Moqtada Al Sadr is an unpredictable heavyweight of Iraqi politics, who recently managed — yet again — to surprise everybody when he teamed up with another Shiite heavyweight, Hadi Al Amiri, earlier this month, creating what some are describing as a “Shiite superblock” in the Iraqi parliament, with 101 members of parliament.
The two men came in first and second in last May’s election, with Al Sadr promising to curb Iranian influence in Iraqi politics, while Al Amiri — a staunchly pro-Iran figure — campaigned on the exact opposite. Campaign rhetoric aside, the two men now seem firmly allied and will have a joint say on who becomes the next premiere, controlling parliament for the next four years.
Some now believe that Al Sadr lied during the elections, claiming that he never had a sincere desire to withdraw from Iran’s orbit but only walked the line to win votes, peddling high profile theatrics, like calling on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to step down and travelling to Jeddah in the summer of 2017, where he was received by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
Other observers are kinder to the man, saying that he had no choice but to team up with Amiri, who commands the powerful Hashd Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, the nearly all-Shiite military group that was created to fight Daesh, in both Iraq and Syria. Al Amiri, after all, came in second and Al Sadr needs his support to form a government, since the 54 seats that his supporters won, although impressive, is not enough for a majority in parliament.
Inasmuch as he would have liked to remain positioned as an independent nationalist, who speaks for all Iraqis rather than Shiites only, he was forced to fall back on his Shiite credentials, given his family’s historic role within the Shiite community. The Al Sadr-Al Amiri alliance, many believe, was forced upon both men by Qasim Sulaimani, commander of the Quds Force, who had showed up in Baghdad days after the election results were announced, forcing the Shiites to work together.
He may have promised them money, which has not been coming since Iran got totally immersed in the Syrian conflict, preferring to spend it on Hezbollah than on Sadr’s followers. A twin attack in Sadr City, which killed 18 of Al Sadr’s supporters, may have served as a rough warning for Sadr, forcing him to recalculate his moves, especially that the Ministry of Interior — which should have prevented such an attack — is run by a protege of Hadi Al Amiri and the mullahs of Tehran.
Al Sadr only made it this far, after all, because he was the son of Mohammad Sadeq Al Sadr, the revered ayatollah who was assassinated by Saddam Hussain back in 1999. He quickly built upon that legacy, winning hearts and minds by waging a guerrilla war against the Americans after the 2003 occupation, then implementing a highly successful charity network, based on the Hezbollah model in Lebanon, which provided Iraqi Shiites with hospital care, free schooling, and monthly stipends. Those Shiites are currently more valuable to him than any Iraqi politician, or neighbouring state.
When Al Sadr first broke onto the Iraqi stage at the age of 30, he was relatively unknown, despite his family name and ancestry. He stuttered as he spoke, had no political experience and had never visited any country other than Iran in his entire life.
He knew no other friend or patron until the Saudis came along in 2017, treating him nicely and with respect, trying to bring him out of the Iranian orbit — which might have looked appealing to the Shiite heavyweight, until reality struck this May. Iran was still present in Iraq and its main ally, Al Amiri, was still a force to be reckoned with. At the end of the day, the two men are not odd bedfellows, as many wrongly predicted a few months back. Both are Shiite nationalists and both owe their political legitimacy to their Shiite credentials and to Iran.
“For now, Al Sadr needs Al Amiri and the need is mutual. The devil, however, lies in the details.” ”Share on facebookTweet this
Many years ago, a similar scenario had emerged between Al Sadr and the then prime minister Nouri Al Maliki — another Iranian protege. Al Sadr supported his rise to power back in 2006, giving Al Malki legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Shiites who saw him as a strange newcomer to their lives, having spent most of his life in exile in Syria and Iran.
In exchange for Al Sadr’s blanket of legitimacy, Al Maliki protected Al Sadr from the dragnet of Iraqi and US security, who were both out to arrest him, especially after his death squads roamed the streets of Baghdad, killing prominent Sunni figures. Iraqi Sunnis hated him, especially after Al Sadr’s men appeared in black masks at the execution of Saddam, chanting “Moqtada! Moqtada!” That Al Malki-Al Sadr alliance snapped when Al Sadr became too strong for the prime minister’s liking, creating an untouchable mini-state within Sadr City, with its own treasury, army and intelligence service.
Unable to penetrate it, Al Malki tried to break it. In 2011, Al Sadr led massive demonstrations, accusing Al Malki of being a corrupt despot, calling on him to step down. He kept the pressure all throughout until Al Malki was finally ejected in 2014, supporting the rise of his successor, current premier, Haidar Al Abadi. When cuddling up to Al Malki brought reward, Al Sadr did it with style, and when it became a political burden, he broke away with style, championing the rights of the poor and oppressed.
For now, he needs Al Amiri and the need is mutual. The devil, however, lies in the details. The two men may still quarrel when it comes to naming a new prime minister, whether it’s Al Abadi or anybody else. Al Amiri is likely to push for a figure capable of safeguarding Iranian interests while Al Sadr will go for a more moderate Shiite and is even considering his cousin Jaafar for the premiership.
The Ministry of Interior will likely remain off-limits to Sadr, kept in the hands of the Badr Organisation that Amiri commands. How other components of Iraqi society will react is still to be seen. Al Malki tried joining the two men, but was declared unwelcome by Al Sadr’s spokesman earlier this week. The Sunni Decision Alliance has already voiced its mistrust of the Shiite “superblock” and so have small groups of Sunni and Kurdish politicians, in addition to Ammar Al Hakim, a Shiite heavyweight and former Iranian protege who now leads the Hikma Alliance.
If they don’t join Sadr and Amiri, even with a “superblock” there is very little that the two men can do to speed up Cabinet formation, threatening Iraq with a prolonged Cabinet crisis that may last for weeks, if not months.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad.