When al-Sadr attempts to regain spotlight
When thousands of Iraqis stormed the parliament building, housed in the supposedly impenetrable Green Zone in Baghdad, it was more than the culmination of weeks of public frustration over the government’s inability to deal with corruption and political gridlock. It was the latest step by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to reinsert himself forcefully into the country’s political whirlwind.
After all, the protesters did not represent a broad spectrum of Iraqis fed up with government intransigence. They were al-Sadr followers who moved into the Green Zone on al-Sadr’s command and left as soon as al-Sadr told them to. No doubt such a show of force left many cowering legislators fearing what lies ahead.
Indeed, al-Sadr signalled that the protesters would return if his demands for immediate government reforms were not met.
The storming of the parliament caught many Western observers by surprise. Iraq has, more or less, disappeared from the West’s mindset, as Europe frets about refugees and the United States about the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency.
Al-Sadr had basically disappeared from view for almost eight years, although never completely. To the West, it appeared the relevance of al-Sadr and his personal militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, once considered by the US military to be as dangerous to America as al-Qaeda, had disappeared.
Then, rather suddenly, al-Sadr returned near the beginning of this year, under a new guise. Not the warlord of past years but, as one media source dubbed him, “the Gandhi of Iraq”.
Al-Sadr called for an end to the endemic corruption in Iraq, which threatens the future of the country almost as much as the Islamic State (ISIS). He denounced the despised quota system, a legacy from the years when the United States ruled Iraq as an occupying power, that determines posts in the government based on sect and ethnicity. He gave Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi 45 days to create a new cabinet to pursue reforms.
When nothing happened, his followers created a protest camp city outside the Green Zone. The moment that truly signified al-Sadr’s return as a force in Iraq, however, came when he entered the Green Zone by himself, unarmed, with only a few followers. Not only did guards not try to stop him, they embraced him. It was a powerful image.
Then came the storming of the parliament a month later.
So what does al-Sadr want?
While the United States and Britain see the defeat of ISIS as the most important objective in Iraq, the country’s citizens see Abadi’s failure to solve the country’s economic and corruption problems as more important. Al-Sadr, who may have been just biding his time, could be riding the wave of this discontent to make himself an important, if not The important, political player.
Or, to be more pragmatic, Iraq will have elections in a couple of years. During the time that al-Sadr was keeping a low profile, other militia leaders and clerics have risen in popularity.
The recent protests could have been more than a way to say: “Hey, I’m still here, don’t forget about me” so that when the country votes next time, his followers will maintain a strong foothold in the parliament.
There has been speculation that al-Sadr chose this moment to act because his political backer, Iran, was worried about the improving relationship between the United States and Abadi, who had replaced Iran’s prefer leader of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki. It is extremely unlikely that al-Sadr carried out his actions without approval from Iran’s top officials.
By moving now, al-Sadr throws a monkey wrench into Iraq’s political stability and allows Iran to send a message to both the government in Baghdad and to the United States.
Regardless of his ultimate goal, Muqtada al-Sadr is back and has plans. Those will no doubt cause headaches in Washington and London, as they did in the past. This new version of al-Sadr, who has always been a charismatic figure, may prove to be an even more difficult puzzle for the West to solve.