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.
“Does it make him the sole kingmaker, the only kingmaker? No,” said Ford, who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Does it make him a potential valuable coalition partner that can deliver seats in the parliament to get to the two-thirds needed? … That I can easily imagine.”
Sadr is in many ways an embodiment of the tensions that have shaped Iraq since 2003, and a symbol what could change: if nationalism overtakes sectarianism as a political force; if Iraqi independence asserts itself over Iranian and U.S. influence; and if good governance can replace the kind of cronyism for which the country has become known. The formerly Shia sectarian ally of Iran who was known for corruption is forcefully embracing the opposite values in parliamentary elections at a time when the country may be uniquely ripe for them: Iraq has just emerged from a brutal battle against ISIS; the Shia parties are split into five major factions; there is no clear Sunni representative. And Iraq arrives at this juncture with many of the same problems that plagued it before ISIS seized large parts of the country in 2014.
“There’s frustration with corruption. There’s frustration with low quality of infrastructure services, like water and electricity. So people want change,” Ford said. “In the past, at least in the Shia side, the religious establishment in Najaf would back the Shia religious party, but this year they’ve come out with a statement in Arabic ... ‘don’t vote for the people who have experience’—as in, they’re corrupt.”
It’s against this backdrop that Sadr, a man who has successfully cultivated an image as an outsider despite his status as a consummate political insider, could hold the key. He controls a relatively small, but intensely loyal slice of the Shia electorate—and he has been working with Sunni politicians for more than a year. Although he may lose some of his Shia support to more radical and populist Shia parties that have emerged in the post-ISIS era, the fractured nature of Iraq’s electoral system means much of the political maneuvering will occur after this Saturday’s parliamentary elections. That’s where Sadr’s presence will be felt.
“It’s not difficult to imagine that people who have a certain amount of experience negotiating with other political parties are going to do better in a post-election climate,” Ford said, “and Sadr has been working on that for at least the last year.”
To understand how a man with a solid, but marginal support base can remain politically vital, it is helpful to examine the political situation in Iraq. The electoral landscape is perhaps more divided than it has ever been. There’s little to show for Shia solidarity, including in the ruling Dawa Party, where Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, are running on different political lists. There is no clear Sunni leader. The Kurds, who until recently were both influential and powerful, have been chastened after they were crushed by the Iraqi military following the referendum on independence last year. The only certainty in the elections is that no one faction will emerge dominant in the 328-seat parliament.
In this scenario, Sadr can wield a lot of influence, Ben Van Heuvelen, the editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report, a publication that reports on Iraq’s energy industry, told me. “Where I think that Sadr has a comparative advantage is that the Sadrists historically have been very well organized,” he said. “His supporters come from grassroots efforts, not particularly dependent on whichever way the winds are blowing politically. In terms of the number of seats he commands [in parliament], and in the loyalty he can expect from the MPs and his bloc, that’s fairly solid in an otherwise fluid political situation.”
Sadr’s solid political support partly comes from who he is: His uncle Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (whose daughter Sadr married) was the preeminent Shia scholar of his time, and his father, Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was revered throughout the Shia world. The men, both grand ayatollahs, were killed by Saddam’s regime. The younger Sadr holds nowhere near that level of religious influence in Iraq. But what he lacks in moral authority, he makes up for in political influence—and loyalty. He has distinguished himself in other ways, as well: He has not only positioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader, but also as an Iraqi nationalist opposed to both Iranian and American influence. More importantly, perhaps, Ford says he doesn’t believe Sadr is interested in either a political role or a ministerial position. “His goal instead is to be influential in politics and to be a player. … Sadr sees his role as being a guide rather than an operator.”
Take Sadr’s anti-corruption drive. Two years ago, Sadr’s supporters stormed Baghdad’s supposedly secure Green Zone and took over Parliament. They demanded improved governance and an end to corruption—and they left after a day, on Sadr’s orders. During that time, Sadr first demanded a government of technocrats, who, many Iraqis believe, are untarnished by corruption and capable of bringing much-needed competence to governance. That remains Sadr’s demand in these elections, too—though, as Ford pointed out, “technocrats with no political support may not get very far.”
Ford also noted that Sadr’s anti-corruption rhetoric is ironic because his party had for a time controlled the health and transportation ministries. “They were known to be pretty corrupt in the health ministry, not to mention sectarian,” he said. “A lot of times Sunnis were hauled out and murdered from the hospital.”
