As Iraq slips into greater uncertainty, Shia cleric and leader al Sadr puts on a show of strength.
In February, the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr led a rally in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver reforms he promised in response to anti-government protests that erupted in August 2015.
Sadr’s ability to mobilise a crowd of close to 100,000 demonstrates his ability to reinvent himself, once again, in Iraq’s post-2003 political landscape. In Sadr’s latest political incarnation, he has embraced the politics of protest to become both an anti-politician and king-maker. His latest rally is symbolic of his political movement’s evolution over a decade, a reflection of the vicissitudes of Iraq’s politics since 2003.
Sadr’s political prominence is startling given that his rise to power was not a certainty in post-2003 Iraq, and was almost undermined at several junctures. After the invasion of Iraq, Sadr was a young cleric in his late 20s, who only had his father’s reputation at his disposal.
His father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric opposed to Saddam Hussein, was murdered in 1999 by Iraqi intelligence agents. After years in hiding following the assassination of his father, Muqtada reappeared in Najaf when Baathist control collapsed in 2003.
The assertion of Sadr
At that moment he had to decide how he would capitalise on his father’s reputation and following to best manoeuvre his way through the new political landscape.
In 2003, Sadr had to live up to the charisma his father enjoyed. Muqtada inherited a network that his father had developed among Iraq’s urban Shia poor, concentrated in the Baghdad district rebranded as Sadr City.
It is probable that older figures in the Sadrist network had sought to control Sadr because of his young age and use him as a figurehead, the same way a regent controls a boy king.
It was likely that older figures in the Sadrist network had sought to control Sadr due to his young age and use him as a figure head, the way a regent controls a boy king.
Thirteen years on, however, his latest rally represents a culminating event in Sadr’s career. He has carved out his own position in regard to: the older, more respected Shia cleric in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani; to Iran, which had always sought to manipulate the Sadr and the Sadrists as a pawn and proxy; an array of rival Shia militias that Sadr himself helped foster; and the Iraqi government itself.
To carve out a role for himself among these actors, Sadr began in 2003 to portray his Shia movement as an indigenous Iraqi nationalist and anti-US one, transcending the sectarian divide, and one that had developed from within the nation as opposed to the exiled Shia parties.
In 2004, he declared his solidarity with Arab Sunni insurgents besieged in Fallujah by United States forces, distancing himself from the exiled Iraqi Shia factions cooperating with the US. He sought to re-establish his Iraqi nationalist credentials in 2013, the beginning of his attempt to project himself as a leader of protest politics.
Sadr and the politics of protest
During the 2013 Arab Sunni protests in the Anbar province against the government of Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, labelling the protests as “Iraq’s Arab Spring“.
In this, Sadr, a Shia cleric, challenged his fellow Shia, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, illuminating how analysing Iraq’s politics through the Shia-Sunni binary fails to account for intense intra-sectarian political rivalries.
Sadr’s actions from 2013 onwards do not follow the neat pattern of sectarian-driven politics. He sought to portray himself as part of a combined, deprived Arab Sunni-Shia opposition against an Arab Shia-Sunni political elite that was seen as indifferent to their demands, corrupt and ineffective in terms of governance.
For Iraqi Sunnis to believe that Sadr was an Iraqi nationalist in 2013 would have entailed a suspension of their disbelief, given that his militia was implicated in some of the worst sectarian killings from 2006 to 2008.
Sadr’s embrace of the Sunni protesters then served as an attempt to distance himself from the sectarian bloodletting of the past, in addition to the entrenched Iraqi political elite. This 2013 strategy provides the continuity that explains his recent use of the politics of protest.
Unlike the Anbar protests of 2013, the August 2015 protests erupted in the capital Baghdad, Basra, and the Shia towns of Najaf, Karbala, and Hilla, over corruption in the government and incessant electricity cuts. Sistani delivered a sermon during those protests calling upon Abadi to tackle this corruption.
Sadr has developed Sistani's model of a cleric who does not hold political office, but influences government in the form of the clergy as loyal opposition.
A few months later, Sadr followed Sistani’s lead, continuing the pressure on the prime minister to follow through with those reforms.
Sadr has developed Sistani’s model of a cleric who does not hold political office, but influences government in the form of the clergy as loyal opposition. However, they differ in terms of the style of pressure. Sistani rarely makes public appearance and his influence is conveyed subtly through sermons and religious declarations.
In February, Sadr rallied the “Iraqi Shia street” in massive outpourings of fealty, more akin to the rallies of Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah. Sadr’s own website highlighted his ability to bring “millions” on to the streets during this rally. The rationale behind Sadr’s politics of protest is part of his decade-long search for a political model to elevate him among the fray of Iraq’s Shia politicians, partisans, and militias.
Sadr’s politico-religious model
Sadr in his early years raised a sectarian militia, Jaish al-Mahdi (al-Mahdi Army), which served as the basis of his power. It clashed with US forces on numerous occasions and was eventually dealt a military blow when Maliki deployed the Iraqi army, with US air support, against it in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Afterwards, Sadr rebranded the militia as the Peace Brigades, and for the most part refrained from armed conflict.
However, those within the Mahdi Army who wanted to continue fighting split into numerous Shia militias, benefiting from Iranian aid. Sadr’s Peace Brigades were eclipsed by these militias, becoming just one of many sub-state Shia actors.
The splinters, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, even became rivals, clashing with their co-religionists in Peace Brigades in February. To elevate himself above the array of these militias, who captured the limelight in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, Sadr embraced the politics of street protest.
Sadr’s latest political manoeuvering has demonstrated an increasingly hybrid model, that is not a solely religious network, political party, or militia, but a combination of these and more.
Muqtada today sits at the helm of a network of interlocking components, a religious organisation, the Ahrar or “Freeborn Bloc”, a party that runs for political office, a print and TV media empire, and a series of NGOs. Sadr is still too young to elevate himself to his father’s status as a learned religious scholar.
Nonetheless, he has proved himself as a shrewd political operator, elevating himself from relative obscurity in 2003, to a cult-of-personality and Shia sub-culture status that will remain as a fixture in Iraq’s chaotic politics.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.