Muqtada al-Sadr has long served as the spark in volatile Iraqi politics. When the Shi’ite cleric ordered his followers to fight U.S. forces in 2004, it was the gravest challenge to the United States in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled. More than a decade later, the mercurial leader has taken on Iraq’s entire political establishment in a crisis that some fear could tip the country over the edge.
Sadr’s power is undeniable, with his grassroots party that expands working-class neighbourhoods across Iraq’s Shia populated cities, and its al-Salam Brigades paramilitary force present in every nook and corner. He is the most powerful Shi’a leader so far in Iraq history.
Although the core of Sadr’s support is made up of the poor and jobless, it also includes educated Iraqis who believe in his message of equality and social justice. There is significant popular support for changing Iraq’s stagnant and corrupt political status quo; al- Sadr knows this and he is riding this wave very well. Halgurd Nihad Nheli, a political activist from Iraq, said Sadr has consolidated his strength in around the capital and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Sadr movement is currently the de facto ruler in Baghdad.
The current movement, which has rocked Iraqi politics with the storming of the parliament by the protestors, started with the simple demand of better water and power provisions. But it then changed into call for political reforms, a government reshuffling and an effective fight against corruption.
The movement was started by artists and then joined by activists. Now it is being led by Muqtada al-Sadr. When the protests were in danger of fading, the influential Shi’ite cleric called in his supporters and took control of the movement. Fuelled by al-Sadr, the situation escalated dramatically at the end of April. Practically speaking, Iraq still has no effective government.
At a time when the soul of the citizenry is boiling with anger over rampant corruption, the war on terror is robbing the country of its last resources. Oil prices are in free fall and seem to be dragging the economy into the abyss along with them. The time seems ripe for demagogues. And it looks like Iraq cannot survive under its present system of governance, which centralizes power in Baghdad. The Sadr-inspired siege shows that ultimate authority does not lie with Iraq’s elected officials but with Sadr or any other figure who can mobilize the masses.
In the current national scenario, Muqtada has emerged as the symbol of Iraqi nationalism and a voice of the common man, not just as a firebrand Shi’a cleric. For this image makeover Sadr worked very hard. He led several joint prayers for Shi’a and Sunnis to nip any sedition in the bud, disbanded the Mahdi Army after sectarian bloodletting nine years ago to distance himself from other Shi’a militias, and he ordered his political bloc in parliament to boycott parliamentary sessions unless they (the MPs) stuck to their promise of a new cabinet of independent ministers.
After US troops withdrew from Iraq in late 2011, Sadr went into a self-imposed seclusion, even as his supporters ran for parliament and controlled key ministries. Sadr was waiting for his opportunity to play the saviour of Iraq’s Shi’ites. Sadr has developed a model of a cleric who does not hold political office, but influences government in the form of the clergy as loyal opposition. 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 Shi’a politicians, partisans and militias. Sadr’s latest political manoeuvring 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 the power by controlling one of the biggest political blocs in parliament and commanding a powerful militia. Sadr clearly has his own agenda advancing a populist, nationalist cause that benefits his movement and his status in the domestic political and social sphere. But for the moment, this entails bringing about positive outcomes for Iraq on the whole.
He knows only too well from his personal experience that his best option is to be part of a system in which he himself represents the change. At this point in time, Sadr has become a counter-balancing force to provide “checks and balances” against powerful elites, such as Maliki, who have been ruling undemocratically and unconstitutionally for many years. What matters most about al-Sadr’s enduring command over the loyalty of thousands of Iraqis is the bargaining power it grants him. But his sway over the tides of popular opinion makes him both an asset and a threat to foreign actors interested in maintaining their footholds in Iraq.