Moqtada al-Sadr, the Donald Trump of Iraq

Is Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers again stormed the Green Zone Friday, an Iraqi nationalist or a crooked machiavellian?

Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

Twice, in the space of a month, thousands of Iraqi protesters stormed the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, overrunning the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet. Unlike the demonstration three weeks ago, which saw Iraqi security forces essentially wave people over concrete blast walls and past checkpoints, allowing them to ransack parliament and other state institutions and stage an overnight sit-in at the parade grounds, today the authorities fired tear gas and live ammunition, as can be heard in videos uploaded to social media.

Photos circulating on Twitter resemble scenes out of Syria: young Arab men walking about bandaged, their clothing soaked in blood. Earlier reports suggest that as many as 250 were wounded and at least three people have been killed in the melee. Iraq’s military instituted a curfew Friday night throughout the capital.

The stated reason for the raid?

The continued failure of a dysfunctional elected government led by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to implement a raft of political reforms and root out the systemic corruption devouring the state from within and threatening its ability to continue the fight against ISIS. These, at least, are the on-paper demands of the protesters, most of whom are loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “Be patient heroic Iraqi people,” al-Sadr said Friday, as he denounced the shooting of “unarmed protesters.” “Your peaceful revolution will end with victory.”

Once a bane of the U.S. military during the occupation of Iraq, and a warlord whom the Pentagon once came within minutes of killing for his role in orchestrating American combat deaths, al-Sadr is now the undisputed kingmaker of Iraqi politics, a demagogue with a gift for manipulating a national media and opportunistically capitalizing on national crises, attributes which invited half-serious comparisons to another rising political juggernaut.

“Just like Trump, he is not entirely illegitimate,” said Ali Khedery, once the longest continuously serving U.S. diplomat in Iraq. “Sadr represents millions of people and those millions of people have voted for him and his bloc repeatedly since 2003. His family has a long and very important history in Iraq, particularly over the past century.”

The cleric’s relatives helped lead the 1920 revolution against British colonialism, and his father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was a grand ayatollah and once one of the most venerated Shia religious figures in Saddam’s Iraq (he was assassinated by the regime in 1999 in his native Najaf). Al-Sadr’s father-in-law Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr was the founder of the ruling Shia Islamist Dawa party, also executed by Saddam. “So, yes, Moqtada has a reputation among Iraq’s national political elite as a sort of a whacky person and not the most mentally stable of figures,” Khedery said. “Yes, he was responsible for forming the Mahdi Army and killing countless American and Iraqi troops and Iraqi civilians. But the Sadr family has always tapped into the poor, largely rural Shia Islamist masses.”

And those masses have plainly had enough.

One protester, Mohammed Riyadh, who was hit with tear gas, told The Daily Beast, “Those who shot on protesters—I don’t consider them security forces but criminals who wanted to stop a peaceful protest through violent means.”

A woman demonstrator who asked not to be named said she saw security personnel “hitting a kid that was just 10 years old.”

Thirteen years of lawlessness, sectarian bloodletting and terrorism following a deeply unpopular military occupation have coincided with successive waves of Iraqi leaders who are increasingly seen as little more than factotums of interfering outside powers, namely the United States or Iran. U.S. policy has been single-mindedly wedded to backing individual actors, be it al-Abadi or the man he replaced, Nouri al-Maliki. The second, who was greeted at the White House by President Obama as a partner in making Iraq “sovereign, secure, and self-reliant,” governed with authoritarian excess, manipulated an election in 2010, and then proceeded to alienate Sunnis by means of legal persecution on trumped-up “terrorism” charges or acts of state violence. The first, while a seeming improvement on his predecessor, is simply too weak and ineffectual to deliver on his promised reforms. That al-Abadi’s office has now been raided twice by an angry mob has underscored that stark reality more persuasively than any State Department talking point.

