Election success for Muqtada al-Sadr shows Iraqi voters shaking off foreign intervention

Analysis: Nationalist populist has always rejected any external presence in his country, be it the UK, Iran or the US

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 15 May 2018 15:20 BST
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visits his father's grave after parliamentary election results were announced, in Najaf
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visits his father's grave after parliamentary election results were announced, in Najaf (Reuters)

Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist populist Shia cleric, has once again defied predictions as the coalition he leads outperformed rival parties in the parliamentary election on 12 May. His supporters successfully campaigned for social and political reform and against a corrupt and dysfunctional political establishment.

It was the latest surprise in the career of a man who barely survived the murder of his father, the revered Shia religious leader Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and his two brothers, on the orders of Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Four years later, after the US invasion of Iraq, he was in danger once again of being killed, this time by American forces who twice besieged him in the holy city of Najaf in 2004.

Mr Sadr will be very much the kingmaker – though he will have no official position – in the formation of a new Iraqi government.

His coalition, which includes the Iraqi Communist Party, independents and secularists as well as his religious followers, appealed strongly to Iraqis who feel that, with the war won against Isis, they need to rebuild their country.

The Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi hoped to win the election – though no party was ever likely to win an absolute majority – by appealing to voters as the leader who recaptured Mosul from Isis last year.

He followed this up with a largely bloodless reoccupation of Kirkuk, held by the Kurds since 2003, and the restoration of a large measure of government authority in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The political movement formed out of the largely Shia paramilitaries, the Hashd al-Shaabi, which came second in the polls, had, like Mr Abadi, hoped to win more votes through their role in the war against Isis.

But the drop in violence to a level not seen since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein means that Iraqis are focusing on the theft by the political elite of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues that should have been used to improve the supply of water, electricity, waste disposal as well medical care and education.

Mr Sadr has been frequently underestimated as a political leader since he first emerged from house arrest in Najaf at the time of the US invasion.

He was described by the western media as a ‘maverick’ or ‘firebrand cleric’, but his views were always more sophisticated and flexible than he was given credit for.

The origin of Mr Sadr’s influence was his family’s role as religious leaders and the martyrdom of many of them, beginning with the execution of Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr in 1980.

His father led a movement that appealed to the Shia poor of Baghdad and southern Iraq, combining religious revivalism with social and political radicalism. From the start, Sadrism had a strong element of Iraqi nationalism in opposition to all foreign interference in Iraq, be it American, British or Iranian.

In an interview with The Independent in Najaf in 2013 – the first he had given face to face to a Western journalist for 10 years – Mr Sadr spoke graphically of the ill effects of Iraq inviting in different foreign powers to try to solve its problems.

He compared this to “somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse”,

Mr Sadr created the Shia paramilitary Mehdi Army to resist the Americans. He was later to stand this down during the Sunni-Shia sectarian mass killings of 2006-7, saying that it had been infiltrated by people not under his control.

He was denounced by the US as a pro-Iranian proxy, but he has made clear over the years that he opposes Iranian interference as well as that of other countries.

The Sadrist success in the election this month will be unwelcome in both Washington and Tehran.

The US had done everything it could to back Mr Abadi as a victorious war leader and a sort of Iraqi Winston Churchill – forgetting, perhaps, that Churchill lost the British general election in 1945.

Mr Sadr’s influence over an incoming government in Baghdad puts in doubt the future of the 10,000 American troops and military contractors in Iraq, though a Sadrist spokesman said after the election that US training and the weapons procurement from the US could continue.

Iran, for its part, has close links with the Hashd al-Shaabi and the group led by the former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and will be wary of Mr Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism.

Mr Abadi stays in power until the formation of a new government, which he may lead in an alliance with the Sadrists.

Mr Sadr is perceptive about political developments in Iraq. When I interviewed him five years ago he warned against Sunni-Shia sectarianism and foreign interference. He said: “The Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate and it will be easy for foreign powers to control the country.” This prediction was to be fulfilled six months later when Isis took Mosul and the Iraqi army broke up.

Mr Sadr said that sectarianism was spreading at street level and “if it spreads among the people, it will be difficult to fight”.

Iraqi politics is still largely based on sectarian or ethnic identity – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – but the religious parties that were in the ascendant after 2003 have discredited themselves. The majority Shia community is also more confident, after its military victories last year, that it is firmly in control and is not going to be dispossessed from power.

Mr Sadr said that the problem was that the Iraqi psychology had been shaped by a “constant cycle of violence: Saddam, occupation, war after war, first Gulf war, the second Gulf war, then the occupation war”.

The election this month, in which so many voters gave priority to social rather than security issues, may show that, as violence ebbs, Iraqis are becoming less traumatised.

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