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Al-Sadr’s Return to Iraqi Politics: Implications and Ramifications

Al-Sadr's return to Iraqi politics signals a shift in Iraq's equilibrium, challenging the dominance of factions aligned with Iran's interests.

Al-Sadr's Return to Politics
Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Qassem al-KAABI / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Less than two years after announcing his withdrawal from Iraq’s political arena and boycotting the local elections in late 2023, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement in Iraq, has made a return to the forefront of Iraqi politics.

In April 2024, al-Sadr announced the establishment of the “Shiite National Movement,” intended to serve as the political platform for the Sadrists moving forward.

The sudden reappearance of al-Sadr warrants careful examination, particularly concerning its impact on Iraq’s internal political dynamics.

Following al-Sadr‘s retreat from politics in 2022 and the subsequent resignation of his parliamentary deputies – representing the largest bloc in Parliament – Iraq’s political landscape came under the dominance of factions aligned with the “Coordination Framework,” closely associated with Iran.

Consequently, Iranian-affiliated groups gained substantial control over Shiite representation in Iraqi politics, effectively influencing executive decisions through alliances with Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Many observers speculate that al-Sadr’s resurgence will serve to restore Iraq’s political equilibrium, potentially curtailing Iranian influence over the local Shiite sphere.

Historically, until 2022, al-Sadr posed as the most formidable Shiite competitor to political entities aligned with Tehran’s regional agenda.

However, there are concerns regarding the potential resurgence of political paralysis and institutional vacuums reminiscent of the period preceding al-Sadr’s retirement and the resignation of his deputies.

These concerns stem from apprehensions about renewed political maneuvering and clashes between the Sadrists and their adversaries, potentially destabilizing Iraq’s constitutional institutions.

Circumstances Surrounding Al-Sadr’s Retirement in 2022

To thoroughly analyze Muqtada al-Sadr’s resurgence in Iraqi political life today, it’s important to delve into the circumstances surrounding his retirement in 2022, tracing the developments leading up to the present reality.

In the backdrop of Iraq’s early parliamentary elections in October 2021, the Sadrist movement emerged triumphant, securing the largest parliamentary bloc with 73 seats out of 329. The remaining seats were divided among various Shiite factions with allegiance to Iran, as well as blocs representing Sunni and Kurdish interests.

Notably, the “Al-Fatah Alliance” bloc, closely aligned with Tehran and comprising the political arm of the Popular Mobilization Forces militias, garnered only 17 seats – a significant setback for Iran and a clear victory for the Sadrists.

Despite their electoral success, the Sadrists encountered obstacles in steering the formation of a new government or the election of a president, though they had forged a political coalition with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance.

Al-Sadr’s adversaries purposefully obstructed parliamentary sessions in order to prevent executive restructuring (which needed a two-thirds quorum), rendering the Sadrists and their allies incapable of exercising their legitimate authority, even with a parliamentary majority.

However, the challenges facing al-Sadr and his coalition extended beyond parliamentary quorum issues. Concurrently, Iran-backed factions wield significant influence over the country’s security apparatus, primarily through the Popular Mobilization Forces militias, which enjoy legal status and substantial funding from Iraqi public coffers.

Recognizing the formidable obstacles to assuming executive power without consensus among Shiite factions, al-Sadr grasped the complexity of navigating Iraq’s political landscape.

Repeated Retirement Strategy

After nine months of political stalemate, marked by various maneuvers and initiatives, the Sadrist movement announced its withdrawal from the Iraqi parliament in June 2022, yielding the stage to its Shiite rivals.

Consequently, the “Coordination Framework,” comprising Shiite factions aligned with Tehran, emerged as the largest parliamentary bloc, wielding significant influence in government formation and presidential elections.

Shortly thereafter, al-Sadr made a poignant announcement to his supporters: a complete withdrawal from the political arena and a vow to abstain from future elections.

However, beyond the emotional rhetoric, it became apparent that al-Sadr’s decision was merely another tactical maneuver. To put it plainly, al-Sadr’s commitment to permanently stepping away from politics seemed dubious.

Prior to this announcement, al-Sadr had declared his retirement from political engagement eight times since 2013, only to re-enter the fray each time, bolstering his popularity and political clout. Thus, his withdrawal appeared to be a strategic ploy to evade certain responsibilities during critical junctures, only to resurface when politically advantageous.

Viewed through this lens, speculations suggesting that al-Sadr sought to shift blame onto his adversaries may hold merit. By distancing himself from the process, he aimed to deflect accountability for the disruptions hindering the formation of the executive branch onto his rivals.

Al-Sadr likely recognized the challenges that Tehran’s allies would face in effectively managing domestic affairs if they assumed power – a realization that prompted his retreat from the spotlight, allowing others to shoulder the burden of potential failure alone.

The Benefits of Retirement and the Decision to Return to Political Life

Over the past two years of his retirement, much of al-Sadr’s predictions have come to pass.

