Muqtada al-Sadr’s motives

Muqtada al-Sadr (Wikimedia | Husain H. Rukun)

A couple of weeks ago I kind of offhandedly expressed some, well, skepticism with respect to Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s newfound appreciation for good governance. There have been a number of recent takes on Sadr and what he’s trying to accomplish by leading (or asserting leadership over) the popular movement to push Iraqi leaders toward political reform–which, don’t get me wrong, is sorely needed no matter what Sadr’s motives are. Joel Wing, an Iraq expert whose “Musings on Iraq” blog is a must read if you’re interested in following events there, articulates what seems to be the consensus view (here’s an example), which is that Sadr doesn’t really care about political reform but does see the push for reform as a good cause with which to boost his own political fortunes:

Moqtada al-Sadr is attempting to become the pre-eminent party boss in Iraqi politics. After years of trying he finally co-opted the anti-corruption protest movement in Baghdad. That culminated in his followers temporarily taking over the Green Zone in the heart of the capital during the weekend. He has also become one of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s only supporters as he attempts to push through his reform package for the government. As Sadr has done before he wants to turn his pull with the Iraqi street into political power by dictating terms to the prime minister and threatening the other elites with future demonstrations if they do not comply.

Sadr has tried at various times to be Abadi’s critic and protector, leading the protests that have pulled Abadi toward reform and then consistently standing down those protests to give Abadi time and space to try to work the political system. But as Wing notes, Sadr’s actions have undermined Abadi’s reputation with just about every party in the Iraqi parliament apart from Sadr’s own party, which paradoxically makes it much harder for Abadi to implement the reforms that Sadr claims to want. Sadr’s recent actions have also put him on Iran’s bad side, and while Abadi has been on Iran’s bad side before, that also makes it harder to enact the reforms Sadr claims to want. On the other hand, while Sadr doesn’t have much support in parliament or in Tehran, he does have–for the moment at least–a whole lot of support among the Iraqi public, and his populist cred means that he has to be reckoned with one way or another. Abadi ought to be able to use the threat of Sadr’s populism as a tool to leverage compromise reforms out of Iraq’s political parties, but so far there’s no indication that he’s savvy enough to pull that off.

Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri looks at Sadr’s mercurial political history–for example, he was for several years one of Nouri al-Maliki’s biggest backers until he turned on a dime and became one of the former PM’s biggest opponents in 2014–and notes that Sadr has benefited from the same corrupt, ethno-sectarian fiefdom system that he is currently railing against. Mamouri calls him a “chameleon,” and there’s something to that. This is a guy, after all, who spent the mid-2000s fighting against the US occupation in the name of establishing an Islamist Shiʿa theocracy in Baghdad, so he’s either come a long way since those days or he’s somebody for whom principles are expedient, temporary things. On the other hand, there are some who have followed Sadr’s career fairly closely who argue that his interest in solving Iraq’s governance problems is genuine. I guess only time will tell. At least this version of Sadr actually has a chance to achieve a goal (political reform) that would benefit all Iraqis, something you couldn’t really say about the version who was running the Mahdi Army c. 2005.


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