Muqtada al-Sadr is famous for political U-turns, but has he crushed the protests that swept Iraq?

The Shia cleric is a political chameleon who has survived decades of national turmoil, Patrick Cockburn writes, but his controversial career shows that reforming a corrupt and dysfunctional government is near impossible

Thursday 27 February 2020 21:17 GMT
As anti-government protests sweep Iraq, Sadr’s balancing act may finally wobble
As anti-government protests sweep Iraq, Sadr’s balancing act may finally wobble (AFP/Getty)

Muqtada al-Sadr is a populist Shia cleric, an arch survivor in Iraq’s permanent political crisis, and one of its most powerful leaders. He is criticised for being a senior member of the Iraqi ruling class while at the same time presenting himself as one of its most radical opponents. He has admitted that ministers from his movement have been among the very worst offenders in corrupt and dysfunctional governments that he has publicly denounced.

Yet his much-criticised ambivalence is typical of every Iraqi leader who has to manoeuvre between the multiple centres of power that dominate the political landscape. His career also helps explain why it is near impossible to radically reform the way Iraq is ruled, however unsatisfactory that may be.

Sadr’s balancing act has always been difficult and is now under severe strain, ever since marches, rallies and sit-ins demanding jobs, water, electricity and an end to corruption began to convulse Iraq in October last year. He and his supporters reinforced and protected protesters until January, but then became increasingly critical and hostile towards them.

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