Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr: Iraq’s Shrewd Operator

Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr
Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. Photo Anmar Khalil

Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr made global headlines on 30 April 2016, when a speech he delivered criticizing government inaction and corruption incited protestors to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and enter the Iraqi parliament building.

Al-Sadr, a charismatic Shiite cleric whose often fiery speeches reflect a nationalist tendency, announced that he was waiting for a “a massive popular uprising and the greater popular revolution” and emphasized that “the people have two options: either to keep the sectarian apportionment in place or topple the government altogether”. Al-Sadr’s criticism was a response to parliament’s failure to convene for a vote to approve new ministers. In a matter of minutes, he had sent the political process in Iraq into an unprecedented tailspin.

Al-Sadr, who was 30 years old when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, was then unknown to the Arab and international media. However, he soon proved he had a broad Shiite base that could be quickly mobilized. He formed the largest Shiite militia to fight the US-led coalition forces, prompting former US president George W. Bush to declare him an enemy and ordering him to be captured or killed. “We cannot allow one person to change the course of an entire country,” Bush said. In 2008, Time selected al-Sadr as one of the world’s 100 most influential people and he has repeatedly been called a kingmaker in Iraq.

Al-Sadr comes from a prominent Iraqi Shiite family that has deep roots in the region. His father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, founded the prominent Sadrist Movement in the 1980s and was known among Shiites as the Vocal Hawzah: a religious cleric who is politically and socially active, as opposed to one who focuses solely on religious work. Al-Sadr senior also propagated the idea of localizing the Hawzah, that is that clerics and other leading figures in Iraq should be of Arabic descent (and not Iranian). He and two of his brothers were assassinated in 1999, allegedly by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Al-Sadr’s uncle, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, also a cleric and dissident, was killed in Baghdad in 1980. Al-Sadr’s cousin, the Iranian-Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr and founder of the Shiite Amal Movement, disappeared in Libya in 1978. The majority of the followers of the three – father, uncle and cousin – came from Iraq’s lower classes, a support base that Muqtada al-Sadr has since inherited. Al-Sadr’s father was revolutionary in his approach at the religious and social level. He forged strong ties with the country’s different tribes, in contrast to the Shiite clerics who were known to engage principally with the elite. Moreover, he called for a revival of Friday prayers, which had long been abandoned by Shiites, thereby increasing his direct contact with the public.

Militia Leader or Resistance Fighter?

Muqtada al-Sadr was one of the first Shiite leaders to oppose the US-led occupation, using his newspaper al-Hawzah al-Natiqah (Vocal Hawzah) as a mouthpiece. When the US ordered the newspaper closed, he sounded a call to arms against both coalition and Iraqi forces. He was also a key player in the 2006-2007 civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, which erupted after insurgents bombed and two revered Shiite shrines in Samarra. The Mahdi Army, which al-Sadr created in 2003 in response to the US invasion, was widely accused of murder and sectarian violence. Al-Sadr suspended the activities of the army in August 2007, after clashes in Karbala between Mahdi Army militias and forces affiliated with the (also Shiite) Badr Organisation left more than 50 people dead and approximately 300 others wounded. He subsequently formed al-Yawm al-Maw’ud (Brigade of Judgement Day) to fight the US troops.

In late 2007 or early 2008, al-Sadr went into self-imposed exile in Iran and did not return to Iraq until 2011, shortly after the Iraqi National Alliance, which included his Sadrist Trend party, won 70 out of 325 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections. At the urging of Iran, al-Sadr agreed to enter the coalition of Nuri al-Maliki, his sworn enemy, ensuring al-Maliki a second term as prime minister and his own party 32 seats in the new government.

With the imminent US military withdrawal, al-Sadr’s tone did not soften. He announced in August 2011 that US troops that remained in Iraq after the end of the year would be treated as an occupying force and would encounter “military resistance“. The US withdrew its last forces in December 2011, but left around 5,000 contractors to participate in the transitional process.

