Damascus: Once described by TIME magazine as the “most dangerous man in Iraq,” maverick Iraqi politician Moqtada Al Sadr is being showered with praise today, peddled as a “Iran critic” and hailed as “kingmaker” after his list won 54 out of 328 seats in parliament last May.
His Sairoun list campaigned on anti-Americanism, for which Al Sadr is well-known, anti-corruption, anti-sectarianism, and clipping the wings of Iran in Iraqi domestics.
He is still short of a majority, however, which would require 165 seats in the Iraqi Assembly, but given the mediocre-to-poor performance of all his main rivals, Al Sadr is likely to be highly influential in choosing who the next prime minister will be. As the cabinet formation unfolds, Iraq is dealing with the usual list of grievances.
Security issues are still a top concern, even though the terrorist group Daesh which swept over a third of the country in 2014 has been largely eradicated.
On Wednesday, twin bomb blasts targeted a mosque in Sadr city, killing 18 and wounding 100.
Many have accused the Interior Ministry, stacked with staunch Iranian allies, for orchestrating the attack.
Over the years Iran’s influence has also evolved. Now, Iran is less able to cobble together grand electoral coalitions compared to 10 years ago. This is not because Iran has been left out of the political loop or is unable to pursue its interests in Iraq, but because the internal and external players are more dynamic than before.”
- Fanar Haddad | Iraqi specialist at the National University of Singapore
Observers believed the attack intended to send a message to Al Sadr for his newfound relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional ally.
Al Sadr was quick to call for calm among his supporters during this politically crucial time.
Al Sadr’s political journey
Al Sadr has come a long way since described as an “outlaw” by Paul Bremer back in 2003, when he led an armed insurgency against the Americans in southern Iraq and the Shiite slums of Baghdad.
Ten years ago, he disbanded his loathed Mehdi Army, and last week, his top aide Diaa Al Assadi said that there was no coming back to militia-rule.
Al Sadr now carefully chooses his words, trying to come across as a populist and well-crafted Iraqi statesman, rather than a thuggish warlord.
He still banks heavily on his Shiite credentials, however, never missing the chance to remind people that he is the son of revered Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999.
Last summer, Al Sadr visited Jeddah, meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and in Abu Dhabi, he went on to meet His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in an attempt to shed his image as a sectarian Shiite warlord.
Hearts and minds
He hoped by reaching out to powerful Sunni states, he would be able to win back the hearts and minds of disenfranchised Iraqi Sunni voters.
Observers explain that Al Sadr’s shift towards the Gulf could be a direct result of a cutback in Iranian funds to Shiite politicians in Iraq, having shifted the bulk of its resources in recent years to more pressing issues like sustaining its war efforts in Syria, where it is bolstering the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the reconciliation with Al Sadr also came with opportunities.
Observers believed it was a strategic choice on their part in order to confront Iranian meddling in its own backyard given Tehran’s long-held grip on Iraqi politics since 2003, when Saddam Hussain was toppled.
However, the Gulf was not planning to put all its eggs into one basket.
It also reached out to Iraqi Foreign Minister Ebrahim Al Ja’afari and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi — both members of the ruling Iran-backed Da’awa party — as well as Ammar Al Hakim, another Shiite cleric, who for years had been on Iran’s payroll under his party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
In fact, last year Al Hakim broke ranks with his party, forming another party which campaigned on non-sectarianism.
The Iraqi political scene has evolved and become more complex over the years, explains Fanar Haddad, an Iraqi specialist at the National University of Singapore.
In 2003, after Saddam’s fall, the issues were more straightforward and one-dimensional — mainly the de-Baathification of Iraq and restoring Shiites as a majority power.
“Over the years Iran’s influence has also evolved,” Haddad tells Gulf News.
“Now, Iran is less able to cobble together grand electoral coalitions compared to 10 years ago. This is not because Iran has been left out of the political loop or is unable to pursue its interests in Iraq, but because the internal and external players are more dynamic than before,” he says.
Opponents of Al Sadr claim that gross fraud took place during last May’s elections, and 173 parliamentarians have voted for a manual recount, blaming the error on electronic counting machines, which were used for the first time.
Approximately 11 million votes will be recounted, but on Thursday, Iraq’s election commission said it would appeal parliament’s order.
