A decade ago, the name Muqtada al-Sadr was for Iraqi Sunnis synonymous with electrical cables and power drills—the preferred torture and murder implements of the powerful Shia cleric’s Mahdi Army. By the end of 2006, at the height of Iraq’s civil war, around 3,000 Sunnis caught up in the Sadrist wave of violence were dumped in a soccer field in Adhamiya, in eastern Baghdad, a sporting center that took on the nickname “martyrs’ cemetery.”
For the U.S.-led coalition, Sadr was persistent and dangerous threat in a country with those to spare. A leading insurgent-warlord, at one point had as much blood on his hands as al-Qaeda, and a lot of that blood was from American soldiers. He was also in charge of what really was a “deep state” apparatus in the fledging Iraqi government; with Sadrist goons in charge of the transportation ministry, Baghdad International Airport, and all of its attendant facilities, right down to the sky marshals and cleaning company used to vacuum and mop the terminals. They moonlighted as sectarian spies, tracking the movements of traveling Sunnis, planning kidnapping schemes, and also trafficking in guns and cash into and out of Iraq.
Today, Sadr has become one of the most prominent Shia voices in Iraq calling for reconciliation with Sunnis. But, more striking still, he is calling the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has outdone the Sadrists by orders of magnitude in waging war against adherents of Islam’s majority Sunni sect.
Iran, its expeditionary forces, and proxies wield enormous power in Iraq, and are committed to supporting Assad in Syria. So Sadr’s position puts him in direct opposition to the mullahs in Tehran.
Since the Syrian regime dropped sarin-laden munitions on the city of Khan Sheikhoun earlier this month, Sadr has twice called for Assad’s resignation, most recently with a post-script that if the butcher of Damascus doesn’t renounce power, he too will end up lynched on camera like Muammar Gaddafi.
In the past year or so, Sadr’s rebranded movement has staged several “pro-reform” demonstrations in the heart of the Iraqi capital, two of which breached the supposedly impenetrable Green Zone, once the seat of America’s occupying authority and currently the seat of a sovereign Iraqi government.
With a curiously Mesopotamian mixture of hubris, recklessness and aplomb, he has railed against the evergreen problem of government corruption, technical changes to electoral law, and the perceived Persian yoke on an Arab country. And while Sadr has always been outspoken against Assad’s campaign of extermination in Syria, he’s before been so plangent.
Especially newsworthy is his de facto acknowledgement that Assad did indeed use WMD on civilians when the official line of the Iraqi government is that the events in Khan Sheikhoun ought to be “investigated” and both of Syria’s two main patron-states— Iran and Russia—are in absolute, almost tragicomic denial about the atrocity.
Some Iraq observers believe that the portly populist and son of one of Iraq’s most revered ayatollahs slain by Saddam Hussein is actually sincere; that he really does think Assad is a dangerous war criminal who is destabilizing the Middle East and imperiling its Shia minority population by antagonizing the Sunni majority.
Others think he’s simply playing his traditional role as a perpetual oppositionist, and opportunist, using his constituency’s growing disillusionment with Baghdad—and Iran’s expanding hegemony over Iraq’s political and security establishments—to cynical advantage.
According to Nibras Kazimi, an Iraq expert who has studied Sadr and the Sadrists for years, Muqtada’s transformation really began in 2012 when the cleric rather presciently made the case that then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policies were becoming a blight on the Shia consciousness.
“He was part of a concerted campaign to try to get Maliki out of the premiership with a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi parliament,” Kazimi told The Daily Beast. “They had the numbers, but [the vote] was foiled for a variety of reasons. Both the Americans and the Iranians were at that time cautioning against changing Maliki.”
That was a rare and unfortunate moment of alignment between the two most significant external brokers in Iraq. In the end, facing dual pressure from Washington and Tehran, Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani backed off of his constitutional authority to put the no-confidence vote to the test in parliament. So Maliki hung on.
Then came the Syrian uprising in 2011 and a renewed opportunity for Sadr to hit back at Maliki, whose government was quietly facilitating Iranian weapons and personnel transfers through Iraqi airspace to Syria—this, despite Maliki’s having previously accused Assad’s regime of sponsoring al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attacks against Iraqi government institutions as late as 2009.
Sadr had lost some of his parliamentary clout a year earlier, during the 2010 elections which controversially returned Maliki to the premiership with the help of a goodly number of Shia voters from Sadr City, the cleric’s eponymous backyard. But he nevertheless retained his core constituency, according to Kazimi.
“He’ll always matter. His constituency is solid, based on tribal cult affiliation. He represents 7 to 9 percent of Iraq’s population, and that’s not nothing.” That core represents the Iraqi Shia proletariat, the economically downtrodden, which also attracts support for Sadr among the country’s left-wing and secular intelligentsia.
According to Emma Sky, a British diplomat who served as a special advisor to U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno, the former senior military leader in Iraq, Sadr has always been “quite unpredictable. He’s always been somebody who’s an Iraqi nationalist first and broadly anti those in power. The Sadrists have a long tradition of being the underdogs and against the regime.”
