Sadr and the positive transformations of Iraq


Milo Comerford

Date: 02 June 2018

The seismic change in Iraq’s recent elections reflects profound structural transformations in Iraqi society. Muqtada al-Sadr’s party won the largest number of seats in parliament, although it did not represent the majority. But his apparent transformation from an anti-Western and pro-Iranian cleric to a nationalist anti-Tehran and corruption is part of a broader picture of change in the country and across the region.

As Iraq recovers from a devastating conflict with a hawkish, giving a fresh idea of its status in the region, including a reevaluation of its relationship with increasingly shirked Iran, and the possible formation of a coalition between Sadr, the nationalist cleric and current Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi, does not seem appropriate. But there is great harmony in the priorities of Abadi and Sadr.

Any alliance among officials would be an important moment for Iraq, the Middle East and Western policies in the region. The rift in regional politics is moving away from abhorrent sectarianism and tends to choose between modernization and extremism. Sadr’s rise from the leader of a sectarian militia and opponent of the US occupation to a popular hero has been the main theme of the Iraqi elections.

Sadr, who comes from a religious family, represented a prominent Islamist scene and was persuasive in contrast to other sectarian Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army. He has engaged in political transformations over Iraq’s alliances, culminating in high-level meetings with the Saudi leadership.

Sadr’s transformation is in itself an indication of a broader shift among Iraqi voters, away from the ideological vote based on identity towards pragmatism and the desire for effective governance.

Surveys conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies show that voters are increasingly abandoning the abhorrent sectarian identity and are instead turning to nationalism that seeks to shake off the shackles of external influences and international interests.

It seems that the rebellion of Dahesh, which destroyed northern and western Iraq for three and a half years, has had an impact on the collection of the Iraqi state, which suffered a severe siege, contrary to what many had expected.

But despite the success Iraq has achieved in the face of the scourge of sectarianism and militancy, the new leadership should not be based on its past glory unless the underlying motivations of Bada’sh and Shiite militias are addressed. The sectarian grievances, politicization of religion, All risking the re-emergence of the threat he represented as a preacher.

Despite the optimistic signs of the elections, the new government to be formed faces major challenges. Priority will be to tackle corruption and rebuild Iraq’s economy. The pledges of this campaign, and the message of “Iraq First”, mean that Sadr has managed to overcome sectarian divisions. Opinion polls have found that his biggest support was in mixed Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and other communities.

Similarly, Sadr’s role on Iran’s infiltration into Iraq is of great importance, usually because he is aware that Tehran has a destabilizing influence in the country. When Sadr visited Saudi Arabia last summer, he told officials that the Shiites in Iraq would not be an extension of the Iranian revolution, and demanded in his visit that the Saudis and Arabs be more present in the Iraqi scene.

His recent meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is part of a wider reorganization in the Middle East, away from competing sectarian interests, towards modernization and reform on the one hand, and those who provoke sectarian division and extremist violence on the other. While Sadr is seen as anti-Western, the reality seems more complex.

He is believed to have favored the survival of US forces in Iraq because of their influence on Iraq’s stability. Given his clear preference for cooperation with Abadi, who was a crucial partner in fighting the international coalition against Saddam, he seems to be open to building bridges with the West.

Sadr also condemned the internationalization of Shiite militancy, saying in a recent interview that the US government was right to name the Iraqi-backed militia, which is fighting in Syria as a terrorist. The challenge for the West lies in determining Sadr’s position on Iraq, which must be a key force and decisive partner.

Sadr is likely to shape his relationship with Western powers, using Abadi as a cover, but he will clearly need Western support, not least to rebuild a country ravaged by extremist violence. A clean political record is a good starting point. Sadr has an honorable past as he embodies a changing Iraq.

* British strategic analyst

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