Iraq’s crisis of elite, consensus-based politics turns deadly: The Sadrists

This article is the second in a three-part series on Iraq’s political crisis. The first article analyzed the crisis more generally while this piece explores the perspectives of the Sadrists. The final article will explore the perspective of the Coordination Framework.

 

Part II: The Sadrists

More than 11 months after Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary elections, the government has yet to be formed. The government formation power struggle pits the Sadrist Movement, led by populist Shi’a cleric Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, against the Coordination Framework (CF), a loose assemblage of Shi’a parties, united mostly by their opposition to the Sadrist Movement. Central to the dispute are longstanding political rivalries and personal feuds in competition over government postings. Upon Sadr’s instructions, Sadrist MPs resigned from parliament in June after opponents’ efforts and a judicial decision thwarted his attempts to form a national majority government. Sadr’s supporters staged a nearly month-long sit-in that eventually ended when armed groups aligned with the CF fired on protesters and clashed with Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist Movement’s armed wing. The clashes left more than 30 dead and in the aftermath Sadr announced his resignation from politics. The ongoing Arba’een religious pilgrimage forces political downtime, but the deadlock continues and many fear future violence unless both camps can agree on mutually acceptable concessions.   

The Ashoura Revolution and parliament sit-in

Following Sadrist MPs’ withdrawal from parliament and the CF’s attempts to continue government formation efforts without Sadr, the populist Shi’a cleric was left with few options. Capitalizing on his constructed image as a “reformist” and ability to mobilize his supporters, Sadr did what he often does: He sent his followers to the street to demand change. The “Ashoura Revolution” and nearly month-long sit-in at parliament called for radical change of the political system. Sadr and Salah Mohammad al-Iraqi1 issued dozens of statements throughout this period, partly in hopes of galvanizing broader support and legitimacy, but also outlining demands for reform, instructions to followers, and criticisms of opponents. Most non-Sadrists interviewed by the author interpreted the call for revolution as a power move aimed at sidelining former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,2 leader of the State of Law Coalition and current head of the CF, and his political opponents and pushing back against government formation (or any potential legislation) disadvantageous to the Sadrist Movement following their withdrawal from parliament.

During two separate visits to the parliament sit-in in August,3 the author spoke with more than a dozen supporters about their demands, grievances, goal of the sit-in, how it compared to the 2019 Tishreen protests, and how the sit-in might potentially end. The scene and the participants’ responses were a reflection of the intense adoration of their leader, not one of a grassroots, revolutionary movement, even though they said, and some perhaps believed, otherwise. This is not to say that the protesters did not have real grievances or that mobilization was not warranted — many spoke of economic and health hardships and how the system marginalized them — but many simply stated they were there on behalf of Sayyid Sadr and would continue until he said stop.

Protesters, mostly from majority-Shi’a areas, especially southern Iraq, filled the protest spaces inside and outside of parliament. Due to the extreme heat, additional supporters from Baghdad, especially Sadr City, would join in the evenings, after sunset. Service tents, which normally line the road during pilgrimages to holy cities, served food and water and even provided healthcare to those in need. Tribes and various sheikhs displayed their flags in support of Sadr. Neatly laid out with multiple security checkpoints, the scene was a testament to the well-oiled Sadrist political machine. Hanging from a tree above the movement’s media tent were enlarged printouts of Sadr’s recent tweets raising his demands and directing his followers.

While some non-Sadrist civil society activists were reportedly present, almost everyone the author spoke with echoed Sadr and the “minister of the leader’s” demands. They said that this is the people’s revolution and demanded the dissolution of parliament, early elections, a revolutionary new system representing the political majority, a new constitution, the ousting of corrupt leaders who had failed the Iraqi people (especially Maliki), and an end to the informal ethno-sectarian apportionment system known as muhassasa. They also accused the judiciary of not being neutral and called for its reform, among other demands. But mostly the protesters just spoke in support of their leader, whom they described as a nationalist and a bulwark against corruption and foreign intervention, whether from Iran or the West. In between questions, interviewees and groups of supporters broke into chants praising Sayyid Sadr (or as some call him, Abu Hashim) and waved his picture. Several protesters also demanded jobs from the government and better services from it and the U.N. Participants said this was not their first protest in support of Sadr.