In June 2014, after the fall of the city of Mosul to the Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS), al-Sadr announced the formation of a new armed group called the Peace Brigades. A statement issued at the time said that the Peace Brigades would be allied with and aid government agencies in defending shrines, Sunni and Shiite mosques and churches. Al-Sadr stressed that he would not engage in guerilla warfare or run dirty militias that do not distinguish between terrorists and civilians. However, reports of the kidnapping by the Peace Brigades of more than 100 people from two tribes in Tikrit, and confirmation by the Iraqi police that al-Sadr’s military groups had burned 45 people in al-Baghdadi sub-district in February 2015, prompted him to freeze the activities of both the Peace Brigades and al-Yawm al-Maw’ud. Allegations continued that factions affiliated with al-Sadr were killing and burning civilians in restive areas of the country.

h3>Political Leader and Skillful Maneuverer

Muqtada al-Sadr openly opposed the US occupation through his newspaper al-Hawzah al-Natiqah. When the newspaper was shut down in 2004 and his followers were killed during demonstrations protesting against its closure, he switched to armed resistance through the Mahdi Army. He rejected the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the transitional government that did not include the Sadrist Trend. He also declared that the Transitional Administrative Law issued by the then civil administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer was “illegal”, claiming that it “diminishes the role of Islam” in the country.

Neither did al-Sadr participate in the National Assembly elections in early 2005, although it is believed that he implicitly backed the National Independent Cadres and Elites party that was closely linked with the Mahdi Army. Later in the same year, he condemned the US-vetted draft constitution for the articles related to federalism, yet he refused to call on his many supporters to vote no in the constitutional referendum. He did, however, encourage his followers to register their names in the electoral registers in preparation for the referendum, a move that was interpreted as an attempt by al-Sadr not to deviate from the Shiite consensus.

Sadrist Trend took part in Iraq’s first parliamentary elections in 2005 under the US occupation, and negotiated with partners in the Shiite coalition the number of seats it should have in the parliament. The party also participated in the 2010 parliamentary elections as part of the Iraqi National Alliance, which mainly consisted of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council. Although al-Sadr opposed al-Maliki’s second term, pressure from Iran forced him to accept al-Maliki’s premiership.

Sadrist Trend won big in return, securing 32 seats and seven ministerial portfolios in al-Maliki’s government. In other words, Sadrist Trend took part in all the electoral processes under the US occupation, despite al-Sadr’s opposition to the US and constant rejection of its presence and interference in Iraq’s future, an opposition that amounted to military confrontations on several occasions.

Moreover, al-Sadr’s relations with Iran have not always been amicable. At the beginning of the US occupation, Iran provided Sadrist Trend and the Mahdi Army with money and weapons. However, as the civil strife in Iraq ground on, Iran abandoned al-Sadr and allowed him to be dwarfed by other parties. That did not stop him from seeking Iran’s assistance between 2007 and 2011. From 2003, al-Sadr’s speeches gradually shifted from Islamic discourse to a type of nationalist discourse. He also issued several statements that were critical of Iranian interference in Iraq. In an interview with al-Jazeera in 2008, he addressed Sayyid Khamenei and said, “We have good relations with you and we meet ideologically, but political and military expansion in Iraq are not acceptable.” Al-Sadr added in the interview that “there are negative practices committed by the Republic of Iran in Iraq”. In 2012, al-Sadr published a letter on his official website in which he criticized al-Maliki and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. In the letter, he described Soleimani as “commander of the Quds Force inside and outside Iran”, and accused the two of “working to incite sectarian strife” in Iraq.

Shortly ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2014, in which al-Maliki was seeking a third term, al-Sadr again brought up Soleimani, calling him “the most powerful man in Iraq”. The statement was construed as criticism of Iran’s role in Iraq. There is no doubt that Iran’s support for al-Maliki in successive Iraqi governments was at the root of al-Sadr’s critique. None of this, however, stopped al-Sadr from retiring from politics (this lasted two years) and heading back to Iran.

What Does He Want?

A-Sadr is clearly keen to prove himself as a force to be reckoned with in the Iraqi political arena. Nevertheless, he has not built a long-term strategic alliance with any political players either inside or outside Iraq; he is close to Iran but a harsh critic of its policies in Iraq; he fiercely opposed the US occupation and its outputs, but he did not absent himself from any electoral process during the occupation; his militia has been implicated in sectarian killings and displacement, and he himself is accused of participating in the demographic change affecting the Sunnis in Iraq. This despite having stressed the need for national and religious cohesion between Sunnis and Shiites and appearing to have defended Sunni causes on several occasions. His most recent allies are civilian demonstrators, including liberals and secularists, who have taken to the streets to demand better services and fight corruption and the sectarian apportionment system in the country.
What remains unclear is whether al-Sadr intends to rule Iraq from Baghdad or from his home in Najaf. Is he ready to sacrifice his life if necessary to defend his goals and beliefs, as his father and uncle did before him?

user placeholder
written by
All Fanack articles