While Muqtada al-Sadr may be this week’s biggest loser in Iraq, the country’s battle for influence is still in full swing
On Monday at noon, Kazem al-Haeri, a prominent Shia authority (marjaa) in Iraq – particularly among supporters of firebrand cleric Mustafa al-Sadr – announced his retirement and urged all ‘believers’ to follow the Leader of the Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Within Haeri’s two-page statement, he addressed the influential position of Muqtada al-Sadr – whose Sadrist bloc garnered the most votes in Iraq’s October 2021 election – and accused the wildly popular cleric of possessing neither the religious knowledge nor the ability to lead the Shia sect or the people of Iraq.
In response, Sadr made two decisions: the first, was a tweet to announce his retirement from Iraqi politics. Although he has regularly (nine times) ‘retired’ since 2013, this time it was under the guidance of a religious figure he could absolutely not ignore.
For Haeri is the religious heir to Muqtada’s father Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, one of the most influential Shia authorities in Iraq’s recent history. Before his untimely assassination along with two of his sons in 1999, the elder Sadr had urged his followers to obey Kazem al-Haeri in his stead.
Although in the intervening 23 years, Muqtada has garnered the widespread support of his father’s followers to become the most powerful Shia political figure in Iraq today, he is not Mohammad Sadeq’s designated religious heir, and so Haeri’s public set down was significant.
Baghdad on fire
On Monday evening, hours after Sadr’s Twitter resignation, Baghdad fell into violent chaos when Sadrists stormed the capital’s Green Zone, leading to 30 dead and almost 200 injured security forces and rioters.
Sadr’s quick resignation had in fact been a smart move to prevent his movement from splitting in half: he feared one group would stay loyal to him, while the second would obey his father’s successor, Haeri.
Haeri’s statement would not be the only blow to Sadr’s ambitions. Despite his vast number of Shia followers, Sadr has recently been beset by a series of political setbacks.
In June, after months of unsuccessfully struggling to form a coalition government with his winning parliamentary bloc, Sadr attempted to shake up the Iraqi political scene by ordering his political bloc to quit.
The resignation of his deputies from parliament did not reap the desired results. Iraq’s judiciary gave him the cold shoulder, refusing to provide legal backing for Sadr’s controversial move. And his political opponents slapped right back at him – step by step, tweet for tweet, street by street.
Not only did Sadr fail to dissolve parliament and put in motion a process for new elections, but his calls for other Iraqi parties and movements to relinquish their weapons were rejected.
A nail in Sadr’s coffin?
Sadr’s major second decision on Monday was executed through his party’s armed wing, Saraya al-Salam (Brigades of Peace, ironically). It is inconceivable that the mobs of armed Sadrists who stormed the Green Zone later that evening were part of a spontaneous action. In actuality, Sadr was sending Iraqis a mixed message: while he is withdrawing from commanding his bloc’s political leadership, he is in effect leaving it in the custody of Saraya al-Salam, which will ultimately take direction from Muqtada himself.
The Sadrists rapidly moved to demonstrate that they still maintain the upper hand in Baghdad – despite their leader’s resignation – with a show of force in the city’s high security Green Zone, where Iraq’s government buildings and foreign embassies are mainly located.
The most prominent of the Sadrists on the street that night was the general supervisor of Saraya al-Salam, Tahseen al-Hamidawi, a long-time fighter who participated for years in battles against US occupation forces in Iraq.
The role of Saraya al-Salam in transferring its militants from the neighborhoods of Sadr City, al-Shaab, and Ur neighborhood, east Baghdad, to the Green Zone was crystal clear on Monday night.
Not only did these fighters engage in armed confrontation in the heart of Baghdad, they also moved to the city’s outskirts to torch the headquarters of some Popular Mobilization Units (PMU or Hashd al-Shaabi ) such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the State of Law coalition of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In addition, during the clashes, rockets were fired at the US embassy and pictures of Iranian leaders were burned.
The Sadrists were clearly trying to provoke the PMU into armed confrontation, but the latter exercised a uniform discipline that left the former clashing with Iraqi government forces instead.
Although regional and foreign media tried to frame these clashes as a Shia-on-Shia fight between Sadists and pro-Iran PMU groups, this was never the case, as Sadr himself later clarified in his statement the following day.
The conflagration that night picked up steam quickly, spreading to Basra, the economic capital of Iraq, and to the provinces of Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Diwaniyah.
