Shia cleric al-Sadr raises eyebrows in rare Iran visit

While many observers noted it was strange to see al-Sadr outside Iraq on Ashura, his visit to Tehran came at a time of deep political divisions among Iraq’s Shia factions.
Saturday 14/09/2019
Burning questions. Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (C) is seen sitting between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and commander of Iran’s al-Quds Force Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, September 10.  (AP)
Burning questions. Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (C) is seen sitting between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and commander of Iran’s al-Quds Force Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, September 10. (AP)

LONDON - Influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr surprised Iraqis by appearing seated between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and al-Quds commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani during a rare visit to Tehran to mark the Shia holy day of Ashura.

Photos of al-Sadr were released by the office of the Iranian supreme leader.

Ashura commemorates the death of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims head to Karbala every year to mark Ashura.

While many observers noted it was strange to see al-Sadr outside Iraq on Ashura, his visit September 10 came at a time of deep political divisions among Iraq’s Shia factions and as Baghdad tries to walk a tightrope between its two main allies, Tehran and Washington.

Tehran has close but complicated ties with Baghdad, with significant influence among its Shia political groups. Iran and Iraq fought a war from 1980-88 and Iran’s influence in Iraq grew after the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In 2014, Iran sent Soleimani and “military advisers” to Iraq to help it in the fight against the Islamic State and Soleimani plays a key role as a powerbroker in Iraq.

Al-Sadr is a populist cleric, political figure and former militia leader whose bloc emerged as the largest in the Iraqi parliament after May 2018 elections. However, he refused to align with the pro-Iran camp to form a government, visited Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and criticised pro-Iran paramilitary groups in Iraq, sparking contradictory analysis of the recent trip to Tehran.

Observers said they suspected al-Sadr had been “summoned” to Tehran after statements challenging Iran and its Iraqi allies in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of predominately Shia militias.

Al-Sadr recently initiated a Twitter campaign against the more hard-line elements of the PMF and even took aim at the Iraqi government, saying Iraq was becoming a “rogue” state.

Others said it might indicate a vote of confidence in al-Sadr by Iran’s leadership over the PMF’s political arm, the Fatah alliance.

A third interpretation is the possible wish by al-Sadr to portray himself as neutral in regional conflicts.

“Al-Sadr’s visit to Iran holds several messages, mainly his aim to create a balance, after accusations for being close to Arab and Gulf states,” head of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought Ihsan al-Shammari told Asharq Al-Awsat.

An anonymous source from al-Sadr’s office told Al-Monitor that the Iraqi cleric “was trying to convince Iranians to replace (Iraqi Prime Minister) Adel Abdul-Mahdi with a stronger prime minister.”

“Abdul-Mahdi came into power with Iran’s direct support and they have been happy with his performance so far. Therefore, al-Sadr is approaching them in this difficult time — as US sanctions on Iran become tougher — to convince them to remove Abdul-Mahdi,” Al-Monitor reported.

Al-Sadr’s visit coincided with the death of 31 pilgrims in a stampede in Karbala. At least 100 other people were injured in the stampede, which was the deadliest in recent history during Ashura commemorations.

Karbala Governor Nassif al-Khattabi declared three days of mourning in the province. Abdul-Mahdi and Iraqi Health Minister Alaa al-Din Alwan went to Karbala to visit with the wounded as messages of support poured in, with Iraqi President Barham Salih expressing his “deep condolences” to the victims’ families.

Iraqis on social media criticised the government for failing to ensure the safety of pilgrims.

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