Can opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr claw back credibility?

The Iraqi street has grown accustomed to al-Sadr’s artful dodging but observers misdiagnosed al-Sadr’s “great betrayal” of the October uprisings.
Sunday 02/02/2020
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr attends prayers at the Kufa Mosque in Najaf, last November. (Reuters)
Now what? Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr attends prayers at the Kufa Mosque in Najaf, last November. (Reuters)

Twenty-four hours after supporters of the Sadrist trend arrived at Baghdad’s Liberation Square in white air-conditioned buses, the movement’s populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered their withdrawal.

This marked, as media reporting framed, the beginning of the end of al-Sadr’s support of Iraq’s October uprising. The great betrayal, as some described, cost al-Sadr credibility that he may struggle to claw back as a permanent fixture of the political system that Iraqis want abolished.

Online backlash to al-Sadr’s call for anti-American protests by demonstrators and diaspora a week earlier can explain the sudden change of the fickle-minded leader who sits atop the largest bloc in parliament.

In a purely political act, al-Sadr’s calls fall into a wider trend seen before: veering protests off track to engineer their outcomes.

This happened in March 2015 and again in May 2016, loyalists were deployed to expedite demands that included the “replacement of muhasasa,” a political system in which allotted seats are determined by patronage, and “to uproot corruption and its enablers.”

Those ultimatums and the deployment of al-Sadr’s expansive populist base in Baghdad helped blur the original character of protest movements — a successful hijacking.

However, the October uprising survived Sadrist-engineered co-optation. The nationalist movement maintained its independence, even in the unrelenting face of state-sanctioned violence.

What might be different this time is the steadily rising death toll — estimated at 650-900. The tempestuous situation makes it difficult to corroborate figures, as well as insufficient state-led casualty counting efforts. Al-Sadr’s capitulation to a system guilty for the loss of hundreds of lives may stand in the way of ambitions for his movement.

October protests, like the current Iraqi government, were leaderless. Al-Sadr inserted himself into the mix but his constituents, as residents of Baghdad’s poorest pockets, have the choice to leave or stay.

By cutting ties, al-Sadr removed himself but not necessarily his followers. His withdrawal of backing creates an opportunity for protest ranks to grow, away from the private interests of politically minded Sadrists and those seeking to ride the tide of popular dissent.

“Al-Sadr pulls support” should not be conflated with “al-Sadr withdraws protection” as protection-rackets were nowhere to be seen when unarmed youth were gunned down in Nasiriya, Sinak Bridge, Mohammad-Qasem highway and elsewhere.

The appetite for violence is likely to grow, owing not so much to al-Sadr’s withdrawal but rather the threat the uprisings pose to a political class desperate to maintain its weight in the country.

Al-Sadr’s frequent visits to Tehran dealt a blow already difficult to recover from. His attempt to disguise his political stripes beneath the claim of “neutrality,” as he has tweeted, may never see him able to claw back the credibility his fickleness has cost. Political self-interest is a fact of daily exploitation that the common masses live under but will no longer tolerate.

As the only standing ideologue of one of two important Shia families in Iraq’s post-2003 order, al-Sadr is an unpredictable horse that Iran may regret betting on. The other, the Hakim clergy family, failed to renew its appeal altogether but carved its own path in lucrative businesses without institutions of its own to extort.

Before it splintered, the Hakim-led Supreme Council was supported by al-Sadr in Iraq’s 2010 election. In Iraq’s first elections in 2005, a 31-year-old fresh-faced al-Sadr joined the Shia mainstream, the United Shia Alliance that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani refused to endorse.

In 2011, al-Sadr stood by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s side urging reform while hundreds of thousands rallied nationwide to reject Maliki’s sectarian-inspired rule. In March 2016, Sadrists broke into the Green Zone but withdrew after occupying the fortified area and parliament buildings for 48 hours.

Similarly, al-Sadr intervened to discipline the political system under Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that, at the time, he said “must straighten its path.”

These tricks amounted to little more than oxygen for the ailing political order but, with protest momentum building, has al-Sadr’s luck run out?

The Iraqi street has grown accustomed to al-Sadr’s artful dodging but observers misdiagnosed al-Sadr’s “great betrayal” of the October uprisings by missing the fact that an alliance between him and protesters never existed.

Al-Sadr’s trademark to promote an oppositionist brand of politics that animates hostility against the United States while cosying up to Iran has ratcheted distrust towards al-Sadr. There may be no remedy for al-Sadr’s bruised credibility.