For years after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had an outsized influence on the country’s politics: he was able to mobilize the Shi’ite masses in a way few other Iraqi leaders could match, his followers created one of the most powerful militias during Iraq’s civil war, and he played kingmaker in the selection of prime ministers.
But after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in late 2011, Sadr went into a self-imposed seclusion from politics, even as his supporters continued to run for parliament and to control several key ministries. Sadr was waiting on the sidelines for his opportunity to play the savior of Iraq’s Shi’ites. Today, Sadr is making a comeback — this time positioning himself as an Iraqi nationalist who can both fight Islamic State and stand up to Iran’s growing influence over Iraq, especially through its support of Shi’ite militias. On April 30, after months of protests over political reforms, hundreds of Sadr supporters stormed Parliament in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. The protesters withdrew after 24 hours, but Sadr has threatened another mass protest on May 6.
As Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government tries to retake territory from Islamic State militants and to cope with the loss of revenue caused by the global collapse in oil prices, the country faces a new danger: an intra-Shi’ite conflict among factions competing for power. While most attention has been focused on the struggle between the weak Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his Shi’ite competitors — including his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki — the once-renegade Sadr has once again taken center stage.
While Sadr is trying to cast himself as a populist and reformer, he has a bloody history in Iraq. His paramilitary force, the Mahdi Army, led a Shi’ite rebellion against American troops in Iraq starting in 2004, and it carried out kidnappings, assassinations and an ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunnis during the subsequent civil war.
In February, Sadr instigated a mass protest campaign in Baghdad aimed at ending political corruption and financial mismanagement. In scenes reminiscent of uprisings in other Arab capitals, Sadr brought tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets of Baghdad. The cleric demanded that Abadi follow through on his promises to form a new government and impose political reforms — eliminating the three posts of vice president, cutting government spending and removing sectarian quotas in political appointments — that had stalled since last summer. Sadr did not call for Abadi’s ouster, but instead framed his protests as an effort to help the prime minister consolidate support.
On March 31, Abadi announced a new cabinet made up of technocrats, most of them unaffiliated with the powerful political parties that divvied up patronage jobs and government contracts. Sadr declared victory, called off his protests in the center of the capital and returned to his home in the southern city of Najaf. But since then, Shi’ite parties forced several of the proposed ministers to withdraw their candidacies and pressured Abadi to replace them with political operatives. Iraq’s parliament also failed to approve the new cabinet, setting off a new round of protests led by Sadr, who is now threatening to oust the weakened Abadi and to call for early parliamentary elections.
The months-long political paralysis is diverting the attention of Iraqi leaders from the fight against Islamic State. Iraqi military officials have been working with American counterparts to prepare a major operation to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In June 2014, Islamic State militants, backed by Sunni tribal fighters, captured Mosul and announced that they would march on to Baghdad and the southern Shi’ite heartland of Karbala and Najaf.
After the takeover of Mosul, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, issued a call to arms, urging all able-bodied Iraqi men to join the security forces. Within weeks, tens of thousands of Shi’ite volunteers signed up to join the Iraqi military or one of a growing number of Shi’ite militias — two forces that became difficult to distinguish in the fight against Islamic State. With Sistani’s appeal and the intervention of Iran, which armed and helped organize the Shiite militias, Iraqis began to turn the tide against the jihadists.
But the effort to retake Mosul has stalled, due to the political bickering and because Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders have not shown a willingness to share power with the beleaguered Sunni minority. Since he reemerged this year, Sadr has tried to portray himself as an agent of political reform who can also make a nationalist appeal to Iraq’s Sunnis. But his overtures to Sunnis failed to generate support in that community.
“Today I am among you to say, frankly and bravely, that the government has left its people struggling,” Sadr told his supporters at a rally in late February, “against death, fear, hunger, unemployment, occupation, a struggling economy, a security crisis, poor services and a major political crisis.”
The 42-year-old Sadr does not have the religious credentials of Sistani or other senior clerics, but he is the son of a revered ayatollah and he has broad support among the Shi’ite masses. Sadr has emerged once again as the bad boy of Najaf, who challenges the religious hierarchy represented by Sistani. In the days after the fall of Mosul, Sadr called for establishing “peace brigades” that would protect Shi’ite shrines, churches and other holy sites in Iraq.
It soon became clear that Sadr’s “peace brigades” were simply a new label for his feared Mahdi Army, which supposedly disbanded in 2008. In June 2014, his militia returned to its stronghold, the capital’s teeming Shi’ite slum in Sadr City. In its largest show of force in six years, thousands of Shi’ite fighters marched through the streets with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide explosive belts strapped to their chests. “I will purify Mosul, I am a Sadrist,” some of the fighters chanted.
Sadr represents the triumph of a defiant brand of Shi’ism in Iraq. Because Sistani and other senior theologians shun direct political involvement, they create a power vacuum among Iraqi Shi’ites — one that Sadr is eager to fill. He wants to be both a respected cleric and a political broker.
In the Shi’ite world, it is unusual for a young cleric with Sadr’s limited theological credentials to gain such a wide following. Sadr is several ranks and years away from attaining the title of ayatollah. But he is the only surviving son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by the Iraqi regime in 1999. The elder Sadr was a leading Shi’ite scholar, and — unlike Sistani — he advocated a strong political role for the clergy. Sistani and the elder Sadr became rivals in the Shi’ite religious hierarchy.
Aside from his pedigree, Sadr has another claim to leadership: he did not leave Iraq to live in comfortable exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Amid the euphoria that followed Hussein’s ouster in 2003, clergymen debated their role in politics. Sadr and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Baathist system. They denounced the U.S. occupation and Washington’s plan to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi.
Sadr started out as a militia leader, with the populist appeal and credibility that comes from being heir to a family of martyrs. He then turned himself into one of Iraq’s most effective politicians. The elder clerics watched from the sidelines, confident that their religious authority would be more enduring than Sadr’s fleeting political power. Now, the renegade cleric is once again poised to command the Shi’ite street, and to become a kingmaker in Iraq.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. A former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He tweets @BazziNYU