Not only did Sadr speak out against Assad as early as 2011, he also prevented his militias from going to fight for Damascus in Syria. Those odd exceptions who have done so anyway were then expelled from the Sadrist movement.
In this respect, Sky said, the cleric joins the more senior Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as a bulwark against Iranian leverage in Iraq. They’ve always been what you might call Iraq Firsters.
(Here it is worth recalling that Sadr’s name was one of the last things uttered by Saddam Hussein before he was executed. His Sadrist hangmen kept chanting it, and the deposed tyrant repeated it ironically just before the trapdoor swung open and his neck snapped.)
Sadr’s nationalism puts him at odds with other Iraqi Shia who have become the exportable playthings of the Khomeinists. A notorious example is Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, whose rank-and-file were once part of Sadr’s own Mahdi Army but are now a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran’s Quds Force under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The League has not only kidnapped and murdered U.S. servicemen in the holy city of Karbala, it has joined with Assad’s forces in fighting the Free Syrian Army in Syria, including those battalions covertly backed by the United States. More recently, the League was accused by the UN of killing women and children in the retaking of East Aleppo in December.
Last October, Sadr and his erstwhile disciple Qais al-Khazali, the League’s putative boss, stood together in public for the first time since the schism when Sadr mocked a noticeably sheepish al-Khazali by inviting him up to the phalanx of microphones at a press conference.
“Answer, answer,” Sadr says amid the crowd’s laughter. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
The speakers in front the mics constituted a Who’s Who of Iraqi Shia warlords, including other Iranian stooges such as Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Corps and a leader of the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs—mainly Shia fighting squads in the war against the so-called Islamic State. No one watching that exchange could be left under any illusions about the identity of the top dog.
More recently, this past Monday, al-Khazali gave a lecture at an Iraqi university in the city of Diwaniya when a secular liberal student in attendance started getting rowdy. A melee ensued, joined by the Sadrists rushing to the aid of their leftist friends. Shots were fired. Suddenly, people were chanting, “Iran, out, out. Baghdad will remain free.” To avoid any blowback, the League of the Righteous pinned the whole thing on the one secularist.
No doubt such events will tell on Iraq’s wobbly democracy once ISIS is expelled from Mosul and the country loses its war footing—a sense of crisis in which Iran has been the prime beneficiary.
Indeed, Qasem Soleimani’s strategic plan has been to expand Iranian influence well beyond the borders of Iran and even Iraq and Syria and to use Shia Islamism, and the threat of Sunni jihadism, as a kind of sectarian Enabling Act for gobbling up more and more of the Middle East.
Fighters conscripted from as far away as Afghanistan—these are Shia refugees from the Taliban stuck in Iran, some of them as young as 13 years old—are being sent to their deaths in Hama for the purpose of “protecting Shia shrines,” as the Iranian propaganda runs.
Soleimani has been given carte blanche to push this strategy to its outer limits by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But not without controversy from those on the front-lines of its implementation.
Iran’s imperial overstretch has caused ructions within the broader Shia community, both Arab and non-Arab. Sadr, plainly, is looking to capitalize on that.
It would be a mistake to think Sadr’s anti-Iran positioning makes him a natural ally or partner of the Untied States. “He doesn’t want Iraq to be occupied by foreign forces, whether they’re Iranian or American,” said Sky.
“Still, he’s not spoiling for a fight with the Americans. There haven’t really been attacks on American forces fighting ISIS. The Sadrist militias have been quiet about it.”
Martin Chulov, once the Guardian’s Baghdad bureau chief, told The Daily Beast that Sadr’s political calculation is simple but shrewd. “There is no Iraq unless Sunnis have a stake. There is no Syria either. It’s why Sunnis are always welcome at his rallies.
“He’s strong enough to be a spoiler, keep Maliki off-side and keep Iranians slightly on edge. But he is ideologically anti-American.”
Which isn’t to say that American designs on the Middle East aren’t factoring into Sadr’s maneuvering.
The timing for him couldn’t be better. The three Iraqi centers of religious or political authority—Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil—and Soleimani himself have all been consumed with a burning question over the past half year. Namely: “What’s this Trump thing? What does it mean for the region, and for Iraq?,” as Kazimi put it.
That question will have only grown hotter in light of the unanticipated U.S. airstrikes on the Syrian air base from which the Khan Sheikhoun attack was perpetrated, and the possibility that a new U.S. administration might up the fight against Assad and his proxies.
“Muqtada may have come to the conclusion that Soleimani strategy is going to come to a hard stop,” Kazimi said, “and so it’s time to publicly re-engage the delicate conversation of whither Syria and the fate of Assad.”
Sadr’s role as a perennial gadfly may mean he wouldn’t know what to do with real leadership if he ever attained it, but when he lurches to the center, he brings the Iraqi debate along with him.
Still, and in spite of his bred-in-the-bone anti-Americanism, this former bane of the U.S. military may yet find himself in a stronger position in Iraq if the U.S. increases its military presence in the region in order to punish Assad and contain and deter Soleimani’s sectarian armies. All of which depends on the populist in the White House.
“You never know what Sadr is going to say,” Sky said. “He dials things up, then he pulls back. Iraqis joke that he is their Trump.”