Al Sadr, the most influential figure in Iraq after the fall of Saddam
The influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been the only symbol of unshakable power in Iraq since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. The announcement of his “definitive” withdrawal from politics has sown chaos. Thousands of his followers have taken to the streets in protests in which they have died at least 35 people and more than 250 have been injured.
After more than ten months of tense political paralysis due to the blockade of the formation of a government proposed by the Shiite cleric, Al Sadr has taken several incendiary measuresas the seizure of Parliament in Julyto show who really rules the country.
Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?
Muqtada al-Sadr is a 48-year-old Shia cleric who is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, who he was assassinated in 1999 for his critical stance against Saddam Hussein.
The clergyman has been a dominant figure in Iraqi public and political life during the last two decades. It became a symbol of resistance against the US occupation of Iraq after its invasion in 2003 and formed a militia known as the Mahdi Army, which was disbanded and renamed the Peace Brigades. Currently, it is one of the largest militias of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces. In addition, Al Sadr came to be described by the United States as one of the “most dangerous” people in Iraq.
Al Sadr is considered, both in war and in politics, a great strategist and an even greater manipulator. His tactic usually consists of disappearing when he doesn’t get what he wants, leaving chaos in his wake. Al Sadr, once an ally of Iran, has repositioned himself as a nationalist who wants end the influence of the United States and Iran in the internal affairs of Iraq.
“Muqtada al-Sadr inherited his father’s prestige, but he is a shady character who has been involved in various political intrigues (…) He is a man who he has had time to change his jacket several times“, explains to RNE the historian and specialist of the Arab world, Juan José Sánchez Arreseigor.
“Definitive” withdrawal from politics
In the parliamentary elections in October 2021, Al Sadr’s party won most of the seats, but not enough to secure a majority in government. Shortly before the elections, the cleric withdrew from the electoral campaign and almost forced the elections to be postponed. However, he returned after reaching an agreement with other formations.
Faced with the blockade of the formation of the Government, Al Sadr forced the Sadrist Bloc in June – which won the parliamentary elections with 73 of the 329 deputies – to resign and organized mass demonstrations. The situation escalated when the alliance of pro-Iranian parties in which the armed militias close to Tehran are represented, called the Coordination Framework, proposed a candidate for prime minister without the approval of the cleric. Al-Sadr then demanded the calling of new elections after ten months of failure to form a government.
The influential Shiite cleric announced on Monday his “definitive withdrawal” from politics. In a statement, the populist Iraqi leader assured that with his political activity “he only wanted to repair the deformation that, for the most part, was caused by the Shiite political forces, being the majority in the country (…) only I wanted to bring them closer to the people so that they feel their suffering”.
For the historian Arreseigor, his departure may be due to “a trick to appear interesting and announce his return later” or because “he has been severely threatened by the Iranians“, something that considers more likely.
Iraq doomed to chaos
The announcement of Al Sadr’s withdrawal has unleashed chaos in Baghdad and other parts of the country for two consecutive days. Thousands of his followers have broken into the Presidential and Government Palace in Baghdad and have been involved in clashes with Iranian-backed militias in recent hours.
The serious clashes experienced in the capital have left more than 30 dead, most of them close to the cleric Al Sadr, as well as 250 wounded.
Faced with the escalation of tension, Al Sadr has called on his followers to leave the Presidential and Government Palace and has apologized to the population for what is happening. Furthermore, he had announced a hunger strike until the use of violence and weapons ended.
On how this situation could evolve in the country, the historian Arreseigor believes that Iraq will gradually abandon violence and political fragmentation. Likewise, he hopes that the protests of the civil population “will force politicians to improve their conduct.” “Iraq is not doomed to a situation of eternal instabilitybut at the moment it is a very difficult issue that needs time to be resolved little by little,” he stresses.