‘If he says die, we die’: Al-Sadr loyalists jubilant at Iraq poll triumph

Followers of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, on May 14, 2018. Al-Sadr is the current front-runner in national elections. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Updated 17 May 2018
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‘If he says die, we die’: Al-Sadr loyalists jubilant at Iraq poll triumph

  • If, as expected, the Muqtada Al-Sadr's political bloc comes out on top, it will mark an extraordinary transformation for a man best known for his ferocious opposition to the US occupation.
  • The vote 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.

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.”


Court doubles sentence of Israeli policeman who killed Palestinian

Updated 19 August 2018
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Court doubles sentence of Israeli policeman who killed Palestinian

JERUSALEM: Israel’s top court on Sunday doubled the prison sentence of a police officer who shot dead a Palestinian teenager in 2014, an incident documented by video footage.
The supreme court ruling said the original nine-month prison term handed to Ben Deri by the Jerusalem district court earlier this year did not sufficiently reflect the severity of his actions.
Deri had admitted to fatally shooting Nadeem Nuwarah, 17, on May 15, 2014 during a day of clashes in Beitunia, south of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters.
The clashes were on the anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when more than 700,000 fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Footage recorded by US broadcaster CNN captured a group of five or six border police officers in the area, one of whom could be seen firing at the time when the youth was hit.
Some five minutes earlier, Nuwarah was seen on other CNN footage throwing stones at Israeli forces.
But when Deri shot him, he was not engaged in any such action, simply walking in the general direction of Deri’s force with his hands to his sides, the Sunday decision noted.
Deri had said during his trial he had mistakenly introduced live ammunition into his M-16 instead of rubber bullets.
But even the firing of rubber bullets was not justified at that point, the court said.
The April district court sentencing had “not sufficiently given expression to the value of the human life severed by Deri,” Sunday’s ruling read.
“The prison term sentenced by the district court is not close in expressing the severity of such an intentional deed, combined with the severe negligence that caused the deceased’s death,” supreme court justice Noam Solberg wrote in his decision, supported by another judge and opposed by one.
Right-wing legal aid organization Honenu, which represented Deri, said the supreme court’s ruling could “jeopardize the motivation and operational abilities of our soldiers.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that while Deri’s actions might have been wrong, “that doesn’t mean his punishment should be increased.”