That remains another of Sadr’s legacies. When Iraq fell into chaos in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, his Mahdi Army fought not only American troops, but also Sunnis. The group was held responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated against the Sunni population of Iraq, which despite being a minority had enjoyed dominance in Saddam’s Iraq at the expense of the Shia majority. But Sadr disbanded his powerful Mahdi Army in 2008. He later formed what he called the Peace Companies to fight ISIS, disbanded that group last December after the defeat of the terrorist group, and agreed to hand over its weapons to the government.
Sadr’s unlikely political transformation may have more to do with pragmatism than with any newfound sectarian goodwill in Iraq. Because Iraq’s political alliances are built on a system of lists, the more inclusive your list, the more seats you’re likely to get in parliament. In Mosul, a Sunni stronghold that until recently was governed by ISIS, Abadi, who is Shia, has encouraged many Sunnis to run on his “Victory Alliance” list. Some Iraqi politicians seem to be recognizing that inclusion may help build the biggest possible coalition after the election.
“It’s a sign that sectarian identity isn’t as big a factor in this election as it seemed to be in previous elections,” Van Heuvelen said. “The implication is that it’s not bad politics to be associated with members of different ethnicities and sects, and that’s a hopeful thing.”
This is not to say, he adds, that identity politics are no longer important. Indeed, one of the major Shia groups in the upcoming elections is the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance, which includes the Popular Mobilization Forces that fought ISIS—and that were responsible for some of the more high-profile atrocities against Sunnis in areas they captured. Groups like Fatah might not be anti-Sunni, per se, but they do play on Shia identity politics.
Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and dean of the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained Iraq’s politics this way: No Shia leader positions himself as a sectarian. On the contrary, they position themselves as the rulers of all of Iraq. “But in the end all of the votes are going to come from Shia, not from the Sunnis,” he said. All the Shia factions, including Sadr’s, he said, “are vying for the chunk of the Shia vote—so this overture to Sunnis is of marginal value to them.”
“It’s a campaign slogan of telling Shias that I am better than the other Shia parties in actually governing Iraq, because I can actually claim support from the Sunnis,” he said. “It’s really a message to Shia, not a message to Sunnis.”
Sadr, Nasr says, has most differentiated himself from the other Shia parties in one way: He “has been trying to say, well I’m the Shia party which is most distant from Iran.” This is a significant position to hold in a country where Iran’s influence is sweeping. Tehran cultivates not only Shia politicians and factions, like Fatah, but also Sunni leaders. Sadr’s is a position that could prove appealing to Sunnis and those Iraqis who are tired of outside interference in their country’s affairs.
But that may be wishful thinking. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, and the latest skirmishes between Israel and Iran in Syria, which also borders Iraq, all but ensure that Iraq will remain a significant area of activity and influence for Iran and the other major power in Iraq, the United States. Iran has publicly shied away from criticizing or opposing Sadr—despite his rhetoric against its influence in Iraq. This may be motivated by Tehran’s own goal of seeing the U.S. leave Iraq—a goal it shares with Sadr.
“The Iranians are entirely more supple, patient, and they think long term,” Ford said. “They are able to work for longer-term goals, and not just short-term.”
In any case, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal ensures that Tehran will play some sort of role—perhaps even spoiler—in the period after Saturday’s election.
“The real game starts after the election,” Nasr said. “In a post-Iran-nuclear-deal scenario, it’s going to be difficult to see [how] Iraq will form a government. We sort of have to think that every time Iraq has had a stable government, it has been built by the collaboration and cooperation of Iran and the U.S., including Abadi’s replacement by Maliki.”
Still, this is perhaps the most optimistic period in Iraq in some time—certainly compared to the dark days of 2014-15 when ISIS seized large parts of the country with seemingly little effort. The country has survived an existential threat. Higher oil prices have allowed it to begin emerging from a financial crisis. The political rhetoric is less sectarian and less divisive than in the past.
“There are reasons to hope, but there’s always a but,” Van Huevelen said. “And the note of caution is that all of the systemic problems that were present before ISIS are still present.”
This is where Sadr’s apparent transformation could signal profound implications for Iraqi politics going forward.
“The success of Sadr’s approach and platform is more important than that of his candidates. If his coalition is repudiated by voters, or abandons its plans to challenge poor governance, then we can expect more of the dispiriting business-as-usual from Baghdad,” Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote recently. “But if Sadr follows through after the election and promotes the formation of a platform-based government with a legislative opposition, then we can expect Iraqi politics to enter a new phase, moving away from narrow sectarianism and patronage-only politics.”
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