Sadr steps to forefront of Iraqi politics amid crisis

Friday 18/03/2016
Followers of Iraq’s Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrating in Tahrir Square

DETROIT - Leading two large anti-cor­ruption protests in Bagh­dad, influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is send­ing a clear message that he does not support Iraqi Prime Minis­ter Haider al-Abadi and his policies.

On consecutive Fridays — Febru­ary 26th and March 4th — tens of thousands of Sadr followers poured into the streets of Baghdad in an unprecedented show against the government. Sadr’s political bloc is the main party in parliament.

Sadr called for an end to corrup­tion among officials and a reshuf­fling of the cabinet, which shows his disappointment with the slow pace of enacting the reforms Abadi had promised.

Some of those Sadr demanded leave government because of cor­ruption had been his supporters.

Salam Qassim, a Baghdad-based political analyst, pointed out that Sadr had ignored corruption of his bloc’s ministers since 2003, but is now leading anti-government pro­tests.

“Obviously, Sadr wants to de­pict himself as the long-awaited saviour. Iraqis are looking for a mi­raculous hero to fix the mess. Sadr decided to play the hero of reform,” Qassim said.

Responding to protests, which began last summer, Abadi prom­ised political and economic reforms but met resistance from powerful political leaders keen to protect their interests.

Adding to the turmoil, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has quit delivering weekly sermons on politics and government corrup­tion, which led many Iraqis to be­lieve that he had grown frustrated with the government’s inability to solve the country’s problems.

Iraq is plagued by a worsening economic crisis brought about by low oil prices, rampant corruption and the costly war against Islamic State (ISIS) militants.

“Abadi’s failure to address the country’s problems has damaged his image among Iraqis. Also, it might have encouraged a frustrated Sadr to take the lead,” said Qassim.

During one of the rallies, Sadr warned Abadi that his position is “at stake” if he fails to take deci­sive action against corruption. The cleric threatened that his follow­ers would storm the Green Zone, a sprawling compound in central Baghdad that houses government offices and foreign embassies.

“This government has abandoned its people, who are struggling to survive death, fear, starvation and unemployment,” Sadr said.

Abadi said political reforms can­not be done “under threat and mo­bilisation of masses”.

Sadr’s actions alarmed other in­fluential Shias. Senior Shia leaders issued a statement after a March 6th meeting in Karbala criticising attempts by unnamed people to unilaterally control decision-mak­ing — an implicit reference to Sadr.

Sadr responded by suspending the participation of his political bloc in meetings of the Shia Iraqi National Alliance.

Political analyst Hamid al-Khaz­alie said Sadr might have crossed red lines set by his Shia partners who are worried that an “uncon­trollable” cleric is distracting Shias from the fight against “the ISIS wolf lurking outside the gates of Bagh­dad”.

“Sadr has picked the wrong time to achieve the radical change,” Khazalie said.

“Any division among Shias now will only serve Daesh,” Amir Abdul- Zahra, a Shia resident of Baghdad, said using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“Sadr remained silent for sev­eral years over the corruption of his own ministers and government officials. Why is he suddenly jump­ing on that?”

Two Sadrist officials, former deputy prime minister for Energy Affairs Bahaa al-Araji and Industry Minister Mohammed al-Daraji, who face corruption charges, attended the protests. That drew mockery on social media, with some question­ing the credibility of Sadr’s reform claims.

One picture posted on Facebook showed Daraji leading protesters in Baghdad, with the comment: “Cor­rupt official leads a rally against corruption.”