keen to bridge the sectarian divisions of old.
Voter turnout was just 44.52 percent on Saturday, down 15 percent from the previous parliamentary election in 2014.
Second place in the election seems set to go to the Iranian-backed Al-Fattah alliance, which is supported by armed Shiite factions. Another grouping, the Al-Nassir coalition of current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, is likely to come third.
Al-Sadr’s supporters, meanwhile, are preparing to celebrate his extraordinary victory.
“I completely trust him,” Haider Al-Fraidawi, a 40-year-old voter, told Arab News. “I believe he is able to decide the best for this nation.”