Iraqi news output over the past couple of months has been a seemingly incessant torrent of stories about the great, the indomitable, the righteous Moqtada Al-Sadr; Shia cleric extraordinaire, spiritual leader of the Ahrar Bloc of Iraqi lawmakers and military symbol of the Peace Brigades sectarian militia, part of the umbrella Hashd Al-Sha’abi Popular Mobilisation military order sanctioned by a fatwa from Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sunni Arab Fallujah is burning under a hail of Green Zone government artillery fire and Daesh psychopathy, but who cares? Here comes Sadr to save the day. Clearly, the thought of the aforementioned being a true reflection of his actual motives is about as real as Danger Mouse.
Sadr, referred to mockingly by some Iraqis as “Moqtada Atari”, supposedly in reference to his favouring videogames over the pursuit of Islamic knowledge as befits his clerical status, is now being painted as a great reformist, an inspiring activist campaigning for the rights of all Iraqis. He is, we are led to believe, a sage heralding in a new age of social inclusion in Iraqi politics with his single-minded campaign to break down the sectarian parliamentary quota system which allots certain government positions and seats to specific sects and ethnicities. He is being portrayed by his supporters as something akin to an Iraqi Che Guevara.
Apparently pummelling Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi and the system up against the ropes, Sadr has led numerous protests over the past few months. At one point these entailed him in acting the role of the valiant hero, entering the Green Zone single-handedly, erecting a protest tent and sitting there, threatening mayhem upon those whom he had called friend and foe interchangeably since 2003 unless they acceded to his demands for a technocratic government. Clearly getting ahead of himself, Sadr probably viewed this stunt as a move that would be inspirational to his Shia working-class faithful, who may well have linked his stance psychologically to the last-man stand of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Hussein Bin Ali, killed in battle almost 1,400 years ago and considered to be one of the Twelver Shia Imams.
However, after Abadi seemingly buckled to Sadr’s pressure and agreed to reshuffle his cabinet, a falling out with the other MPs in parliament led to Sadr’s supporters, bolstered by Iraqi communists, bursting into the Green Zone, occupying the parliament and ransacking it. They made sure to take photographs aplenty, posing in chairs normally occupied by lawmakers they believe to be corrupt, and ruining a white sofa that has now become a symbol of the ludicrousness of Iraqi politics and the butt of many a satirical joke after Abadi looked upon it as though it was a martyr.
It is important to understand that the portrayal of the Shia groups involved in the government as a homogenous entity is grossly overstated, perhaps due to sectarian narratives within and without Iraq seeking to simplify who “the enemy” really is. Sadr has long held a grudge and a pointed, and sometimes violent, enmity with members of the Da’wa Party, especially former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. This division was very apparent in 2008, when Maliki all but obliterated Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia (the original brand of the Peace Brigades mentioned above) by ordering the Iraqi Security Forces, with the help of US occupation troops, to fight them in Basra. Sadr’s group itself is not immune to these splits; Qais Al-Khaz’ali, a notorious death squad commander, splintered-off to lead the Shia terrorist outfit Asa’ib Ahl ul-Haq, or “League of the Righteous”.
What is crucial to note, however, is that this infighting between the various Shia political groups has an overall arbiter, whether in the civil war between Abadi and Maliki in the Da’wa Party, or interparty conflict involving Sadr’s Ahrar Bloc versus everyone else. That arbiter is called Iran. Of course, not every Shia cleric, scholar or political party is subservient to Iran’s interests. Just take a look at the likes of Ayatollah Al-Sarkhi, for example, who has, in many ways, supported the rights of Sunni Arabs far more honestly and honourably than Sunni Arab politicians like Saleh Al-Mutlag, the Nujaifi brothers and current Speaker of the Parliament Saleem Al-Jubouri. However, by virtue of the way Iran masterfully inserted its client parties and militias into the new post-2003 Iraqi order, the vast majority of Shia parties within the government owe something, or everything, to Tehran.
The precise reasons as to why Sadr decided to make these moves now is largely unknown. However, judging by his public statements, it is easy to hazard a guess that he is trying to increase his own power base and influence as he feels that Iran has given a greater share to others at his expense. For instance, Sadr is trying to play up on his Iraqi nationalism and decrease the prevalence of the memory of his sectarian death squads wreaking havoc upon the Sunni population. He indirectly criticised Iranian influence on various Iraqi groups, conveniently leaving out the fact that his own organisation was incubated and then nourished by Iran. This was without any hint of irony, as Sadr had just met with another Iranian client, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah.
These antics did not go unnoticed in Iran, making several powerful Iranian figures quite angry. Not only did he threaten the stability of Iran’s most important client state, Iraq, but he also criticised other Iranian clients, apparently overstepping his bounds. Reportedly, General Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force threatened, “Rein in your dogs, or I will set my dogs on you.” Soleimani is, of course, the Iranian military commander dispatched by Tehran to rescue Baghdad’s flailing forces in the face of Daesh’s irrepressible onslaught in 2014.
Iranian displeasure is obviously the reason for Sadr’s sudden abandonment of his moral cause, and he has now been summoned to Iran to reflect upon his bad behaviour and likely receive higher occult teachings from the ayatollahs in Qom that will show him the error of his ways. Expect Sadr to return a changed man, cheeks flushed red and his activism severely curtailed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.