Who are you and what have you done with Muqtada al-Sadr? The man impersonating Iraq’s firebrand Shia cleric gave himself away early Wednesday when he called on the United Nations and Organization for Islamic Cooperation to mediate the country’s boiling political crisis. Cue spit take. How does one go from rabid warlord to Iraqi Gandhi in the space of a decade? Muqtada’s dumbfounding metamorphosis lies somewhere between maniacal and Machiavellian.
Al-Sadr is the most revered name in Shia Iraq and, for many, synonymous with unflinching anti-imperialism. Before Muqtada surfaced in Western newspapers, the al-Sadr family name had already been twice immortalized by martyrdom. Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr played an active role in the 1920 uprising against the British. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (in folklore, Sadr I) helped establish the Islamic Dawa Party in 1958 to defend the hawza, or community of Shia scholarship, against the secularization of Iraqi society. Saddam Hussein hanged Baqir on April 8, 1980—he was the first grand ayatollah to be executed in modern history.
Whereas Baqir advocated for a political revolution, his cousin Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Sadr II) built a mass movement, one that would restore Shiism’s relevance to the spiritual and sociopolitical needs of the faithful. After the United States routed the Iraqi military and expelled it from Kuwait in 1991, the Shia rose up in the hope that Washington would come to their aid. No help came. Following Saddam’s horrific suppression of the Shaaban Intifada, Iraq’s Shia poor were angry and fearful. Compounding the suffering, UN sanctions devastated the Iraqi masses rather than the political elite supposedly targeted. Sadiq’s overt hostility to the West resonated profoundly. He prefaced his Friday sermons with “No, no to America! No, no to Israel!” Saddam assassinated Sadiq and his two elder sons on February 19, 1999.
Muqtada assumed leadership over the Sadrist movement after the murder of his father and brothers. The coalition invasion enabled Muqtada to transform himself from little-known, modestly credentialed cleric to one of the most important political figures in post-Saddam Iraq. Muqtada’s vigorous nationalism and unwavering anti-Americanism were central to his popular appeal. When Washington set up the Iraqi Governing Council on July 13, 2003, rival Shia and secular leaders eagerly joined. Muqtada did not. More so than any other leader in occupied Iraq, Muqtada understood the grave domestic consequences of being perceived as a puppet of a foreign entity.
Muqtada tailored his messaging to the young, poor, urbanized Shia. The International Crisis Group observed in 2006 that, from the outset, Muqtada “gave voice to a proud, authentic popular identity while advocating violent struggle against the root causes of oppression.” As far as the Sadrists were concerned, the root causes of oppression in post-Saddam Iraq emanated, above all, from the American occupying force.
Only a true Iraqi, Muqtada argued, could legitimately wield religious and political power over Iraq’s Shia. While other Shia leaders adopted a conciliatory posture toward coalition forces, Muqtada invoked his father’s hostility towards the West and framed the occupation as the continuation of the abject suffering imposed upon Iraq’s Shia during the sanctions regime the previous decade.
Muqtada formed the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi or JAM) in June 2003. Lebanese Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh reportedly helped form JAM by recruiting Kuwaiti and Saudi Shia, and then sending them to Lebanon for basic militia training.
In the eyes of many, Muqtada’s hands will forever be stained with the blood of Americans and Iraqis alike. On April 4, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada. The Sadrist leader retreated to Kufa and issued a direct call to arms. In a Friday sermon, Muqtada declared, “I and my followers of the believers have come under attack from the occupiers, imperialism, and the appointees. . . . Be on the utmost readiness, and strike them where you meet them.” In Sadr City, JAM fighters pinned down a patrol from the First Cavalry Division and stormed seven police stations in the area. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and fifty-one were wounded. JAM took up tactical positions in and around the holy shrines of Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. The fighting lasted nearly two months.
A second uprising broke out in early August when JAM fighters attacked a U.S. Marine patrol in Najaf. MNF-I commander Gen. George Casey dispatched the Eleventh Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Second Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment to neutralize JAM once and for all. Sadr responded by seizing the Imam Ali shrine. The fighting was intense, and JAM sustained heavy losses. On August 14, Muqtada gave a press conference that Al Jazeera transmitted in full across the Middle East. “Najaf,” he hyperbolized, “has triumphed over imperialism and imperial hubris.”
Muqtada reaped political capital from the spoils of battles he tactically lost. Not for the first or last time, Muqtada proved capable of deft political pragmatism. He allied with Shia rivals and, in January 2005, claimed twenty-three seats in parliament. The Sadrists were rewarded with the ministries of health, transportation and housing.
On February 22, 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) blew up the al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra, dragging JAM into the unforgiving, brutal civil-war phase of the conflict. Every act of violence committed by a Shia death squad was attributed to JAM, regardless of verifiable affiliation. By March 2007, the U.S. military assessed that JAM had “replaced AQ-I as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq.” The “Shia extremists” President Bush threatened in his 2007 State of the Union undoubtedly referred to Muqtada and his followers. (Few Westerners could distinguish between JAM, the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah back then. A Shia militia was a Shia militia.)
Muqtada disappeared from view in January 2007. Four months later, he resurfaced and championed intersectarian unity in the face of AQI, doubling down on his nationalist rhetoric. Muqtada announced on June 13, 2008 that he was transforming JAM into a nonviolent social-services organization; on August 28, he ordered JAM to cease all paramilitary activity. He would relabel JAM the Promised Day Brigades and winnow it down into a small, elite cadre of tightly controlled militiamen. Muqtada all but vanished from Iraq’s militia landscape. On August 6, 2013, Muqtada signaled he would withdraw from political life as well, wishing not “to be part of a conspiracy against the Iraqi people.”
A single day after Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014, Muqtada breathed life back into the Mahdi Army and christened the Peace Brigades. “No to America! No to Israel!” chanted the militiamen. Along with other powerful Shia militias, they answered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to arms and together formed the Popular Mobilization Forces. Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis have since eclipsed their rivals as the faces of the Shia fight against ISIS. Until very recently, Muqtada remained quiet.
After eight years of hibernation, Muqtada returned to the limelight, ostensibly to help salvage Iraq from the depths of despair. ISIS may not have the chance to destroy Iraq. Low oil prices, political gridlock and rampant corruption will likely beat the jihadists to the punch. Iraq ranks 161 out of 168 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Muqtada’s political reentry was more cannonball than splash. For months, thousands of Iraqis have been railing against government corruption and a lack of basic public services. In January 2016, Muqtada awoke from his slumber and publicly delivered Haider al-Abadi a forty-five-day ultimatum to form a new cabinet of technocrats—in stark contrast to the partisan incompetents currently running the ministries. In late February, hundreds of thousands of Sadrists took to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. “No to corruption and the corrupt,” they shouted. Muqtada spoke on stage with oxymoronic Peace Brigaders at his side: “Abadi must carry out grassroots reform. . . . Raise your voice and shout so the corrupt get scared of you.”
The Sadrist masses pitched a sprawling protest camp just outside the Green Zone’s fortified walls. The deadline passed in early March with no progress. Instead of ordering his legions to storm the Green Zone, Muqtada nonchalantly strutted in himself, accompanied by only a handful of aides. The optics were impeccable. The soldiers defending the capital’s most secure zone literally embraced him. “The general in charge of security knelt and kissed his hand,” the Washington Post reported.
Muqtada’s aides set up camp. Five days later, Abadi proposed a reformist, technocratic cabinet to parliament, going so far as to thank Muqtada in his speech. Parliament’s sectarian power brokers predictably erected roadblocks. Muqtada redirected his threat-laden rhetoric their way. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah reportedly attempted to broker a truce between Muqtada and the still-powerful Nouri al-Maliki. He was unsuccessful.
Wednesday witnessed the political crisis’s apex. Muqtada called for “peaceful protests under the same intensity and even more in order to pressure the politicians and the lovers of corruption.” Moreover, “Nobody has the right to stop it otherwise the revolution will take another turn.” And then it happened. Not unlike George H. W. Bush reversing his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, Iraq’s most demagogic nationalist appealed for foreign intervention. “We call upon the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations to interfere to get the Iraqi people out of their ordeal and to correct the political process even through holding early elections.”
Some analysts believe Muqtada is cynically hijacking Abadi’s reform agenda—publicly championing anticorruption, while privately blocking progress. It’s probably too soon to tell. Muqtada al-Sadr has never been one thing. During the American occupation, he was at once proxy, populist, patriot, politician—and, to AQI, pagan. Plotting his trajectory can feel like a fool’s errand. Muqtada may not appear himself, but he probably hasn’t truly shed his populist skin to don an establishment suit. He won’t betray his nationalist roots so lightly.
Zach Abels is assistant editor at the National Interest.