Violence erupted for a second day in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, after Muqtada al-Sadr’s sudden resignation from politics catapulted the country into chaos.
Although he has never directly been in government, al-Sadr remains one of Iraq’s most influential political figures and has a large grassroots following.
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He announced his withdrawal from politics on Monday, exacerbating an already fraught situation that has seen the country without a government for 10 months. His resignation came two days after he said “all parties” including his own should give up government positions in order to help resolve the political crisis.
In response to al-Sadr’s statement, his supporters stormed the government palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Clashes with rival Shia groups resulted in at least 30 people killed and 700 others wounded.
However, just as he was able to upend the capital with his initial statement, al-Sadr’s order on Tuesday for his supporters to leave the Green Zone quickly led to an end to the fighting – highlighting the religious leader’s power over his supporters, and leaving Iraqis wondering what will happen next in the country’s political crisis.
Iraq has been mired in a political deadlock since legislative elections in October last year due to disagreement between Shia factions over forming a government. Al-Sadr was touted as a kingmaker after his party obtained 70 of a total of 329 parliamentary seats – a significant increase compared with the result of 2018, when his movement won 54 seats – but still short of a majority.
In June, his politicians quit in a bid to break the impasse, which led the Coordination Framework – a pro-Iran and rival Shia bloc – to become the largest bloc.
Despite his party winning the most seats in the October elections, al-Sadr did not run as a candidate for Iraq’s prime ministership.
The reason is relatively simple and founded in al-Sadr’s political strategy, Ruba Ali al-Hassani, postdoctoral researcher at Lancaster University & Project SEPAD, told Al Jazeera.
“Sadr’s strategy to maintain followership is his claim to be a reformer. Using this claim, he has supported the Tishreen [October] Movement for months until Iran called on him to withdraw this support,” said al-Hassani.
“His flip-flopping on this particular matter may have cost him some followers, but for the most part, his followership is blindly loyal and truly believes in his image as a reformer. On this basis, I can see Sadr avoiding the premiership to maintain his claim to reform. His party also is strategic in its alliances. In the 2018 election, it allied with the Communist Party of Iraq to maintain this reform title.”
“This is all ironic, considering that he has had Sadrists in previous cabinets holding ministries such as the very deteriorating Ministry of Health while claiming to bring about reform,” al-Hassani added.
The questions around his policies have not had a significant effect on his popularity, however.
“By falsely claiming to boycott the election in the late summer, he won leverage because all the politicians who would seek legitimacy in the election needed him to participate. This was a smart move, so when Sadr did officially ‘rejoin’ the elections, we learned that he never really intended to boycott, as his party had been mobilising in the meantime with a mobile app, voter card registration, etc,” said al-Hassani.
While al-Sadr’s parties had obtained the most seats and thus the ability to form the next government, he still faces complex encumbrances, particularly ideological ones, al-Hassani noted.
“With some Iran-backed parties like Fatah, threatening violence unless they get the vote recount which they demand, government formation will be a challenge. Sadr, with his own militia, Saraya al-Salam, can fight Iran-backed units of the PMF but would rather not. Instead, he has been calling for calm.”
Powerful base of supporters
That all changed on Monday, after he announced his exit from politics, which many saw as giving the green light to his supporters to do whatever they want.
Early on Tuesday, new clashes between Sadr’s supporters and the army and men of the Hashd al-Shaabi – former Tehran-backed paramilitaries integrated into the Iraqi forces – erupted again.
Rocket-propelled grenades were fired in the Green Zone by Sadr’s armed group Saraya al-Salam as machine gun fire crackled overhead. According to Iraq’s military, four rockets were launched into the area.
Al-Sadr derives power from his ability to mobilise and control his large powerful base of supporters, who have called for the dissolution of parliament and early elections without the participation of Iran-backed Shia groups, which they see as responsible for the status quo.
After weeks of staging a sit-in, Sadrists stormed the parliament building on July 30 to press their demands.
Al-Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, a Shia dignitary who was politically active against the former leader Saddam Hussein, which he paid for with his life in 1999.
“The Sadrist base is significant in Baghdad and the southern provinces because it represents a Shia underclass that struggled during the previous government but viewed Muhammad al-Sadr as a religious authority who cared for them and preached to them when no one else dared to. This base continues to feel marginalised today, and al-Sadr appeals to them as the heir to his father’s position, but also as they feel he is their voice against all other political and religious factions,” said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at Century International and director of the Shia Politics Working Group.
In addition, al-Sadr is also deeply woven into the power structure of the Iraqi state. His confidants sit in government offices, act as vice ministers and in managerial positions.
After the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, al-Sadr and his supporters opposed the intervention force. His supporters inflicted painful losses on US troops. As a result, al-Sadr became one of the most wanted men in Iraq.
In recent times he has also increasingly turned against Iran’s influence. “He does attempt to deviate from Iran’s goals in Iraq, yet is influenced by Iran from time to time,” al-Hassani noted.
Hence, al-Sadr does not seem to have a clear strategy towards Iran in the future.
“We can expect Sadr to flip flop on some issues and to distance himself from Iran while still maintaining some ties with it. His leverage is in his unpredictability, and that can be a psychological weapon against his political counterparts. Of course, Iran will find a way to influence the government formation process to ensure that parties like Fatah maintain their power,” said al-Hassani.
Religious influences have also played a role in al-Sadr’s popularity. While Shia, he has by no means excluded Sunni and continues to advocate a non-denominational position.
“Unlike Fatah and other parties, Sadr does not rely on sectarian rhetoric in his campaigning. Instead, he runs on a populist note to gain more support. He is willing to join forces in cross-denominational alliances, and this gives his positionality greater power,” al-Hassani said.
With that being said, political parties in Iraq remain mostly denominational, and it may take many years for new parties who focus on issues above identity to become dominant, noted Jiyad.
Al-Sadr also knew how to leverage the protests in the country when he supported the demonstrators.
He has presented himself as the tribunal of the people and spearhead of the resistance against oppression, corruption and other abuses. All of this gave him a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of his followers. However, here, too, a double game is played, said al-Hassani.
“During the Tishreen protests, his ‘deputy’ directly incited violence against protesters in Nasiriya and praised the violence afterwards. When we discuss today, we must not forget his threat to activists and protesters.
“Sadr is by no means innocent, nor is he a man of the people as he claims to be,” al-Hassani added.
With the violent suppression of the protests, so, too, were the hopes of an end to corruption and the grievances connected with it. Hopes for a united Iraq with a robust civil society were also severely dampened. All of this has contributed to the heightened volatility in the country, but the origins of the continuing crisis remain elsewhere.
“What made the situation volatile is the violence practised by state and non-state armed groups: the assassinations, kidnappings, open murders of protesters in broad daylight. Free speech in Iraq is under dire threat. Many activists have had to flee either to the Kurdish region of Iraq or outside the country. There is a lack of employment opportunities, a deteriorating healthcare system during the pandemic, and deteriorating infrastructure, not to mention social issues that result from all this, such as domestic violence, drug addiction, a rise in suicide rates, etc,” said al-Hassani.
“At the moment, the volatility rests in the threats of violence and fears of escalation. It remains up to political winners like Sadr and behind-the-scenes political agreements to determine what happens next,” she added.
Whoever becomes the new head of state in Iraq, it will be harder for al-Sadr and his party to stand in the centre of power moving forward – and at the same time to position himself as the leader of a movement against the establishment. After all, to govern means to make decisions.
Moreover, with voter turnout of 41 percent, the new government’s democratic legitimacy already seems to be massively weakened before it has been formed.
This article was originally published in October 23, 2021, and updated on August 30, 2022.