Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, and why is he hotter than ever after Iraq’s elections?

  • Last October, Iraq held early parliamentary elections in response to the mass anti-government protests that have gripped the country since 2019.
  • The victory of Muqtada al-Sadr, with 73/329 seats, has granted the Shi’a cleric and Sadrist movement leader immense power as Iraq’s kingmaker.
  • Social unrest and political fragmentation have only intensified with this result, which has different implications for key internal actors and Iran.
Muqtada al-Sadr (Iraq)
Muqtada al-Sadr at a news conference on November 18, 2021. Source: REUTERS

Why is Muqtada al-Sadr’s heat level hot?

Answer: Sadr, long-time influencer of Iraqi politics and head of the popular Sadrist movement, secured a clear victory in the anticipated October 2021 parliamentary elections.

The political climate in Iraq is currently defined by uncertainty and volatility. Ranking 20th in the 2021 Fragile States Index, the country continues to grapple with various severe and mutually-reinforcing crises, ranging from a collapsing economy and endemic corruption to sectarian divisions and systematic violence against civilians. It is difficult to envision a light at the end of the tunnel, and even more so to devise a way towards it. Naturally, this enduring turmoil has been internalized by Iraqi society, and reflected back onto the state through mass anti-government protests.

Starting in October 2019, a historic uprising—dubbed by some as Iraq’s second Arab Spring— filled the streets of Baghdad and other major cities with thousands of demonstrators and widespread violence. Just over two years later, as of December 2021, the protests have resulted in over 600 deaths and thousands of injuries at the hands of security forces, making for the bloodiest crackdown against the Iraqi people since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. An initial package of demands included better access to basic services, economic opportunities, and an end to corruption and violence; however, the movement’s goals decidedly evolved towards the political, calling for a complete overhaul of Iraq’s current power-sharing system and elite.

Some change has materialized, with the collapse of Abdul-Mahdi’s government in December 2019 and the appointment of Prime Minister al-Kadhimi in May 2020. Most recently, a key demand of Iraqi protesters was met, in holding parliamentary elections almost a year in advance, and under the framework of a new electoral law reflecting a series of reforms in favour of independent and local candidates. However, the October 10 elections became yet another stage for the Iraqi people’s campaign against the status quo, which manifested itself through severe boycotting by a disillusioned youth and middle class. A record-low turnout—43% of the electorate—painted a picture of severe distrust, dissatisfaction, and disengagement. It has also put the upcoming government’s legitimacy into question, before it has even been formed.

So, who came out as the winner? Introducing Muqtada al-Sadr, Shi’a cleric, militia leader, politician, and head of the Sadrist movement. As one of the most influential figures in Iraq since 2003, Sadr was far from an unfamiliar face in the polls. His party, which is ideologically-based on religious conservatism and national populism, has participated in the country’s parliamentary elections since 2005. That year, Sadr helped swing the vote in favour of Ibrahim al-Jaafari to serve as Prime Minister of the Iraqi Transitional Government; both leaders belonged to the same coalition of Shi’a parties, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). In 2010, the Sadrist movement became the strongest faction within this coalition, which renamed itself as the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA) or Watani List. In 2014, Sadr switched gears by spearheading the reformist Al-Ahrar Bloc, which worked as the main opposition force against then-PM al-Maliki’s government. In 2018, the Sadrist movement joined forces with the Iraqi Communist Party and formed the Alliance Towards Reforms or Saairun List; for the first time, Sadr came first, winning 54/329 seats.

Sadr’s double game has allowed him to sustain his influence and relevance in Iraqi politics for almost two decades. He juggles a past of sectarian violence—having led the Mahdi Army, a notorious Shi’a militia, during the civil war—with his current non-denominational position and outreach to the Sunni community. He holds a clear role within Iraq’s political status quo, while using a reformist discourse and backing anti-establishment movements. He has no problem switching alliances when needed to secure more votes. It is this unpredictability, strategic foresight and populist appeal that has progressively given Sadr a strong grip over public opinion and a wide base of blindly-loyal supporters. On October 10, the Sadrist movement proved to be hotter than ever; by emerging victorious with 73/329 seats and a large margin, Sadr is now the kingmaker, and arguably the most powerful man in Iraq.

