M oqtada al-Sadr has been Iraq’s most recognizable villain since 2003, when he burst onto the scene as the most potent challenger to the US military occupation of Iraq. His rivals painted Sadr as a thug and an amateur, a wannabe who was lucky enough to be a member of a vaunted clerical dynasty yet nevertheless struggled to hold onto its followers.
A surprising thing has happened in the years since. After a series of violent clashes and reversals, Sadr has refashioned himself as Iraq’s premier nationalist statesman. Despite a very recent historical reputation as a corrupt sectarian warlord, Sadr today has emerged as Iraq’s standard bearer for secularism and reform. Running on an anti-corruption platform, he edged out all others to finish first in Iraq’s national elections earlier this month.
The United States, who had such trouble with Sadr from 2003 to 2008, might be expected to flinch at his embrace of the Iraqi Communist Party, and his growing political influence. Remarkably, though, US officials have stayed quiet about pivotal role Sadr now plays.
His steady expansion of power over 15 years is a sign of the importance of charisma, staying power and, most importantly, improvisation in a volatile and sharply divided region. Sadr’s case illustrates how a leader benefits from being a known quantity personally, while at the same time bending and shifting his ideology and political to accommodate the political winds.
A decade ago, the young Shiite cleric was fulminating against the Americans and the Iraqi “puppets” they had installed in Baghdad. He often wore a white shroud symbolizing martyrdom as he delivered thunderous Friday sermons. His Shiite militant followers were known for nighttime murders of Sunnis. He set out purist dictates against Western-style hedonism, prompting attacks against gays and liquor stores.
Today, he welcomes not just the communists but also the same secular Iraqis his organization used to target. Sadr’s communications team tweets out his latest edicts, which are more likely to contain anodyne pronouncements about political coalition building rather than fire-and-brimstone warnings against American meddling.
He solidified his power in the years after the US invasion through his fearsome Mahdi Army militia, and through jobs and spoils he acquired through the control of key government positions, including the lucrative health ministry. Yet during the recent election campaign, he vowed to overturn Iraq’s spoils system, which allows sectarian movements to carve out fiefdoms and pillage the state’s coffers.
When seeking to predict events in a country such as Iraq, policy experts in the United States and elsewhere routinely focus on deep-seated rifts around ethnicity, ideology, and religious doctrine. What’s easy to underestimate is the role of a troubled nation’s day-to-day domestic political environment — and the skill with which some key leaders navigate it.
Iraq’s domestic politics remain deadlier than those of most other countries, but the system there, as in so many places, rewards politicians who can read the crowd, who channel its frustration with self-dealing elites, and who avoid getting boxed in by their own past.
Sadr is now the single most powerful leader in Iraq, and he brings a more clear platform and set of ambitious national goals to the table than any other political leader. As kingmaker in the complex negotiations to form the next government, he is now in a position to set the government’s agenda with his unlikely — but politically savvy — platform of reform and secular nationalism.
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How did sadr, a militant Shiite cleric once feared as a cat’s paw for Iran, end up as an ornery critic of Iranian influence and as the embodiment of Iraqi nationalism?
Sadr’s father and uncle were revered grand ayatollahs whose teachings guided the behavior of millions of followers and inspired a generation of Shiite Islamist activists. His father was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999, and his fourth son, Moqtada, was considered too young and inexperienced to pose a threat. His Iraqi critics dismissed him as “Ayatollah Atari” — a reference to his love of video games and supposed lack of intellect.
He turned 30 the same year that the United States toppled Saddam and occupied Iraq. Within days of the invasion, Sadr had mobilized legions of followers. The one rival who could have challenged Sadr for leadership of Iraq’s Shiite poor and dispossessed was Abdel Majid al Khoei, an older and far more senior cleric who had fled into exile in London after helping lead an uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Al Khoei returned to Iraq in April 2003, with the blessing of Western troops, and set up operations in Najaf. Within weeks, he was murdered by a frenzied mob. His family, along with US officials, say that the killing was not spontaneous, but was carefully orchestrated by Sadr. Sadr denied the accusation and no one has ever been charged for Al Khoei’s killing.
