Splits in Sadrist camp expose fault lines

If al-Sadr is unable to heal internal party wounds, his foreign policy approach — lauded in the West — will falter.
Sunday 02/06/2019
A 2018 file picture shows Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada  al-Sadr (C) visiting his father’s grave in Najaf. (Reuters)
A complex figure in the Iraqi puzzle. A 2018 file picture shows Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (C) visiting his father’s grave in Najaf. (Reuters)

Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s ever-changing political stripes bemuse more than they surprise onlookers.

The 44-year-old populist leader heads one of Iraq’s two largest parliamentary blocs, Al Islah (the Reformers).

Reform, or at least its promise that flickers throughout his slogans and speeches, has allowed al-Sadr to reinvent himself as reform-minded peace-advocate capable of liberating Iraq from Iran’s grasp.

He sets himself apart from other heavyweights by presenting himself as the “opposition” against a “government of the corrupt” that he’s regularly warned to “act before it’s too late.”

Today’s al-Sadr is far different from yesterday’s, having abandoned violence, despite continuing to command a private militia known as the Peace Brigades.

Periodic dismissals of his appointees — a common trend in the 16 years of the movement’s life — has offered al-Sadr quick-fix solutions to arising problems but it is compromising party unity.

The party was recently ravaged by another crisis following a series of dismissals of advisers and businessmen, prompting violent clashes outside Bashir Mall in Najaf.

During the al-Sadr-led protests against corrupt affiliates and high-ranking figures outside an upscale mall, security guards fired on demonstrators, killing four people and injuring 17 others, Najaf’s Hakim Hospital reported. The mall, owned by Jawad al-Gara’awi, the former vice-chairman of Najaf Airport Board, was later set on fire by protesters.

Gara’awi, known locally as Abu Aktham, is a controversial figure in the Sadrist trend. He was widely accused of abuse of power during his appointment as a member of Najaf’s local government. In 2016, Abu Aktham’s brother Bashir, who owns shares in the mall, was threatened by al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades militia to pay $4,000 ransom or they would torch the mall.

Therefore, the dispute that rocked Najaf is not new but is rooted in old financial rivalries, over Najaf airport and more, between senior Sadrist figures.

The latest round of musical chairs has proven internally contentious and reopened old disputes as the big fish get away while the smaller players take the rap.

A senior aide to al-Sadr, Saleh Mohammad al-Iraqi, named four advisers whose roles were spared — Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, Mohamad al-Jayashi, Hassan Ethari and Waleed Karimawi.

Iraqi did not explain the decision behind the choice of those four men but iterated that “there will be no more aides” and quoted al-Sadr as having said that “I have no aides or advisers who enjoy a favoured status.”

Sadrist MP Awad al-Awadi who fought alongside al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades, posted a video in which he called on al-Sadr to reconsider his moves stating that “this is the second time I’m discriminated against and I have no business or commercial interests.”

He argued that “my only association with Essawi is that I sat on a special committee that he led in the past.” “I’ve earned every dinar honestly,” Awadi said.

Al-Sadr’s rift with Kadhim al-Essawi, another aide, who has appeared in videos holding a gun at the mall shootout, has gripped local media reporting that focused on a 1-year ultimatum that al-Sadr presented to Essawi. Essawi’s name received a special mention in Iraqi’s statement.

Al-Sadr ordered Essawi to “relinquish business proceeds and donate them to the family of martyrs” or turn his back on any of his business ventures, reported Sawt al-Iraq.

Essawi is said to have responded with the formation of the Taboun (“the Repentant”) bloc.

Essawi is not alone. Qussay al-Essawi, Ali Hadu, Awad al-Awadi and Imad Abu Mariam, must choose between business interests or the party.

The temptation to explain these clashes with reference to al-Sadr’s anti-Iran stance has been on full display across English-language media.

It should not distract onlookers from internal party divisions and a flawed anti-graft policy in which corruption of some but not others is tolerated. Despite emphasising the need for institutional controls to monitor party finances, al-Sadr appears exempt from such rules.

In a statement, Iraqi issued clear warnings to corrupt individuals arguing that the movement “will stand in their way” and that “bloody violence” will not be tolerated.

He added that a committee formed by al-Sadr will pursue legal action against the corrupt and to monitor the movement of party members “in an authorised centralised-administrative way” the statement read.

This uneven playing field is breeding antagonism but does little to fight Iraq’s well-advanced culture of corruption, as contradictions, which have existed before, reach new heights.

If al-Sadr is unable to heal internal party wounds, his foreign policy approach — lauded in the West — will falter, similar to his attempt to rein in the violence of militiamen he commands.

The banner of reform has offered al-Sadr a convenient armour to hide behind but for how long?