Who is changing Muqtada al-Sadr’s temperature?

Answer: despite amassing such significant power, Sadr is challenged by the elections’ losers, namely other Shi’a status quo leaders and Iran-backed militias.

With great power comes great responsibility, and particularly so in the context of Iraqi politics—a complex web of internal and external actors, all competing for different interests. This prevents Sadr from truly blazing, as his decision-making power is balanced by the influence of other key players.

The internal challenges faced by Sadr, in terms of government formation, are epitomized by the protests that erupted throughout the country in the aftermath of the elections. Discontent with the results, other Shi’a parties that have experienced major losses have mobilized to combat what they deem to be electoral fraud. Their political response has been the creation of the Coordination Framework, an ad-hoc united front including all major Shi’a leaders except Sadr, which pressured Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission for vote recounting or annulment until late last month, when Iraq’s top court dismissed fraud allegations and opened the way for formal negotiations. A great fear of this group is Sadr’s intention to dissolve the country’s power-sharing system (muhasasa), which was designed in 2005 to ensure a fair allocation of governing powers to each of Iraq’s main ethno-confessional groups (Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish), but has evolved into an enabler of deeply-entrenched corruption.

However, the broad framework of contenders has its own internal divisions. On the one hand, centrist and moderate leaders such as former Prime Ministers al-Maliki and al-Abadi, or former Minister al-Amiri—respective heads of the State of Law, State of Forces, and Fatah Alliances—favour a legal solution and bargaining with Sadr. On the other, there are multiple Iran-backed militias—including the Fatah-affiliated Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kataib Hezbollah (KH)—that have resorted to more violent means. On November 5, clashes began between the groups and state security forces around Baghdad’s Green Zone. Two days later, drone strikes were conducted on current PM al-Kadhimi’s residence, in a brazen but unsuccessful assassination attempt; this is reflective of the militias’ willingness to use force and intimidation against those who pose a threat to their position of power in the country.

Clearly, external influences also have a role to play in conditioning Sadr’s power. Starting with Iran, the state’s priority interests are ensuring a strong Shi’a leadership in Iraq, and maintaining its influence on Iraqi politics. Although Iran undeniably supports Shi’a paramilitary groups in Iraq, many of which receive training and funds from the Iranian Quds Force, there are questions about its involvement in the current escalation of violence and volatility. After the attempt on al-Kadhimi’s life on November 7, the Quds force commander—Esmail Qaani, successor of Qassem Soleimani after his assassination by the US last year—personally visited the Prime Minister, and condemned the attack on behalf of Tehran. Overall, Sadr’s victory and the shifting power balance in Iraq seems to be encouraging a recalculation on Iran’s part. The vulnerabilities of its militia proxies under the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) are being exposed, particularly through their glaring loss of voter popularity in these elections, and the means of coercion and brutality are no longer effective in the Iraqi context. 

Meanwhile, where Sadr’s rise to power is problematic for Iran’s interests, it creates opportunities for the United States to secure its own.  Ironically, the cleric was once a notorious enemy during the US invasion of Iraq, having led the Mahdi army against American troops and inflicting thousands of casualties. Sadr is a staunch Iraqi nationalist and rejects external influences on all sides, which for a long time included the presence of US troops in the country. However, an unexpected shift towards a more pragmatic approach to interactions with the US seems to be occurring. Also, Sadr is Washington’s only hope in terms of containing Tehran’s influence on the country, plucking issues of sectarianism and corruption from within its political system, and instituting the stability Iraq needs. 

What is driving Muqtada al-Sadr?

Answer: a reformist sentiment shared by Iraq’s disadvantaged society, a commitment to sustainable Shi’a-Sunni harmony, and a nationalist position against all foreign influences.

