Without a shadow of doubt, Moqtada Al Sadr is the fastest “learner” in post-2003 Iraqi politics. The young man has visibly evolved from a dark and erratic cleric, with a strong speech impediment and oversized legacy, into a strong-minded, charismatic and wise power-broker and king-maker.
He is now the point of gravity in Shiite politics, speaking on behalf of young people and the community’s poverty-stricken masses. He is to them what Imam Mousa Al Sadr was to Lebanese Shiites prior to the Civil War. No name can be more familiar to young Iraqi Shiites growing up in post-Saddam Hussain Iraq. The young man, who smiles little but poses frequently for photographers, is the scion of a leading Shiite family that kept Saddam awake at night, refusing to accept 34-years of Baathist autocracy.
Moqtada did the same to US troops after their 2003 occupation of Iraq, leading an uprising against them in Najaf, Sadr City and Basra. Since then, the man has captured world headlines and become a magnet for Arab and western media, completely overshadowing more well-established Shiite figures like the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani or Abdul Aziz Al Hakim and his son Ammar, leaders of the Supreme Council Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Earlier this week, Moqtada announced his retirement from Iraqi politics at the young age of 40. His offices closed down, seven of his MPs resigned from parliament and his entire entourage switched off their phones to avoid speaking to the press.
Arabs are not used to early retirement. Moqtada’s decision was shocking — to say the least — and has opened a Pandora’s Box for war-torn Iraq. The announcement took the Iraqi political scene by storm. Moqtada is king of the patron-client system in Iraq. Thousands rely on his protection in the complex world of Iraqi politics. Hundreds of his supporters dot the landscape as civil servants, soldiers, officers, teachers, MPs and cabinet ministers. They feel orphaned and vulnerable without him. They are now an easy target for the wide assortment of enemies that Moqtada has made since 2003, ranging from Al Qaida and the Baathists onto current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who is glad to see the end of Moqtada. Although originally marketed as a prime opponent of Iraqi Sunnis, back in 2005-2006, Moqtada has since evolved rapidly, positioning himself as champion of moderation, coexistence and Sunni rights, in addition to being an ally of secular figures like the former Iraqi premiere, Ayad Allawi.
Originally, Moqtada enjoyed a marriage of convenience with Al Maliki. Both were pro-Iran and both wanted an Iran-style theocracy in Baghdad. Al Maliki relied heavily on Moqtada to give him legitimacy in the Shiite slums of Iraq. Young Iraqis knew and loved Moqtada. Al Maliki at the time was a political nobody, emerging from a long exile in Damascus to lead his country after years in the underground. Moqtada helped polish his image and nationalist credentials and in exchange, Al Maliki turned a blind eye to Moqtada’s militia — the Mehdi Army. It was involved in target assassinations and kidnappings, deeply immersed in systematic street terrorism against its former enemies. Al Maliki protected him from the dragnet of the US army and from the laws of the new Iraqi government. However, the relationship turned sour in 2008. Al Maliki felt strong enough to break with Moqtada and started seeing him as more of a threat — and a burden in Washington circles — than an asset.
Learning from the Hezbollah model in Lebanon, Moqtada gave the Mehdi Army a major facelift, rooting out wild and extremist jihadist elements. He banned all illegal practices, developed a coherent domestic policy, improved his speaking skills and returned to Iraq to further his religious credentials, studying at Qum to elevate himself in the clerical ladder of Shiites. His team began operating schools, social welfare programmes and hospitals. He was clearly bracing himself to become an Iraqi version of Hassan Nasrallah. By 2010, nothing could pass in Iraqi politics without first being signed off by Moqtada.
If Moqtada’s resignation is genuine, it means Iran has finally got him to step aside, in favour of Al Maliki. The country can no longer cope with two rival Shiite leaderships. Tehran wants one unified Shiite authority in Iraq and it has to be the Iraqi prime minister, who is preparing for a third round at the premiership next April. Moqtada’s resignation means that he will not oppose Al Maliki’s bid in two months, which is music to the ears of Iranian officialdom.
However, what if Moqtada is bluffing? We do not have many examples of Arab politicians stepping down before their time is up. Jamal Abdul Nasser is one. He resigned after the fiasco of 1967. Nasser took responsibility for the defeat and stepped down, triggering massive demonstrations in all four corners of the Arab world. The masses begged him to reconsider, and Nasser did — emerging more powerful than ever before. Nasser’s resignation was a bluff. Perhaps Moqtada wants Iraqi players — and Iran — to beg him to reconsider. If he does, he will certainly have a long list of conditions: Better representation in the Iraqi government, more autonomy in his Shiite fiefdoms and no to Al Maliki.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar in Beirut. He is the author of Syria and the USA (IB Tauris, 2012) and co-founder of www.syrianhistory.com, the first online museum of Syrian history.