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Iraq: Sadr’s rivals fear mass demonstrations. His supporters do too

Sadrist leaders are hinting that mass prayers on Friday could escalate into violence, and it is not clear if the cleric himself is really in control of his own movement anymore
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr attend Friday prayers in Sadr City, Baghdad (AFP/file photo)
By Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad

Five years ago, an order was passed through a vast crowd of Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square: storm the Green Zone, it said.

That February day, the fortified neighbourhood, where the majority of diplomatic missions and government offices reside, was under threat like never before.

The Sadrists had gathered in the capital’s centre to make demands ahead of Iraq’s 2018 local elections.

Eyewitnesses told Middle East Eye that tens of thousands of unarmed Sadrists rushed across the al-Jumhuriya and al-Sinak bridges towards the Green Zone like they were hypnotised. But a heavy hail of bullets and tear gas fired by security forces quickly turned the crossing into a suicide mission.

That did not dissuade the Sadrists, who advanced in groups for the next two hours. "Whenever a group of them fell after being hit by bullets, the next group took their place," a Sadrist who was leading one of the charges recalled.

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Supporters of the Sadrist movement at a demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on 11 February, 2017 (AFP)
Supporters of the Sadrist movement at a demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on 11 February 2017 (AFP)

With the situation worsening every minute, news began to filter from Sadr City, the impoverished eastern Baghdad neighbourhood that makes up Sadr’s stronghold, that Sadrists were being encouraged to take out their light and medium-range weapons and proceeded to the Green Zone to join their comrades.

On the two bridges, the situation was bloody. Security sources said that 14 were killed, including security forces, and more than 400 wounded. 

Then a new command came down from the Shia cleric: “Tactically withdraw until further notice."

“The situation was terrifying, and had it not been for Sadr's timely intervention, everyone would have drowned in pools of blood," a Sadrist military commander told MEE.

'If 100,000 demonstrators surrounded the parliament building and demanded the resignation of the MPs, who would stand in their way?'

- aide to Muqtadr al-Sadr

“Sadr City is a huge arms depot, and our men do not stop to think twice before they use weapons. Herein lies the danger in dealing with them."

Fast-forward to July 2022, and such a bloody confrontation threatens to rear its head once again.

Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance won the most recent round of parliamentary elections in October, but his Iranian-backed rivals have thwarted his political project at every turn, prompting him to announce his political retirement and have all 73 of his MPs resign their seats.

Those resignations upended Iraqi politics, and ever since senior Sadrist leaders have been promoting a scenario similar to February 2017 as Sadr's next move.

“If 100,000 demonstrators surrounded the parliament building and demanded the resignation of the MPs, who would stand in their way?” a prominent Sadr aide told MEE.

"The current parliament has no father, and we do not think that any of the Iraqi forces or armed factions will defend an illegitimate parliament.

"Sadr will not let [his rivals] form a government. The parliament lost its legitimacy after the withdrawal of the largest bloc, and it is no longer representative of the people, so it must be dissolved.”

Unified prayer and show of strength

Sadrist leaders say they want one thing – the dissolution of parliament. That could be done by a third of the MPs requesting it and calling for early elections, or more resignations. It can also be ordered by the Supreme Judicial Council on the grounds of “exceeding constitutional terms”.

Sadrists insist protests and sit-ins will break out and continue as long as this parliament continues, and one date looms in particular.

Sadr has called for a unified prayer on 15 July to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the first Friday prayer held by his father, the renowned late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr. Many fear this could be the start of mass protests.

Leaders close to Sadr say he is not openly discussing his plans with aides and allies. Yet Sadrist leaders in Baghdad and the south have been mobilised and instructed to make sure all human and financial resources are available to ensure as many worshippers as possible participate on Friday.

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Political leaders and observers say this clearly reveals that Sadr is betting on using the number of participants to his advantage somehow.

Sadrists charged with organising the prayer have moved between provinces and met dozens of tribal leaders over the past two weeks, urging a huge turnout and the backing of Sadr.

In response, hundreds of buses have been rented to transport worshippers from the central and southern governorates to Baghdad, Sadrist leaders involved in the preparations told MEE.

Sadrists say a sit-in at the Green Zone’s gates after the prayer is likely. Storming the district is also possible, they said.

"It will not be just a prayer. Sadr wants the number of participants to be millions. It is a show of strength more than anything else," a prominent Sadrist leader involved in preparations told MEE.

"This prayer will show how many people reject the current political process and have been alienated from it.”

'A wounded lion'

Iraqi politics has been paralysed for eight months. After the October election, Sadr formed an alliance with the largest Sunni and Kurdish blocs and attempted to form a government that placed Iranian-backed groups in opposition.

This flew in the face of custom followed since 2003, in which all parties are represented in government. Enraged, Sadr’s opponents successfully managed to block his government-formation process through a series of procedural and illegal interventions.

That included Federal Supreme Court rulings that helped block the nomination of a president, and even missile attacks on his Kurdish allies.

Sadr’s failure to protect the interests of his partners and the absence of coordination between the leaders of the Sadrist-Sunni-Kurdish alliance also contributed to the collapse of the political project and the cleric’s ultimate withdrawal, political leaders and diplomats told MEE.

Publicly, Sadrist leaders have framed the resignations as a "thoughtful and planned" decision. Yet once the Sadrist MPs were replaced - mostly by Iranian-backed ones - on 23 June, the discourse took a sharp turn.

Where once, Sadrist speech touted a “victorious ascetic” line, where power has been abandoned by Sadr’s own free will, now language of a “wounded victor” robbed of victory and honour began to be broadcast.

The decision to withdraw began to look increasingly like an emotional one.

A poster of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and his son Muqtada al-Sadr is pictured in the Sadr City district of Baghdad (Reuters)
A poster of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr and his son Muqtada al-Sadr is pictured in the Sadr City district of Baghdad (Reuters)

Though Sadr no longer has any MPs, he still controls about half of government positions - including the premiership. But it’s expected that he could lose all of them within six months of a new government being formed, one of Sadr’s aides told MEE.

The aide said Sadr will not allow his opponents to form a government under any circumstances, and that the cleric and his movement’s leaders now see the dispute as personal, as well as political.

“If they succeed in forming the government, everything will be over and they will control everything, including the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces," the aide said.

"Regardless of any other considerations, Sadr is currently wounded. They hurt him and made him feel that he is an outcast and that he does not represent the Shia and does not deserve to lead them.

“Can you imagine what a wounded lion would do? This is how Sadr feels right now.”

Who is managing the crisis?

Sadr has not appeared in the media or said a word publicly since meeting his MPs at his al-Hanana residence in Najaf on 15 June, the day they resigned en masse, where he justified his withdrawal by saying he would not work with “the corrupt” in any way.

However, a few days later, his private office issued two statements that reflected a different position.

The first was released on 22 June, on the eve of the extraordinary parliamentary session to replace the resigned MPs, and the second was issued a week later, when the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), began a round of negotiations to agree on their presidential candidate. According to the political convention adopted by Iraqi political forces since 2003, the president must be a Kurd.

In the first statement, Sadr said Iran had not pressured him to withdraw, but what he termed “its proxies” did by intimidating independent MPs and non-Shia parliamentary blocs to prevent the formation of a majority government.

'Can you imagine what a wounded lion would do? This is how Sadr feels right now'

- Aide to Muqtada al-Sadr

Sadr asked his former Kurdish and Sunni allies to stand up against “Iran’s arms” and prevent them from forming a power-sharing government as they wanted - a puzzling request for many considering it was the cleric himself who abandoned their goal of creating a majority government together.

In the second statement, Sadr accused Barham Salih, the incumbent president and the most prominent PUK presidential candidate, of supporting normalisation with Israel, as he did not sign the law criminalising relations passed by parliament last month.

The accusation nearly ended Salih’s political career and has placed a veto on him holding any future top office, political leaders and negotiators told MEE.

Both statements have been widely perceived as an attempt by Sadr to influence political events and are inconsistent with his alleged withdrawal.

Meanwhile there have been a series of stutters, plans unfulfilled and retreats that raise questions over what is really going on in Sadr’s office, and who exactly is in charge.

Sadr has essentially holed himself up in his Najaf home, refusing any visitors that are not Sadrists. There was some talk of him travelling to Saudi Arabia for Hajj or to Beirut, yet he never left.

Meanwhile senior Sadrists known for their devotion and inclination towards violence - such as Jalil al-Nouri and Abu Mustafa al-Hamidawi, the leader of Saraya al-Salam, Sadr’s armed wing - have been making escalatory and direct threats against his Shia rivals.

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Has Sadr now retreated from his promise to disengage from politics? Does he support the violent threats and promise of armed confrontations trumpeted by some of his leaders? Or has he truly withdrawn, and all Sadrist moves since are efforts by his men to reduce their losses, absorb supporters’ anger and justify his resignation decision?

Three Sadrist leaders, one of whom is close to Sadr, told MEE that uncertainty still surrounds everything related to the MPs’ resignations, and the whole Sadrist operation is confused with a total lack of information about what Sadr’s next step will be.

Two of them said Sadr is refusing to talk publicly about the political crisis but is aware of everything his men are doing and saying.

Yet his silence is reflecting negatively on his leaders, who are increasingly divided between those pushing for violent confrontation and others who believe political solutions are the best way to restore the movement’s previous status.

"The situation is very worrying. We are afraid that things will get out of hand and reach the point where there is no option to retreat," a prominent Saraya al-Salam leader told MEE.

“The Sadrists are known for their impulsiveness and courage. We are not afraid of fighting and we will not back down, but the idea of going into battle without a plan B or a certain ceiling to stop at seems very frightening.

"Some Sadrist leaders want to exploit the current situation to control the movement, thus pushing towards confrontation. These men are now very close to Sadr and we fear that he will be subject to their influence."

International concern

Millions of Iraqis are supporters of Sadr, and in Saraya al-Salam he boasts one of Iraq’s largest Shia armed factions.

He is one of only a handful of men who can organise wide-scale mass demonstrations and sit-ins that can paralyse life in Baghdad and the Shia-dominated provinces. He has the ability to ratchet up tensions to a dangerous degree.

For the international community, the destabilisation of Iraq’s security is one of its greatest concerns, western diplomats and Iraqi officials told MEE.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has placed huge pressure on the world’s energy sector and contributed to the cost of living crisis in several countries, with the West urging Middle Eastern countries to increase oil supply.

Meanwhile, the faltering negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal continue, and there is renewed hope an end to the Yemen war can be reached.

So “there is no room for opening a new front in Iraq, whatever the reasons,” a Baghdad-based western ambassador told MEE.

"The US, UK and the countries of the European Union are all concerned. Iraq is one of the biggest oil-exporting countries, and its security and political stability is important to all of us, especially now," the ambassador said.

It’s far more concerning having Sadr outside the political process than inside it, the ambassador added, “so we think bringing him back is the best solution”.

A member of Saraya al-Salam, Sadr's military wing, stands guard in Baghdad's Sadr City (AFP)
A member of Saraya al-Salam, Sadr's military wing, stands guard in Baghdad's Sadr City (AFP)

Various diplomats, US officials and Iraqi politicians said Iraq is far from the Biden administration’s priority at the moment, so it has essentially been left to European countries to coordinate with Iraqi political forces and fix the situation.

Over the past two weeks, Baghdad has witnessed several meetings between western ambassadors and the leaders of the Iranian-backed Shia Coordination Framework political alliance that has been Sadr’s greatest rival.

The media office of Hadi al-Amiri, a top Framework leader, acknowledged that he has met the ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy and Australia during this period.

One solution proposed "to drag Sadr back into the political process and ensure that he will not attack the next government or cause any trouble” is to find a prime minister that enjoys the cleric’s support, one of the European ambassadors told MEE.

“There are not many options available now, and it seems clear to us that everyone, including the US and Iran, does not have a clear plan or proposal for a solution,” they added.

“Sadr's opponents’ rush to replace the resigned MPs has further complicated the scene. The crisis must be dealt with peacefully, as destabilising the security scene in Iraq is not an option, whatever the reasons.”

Sadr's opponents are still confused

Sadr's opponents, especially the Iranian-backed forces, inherited about 50 seats after replacing the Sadrist MPs following the mass resignation.

Now with 130 of the 329 seats, the Coordination Framework alliance is the largest bloc and has the exclusive right to nominate the prime minister and form the government.

Yet despite quickly accepting the seats vacated by Sadr, the Framework has become more circumspect about its next moves. 

There is concern that Sadr could react viciously to a new government, and the international community could decide it does not legitimately represent the Iraqi people. That fear has slowed the cabinet-formation process, reduced the parties’ options and deepened their divisions, several Framework leaders told MEE.

The list of issues that the Framework parties have no consensus on is nearly endless. No one is in agreement about how the Iran-backed groups should respond if Sadr’s supporters begin vast demonstrations against them, or what their relationship with Sadr should look like.

Meanwhile there are divides over what the next government should look like, for how long it will serve, its relationship with the international community, and the nature of its ties to the Shia religious authorities in Najaf.

'The crisis must be dealt with peacefully, as destabilising the security scene in Iraq is not an option, whatever the reasons'

- European diplomat

Various names have been publicly put forward for the next prime minister, but none of them has been seriously discussed, as the Shia parties have not yet agreed on what qualifications and political affiliations the next PM should have.

And as for continuing the delicate balancing act of relations between Iran and the United States, there are strong opinions on that too. Also discussed in heated fashion is the issue of protecting Iraqi funds abroad, and how to deal with Sadr’s erstwhile Kurdish and Sunni allies.

The inability to agree on any of these topics is straining the relationships of Coordination Framework leaders, several of them told MEE.

Most prominently, perhaps, is the breakdown in Shia political leaders Amiri and Nouri al-Maliki’s relationship. Already it is very tense, with the two disagreeing over how to deal with Sadr.

Amiri tends to appeal to Sadr’s confidence in him and seek a middle ground. Maliki instead urges confrontation.

Framework sources said Maliki and Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq armed faction, were responsible for the alliance quickly accepting Sadr’s withdrawal and replacing his MPs. Now that is seen as a move that has blocked ways to bring Sadr back and cool the situation.

But the relationship between Maliki and Khazali is also subject to ups and downs, with both men competing to be the most prominent figure in the Shia political scene.

Khazali is very ambitious, and believes the withdrawal of Sadr and powerful Shia paramilitary Kataeb Hezbollah from the political scene has provided him with a golden opportunity to dominate parliament and the next government.

The first test of Coordination Framework leaders in the post-Sadr era was the appointment of a deputy parliament speaker to replace Hakim al-Zamili, an outgoing Sadrist. It quickly descended into gridlock.

Maliki’s State of Law party, Khazali’s Sadiqoon and the Sinad bloc led by Ahmed al-Asadi are all trying to put their man in the position.

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A prominent Coordination Framework leader close to Iran traces the alliance’s woes back to the parties’ lacklustre performance in the October elections.

“First, let us admit that our losses were horrific. The resignation of the Sadrists returned the balance of power and brought us back to the forefront of the political scene in an unexpected and unbelievable way,” the leader said.

“The result, as happy as it was, is worrying and confusing, because no one has a clear plan for the next step. The leaders of the Coordination Framework were united by fear of Muqtada, and he separates them now.”

The leader believes his colleagues are yet to learn their lesson.

"They don't want to understand that the current political system is faltering and this may be our only chance left to reform it, and that we don't have time for more political adolescence.”

Several Shia leaders said neither Amiri, Khazali, nor even Maliki want Shia-on-Shia fighting, and everyone is seeking a solution that satisfies all parties.

"We do not expect Sadr to resort to armed confrontation. He will resort to demonstrations first, and as long as these demonstrations remain peaceful, we have no problem,” a political leader close to Maliki told MEE.

"If the issue is to preserve his share of positions in the new government, and to give him the necessary guarantees that his men within the old government will not be affected, then this can be agreed upon.”

Armed conflict is another matter, he warned. Any violence will be met with violence.

"Except for this, there is still an opportunity for many solutions."

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