Because the Sadrist movement largely rests on the cult of personality around Muqtada al-Sadr, understanding the leader’s identity is understanding his political agenda. In the context of the challenges faced by his country, Sadr is moved by three main issues: social justice, religious harmony and Iraqi nationalism.

Most importantly, Sadr’s concern for Iraqi society has been the key to his success, in terms of mobilizing the masses and securing a loyal following. He portrays himself as a bridge between the popular voice and authority; he understands the concerns of average citizens, while fulfilling the role of a divinely-guided figure for spiritual and political leadership. The Sadrist movement is based in Sadr City; the Baghdad suburb originally known as Saddam City, and renamed in 2003 after Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father. The Shi’a leader was a dissident of the Saddam regime, and assassinated in 1999. He was revered by the marginalized Shi’a underclass in Baghdad; today, Muqtada al-Sadr follows in his footsteps and continues to build the Sadrist base far beyond this district. The leader’s reinvention as an anti-establishment reformist since 2018, with the formation of Saairun, speaks to his ability to seize social momentum. 

Moreover, religion goes hand in hand with every aspect of Iraqi society, and is a driving factor in itself when it comes to Sadr’s strategy. Since time immemorial, sectarian divisions between Shi’a and Sunni muslims have, to some extent, been a source of conflict; in Iraq, this takes a different dimension starting in 2003. Despite having led a violent campaign during the wartime years, Sadr now rejects sectarian rhetoric, which differentiates him from other Shi’a leaders and parties such as Fatah. By advocating for cross-denominational alliances, Sadr has expanded his reach and started to break religious boundaries—an impressive feat considering the context. The positive impact of this approach on his bargaining power is already being felt, as stakes in the government formation process are no longer taken for granted by Shi’a status quo powers and Iran-backed groups.

Lastly, the populist and nationalist discourse of the Sadrist movement directly stems from Sadr’s own convictions against foreign interventionism. This is one of the only attitudes that have stayed consistent throughout his political career, and an aspect that has also differentiated him as an independent candidate, in contrast to other Shi’a parties that remain subservient to Iran. On November 24, Sadr reaffirmed in a press conference that his movement “does not receive orders from behind the borders.” The leader’s commitment to forming a “national majority” government, rather than resorting to broader coalitions or external support, may ultimately reflect the result of interactions between these social, political, and ideological driving factors.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: how Sadr chooses to wield his power will be a great determinant of Iraq’s near future, with more peaceful and stable horizons in sight, alongside the risk of further state collapse.

Two decades in the making, Muqtada al-Sadr’s sweeping victory might be a make or break moment for the future of Iraq. The current situation of instability is largely owed to the violent means of addressing the country’s issues, employed by both state and non-state actors across multiple contexts. Sadr seems to recognize the limitations of abuse better than anyone; while he has promised to fight corruption and the political elite, he has urged anti-establishment militias to hand over their weapons. Whether you will see an end to widespread violence in Iraq any time soon is essentially in Sadr’s hands.

Three months after the elections, government formation (“a marathon, not a sprint”) is likely a while away, and a lot of developments are still to be expected. Two weeks ago, on January 9, Iraq held its first parliamentary session, where Taqaddum’s Sunni leader Mohammed al-Halbousi was re-elected as Speaker, with the support of the Sadrists and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). However, this did not happen without turmoil; tensions between the Sadrists and their rival Shi’a Coordination Framework escalated to the point of chaos and physical aggression, displaying the instability at the core of this political process.

Realistically speaking, Sadr faces many challenges, including the pressure of high social expectations, questionable legitimacy due to the record-low turnout, and an extensive list of clashing power brokers. Sadr, and the alliances he will have to make sooner or later, are clearly not a panacea; time and attrition are showing the unlikelihood of a backdown from pro-Iran parties, undermining the leader’s projection of independence. However, he has the opportunity to be a disruptive force and a turning point, for better or for worse. One cannot help but wonder whether this will direct Iraq on a path towards state-building, or towards a chaotic dismantling of the state’s very structure.