Since late 2022, Iraq has grappled with a severe monetary crisis due to Tehran’s allies gaining control over political decisions and governance mechanisms. This crisis persists due to American restrictions on currency transfers, transforming Iraq’s financial system into a high-risk environment in the eyes of the Western world.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has exploited the Iraqi market to evade sanctions with increasing ease.

Simultaneously, the Iraqi general budget has shouldered the mounting expense of financing the Popular Mobilization Forces, which soared from $2.16 billion in 2021 to over $2.6 billion in 2023.

This increase coincided with numerous corruption scandals involving the group’s leaders, ranging from inflating membership numbers to secure more funds for competing factions to diverting money toward non-security-related religious and political activities.

Beyond financial woes, the Iraqi government’s inept handling of social and economic crises has led to widespread discontent. The “Coordination Framework,” grappling with setbacks and disappointment, has seen its constituent parties’ popularity plummet. This failure can be directly attributed to the coalition’s inherent shortcomings.

In contrast, al-Sadr has bided his time, waiting for the opportune moment to reenter the political arena and capitalize on the groundwork laid during his retirement. His return today marks the culmination of efforts initiated since 2022, when he withdrew from active political engagement.

The Timing and Form of the Return to the Political Scene

Iraq is expected to hold its next parliamentary elections in 2025, although the Iraqi authorities have yet to finalize the date.

This suggests that al-Sadr strategically timed his return to the political arena, aiming to prepare for the forthcoming elections and rally support from the populace, positioning himself against the “Coordination Framework.” It is evident that al-Sadr is banking on garnering a larger popular base than in previous elections, given the perceived inadequacies of his competitors in governance during his hiatus.

Stylistically, al-Sadr opted for the title “National Shiite Movement” for his movement upon his return, departing from the traditional “Sadrist Movement” moniker. This shift signals al-Sadr’s intention to broaden his political influence within the Iraqi Shiite community, transcending familial affiliations historically tied to the al-Sadr leadership, and reaching out to new social demographics.

The emphasis on the movement’s sectarian aspect appears primarily as a rhetorical strategy to outmaneuver Shiite rivals vying for sect leadership.

However, the chosen title of the new movement does not suggest a significant focus on attracting non-Shiite audiences. This indicates that al-Sadr is likely to replicate his previous strategy of securing a robust Shiite support base, before forming a broader coalition post-election, inclusive of Sunni and Kurdish allies beyond his core list.

Expected Transformations in the Iraqi Political Scene

Anticipated shifts are on the horizon, chiefly manifesting in the upcoming 2025 parliamentary elections, where a significant surge in competition is expected. Forecasts suggest that the Sadrist movement will strive to bolster its presence within the Iraqi Parliament.

Their aim is to attain a level of representation that, in conjunction with Sunni and Kurdish allies, ensures the requisite quorum for sessions to elect the president of the republic or bestow confidence upon the government.

Following the elections, it is inevitable that al-Sadr will engage in negotiations with emerging forces, likely to garner approximately 60 additional seats, thereby altering the local political landscape significantly.

Numerous analyses posit that al-Sadr may encounter challenges in circumventing the influence of the “Coordination Framework” or in excluding their involvement in the subsequent government, even if he secures a majority substantial enough to ensure parliamentary session quorums.

This hypothesis gains credence considering the sway of Popular Mobilization Forces militias over Iraq’s security landscape. Nonetheless, the mere possession of a parliamentary majority by al-Sadr’s alliance grants them significant negotiation leverage to enforce a consensual agreement with the “Coordination Framework.”

Furthermore, al-Sadr’s resurgence will offer solace to Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish demographics. The prevailing sectarian consensual system necessitated their participation in governance alongside the “Coordination Framework.”

Yet, in recent years, these groups have endured the dominance of the “Coordination Framework” in national decision-making, owing to the absence of an alternative Shiite partner in government or Parliament.

It’s widely recognized that these groups harbor concerns regarding Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, hence they welcome al-Sadr’s return as a key counterbalance to Tehran’s Iraqi proxies.

On the regional stage, particularly in its relations with neighboring Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, al-Sadr’s reemergence will be viewed as a positive development irrespective of election outcomes.

Diminishing Iran’s sway within Iraq, or competing with it on that front, assuages the fears of Iraq’s Arab neighbors regarding the potential exploitation of Iraqi territory as a forward Iranian outpost. Al-Sadr prioritizes deepening Iraq’s ties with its Arab neighbors to lessen its economic reliance on Iran.

Consequently, all eyes are on the forthcoming elections to gauge the current Sadrist landscape in Iraq and assess the ramifications of al-Sadr’s return to the political arena. These elections will also elucidate whether al-Sadr’s strategic hiatus from politics yielded the anticipated surge in popularity.

However, apprehensions linger regarding the prospect of a renewed constitutional vacuum in the presidency and the government, akin to the events of 2021, should any competing faction fail to broker an alliance ensuring parliamentary session quorums.

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