Cometh the hour, cometh Muqtada Al-Sadr
Mass public gatherings have been rare in Iraq since security forces and militia groups stifled anti-government protests last year and amid regular government curfews to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, thousands hit the streets last week to denounce Israeli military action in Gaza despite government calls for Iraqis to stay at home during the extended Eid break. Such a gathering en masse, flouting government restrictions, and anti-imperialist in its sentiment, could have come at the behest of only one man — Muqtada Al-Sadr.
Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi political life has been a constantly revolving door. Few have made any impact, fewer still have remained politically relevant after circumstances have pushed them out. Sadr, however, has done the complete opposite. Having assumed the religious leadership of his forebears, he became an important figure in the Iraqi resistance to the invasion, then again to thwart the rise of Daesh, and today is the only Shiite leader with strong relations across the Arab world, and now it would seem may be warming to America. With successive Iraqi governments lacking the political support to improve the lives of Iraqis and to break free from the influence of Iran, Sadr’s role as kingmaker continues to grow, and with elections on the horizon and a Saudi-Iranian peace deal mooted, his political hour may have come.
The Sadr name had been traditionally associated with almsgiving, and Muqtada Al-Sadr’s strongest support still comes from the class of dispossessed Shiites, as in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. To many Iraqis he is a powerful symbol of resistance to foreign occupation against a background of venal and entirely interchangeable post-invasion political figures who often led rather dubious lives in exile.
Iraqi mediators have been working behind the scenes to try to bring about a diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Given Sadr’s critical position in the Iraqi political fabric, and indeed his relations on both sides, his anti-Iranian stance in Iraq could be central to agree
Zaid M. Belbagi
A man of contradictions, he has been vocal about Iran’s undue influence in Iraq, yet at moments of great personal insecurity he has sought refuge in the city of Qom. His clerical credentials have always been dubious given his reticence to complete the studies necessary to raise him to the station of ayatollah. Leading million strong anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has not stopped him from being at the forefront of South Korean conglomerate Daewoo’s successful bid to develop the Iraqi port of Faw. The leader whose militia acted as death squads targeting Sunni civilians surprised many when he visited the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Now, withthe remaining 2,500 American troops in Iraq shortly on their way home, the specter of Iran filling the void is all too great and Sadr finds himself in an opportune position once more.
If elections in Iraq take place as scheduled in October, there will be fierce competition between state forces and nonstate actors, particularly Iranian militias. With Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi keen to build bridges, he is aware that without the support of leaders such as Sadr, his government could be held to ransom by armed militia backed by Iran, and large scale protests. For many Iraqi political forces and parties, only Sadr, not the state, has the capability of standing up to nonstate actors. However, the June election in Iran will simultaneously allow the regime to switch gears and seek to come to terms with the Biden administration. Whether judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi or former parliament speaker Ali Larijani is elected president, peace with the P5+1 will be a precursor to coming to terms with America’s Gulf allies. Iraqi mediators have been working behind the scenes to try to bring about a diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Given Sadr’s critical position in the Iraqi political fabric, and indeed his relations on both sides, his anti-Iranian stance in Iraq could be central to agreeing to a peace that would limit Iran’s influence in the Arab world.
For many in Tehran today, the opportunity to be a regional economic power far outweighs the appeal of exporting the 1979 revolution. There is no doubt that rapprochement would be to the benefit of both sides. There are doubts, however, about Sadr’s reliability, and his ability to shift on key issues makes him a troublesome ally. Though he is for many the spiritual father of all armed Iraqi militias, his problematic relationship with Iran has put him in the complex position of “no war and no peace” — a position which, in true Sadr style, could change at any time. Peace in Iraq and the wider region will no doubt be dependent upon some movement from previously entrenched positions. What Iraq’s new Arab allies must be aware of is how much movement Sadr is politically capable of, given the colorful career of a man who is not yet 50.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid