Iraq: Threats of foreign influence

The return of prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will have an unpredictable influence on Iraqi politics.

muqtada al sadr returns
Muqtada al-Sadr recently returned to Iraq, could add an unstable element to the Iraqi political dynamic [Getty]

News of the abrupt return to Iraq this week of Muqtada al-Sadr from his four-year, self-imposed exile in Iran was not particularly well-received in Washington. 

Americans have famously short memories, but the diminutive, scowling, black-clad cleric still stirs vivid and troubling recollections along the Potomac. That is hardly a surprise; nor, given the rapid decline of the US presence and role in Iraq, is it particularly significant.

Far more significant is the palpable apprehension seen among virtually all Iraqis outside al-Sadr’s core constituency, as they sift clues to determine what al-Sadr’s return portends for him, for them, for his movement, and for the future of Iraqi politics.

Reports of al-Sadr’s visit to Najaf’s shrine of Imam Ali immediately upon his return hearken back to the return of another exiled cleric, also the scion of a great Iraqi Shiite family. Would that Abdul Majid al-Khoei had commanded the protection recently afforded to Muqtada when the former returned to Najaf in April, 2003.

The compelling, but still ambiguous evidence of Muqtada’s complicity in the death of his rival at the hands of a mob – which resulted in an Iraqi judicial warrant for the young al-Sadr’s arrest – were an early indication of the violent methods he was to employ, and of the nature of his base of power and support in Iraq.

It was those two factors – the ambiguity of brother Muqtada’s often behind-the-scenes role in the violent actions of the militia he nominally led, and the threat that his arrest could unleash an explosion of mob violence – which served to postpone, time and again, what would otherwise have been the young firebrand’s appointment with the inside of a US-run prison.

Thus, the persistent threat of that 2003 arrest warrant remained unfulfilled during the heavy fighting in Najaf between US occupation forces and al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia in August, 2004; and again in 2006, as Jaysh al-Mahdi’s growing sectarian brutality in greater Baghdad eventually caused the US military to rate it an even greater threat to Iraqi stability than al-Qaeda in Iraq.

It was only when the announced “surge” of US forces into Baghdad in early 2007 suggested the imminence of a decisive battle with militia forces in eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City slums – many of whose commanders had slipped well beyond Muqtada’s operational control – that the son and son-in-law of grand ayatollahs suddenly felt the urgent call to pursue religious study in Iran.

There is much to suggest, in fact, that it was the cooperation of Jaysh al-Mahdi commanders loyal to Muqtada in providing information to the Americans that permitted the latter so effectively to winnow out rogue commanders in Sadr City in early 2007.

Ironically, it thus may have been the US Army which was instrumental in returning the Mahdi Army to al-Sadr’s operational control.

A similar irony attended a recent meeting in Qom, when al-Sadr’s reconciliation with mainstream Iraqi politics was literally sealed with a kiss.

This display of avuncular affection was bestowed upon the former enfant terrible of Iraqi Shiite politics by none other than his seemingly irreconcilable enemy, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who, despite having been responsible for ordering the all-out attack on al-Sadr’s militia forces in Basra and in Baghdad in Spring of 2008, nonetheless had received critical, eleventh-hour support from the so-called al-Sadr Trend to cement a parliamentary majority in support of a second term in office.

It was this formal affirmation of al-Sadr’s unexpected role as Prime Ministerial kingmaker – the product, we are told, of heavy Iranian influence upon its scholarly guest – that cleared the way, along with assurances that the long-ago criminal warrant for his arrest had finally lapsed, for Muqtada al-Sadr’s homecoming in Najaf.

The prodigal son returns

It is tempting, and perhaps accurate, to ascribe the peaceful return of Iraq’s prodigal son to a healthy evolution in Iraq away from violence and toward electoral and factional politics as a means of reconciling the country’s deep divisions.

The trepidation which attended al-Sadr’s first post-return speech this past Saturday, however, suggested that this transformation remains both tenuous and reversible.

Iraqis do not fear Muqtada’s control over 12 percent of the seats in the Council of Representatives. What they fear is the cult-like following which he still commands among the poor, urban Shiite proletariat, perhaps the most potent, least sophisticated, and most manipulable force in Iraqi politics.

Muqtada’s standing among this element of the populace would be enough by itself to make him a political force to be reckoned with.

But the real base of Muqtada’s power, now as before, is the potential for mob violence posed by his most passionate supporters, as well as the more directed and disciplined threat posed by the Promised Day Brigade, al-Sadr’s post-Mahdi Army militia.

Despite its leader’s supposed new-found political respectability, an aura of violent illegitimacy still clings to the al-Sadr Trend:  Indeed, at least two Iraqi laws bar organisations affiliated with a militia from political participation. The clear lesson for everyone concerned is that accountability under the law still does not apply to Muqtada al-Sadr.

In the event, al-Sadr’s speech was a blend of old and new, of threat and reassurance. The white flecks in his formerly jet-black beard suggested a maturity which was reflected in rhetoric which stressed the importance of avoiding intra-Iraqi violence.

But his reiterated opposition to foreign occupation and his insistence on strict adherence to the agreed timetable for US military withdrawal contained, depending upon one’s interpretation, either a clear threat, or a familiar and characteristic ambiguousness on the potential for a return to violence.

It is easy to speculate, as the reaction of the US Embassy in Baghdad seemed to suggest, that al-Sadr’s strident insistence on continued resistance, both military and cultural, to the Americans, is essentially a sham, a gratuitous attempt to maintain a heroic pose against a foreign armed force which has been greatly reduced and which is on track to disappear in any case, by formal agreement, in just 12 short months.

It is also quite possible, however, that al-Sadr believes that the thorough defeat and subsequent “suspension” of his militia, though ordered by Maliki and spearheaded by the Iraqi Army, could not have been accomplished without the support of the US military.

In view of past indications that the US might be invited to maintain a military force beyond the end of 2011 to shore up the persistent shortcomings of Maliki’s army, it is not at all surprising that Muqtada would insist on the former’s rapid departure.

Iraqis should take little comfort in the fact that al-Sadr’s threats are limited, for now, to “foreign occupiers”, when he could easily turn his sights later on to those whom he might easily accuse of being the agents of that erstwhile occupier.


All of which leads us to yet another irony:  The fact that a self-proclaimed champion of Iraqi nationalism and enemy of foreign influence should himself be considered by many to offer the clearest example of Iran’s insidious and growing domination of Iraqi politics.

The bill of particulars in that indictment include al-Sadr’s nearly four-year refuge in Iran, his apparently close religious and scholarly ties to senior clerics close to Iran’s senior leadership, the heavy-handed Iranian role in ultimately persuading him to throw his parliamentary support behind his bitter enemy Maliki, and the seeming coordination of his return with the high-profile visit of acting Iranian Foreign Minister Salihi to Iraq.

In fact, there are those who cite Muqtada al-Sadr as exhibit A in what some are beginning to call the “Lebanonisation” of Iraqi politics. The reason that Lebanon itself has been “Lebanonised” is that the various Lebanese factions have consistently reached out for foreign support to gain advantage over their domestic political and sectarian rivals, thus legitimising similar behaviour against themselves.

And indeed, Iraq appears to be moving gradually on a similar track: First by enthusiastically embracing an increasingly baroque division of political power along strictly ethno-sectarian lines, and then by tolerating a political culture in which factions shamelessly seek foreign support of their respective domestic agendas.

The Kurds, old masters at this game, have improbably cultivated close ties with the Turks. The al-Iraqiyah Coalition under Ayad Allawi has overtly curried support among Sunni Arab neighbours suspicious of growing Iranian influence. Meanwhile, the Shiite factions themselves have competed ever more strongly for Iranian attention and support.

While the dangers associated with these trends are obvious, it is unlikely that we will see a Lebanon spring up along the Tigris and Euphrates, where regional powers conduct proxy wars on Mesopotamian soil.

Iran aside, there appears to be little scope for neighbouring countries to exert critical political influence in Iraq. Turkey’s traditional concerns over Kurdish autonomy and the rights of the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq are abating, and the Turks display no desire to become enmeshed in factional Iraqi politics, focusing instead on spreading cultural and business ties as broadly as possible.

The Sunni Arab states, for their part, and despite their morbid preoccupation with growing Iranian influence in the region, have proved ill-adept at generating any decisive influence in Iraq.

And Iran, for all its high-profile meddling and its extensive religious and cultural ties to Iraq, is only able to command real influence among the Shi’a, who remain a highly fractious lot. The Iranians will no doubt exhaust themselves with no end of factional intrigue, and yet they are highly unlikely to unify Iraq’s majority Shiites in a way which will permit them to dominate their neighbour.

As for the turbulent Mr. al-Sadr, it is highly likely that the Iranians, if they don’t realise it already, will find in him a client who is impossible to control, and more likely to be a net detriment, rather than an asset, in the pursuit of their national interests in Iraq.

In the end the Iraqis generally, if they are wise, will discover that, whatever marginal advantages they can gain through recourse to their neighbours, the only long-term solutions to their problems will be found in political accommodation with fellow Iraqis.

It remains very much to be seen whether the Pilgrim’s progress of Muqtada al-Sadr will contribute constructively to that process.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was the CIA’s Iraq Mission Manager in 2003 and 2004.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.