Soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, a CBS News crew interviewed a young Shia cleric who explained what was happening in his country this way: “The little serpent has left,” Moqtada al-Sadr said, referring to the ousted dictator, “and the great serpent [the United States] has come.”
In the early days of the post-Saddam era, U.S. military officials variously described Sadr as an “annoyance” and a “thug.” But he quickly transformed himself into an influential—and controversial—figure. His fighters committed brutal atrocities in the post-invasion violence, fought the U.S. military in Sadr City and Basra, and were known for their corruption. A 2006 Newsweek cover story even labeled Sadr “the most dangerous man in Iraq.” Fifteen years after the fall of Saddam, Sadr, now 44 years old, is warily viewed as a potential kingmaker in Iraq’s parliamentary elections on Saturday. In a country riven by sectarian tensions and regional politics, Sadr has transformed himself again: He has now positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist; allied himself with communists, Sunnis, and political independents; criticized Iran’s outsized influence in Iraq; and strongly criticized the sectarian nature of Iraq’s politics.
“I’m very struck by how Sadr has changed a lot of his rhetoric and sort of the thrust of his policies to become less of an Islamist and more of a nationalist,” said Robert Ford, who was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010, and served as the political counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006. And, Ford added, given the expected splintering of the vote in Saturday’s election, Sadr is likely to emerge as a key player in the jockeying for allies in the post-election period.