Sadr ‘s stances trigger showdown with Iraq protest movement
BAGHDAD –The relationship between the controversial Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the activists supporting the popular protest movement in Iraq has moved towards increased tension, after Sadr attempted to put the brakes on the momentum of the popular demonstrations by placing a number of conditions on the street movement, described as arbitrary.
Sadr had hesitated a lot before siding with the protest movement that began in October 2019. Activists said that the Sadrists, the moniker given to Sadr’s followers, did not join in the protests until they realised that they were overwhelming; so they jumped on the wagon of the protests for fear to see their place on the street disappear.
During the months-long series of demonstrations, the relationship between the protesters and the popular current affiliated with al-Sadr was erratic at best. The two parties converged repeatedly at some points but also diverted repeatedly at some others. This relationship, however, witnessed a clear turning point when the United States killed the commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, and the field commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a raid near Baghdad airport in early 2020.
While the protesters welcomed the US action and saw in it an opportunity to reduce Tehran’s dominance of political, security and economic decisions in Iraq, Sadr and his followers sided with Iran and participated in a partisan demonstration demanding the condemnation of the United States, before the representatives of the Shia cleric in the Iraqi parliament participated in drafting a resolution compelling the government to remove US troops out of the country.
As the Sadr current re-joined the mantle of Iran to be on the side of armed militia leaders who are challenging the state, Sadr’s name became anathema in the protest squares of central and southern Iraq’s Shia cities.
During celebrations of the rites of a Shia religious occasion in Karbala last weekend, pro-Iranian militias accused a crowd of young Shias who came to participate in the religious mourning rituals of organising a political demonstration. And indeed, the young men and women participating in the demonstration had chanted anti-Iranian slogans, which exacerbated the charges against them.
Instead of coming out in support of the right to demonstrate and express one’s opinion freely, Muqtada al-Sadr surprised everyone with a strange campaign against the protesters, calling on his followers to participate in the campaign.
Sadr persisted in his stance against the popular movement and announced 12 conditions for allowing protesters to demonstrate, while threatening to use a deterrent force against the violators.
Analysts saw him as completely bypassing the role of the state and government agencies that bear the responsibility of allowing or banning public demonstrations and totally ignoring the constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. Activists have mounted a popular campaign against the positions of the Shia cleric.
In an ironic move, the protesters and activists surprised Sadr with 12 conditions of their own to allow his supporters to participate in a demonstration that the activists wanted to launch on October 25.
Among the conditions laid down by the protesters was that Sadr offer a public apology for failing to abide by his promise to refrain from participating in political life and limit his activities to his religious role.
The protesters reminded Sadr of the involvement of his Mahdi Army militia, which he established in 2004, in acts of sectarian violence against Sunnis in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, calling on him to acknowledge responsibility for these acts and compensate those affected by them.
They also demanded of the leader of the Sadrist movement to “evacuate the Turkish Restaurant (a building in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad that the demonstrators call Mount Uhud) occupied by your militia and which has become a den for kidnapping and killing activists.”
Another one of the demonstrators’ demands consisted in challenging Sadr to withdraw the ministers and MPs who represent him in the government and parliament and to “stop the pensions of former deputies and ministers from your bloc,” as well as “returning the money stolen by Abu Fadak, Bahaa al-Araji, Ali al-Tamimi, Governor of Baghdad, the directors of your office Aounal-Nabi and Jalil al-Nuri, and other senior figures from your followers who held government positions.”
The demonstrators also challenged Sadr “to return the money deposited in your name in the Islamic Bank of Tehran, Mashhad Investment Bank and Bank Audi in Lebanon,” and to return 80 vehicles and a private aircraft owned by him to the state.
They demanded from the leader of the Sadrist movement to “withdraw the Peace Brigades that occupy the city of Samarra, hand over their weapons to the Ministry of Defence exclusively, and return the city to the local police there.”
Activists say that the relationship established between the protest movement and the Sadrist movement in October 2019 was purely tactical, and represented a common response based on various motives, as the goal of the demonstrations was to overthrow the political system dominated by Shia political Islam parties, while Sadr sought to strengthen his role in this system and fill any voids created in the system by pressure from the street.
Observers expect that there will be friction between the independent demonstrators and Sadr’s followers during any future protest gatherings in Baghdad and Nasiriyah in particular.
Sadr will try to maintain his presence in the street in the face of overwhelming popular anger against all the pillars of the political process in Iraq, including him and his political movement which has the largest bloc in Parliament and controls five ministries.
Challenging Sadr in this way is a big step for the Iraqi protest movement, which wants to be independent from all forms of political co-option. It does, however, raise the risk of reprisals against many prominent activists, who are currently rumoured of being targeted for liquidation at the hands of the Sadrist movement.