Muqtada al-Sadr returns as Iraq battles chaos

The influential Shia cleric now positions himself as an ally to a weak Prime Minister, and as a nationalist in the face of Iran’s growing role.

February 27, 2016 11:48 pm | Updated September 20, 2016 04:32 pm IST - BAGHDAD:

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, center, addresses followers gathered demand government reform at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. The Arabic sentence on the flag reads, "loving your country is faith." (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, center, addresses followers gathered demand government reform at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. The Arabic sentence on the flag reads, "loving your country is faith." (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

They came from the slums of this city’s underclass, the alleyways and the simple halls of the seminary in the Shia holy city of Najaf, and the outer reaches of the rural south.

They waved Iraqi flags and demanded change. The crowd packed Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Friday morning, chanting by the tens of thousands against corruption and for decisive reforms in how politics is conducted here, as they waited for their man to appear.

“No, no to thieves! Yes, yes to reforms!”

Then Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric and political provocateur whose command of the Iraqi Shia street is unmatched, stepped up to the rail of a makeshift stage on the rooftop of an old girls school and appealed to the people’s grievances in terms at once revolutionary and patriotic.

“After today, the Prime Minister has to act!” he said. Referring to the barricaded heart of the central government, he said, “Today, we are at the door of the Green Zone, and tomorrow the people will be inside!” The time is ripe for demagogues again in Iraq, where the public is seething with anger over corruption, a grinding war and a collapse in oil prices that has shaken the economy. With an ineffective political class unable to rise above internal scheming, Iraq is struggling to face its most pressing concerns, the primary one being winning the war with the Islamic State and reuniting the country.

Al-Sadr and his fearsome militia were once a primary enemy of the U.S., and he played many roles in shaping Iraq after the U.S. invasion: populist cleric, Iranian proxy, Iraqi patriot, political kingmaker.

In seizing a chance on Friday to return to the political spotlight, he positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist in the face of Iran’s growing role and as an ally to a weak Prime Minister. “Today I am among you to say to you, frankly and bravely, that the government has left its people struggling against death, fear, hunger, unemployment, occupation, a struggling economy, a security crisis, bad services and a big political crisis,” al-Sadr told the crowd. Above all, it was a reminder of al-Sadr’s complexity, and the confused state of internal Shia politics, that even as he was seeking to harness public rage against the political elites, he had actually called the street rally to support the reform policies of the country’s struggling Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. Al-Abadi’s proposal to tackle corruption and install technocrats in the country’s ministries has stalled over the opposition of powerful militia leaders and some pro-Iran politicians. For his part, al-Sadr has offered to have his ministers resign in protest to lend al-Abadi’s agenda some steam. Despite that, and the support of the most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, it remains unclear whether al-Abadi’s agenda will be able to win the help of any other political blocs.

If nothing else, al-Sadr’s appearance in Baghdad on Friday was a chance to “get himself back in the centre of things,” said Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in Amman, Jordan, who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics .

Al-Sadr was once at the very heart of things in Iraq, but in recent years had receded somewhat from the public eye. When the United States invaded in 2003, al-Sadr was just shy of 30. But he drew on the political inheritance of his father, a pivotal and immensely popular Shia cleric assassinated on Saddam Hussein’s orders in 1999, to emerge as a powerful voice for the Shia underclass.

He forged a movement that melded martial, political and social elements. His militia, the Mahdi Army, once fought the Americans and the Iraqi state, and it was blamed for atrocities during the sectarian civil war of 2006 and 2007.

Nowadays his militiamen are largely under the control of the government, and his anti-Americanism, once a defining issue for him, is less ardent. Once an open client of Iran, al-Sadr has in recent years gone his own way, and is widely seen these days as an Iraq-first advocate of cross-sectarian unity.

His militia, reconstituted after the extremists of the Islamic State captured Mosul in summer 2014, was renamed the Peace Brigades.

Today, as he seeks to redefine himself once again, al-Sadr, now 42, has positioned himself as backer of al-Abadi, who is seen as increasingly weak in the face of the growing influence of Iran. Tehran supports al-Abadi’s political rivals, who command militias.

Iraq is a place where everyone has his enemies, and al-Sadr has his share. One of his chief critics is the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who once counted on al-Sadr’s support to secure a second term after national elections in 2010. Al-Sadr later broke from al-Maliki, and tried to oust him from the premiership.

During his time in office, especially in 2011 when the Arab Spring uprisings set off a protest movement in Iraq, al-Maliki feared what would happen if al-Sadr commanded his followers to take to the streets. He did not, and the protests died out. But al-Maliki said al-Sadr’s re-emergence presents dangers for Iraq, and warned: “He has power and weapons.”

( Falih Hassan and Ahmed Salah contributed to reporting. ) — New York Times News Service

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