Muqtada Al Sadr
Clashes have erupted between Al Sadr followers and backers of Iran-backed groups in Baghdad, Iraq Image Credit: Gulf News

On Monday, Iraqi leader Moqtada Al Sadr announced that he will be terminating his political career for good. His supporters, who for more than a month now have been staging a peaceful protest at the premises of the Iraqi Parliament, broke into a fit of rage.

Arms suddenly showed up on the streets, and the Sadrists clashed with Iraqi security forces. Twenty people were killed and dozens were injured yesterday.

For ten months now, Sadr has been at daggers-end with former allies in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework (CF), who disputed his claim of winning a majority in last October’s parliamentary elections. That technically, is what this present crisis is all about.

Sadr won 73 out of 329-seats in the chamber of deputies, still not enough to give him the constitutional majority needed to form a government. He insisted on unilaterality forming a government, however, headed by his cousin Jaafar Al Sadr, which the CF refused to accept or join.

Last June, Sadr ordered the collective resignation of his entire bloc, hoping that this would either convince his opponents into reconsidering their position, or — if that didn’t happen — bringing down the entire parliament.

Post Sadr's announcement arms showed up on the streets, and the Sadrists clashed with Iraqi security forces Image Credit: AFP

What happened, however, was the exact opposite. Glad to see the back of his 73 MPs, the CF now claimed to hold the single largest parliamentary bloc.

That entitled them to naming the next prime minister, in total disregard to Sadr. They first suggested ex-prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to form a government, followed by ex-minister Mohammad Al Sudani.

Rejecting both names, Sadr’s supporters stormed parliament and disrupted a session that had been scheduled to name the CF choice for the premiership. The Sadrists refused to move out of the Green Zone until their demands were met.

All attempts at bridging the gap between Sadr and the CF have since failed, despite mediation efforts by Prime Minister Mustapha Al Kadhimi, ex-Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Al Barzani, and commander of the Quds Force General Ismail Ghaani.

Sadr simply no longer wants to share power with anybody in the Iraqi Shiite community, seeing himself as the most powerful of them all, and the only one legitimate enough to single-handedly name a new premier.

This is also not about Iran — as most western analysts have claimed — since Sadr is no less affiliated to Tehran than men like Hadi Al Amiri, Faleh Al Fayyad, or Nouri Al Maliki. It’s a crisis over the distribution of posts and power, and who gets to claim leadership of Iraqi Shiites.

Sadr’s resignation from politics — if it lasts — will serve to remind other Shiite leaders of who controls the street. It’s an ad hoc referendum on Sadr’s influence and popularity among Iraqi Shiites.

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Promises Unkept

Sadr could possibly come back into politics. In July 2021, Sar announced that he would not take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for that upcoming October. Eventually he participated.

Last November, Sadr announced that he would be disbanding his militia, the Peace Brigades (formerly known as Jaysh Al Mehdi), in a “gesture of goodwill” towards the Iraqi nation. He called on other militia leaders to follow suit, saying that arms ought to be held exclusively by the Iraqi Army. Nine months later, those brigades remain very much alive, and they are still armed to the teeth, clearly from yesterday’s show of force at the Green Zone.

And finally, this is not the first time that Sadr has resigned from politics. He first did it in August 2014. Two years later, in March 2016, he announced early retirement, but too, never materialised. In 2018, he once again said that he would be withdrawing from politics and closing all offices of the Sadr movement throughout Iraq, only to re-emerge just days later, as defiant and ambitious as ever.

If Sadr survives this crisis, then his resignation might be no different from that of 2014, 2016, and 2018. If Shiite legitimacy is what Sadr wanted, then he has gotten it fully. And if it was about showing the world who’s the boss in the community, then that too has been achieved. Why step down, now that all of that has been attained?

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.