Iraq’s most powerful politician, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr leads the nationalist reformist alliance that won the most seats in last October’s parliamentary elections.
His efforts to form a majority government have been stymied by a pro-Iranian Shiite coordination framework that insists on respect for the US government-mandated major factional consensus.
In response, he ordered Sadrist MPs to resign and supporters to occupy Parliament, preventing his rivals from establishing a government and deepening the rift between rival Shia groups.
Sadr (48), the fickle scion of a respected Shiite cleric family, has no position in the Shiite clerical hierarchy but has two million followers in the poor suburbs of the Baghdad city of Sadr and in the impoverished south. His father and father-in-law were executed for plotting to overthrow the secular Baathist regime prior to its overthrow by the US in 2003.
Born and raised during Ba’athist rule, Sadr remained in Iraq, unlike rivals who took refuge in Iran. Sadr entered politics at the age of 29, forming the Mahdi Army to resist American occupation. Exiled pro-Iranian figures returned to Iraq under US protection and assumed a dominant role in governance. Iraq has slipped into an economic recession despite billions of dollars in revenue from oil exports.
In October 2019, millions of Iraqis rebelled against their rulers, accusing them of mismanagement and rampant corruption. They demanded an end to Iranian and US interference in Iraqi affairs. They also called for an end to the sectarian system of a Kurdish president, a Shiite prime minister and a Sunni as the speaker of the assembly, and to set quotas for other positions.
As leaders of the only reformist bloc, the Asadrists have benefited from the uprising, increasing their parliamentary representation in 2021 by 50% compared to the 2018 election results, while the Iranian-backed Shiite blocs have lost votes.
Sadr previously withdrew from politics before returning to combat, but this “final withdrawal” has a destabilizing outer dimension. His move was prompted by the resignation of Iranian-based Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Khaeri, the spiritual leader of the Sadrists, who unexpectedly persuaded them to accept leadership from Iran’s supreme tutor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sadr blamed Iran for the sudden shift as the Iraqi-born Khaeri was a student of Sadr’s learned uncle and had been Sadr’s mentor for a long time.
Former senior Iraqi official Antifa Kanbar tweeted that Iran staged a coup against Khaeri and Sadr and attempted to shift the “Shiite center of gravity” from the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf, “the Shiite Vatican”, to Iranian Qom. Shia Scholarship Center.
Kanbar told the BBC that this could spark an intra-Shiite sectarian war and pit the rich against the poor. Sadr is seen as a protector of the poor, and his rivals are accused of enriching themselves at the expense of Iraq.