How Moqtada al-Sadr went from anti-American outlaw to potential kingmaker in Iraq


 

A poster shows Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, left, and cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in Sadr City, east of Baghdad, on May 14. (Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images)
 May 14 at 7:45 PM  

 As an awkward young cleric with a family name weightier than his own achievements, Moqtada al-Sadr began his quest for prominence after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It rested on a sense of homegrown nationalism, a steely opposition to foreign domination and a willingness to fight.

He criticized political figures who were backed by Iran or promoted by Americans as unworthy of leadership. “The people who deserve to rule are the ones who stayed here,” he said, sending his loyalists to battle US troops repeatedly in the early years of the US occupation.

The labels he earned from US officials reflected his growing notoriety: Over time, he went from “rabble-rouser” to “outlaw,” wanted by the US government.

Now, Sadr is poised to assume a new sobriquet: kingmaker, after leading a political coalition to what appeared to be an early lead in national elections in Iraq. Sadr did not run in the election but may be able to choose Iraq’s next leader.

If the election results hold, it would cap a stunning evolution for Sadr, marking his transformation from the feared head of a Shiite militia to a populist political leader who has disavowed Iraq’s entrenched sectarianism. The coalition he collected for the elections, which includes communist and secular figures, could upend Iraq’s political order and dilute the influence of the United States as well as Iran.

What brought Sadr out of the fringes of Shiite-centric politics was neither military nor religious, but rather his embrace of a wave of popular demonstrations over quality of life and Iraq’s stagnant politics.

Ahmed al-Mayali, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad, said Sadr’s image had evolved from sectarian militant to populist in the aftermath of the Islamic State onslaught in 2014 , which left the radical Islamist group in charge of a large slice of northern and western Iraq.

Sadr used his considerable power to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to an chrono popular protest movement calling for political overhauls.

“He began demanding what the street was demanding,” Mayali said. “He protested with them and addressed all Iraqis in a simple language everyone could understand. The language of ‘I’m one of you, not an elite.’ 

“This cave has more supporters than he had before,” Mayali added.

In the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sadr’s support derived mainly from his famous name. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, was a revered cleric who was assassinated, along with two of his sons, by Hussein’s security forces in 1999.

In the post-invasion chaos, the younger Sadr deployed his father’s network to provide for the residents of Baghdad’s impoverished quarters.

“Faithful to his father’s populist vision, his organization had become a kind of street movement, from the Iraqi equivalent of the barrio, imbued with a substantial antagonism to traditional Shiite authority and to the power those families represented,” the writer and Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid wrote in “Night Draws Near,” his chronicle of the US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

Sadr was distinct from the returning Iraqi exiles who were seeking power in Baghdad because he had stayed in Iraq during the worst of Hussein’sression, Shadid wrote.

“Like the poor Shiites, Sadr had suffered loss: his father, his brothers, and many of his other relatives were martyrs of the community. He spoke like the dispossessed; he even looked like them. “

His rhetoric – of rebellion and resistance to foreign influence – transformed into violent confrontation as Sadr’s Mahdi Army led uprisings against the US-led coalition in several Iraqi cities and became one of the most feared militias during the years of Iraq’s sectarian civil war.

After years of self-imposed retirement from politics, Sadr returned to the limelight several years ago, latching onto a movement demonstrating against corruption by Iraq’s political elite and calling for a new government.

In the protest tents, he earned the trust of secular and reformist political movements that underpinned his diverse ballot in Saturday’s election. They became allies for his own growing political base of supporters, a movement characterized by the kind of devotion Sadr’s father had enjoyed a generation ago. “They follow him because they are convinced of him,” Mayali said.

Fahim reported from Istanbul.

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2 thoughts on “How Moqtada al-Sadr went from anti-American outlaw to potential kingmaker in Iraq

  1. Hey Ralph, (aka Walter)

    Long time. Been lurking like so many others. 🙂

    Has there been any meaningful analysis that you know of as of yet on what this election will mean for the IQD? i haven’t seen too much as I’m sure no one was expecting this scenario to play out. What are your thoughts? Maybe he (Sadr) hates us enough to raise the value of the dinar and make us pay “retail” for Iraqi oil? That would put the ‘sweet’ into sweet crude for us dinarians, know?

    Just when we seem to get close to banking reform there is always a last minute glitch. I could be wrong but this seems like it could take months to sort out. I can’t really see any kind of currency reform until a new GOI is in place. Although this is Iraq so nothing would surprise me, but…

    Anyway, thanks for all the great work you do. It is much appreciated by myself and so many more out here – now more dazed and confused than ever- in the Dinarosphere! 🙂

    Best,

    Anthony (aaanth)

    Like

    • Hey Aaanth! Sorry, it’s taken a bit to respond, been seeing where this roller coaster is going!! LOL, yes Sadr taking the votes was surprise, but in essence as I read the articles, it makes sense since Sadr is a man of the people. Nothing has changed in the ladscape for the Iraqi folks, and the low turn out for voting was probably an indication as such.
      Fortunately, I see that Sadr and Abadi have a lot of similarities, they both fight corruption, and care for the people and the country. Lots of things play into this currency reform, but I am confident with the new political alliances we’ll see in the coming days will only bring good things.
      Thanks for your support Brother & your welcome! Stay Frosty! 🙂

      Like

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