8 names for potential Iraqi PM
Meanwhile, consultations are ongoing on who the next Iraqi prime minister will be, with eight potential names on the list:
A Shiite member of the Da’awa party, he hails from a prominent family of doctors in Baghdad, which was forced into exile shortly after Saddam came to power in 1978.
Two of his brothers were killed by Saddam, putting him briefly on the good side of Iran.
He studied electrical engineering at the University of Technology in Iraq and holds a PhD from the University of Manchester.
Al Abadi has earned a reputation for being the least corrupt Iraqi politician, especially compared to his predecessor, former premier Nouri Al Maliki.
He is also seen as candidate with broad appeal, not only with Shiite voters but with Iraq’s Sunnis and Saudi Arabia as well.
Unlike other Shiite dissidents under Saddam, he chose Europe, rather than Iran, to spend his years in exile.
A ranking member of the Sadrist Movement, he was nominated for the premiership in 2014 and has since earned an army of admirers and fans, sweeping the streets of Maysan, having iftar with the poor, overseeing charity networks for the needed, and earning a nationwide reputation for his exceptionally unblemished financial record.
Like Al Sadr, he has been recently critical of Iran’s growing influence in Iraqi domestic issues.
He is the present commander of the Badr Organisation, the militia set up by Iran to fight Saddam Hussain back in the 1980s.
For three solid decades, he has been on the Iranian payroll, fighting alongside the Iranian Army during the Iran-Iraq War.
He is very close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and a close friend of powerful Iranian general Qassem Sulaimani.
He presently commands the Hashed Al Shaabi, the powerful Iran-backed militia that was set up in recent years to fight Daesh and which has been heavily involved in the Syria War. In 2010-2014, he was the last Minister of Transportation under Nouri Al Maliki.
Like Al Abadi, he refused to travel to Iran when hunted by Saddam’s regime, travelling first to Saudi Arabia, where he taught at King Abdul Aziz University, and then to the UAE, where he stayed until 1991.
He then chose Yemen, and finally London in 2001-2003.
An academic by training, he studied in Baghdad and at Al Azhar University in Cairo.
Considered “acceptable” to all sides, he has warm relations with Iran but is also close to other Arab states and is on good terms with Al Sadr and liked by ordinary Shiites, with a career in Da’awa dating back to the 1960s.
The agreement between them was based on mutual political need.
In exchange for Al Maliki’s protection, Al Sadr gave him legitimacy and credibility on the streets of Baghdad, where Al Maliki was then unknown, emerging from years of exile in Syria to assume the country’s top job.
The relationship soon snapped, when Al Maliki tried curbing Al Sadr’s powers after his Mehdi Army was becoming way too strong and independent for his taste.
In 2011, Al Sadr staged countrywide demonstrations against the prime minister, calling for his resignation, and put his full weight behind his final removal in 2014.
The two men currently despise one another.
However, given Al Maliki’s strong ties to business community, Al Sadr might be forced to work with him but only in a symbolic capacity with no real power.
Al Maliki’s popularity is at an all-time low, given his close ties to Iran, poor relationship with Iraq’s Sunnis and infamous reputation for corruption.
Also, he is largely blamed for the emergence of Daesh in 2014.
A Shiite with no clerical background or ties to Iran, he is much respected in holy city of Karbala where he served as director of health services, before becoming minister of health in 2007.
Al Hasnawi is accredited for rooting sectarianism out of the ministry.
He was nominated to head Unesco and is highly respected in medical circles throughout the Arab World.
Hailing from a prominent family, his father was a minister under the Iraqi monarchy who sent him to Baghdad College, an elite American Jesuit secondary school.
He later studied in France, where he joined the Communist Party and worked at Paris-based think tanks and Arabic magazines.
After the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, Abdul Mehdi rejected his Marxist past and became a Shiite nationalist, joining the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an-Iran funded party, in the 1980s.
With the fall of Saddam, he returned to Baghdad and ran for the premiership in 2006.
He remains heavyweight who is close to Iran and on good terms with all Shiites within Iraq.
Although he himself is not a member of his father’s party, Ja’afar grew up in a home regularly frequented by Shiite figures of all stripes and colours.
He spent a lifetime studying Shiite theology in Qom, Iran, where he still travels frequently and owns a house, but took off his Islamic garb in 2005, marketing himself as a moderate Shiite cleric.
Moqtada Al Sadr risks accusations of nepotism if he decides to endorse Ja’afar for the premiership.