The young men storming the entrance to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone as part of an anti-government demonstration in February were waving Iraqi flags as a sign of their commitment to country. But there was no question their loyalty was at least as strong to Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who called for the protests against a leadership he considers illegitimate and irredeemably corrupt. While Iraqi forces push further into the IS stronghold of Mosul, a fight over the future of Iraq is brewing in Baghdad. As has been the case since Saddam Hussein was toppled, Moqtada al-Sadr from a revered Shiite family is playing a leading role.
Over the past two decades, Sadr transformed from a young man little known outside religious circles to a militia leader who posed a major threat to US forces. Now, he is re-emerging in Iraqi political life as a nationalist political figure agitating against corruption and in favour of government reform. He is challenging Shiite political elites and, in fact, the entire Iraqi political system. He has reached beyond Sunni-Shiite divides, testing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Shiite, and threatening to boycott upcoming elections in the absence of reforms to Iraq’s electoral commission, which Sadr accuses of being under the sway of rival Shiite political parties he says are corrupt. On many Fridays he brings thousands into the streets in protest.
In the process, the still relatively young cleric, the son and the son-in-law of two Shiite clerics revered for their concern for the poor, has increasingly made an effort to portray himself as an Iraqi patriot. Now, he is poised to consolidate his position not only as an influential political kingmaker but as someone who can mobilise potentially millions of followers from Baghdad to the southern coastal city of Basra.
In April, he even broke with other Iraqi Shiite leaders in calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Iran, to step down to save the country from more bloodshed. “He really is someone who has provided a social and political outlet for the impoverished, particularly for those southerners who have never had a chance to have their say in middle-class and upper-class politics, which defines much of what goes on in Baghdad,” says Ahab Bdaiwi, a specialist in Islamic history at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Known by the honorific al-Sayyid, connoting a descendant of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), he only rarely appears in public and normally only in his home base in the holy city of Najaf. A rare appearance at an entrance to the Green Zone a year ago was the first time that many of his most devout followers had seen him in person. Some wept with emotion as he spoke. Weeks later, in a move to reshape the country’s political system by pushing Mr. Abadi to appoint a cabinet of technocrats, he ordered supporters to storm the Iraqi parliament.
With Iraq’s Sunni leadership deeply fragmented and accused by many of selling out to wealthy Gulf Arab states, Sadr’s demand for an Iraqi government that benefits Iraqis has found fertile ground among some Sunnis. It’s a major shift from the leading role played a decade ago by his militia, whose death squads fuelled the flames of Iraq’s civil war. The Sadr movement has undergone a political evolution. UK-educated men in suits have replaced some of the starkly sectarian political operatives who were on the front lines of Sadr movement. Sadr has replaced his Mahdi Army with a paramilitary group he calls the Peace Brigades, whose role in the fight against IS has largely been guarding Shiite shrines.
While Sadr’s militia was supported by Iran and he still spends time there, his relationship with Iranian leaders is said to be strained. Sadr has increasingly made an effort to portray himself as an Iraqi patriot. Most of the movement’s discourse now is about nationalism and inclusiveness. “I think there are lots of hidden and open regrets about what happened to the Mahdi army and its involvement in the sectarian killings in the height of 2006 and 2007,” Cockburn says. And some of his followers have undergone a political evolution as well.
— Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor