In 2005 Muqtada al-Sadr got on the cover of Time Magazine for the first time. “Ready or Not,” the cover stated in anticipation of the January 30, 2005, National Assembly elections. Sadr was in the background. He was, after all, one of the most famous figures to emerge after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Today he is poised to be the key powerbroker behind the new government of Iraq after receiving the largest number of votes in the parliamentary elections.
Sadr was born in 1973 into a family of influential Shi’ite clerics in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf. Several of his family members, including his father, were murdered by the Saddam Hussein regime. After the preliminary election results were announced he visited his father’s grave in Najaf. He held his chin and seemed to ponder the future. On May 19 he met Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi and towered over the shorter Abadi at a press conference. Sadr wore his cleric’s robes, a black turban on his head, his beard was gray from age. He’s been holding court a lot lately. On May 18 he hosted the ambassadors of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kuwait. The Iranians were not present. Their interlocutor in Iraq, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, has been scrambling to put together a non-Sadr coalition. It turns out Sadr, the man who once kept the Americans up at night and was seen as leading Shi’ite populism against the United States, may now also bedevil the Iranians in their attempts to control Iraq after Islamic State has been defeated. In July 2017, Sadr flew to Saudi Arabia and met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. It appears that he has been positioning Iraq for a new role in the region, one between the United States and Iran.
The origins of today’s Sadr can be found in 2004. In those days the much younger cleric led a militia known as the Mahdi army. In late March the U.S. authorities banned the Al-Hawza newspaper, which was published by Sadr loyalists. The United States planned raids against Sadrists. What they got was an uprising in April 2004. Sadr’s men took control of Sadr city in Baghdad and held much of the district until 2008. Throughout the battles, which cost numerous American and Iraqi lives, the United States kept up contract with the Sadrists. Confidential diplomatic cables reveal many of these contacts, thoughts of the U.S. diplomats and also the development of Sadr’s political strategy.
For instance one of the cables from June 2005 discusses the “struggle for the mind” of Sadr. At the time Sadr’s lieutenants wanted their men freed from U.S. detention. To Sadr advisors, Hamid Al-Sharifi and Saayid Imad Kelanter met with a U.S. political officer. Kelanter told him that Qais al-Khazali, who now runs his own Shi’ite militia, had major influence over Sadr. “He said that money, weapons and trained men from Iran provide Khazali with influence.” The Americans unsurprisingly characterized Sadr as having a “negative” influence over Iraq and suggested he was using intimidation and violence to get what he wanted politically. At the time the United States reported that Iran was financing the Sadrists as well as the Dawa party. Nouri al-Maliki, a Dawa party leader, became prime minister of Iraq in 2006.
To show off his growing influence and power Sadr embarked on an international trip in February 2006. He left for Iran and Saudi Arabia before going to Syria where he met Bashar al-Assad. While in Syria he claimed he would put his militia at the disposal of Damascus if it was attacked by the West. He also went to Raqqa and met with Sunni tribal leaders. Ostensibly he was there to visit a holy grave, but he also discussed with Sunni extremists were using Raqqa as a corridor to get into Iraq. At the time the Shi’ite militias were fighting an increasingly sectarian conflict with Al Qaeda, while the Americans looked on as Iraq descended into pre-surge chaos.
By 2007 Sadr had grown so important he was viewed as a danger by many Shi’ites around his own camp. His Mahdi army clashed with members of the Badr Organization and its head Hadi al-Amiri (who now heads the Fateh list that came in second in the elections) were harshly critical of Sadr’s actions. The U.S. characterized the militia as having turned into a “heavily armed rabble.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Tehran also saw it as a danger and worried its early support had created a menace. But even Sadr’s enemies claimed that the Mahdi army was better than any other group in Iraq at recruiting personnel and disseminating information. As fall came to Iraq in 2007 Sadr suspended the operations of his militia for six months.
Throughout the fall and into the winter Sadr and his senior advisors began to recalculate their vision for Iraq. In early 2008 a senior Sadrist named Jawad al-Hasnawi approached the Americans and told them something startling. “He and a growing number of other Sadrists have come to the conclusion that Iran, not the United States, is Iraq’s greatest nemesis.” It was time for Sadr and the United States to consider a coming together of minds. He characterized Iran as Satan and said it was time to clip the toenails of the devil.
In detailed discussions Hasnawi laid out evidence that Iran had dispatched numerous minions to Karbala, the Shi’ite holy city. “it is the real occupying power,” he claimed. Iran was “on its way” to controlling every level of Ira, from the political, economic to even the Shi’ite religious establishment. It was part of an age-old plan of Iran to take over Iraq. In the discussion the Sadrist also claimed that specific elements within the Badr Organization and office of “the Hakim family” were working for Iran. Ammar al-Hakim is the president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and leader of a political party that received around twenty seats in parliament. Hakim fled to Iran in 1979 during Saddam’s rule and, along with Amiri, had been influenced by Iran at the time.
Maliki, carving himself out as a Shi’ite strongman and posing as someone the Americans could trust, also had his own recipe for the future of Iraq. A U.S. diplomatic cable from June 2008 notes that Maliki sought to consolidate his power by showing he could reign in Sadr’s militia. He met with the Iranians and spoke to Khameinei and General Soleimani. Together they seemed to agree that Sadr could finally be cut down to size. The United States seemed to be in agreement with Maliki because Sadr had been such a thorn in the side of the coalition.
David Satterfield, then the coordinator for Iraq and senior advisor to Secretary of State Conoleezza Rice, was more cautious. A cable reveals that he had concerns about Iran’s involvement in Iraq and that “Iran wanted to continue to deal with Iraq as it dealt with Hezbollah in Lebanon and radical Palestinians in Damascus.” Iran might overplay its hand, the May 2008 cable notes because Iran doesn’t want to treat Iraq as an equal state on a state-to-state level, but prefers to work with clients inside Iraq. In this meeting an Egyptian diplomat was quoted as saying that Sadr should be viewed as a “pan-Arabist” and that any work with Maliki would end up benefiting Iran.
Sadr disappeared from politics for almost two years following his decision in 2007 to stand down the militia and the threats in 2008 that he might be targeted by the United States or Iraqi government. He quietly left for Iran. Then in March 2010 during the elections his followers emerged again to show their influence. His supporters had worked block by block to get votes and The New York Times characterized the Sadrists as having “unprecedented discipline.” Sadr told followers that the “door to the liberation of Iraq” was now open. As a member of the National Alliance of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Sadrists had gained thirty-nine seats of the seventy won by the National Alliance of mostly Shi’ite parties. In January 2011 Sadr returned to Najaf where is followers greeted him. “He is coming to lead,” the told an Al Jazeera writer.
In 2010 a strange thing happened to Sadr. The U.S. administration of Barack Obama wanted to withdraw from Iraq, which they would eventually do in December 2011. To leave they needed peace and Maliki promised he would be a Shi’ite strongman. Obama’s administration was looking to patch things up with Tehran and in Iraq both Tehran and Washington wanted Maliki. Sadr was pressured to support a deal that saw Maliki become prime minister. Maliki betrayed Sadr within months. A 2014 paper by Andrea Plebani concludes that “Al-Sadr emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the new course inaugurated by al-Maliki and publicly accused the prime minister of authoritarianism and sectarianism.” In February 2014 Sadr announced that he was leaving politics and that no party would represent him. Nonetheless the Al-Ahrar coalition, which received Sadrist support, got thirty-four seats in the 2014 elections. Even in 2014 when he distanced himself from politics he had already gained widespread respect across the political spectrum from Hakim to other major players in the political system who opposed Maliki, Osama Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi.
Despite claims that he would stay away from politics, politics would not stay away from Sadr. By June 2014, ISIS had arrived in Iraq and was menacing Baghdad. The terror group had taken Mosul and other Sunni cities, massacring Shi’ites along the way. In a speech in Najaf in late June, Sadr said his militias would “shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and extremism.” Tens of thousands of armed men turned out to parade. But during the war on ISIS, Sadr expressed concern about corruption in Baghdad and the rising power of other Shi’ite militias affiliated to the Popular Mobilization Units. Badr, headed by his old rival Amiri, was gaining more power through the war on ISIS. Sadrists also clashed with members of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Khazali’s militia in March 2016. Sadr’s followers led a massive protest in Baghdad in April 2016 that culminated in them storming the Green Zone on April 30. Once again, Sadr had “returned” to the spotlight. By then anyone following his career must have gotten used to these “returns,” which appeared to happen every year or so.
Dismissed before the 2018 elections, Sadr’s followers did what they had done in the past. They worked in local areas in Najafa and other dusty hot provinces in and south of Baghdad. Locals felt no real connection to Abadi despite his boasts of having “won” the war on ISIS. Maliki was also unpopular. The Shi’ites leaned toward voting for either Sadr or the Fateh list of Shi’ite militias run by Amiri. In the end, Sadr’s Saairun list took fifty-four seats and Amiri’s took forty-seven. Abadi only claimed forty-two seats and Maliki got twenty-six.
But Sadr is now stuck trying to form a coalition with many people who either fear or dislike him in the Shi’ite camp. He is more respected among Sunnis and Kurds, but there are not enough members of parliament from either the Kurdish parties or the Sunnis, to create a coalition. Nevertheless, fourteen years after his men first entered the streets of Sadr city to confront the United States, he has reached the peak of power in Baghdad.
For Washington this presents a challenge because he has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. role in Iraq. He has called on the U.S. embassy to be closed when Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017. However he has also been consistent in his opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq, something that dovetails with the current administration's policies. He has also reached out to Riyadh, a key U.S. ally. The question now is whether Sadr will change his usual demands that the coalition leave Iraq and foster a new kind of Iraqi politics aimed at rolling back Iranian influence and working with the Kurdish autonomous region in the north, which has been a key ally against ISIS.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.