The clashes between Saraya al-Salam and Iraqi security forces spilled into Tuesday morning, as in Iraq, each person has his own clan and tribal extension, and any crisis tends not to remain confined between political parties once the bloodshed begins.
This was not a good look for Sadr and his supporters. They were fighting, killing, and injuring Iraq’s own forces, and had not succeeded in drawing his opponents into the street. Muqtada had to stop the clashes, and quickly.
A source close to both Ayatollah Ali Sistani – Iraq’s leading Shia authority – and Sadr, tells The Cradle that Sistani’s son, Mohammed Ridha, called Muqtada to arrange a meeting with his father.
In their meeting, Ali Sistani, the Shia cleric whose famous fatwa led to the creation of the PMU after ISIS invaded Iraq, urged Sadr to stop the carnage at once.
Following their conversation, on the afternoon of 30 August, Sadr aired a televised statement demanding that his supporters end their siege of Baghdad’s Green Zone. He further thanked the PMU for their restraint and for not participating in the clashes.
Humbled by his miscalculations, Sadr referred to himself as an “ordinary citizen” and disavowed his own Saraya al-Salam militia by calling their actions “shameless.”
Iraqis recognize that what is happening now is merely an attempt to calm the situation, and that at least the immediate risk of renewed fighting has been removed.
While it is true that Sadr’s political rival parties were calling for calm, they too have been prepped for an internal fight. These parties hold Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi responsible for allowing the escalation, and have hinted that he has benefited from widespread Iraqi support for their security forces during the clashes, as he rigorously pursues a second term in office.
The ongoing fragility of Iraq’s political impasse demands tangible, radical solutions implemented by a transitional government that tackles the issues of the Electoral Commission, the electoral law, the overlapping of powers, and constitutional loopholes. These are urgent items agreed upon by all political parties.
In public, the official demands of the two rival Shia camps focus on the way the state is run, but in truth, it is a battle for influence in the government and the state.
According to well-informed sources, several Iraqi armed movements, particularly Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades and the Badr Organization, are working on reorganizing inter-Shia talks to reconcile their differences and reach a win-win solution palatable to all.
Although Sadr has stepped away from politics – at least for now – he was able to send several messages this week: he confused Iraq’s various regional influencers, reestablished himself as an important militia leader, and in his resignation speech, managed to win the sympathy of some of his opponents.
Winners and losers
Despite scoring some important points, Sadr and his movement are likely the biggest losers from this week’s events in Iraq.
First, Sadr has consistently demanded that Iraqi militias (PMU), mainly the Iranian-backed variety, hand over their weapons to the government, fearing they might be used internally and not against ISIS or foreign occupation forces. Instead, Monday’s events plainly showed the country that the only militia using their bullets on Iraqis were Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam.
Regionally and internationally, Sadr has been a hard nut to crack – an unpredictable powerhouse with a lot of people-power inside Iraq. Muqtada has fought both the Americans by gun and the Iranians by politics, and his statements against both can flip from one day to the next.
If Sadr keeps his word and maintains his distance from politics, this will create a domestic vacuum that both the US and Iran will be eager to fill.
Given that Iraq’s Shia demographic represents more than 60 percent of the country’s population, and Haeri has asked Mohammad Sadiq a-Sadr’s followers to obey Iran’s supreme leader in his stead, Iran may at first glance have the upper hand in this contest.
An Iraq unswayed by US diktats is, after all, more likely to ease its restricted borders, engage more heavily in trade and diplomacy with its immediate neighbors, and play nice with the region’s Axis of Resistance, which wields influence from Beirut and Damascus to Tehran and Sanaa.
The only genuinely popular Shia leader in West Asia who does not share Iran’s political worldview, at least in recent times, is Muqtada al-Sadr. His exit from Iraq’s political scene makes room for the Resistance Axis’ foreign policy and economic development vision to grow, with less fear of internal breaches and more coordination against common external enemies.
The US and its Persian Gulf allies, however, will not stop seeking influence over Iraqi decisions. Their efforts to sow discord between Shia political parties has succeeded in recent years, and whether knowingly or unwittingly, Sadr was instrumental in realizing this schism.
Only time will tell how this picture progresses. Sadr remains a highly unpredictable figure inside Iraq with a strong support base, and one who is not known for sticking to his word.