Muqtada al-Sadr is like Michael Corleone — that’s no compliment

The Iraqi leader promises reform. Yet he has little incentive to fundamentally change a system that he is enmeshed in.

Iraqi populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr
Iraqi scholar and leader Muqtada al-Sadr delivers a televised speech in Najaf, Iraq on August 3, 2022 [Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters]

Muqtada al-Sadr might have ordered his followers to withdraw from violent clashes that rocked Baghdad last week, but the influential Shia leader’s latest move has only deferred Iraq’s reckoning with the paralysis that has plagued its politics since the elections of October 2021. It’s a dysfunction that al-Sadr has vowed to end. Yet it is one that he, too, is responsible for.

Arguably the country’s most recognisable scholar-politician, al-Sadr emerged victorious in last year’s election. The elections led to the creation of two camps: The Sadrist-led Saving the Homeland alliance (which included Sunni and Kurdish forces as well) and the Iran-backed and Iran-leaning Coordination Framework (CF). The Sadrists were the biggest winners in the elections netting 73 seats.

The Sadrists viewed the win, combined with the broad coalition they had assembled, as an electoral and constitutional mandate for them to form government. Their leader has promised to break with the practice of “consensus governments” that has dominated Iraqi politics since 2005 — under which all political forces are included in the administration.

Previous elections have always been followed by a prolonged bargaining process behind closed doors among the political classes to determine who forms the next government and decide their respective shares within it. The consensus that emerges is based not just on election results but on coercive and political capital (including foreign backing).

This is widely recognised as a recipe for dysfunction and a way of perpetuating the capture of the state by the ruling oligarchy of political actors. With weak institutions, the impotence of the rule of law and a culture of venality dominating elite politics, political empowerment becomes a way of turning state institutions into personal fiefs used for enrichment and for weaving patronage networks.

Al-Sadr instead wants Iraq to adopt a policy of governments elected by a simple majority, with electoral winners and losers, a ruling administration and a parliamentary opposition. For his rivals in Shia politics, however, exclusion from the government is unacceptable: It does not just mean a loss of influence, power and revenue; it also leaves them physically and legally vulnerable. As for al-Sadr, he has made clear that he will not countenance a CF-led government citing their corruption, paramilitary activities and Iranian ties. He has framed his position as a revolutionary one aimed at overturning the fundamentals of the governing order.

This clash of wills has stalled government formation since October and last week erupted into violence. In trying to understand this intra-Shia divide, some observers have focused on al-Sadr’s reformist rhetoric and his Iraq-first stance.

Yet, these are superficial factors that do not explain the motives underlining today’s contest. Al-Sadr and his rivals are indeed divided on, among other things, issues relating to Iraq’s relation with Iran and the nature of Iraqi governance but this is not what is driving the instability of the past 10 months. Al-Sadr’s “revolution” is, at heart, a power play aimed at securing primacy within Shia politics and by extension over the Iraqi state.

Al-Sadr positions himself as a political outsider who will initiate a root and branch overhaul of the system taking aim at its worst characteristic features – corruption, the proliferation of armed groups, the crippling lack of sovereignty and so on.

This has been music to the ears of many Iraqis who yearn for nothing more than the demise of the post-2003 order in its current form and the construction of an alternative capable of meeting their aspirations. Such a transformation cannot of course happen overnight and neither al-Sadr nor anyone else can realise the revolutionary dreams currently floating about on Iraqi social media.

More importantly, however, relying on the Sadrists to enact any such change is something of a Faustian bargain: The Sadrists are deeply enmeshed in the political economy of Iraq. They are not just part of the system — they are among its primary pillars. They are as culpable as anyone else for the problems they now rail against, from corruption and paramilitary violence to the flouting of the rule of law. Further, they have repeatedly shown their willingness to prioritise their own political interests over those of would-be allies, whether in formal politics or with protest activists.

Al-Sadr may be less beholden to Iran than his opponents and he may indeed want to uphold Iraqi sovereignty and sideline some of his more problematic rivals but, as important as these issues are, Iraq’s problems go far beyond them. Clipping the CF’s wings and reducing Iranian influence in Iraq would certainly be a positive development but it does not guarantee fundamental changes to the country’s political economy. It may present opportunities, but it does not provide ready-made answers to Iraq’s structural problems.

More to the point, it is highly unlikely that al-Sadr can, or even wants to, fundamentally alter the system. Rather, he is likely aiming at bringing it under his control. If al-Sadr’s attempt to secure his primacy and exclude some of his rivals succeeds, opponents of the system will understandably rejoice. However, they should be wary of Sadrist designs, which are unlikely to accord with the broader sentiments of grassroots reform and civic activists. For the countless Iraqis dreaming of a better future, a Sadrist success will give birth to a fresh struggle: containing Sadrist domination.

It is commonly said by Iraqis that theirs is a mafia state. Political actors, armed groups, tribal actors, organised crime and foreign powers collude in the capture of the state, for a variety of often conflicting ends. A Sadrist-dominated system is likely to resemble the current state of affairs, only with fewer players and greater centralisation.

Put differently, in the mafia state of Iraq, al-Sadr’s “revolution” against the corrupt political classes is less Eliot Ness going after Al Capone and more Michael Corleone moving against the other families. Given his organic base, street power and political orientation, al-Sadr is often thought of as a potential agent of change. But relying on or allying with the Sadrists requires a frank recognition of both the opportunities and the threats presented by the movement. Whether in 2003 or 2022, Iraqis’ desperation for a remedy to their country’s ills need not be expressed in credulity towards self-proclaimed saviours.

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