But is al-Sadr looking to make Iraq great again, or is he just a cynical machiavellian looking to exploit failed statehood for his own outsize political ambitions? “I don’t think he gives a damn about reforms,” a U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. “Sadrists are as corrupt as hell, too. The popular anger is for reform across the country and beyond this movement. The Sadrists will follow what Moqtada says. If he says: ‘We need a dictator who’s very corrupt. They will say, ‘Allahu Akhbar, we need a dictator who is corrupt.’”

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Khedery, however, welcomes the protests as a natural corrective on top-down political sclerosis. “I’m very pleased by these events because I believe Iraq needs regime change to end the systemic sectarianism and the endemic corruption that’s baked into the DNA of the post-2003 order. Not the foolish, ill-informed, hubristic foreign-backed regime change of 2003, but regime change from within, which will, one way or another, install leaders of the country that represent the Iraqi people. If they fail in meeting expectations, they’ll likely face the same untimely demise as their predecessors. Revolution is a time-honored tradition in Baghdad.” Most of today’s Iraqi elites, Khedery added, lack the qualifications to “run anything much bigger than a household.” They’re also inveterate crooks presiding over a national economy that can no longer compensate for runaway graft with unusually high global oil prices.

In this context, al-Sadr has positioned himself as one of the few true Iraqi nationalists with enough authentic grassroots support to take on a Western superpower and an interfering regional theocracy. It helps that rival Shia factions, most of them beholden to or essentially run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, have waged a quiet war against his reincarnated Mahdi Army, now known as the Peace Brigades, who fanned out across Baghdad on Friday to try to protect the Green Zone demonstrators. Many were allegedly assaulted by Iranian-backed militias. “In some of the last occasions where they have been bombed, it was found out that other Shia militias, such as the Badr Corps, were behind it, not ISIS,” said Omar al-Shahery, the former deputy director general of Iraq’s defense intelligence, who now lives in Pittsburgh. “They’ve been taking fire from both sides and they’ve been used in the past by Iranian-backed Shia groups and al Qaeda. They don’t want to be propped up for use against the Sunnis.”

Many Sadrists also blame the central government for failing to protect their communities from whoever’s killing them.

On May 12, the so-called “caliphate” claimed responsibility for a devastating car bomb attack that killed 64 and injured 87 in a crowded marketplace in al-Sadr’s home turf of Sadr City, Baghdad. It’s hardly a coincidence this target was chosen. Apart from being motivated by a genocidal loathing of all Shia Muslims, ISIS also grasps the inherent divisions between and amongst those forces arrayed against it. Hitting the Sadrists means seeing them direct their ire not only against the terrorists but against al-Abadi’s administration. “The outcome of an intra-Shia political war is exactly what ISIS would be going for,” a U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. “It fits their purposes quite well.”

Mazin al-Mazini, a Sadrist MP, agreed. “There is a hand that wants to fuel sedition between Iraqis and ISIS is part of it,” he said. “These last explosions are nothing but evidence of its trying to take away attention from its multiple defeats on the ground.”

So is al-Abadi’s government on the verge of collapse, an outcome that could seriously undermine the broader coalition war against ISIS?

The Pentagon said Friday evening that it isn’t terribly concerned that the tenure of this prime minister in jeopardy, despite his offices being overrun twice in one month, now with deadly consequence. Washington is also seemingly bolstered by the curfew initiated and the deployment of Iraq’s military around Baghdad. Besides, one official said, if not Haider al-Abadi in the driver’s seat, then who? “It’s not clear who would replace him.”

One Iraqi diplomat, however, thinks it’s foolish to predict anything other than unpredictability when it comes to this Middle Eastern country. “At the end of the day, the elected officials are not functioning. Parliament, the prime minister’s office aren’t functioning. Anyone who tells you they have a good idea or knows what’s going to happen in a couple weeks,” the diplomat said, “is full of shit.”

—With additional reporting by Nancy Youssef and Abdulla Hawez