When asked about the differences between the Ashoura Revolution and past Tishreen protests, noting their quick and comparatively bloodless entry into parliament, members of the Sadrist Movement’s Imam Mosque Foundation for Culture and Media, though quick to mention that more than 125 people were injured, pointed to several key factors. First, they blamed former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi for serving Iranian interests, implying that he was partly responsible for the extreme levels of violence during the Tishreen protests. Second, they said that that the “transitional government” under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is better and less bloody. Third, they said that their protests were more organized than Tishreen as they have Sayyid Sadr, who is “wise and experienced,” as their leader. They called on the U.N. to support their initiative but for foreign states to stay out of it.

Other protesters at the sit-in blamed former Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and former Iraqi head of Kata’ib Hezbollah and deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis for most of the killing during the 2019 protests. “Now they are dead, so the situation is different,” one protester told the author. “There is no violence because Sayyid Sadr is behind us,” another protestor added.

Most said that they were waiting on Sadr for the next steps and that the sit-in would end “whenever Sayyid Sadr says it’s over.” And that is exactly what happened. Following the Aug. 29 clashes, Sadr ordered all protesters to go home. The site was emptied within the hour. 

August 29 clashes

“Protesters stayed peaceful until the last moment,” a Sadrist official stressed, speaking on condition of anonymity after the Aug. 29 clashes. He blamed certain PMF security actors, “mercenaries” working on their behalf, and those trying to further a “foreign agenda” as responsible for the killings. The official also alleged that some Sadrist protesters were executed by these forces in the street. While the official did not mention any groups by name, prominent Iraqi analysts identified Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Imam Ali Brigade of Shibl al-Zaydi as complicit in opening fire on protesters. Revenge killings in southern Iraq followed the Baghdad clashes.

The accusation that actors responsible for the killing are working on behalf of a foreign agenda aligns with the logic articulated by protesters to the author — that violence happens at protests when it is orchestrated by foreign agendas and militias, not when Sadr is leading the protests. The official said Kadhimi’s position, which rejected any violence against protesters, was good. Sadr has had good relations and held sway over the Kadhimi government, which has appointed Sadrist or Sadrist-backed officials to high-level positions.

Saraya al-Salam’s role was to “defend protesters only,” the official added. “They are known for their victories and capacity […] if they had used all their power, they could have controlled the entire Green Zone,” he said. He denied news reports that anyone influenced Sadr,4 saying his call for cessation of violence was his alone. When asked whether this means the Ashoura Revolution is over, the official said no, but it can be considered to be on a “resting break.”

After the clashes

Following Sadr’s announced resignation from politics, he and the “minister of the leader” issued several statements demanding parliament’s dissolution without the formation of a new government and called on other political leaders to follow suit. Such moves would maintain the current election law and leave the electoral commission that oversaw the 2021 elections in place. It was under this law that the Sadrist Movement emerged as the largest bloc in parliament — one of main reasons why members of the CF want to change it. Following the clashes, there are also demands for investigations to know who shot at protesters, hold perpetrators to account, and change the security leadership.     

Another Sadrist official said that while the CF wants to form a government as soon as possible, they will have to contend with the Iraqi street, not only Sadrists who are angry with them following the violence. He expressed hope in Hadi Ameri, CF member and head of Badr Organization,5 who is “understanding,” but noted that there is a lot on pressure on him and that the decision is not only in his hands. During the government crisis Sadr has frequently made public overtures to Ameri.

“There will be no concessions […] Sadrists are principled,” one Sadrist official told the author when asked about potential concessions Sadr might be willing to accept from or concede to the CF to move beyond the political impasse. He said the fact that sit-ins occurred in multiple locations throughout Iraq and that tens of thousands of “Sadrists peacefully praying together under 50 degree heat” shows their steadfastness.  

When asked how the reported coming together of the CF with Sunni and Kurdish political leaders (and potentially with international support) in efforts to form a government will affect the Sadrists, another Sadrist official told the author that Sadr has resigned and left politics. He then added that, “Sayyid Sadr will not leave Iraq in the hands of subordination and those with foreign agendas as he is the only one who is making demands on behalf of the Iraqi street. Even if the whole world supports the CF, he will not let them enjoy ruling, as he has successful experience in expelling the occupying U.S. forces and their allies, who incurred many losses. He has the heroic Mahdi Army, which until now has not participated in any event, as Saraya al-Salam is enough […] however, if the situation escalates, the Mahdi Army will participate, and then neither the Framework nor the others will remain,” he cautioned.    

Even if, according to officials, Sadr has “resigned and does not want to enter politics again,” in reality he maintains the biggest voter support base, can rally his supporters to the street at the drop of a hat, and commands the powerful Saraya al-Salam. But ordering his MPs to resign from parliament in June was clearly a miscalculation. Interviewees who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Sadr now “knows he made a mistake” and some of his MPs remain frustrated that they were “forced to resign.” Others alleged that a series of mistakes has led to increased dissension within the Sadrist ranks. The recent alleged leaks of high-level Sadrist officials criticizing Sadr’s decisions, if true, may be further evidence of this. However, Sadr maintains his authority by drawing on religious, political, and social sources of strength, and almost blind loyalty among many of his adherents. As one resident of Sadr City explained to the author, “Sayyid Sadr has not lost support, not at all. On the contrary, after every big political event, they cling to him more.”

“The clashes in the Green Zone were a setback within the Sadrist Movement but it was not the first and it will not be the last. The Sadrist Movement has overcome many setbacks since the fall of Saddam Hussein […] They overcame stronger and more severe crises than the current one,” the Sadr City resident added. 

Unknown road ahead

Predicting the future is often futile — there are many moving pieces and the stakes are high. Sadr is predictably unpredictably. Even senior Sadrist officials are sometimes  out of the loop and don’t know what will happen next; Sadr is in charge. But Sadr will seek to maintain his role as a dominant power broker in Iraq, whether officially or unofficially. Beyond the domestic implications, the coming period will also be revealing for Western diplomats, who see Sadr as a useful hedge to counter Iranian influence in Iraq.

Sadrists will also have to contend with the fallout after Iran-based Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri announced his retirement from his role as marja’a,6 criticized Sadr, and directed his followers toward Iranian Supreme LeaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei instead. But Sadrist officials and supporters told the author that Haeri’s role has been marginalized within the movement for years and so this is not a “big issue for Sadr.” Religious authority can be sought from different sources, underscoring the practice of pluralization of religious authority within the Sadrist Movement, and “it is the conviction of every Shi’a to chose whom to emulate,” one Sadrist official explained. As for Sadrists and Sadr, “they will continue to emulate the martyr Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr.” The practice of taqlid al-mayyit, or the emulation of a deceased marja’a, is a distinguishing feature of the Sadrist Movement and has at times been useful to supporting Sadr’s religious authority.7

Large demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the Tishreen protests are planned for Oct. 1 by protesters and change movements that often refer to themselves as “the third way” — neither aligned with the Sadrists, nor the CF. Several residents of Sadr City told the author that they expect some of Sadr’s supporters to participate, but it remains to be seen whether their participation will be official or not. 

 

Haley Bobseine is a Middle East-based researcher and analyst and a PhD Candidate at King’s College London. The views expressed in this article are her own. 

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images


Endnotes

  1. Also known as the “minister of the leader,” he is Sadr’s anonymous online surrogate.
  2. A full analysis of the Sadr-Maliki relationship is outside the scope of this report. However, a major point of contention dates back to 2008. During the 2006-08 sectarian civil war, Sadr’s then Mahdi Army was accused of forming death squads that kidnapped and killed Sunni Muslims. Then Prime Minister Maliki ordered a major offensive that defeated the Mahdi Army.
  3. The author’s first visit happened when they still occupied the parliament building, the second visit occurred after they had moved outside the building.
  4. During interviews with people close to the CF and members of the CF, people separately alleged that Ayatollah Sistani informally sent a message to Sadr to calm tensions, as well as some regional actors. This issue is explored in the third article.
  5. The Badr Organization is a Shi’a political party and armed group. It is part of the PMF and the CF and is close to Iran. Hadi Ameri, the organization’s leader, has taken a more moderate position toward Sadr, alongside Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim and others within the CF. Maliki and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have taken more of a hardline position toward Sadr.
  6. A marja’a is a Shi’a religious scholar with the necessary credentials to serve as a religious guide to his followers.
  7. Sadr himself does not currently have the necessary religious training to become a marja’a.

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