Sadr quickly established himself as an uncontainable force in Iraq. Almost the entire Shiite establishment cooperated with the US occupation, viewing it as the quickest route to an electoral democracy that would bring power to the Shiite majority. The leading clerics in Najaf endorsed elections under America’s auspices. Opposition militias opened political offices and worked with the occupation authority.
Only Moqtada al-Sadr confronted the Americans from the beginning. He led demonstrations and recruited a militia. The Americans considered him dangerous and mercurial. Some Iraqis considered him a spoiler, creating unnecessary risks and detours along a sure path to electoral democracy.
Within a year of Saddam’s ouster, Sadr’s Mahdi Army was fighting an armed rebellion against the American military in central Iraq and the British in the south. Tellingly, Sadr already then couched his rebellion in nationalist terms. He sent reinforcements to the Sunni insurgency in Fallujah, in an effort to craft a trans-sectarian front.
In the seven years that followed, Sadr’s militia starred in some of the worst episodes of violence. They led the charge in the sectarian bloodletting that climaxed in 2006. They declared war against the central government in Baghdad, and were crushed. His political wing won a sizeable bloc in parliament and ran the health sector, winning a reputation for graft, corruption, and poor service.
Sadr retreated into exile in Iran from 2008 to 2011, where he studied with a senior cleric to try to raise his status. He shuttered his militia, and kept a low profile.
By the time he returned, the United States was pulling out its last combat troops from Iraq, and Sadr began his turn toward nationalism and reform.
Unlike other Iraqi leaders, his core following remained devoted to him personally, so he could count on consistent populist support, and votes. And Sadr displayed a willingness to adapt and change. He disavowed the extremist sectarians from his movement, many of whom left to form other militias and parties. He also heaped criticism on Iran for its meddling and mismanagement of Iraq’s interests. He fired and publicly lambasted some of the politicians in his movement who had been found guilty of corruption. And when the Islamic State surged through Iraq, he reestablished his militia (now called the Saraya Salam, or “Peace Brigades”), and joined the ultimately successful struggle to reimpose Baghdad’s authority across the country.
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By 2015, A gray-haired and more muted Sadr had carved out a niche for himself as an anti-sectarian Shiite committed to a functional Iraqi state. That summer, protests broke out across Iraq against the government’s epic failures to provide security, jobs and even basic services like electricity. Sadr shrewdly reached out to the communists and secular reform activists leading the protests. He sent emissaries to Sunnis who felt disenfranchised from the state.
Out of those early meetings an enduring alliance took shape. He took aboard the suggestions of the seasoned reform activists, and decided that what Iraq needed most of all was fresh faces: qualified, independent professionals who could run its eroding government. The housecleaning began inside his own movement. Sadr stunned his parliamentary delegation, telling them he wouldn’t allow any of them to stand for reelection. His successful slate of candidates this year consisted entirely of “technocrats,” people with managerial experience but not any disqualifying political history. Some of Sadr’s own lieutenants questioned the move, arguing that political connections and party backing are crucial for getting things done in Iraq’s fractious and corrupt government, but Sadr was adamant.
He visited Saudi Arabia and endorsed warmer relations between Baghdad and Riyadh, vowing to balance Iraq’s position among the foreign powers with a hand in its politics and security.
There’s a certain Nixon-goes-to-China element to Sadr’s turn to secularism. Only a seasoned militant with impeccable sectarian credentials can make a turn toward pluralistic nationalism. His positions today are all the more plausible because nationalism has been a consistent thread in all his ventures since 2003 — and because he remains a secretive, illiberal leader with untrammeled authority within his own movement. His millions of followers bring him almost exactly the same number of votes during every election. His consistent promise is to seek more jobs and a bigger share of Iraq’s economic pie.
Naturally, there’s plenty of reason not to trust the cleric’s transformation. Sadr is a savvy operator, a seasoned opportunist who has shifted position over and over. He might do so again. And his alliance with the secular reformers and the Iraqi Communist Party could collapse if the next Iraqi government is formed with Sadr’s reformist blessing but still is unable to deliver better results than its predecessors.
In his new incarnation as an aging statesman, Sadr hasn’t shifted all that much. His followers have stopped the vigilante attacks against gays and liquor stores, but they haven’t endorsed social freedoms and rights, either.
In private, diplomats say they don’t expect Sadr to act as a provocateur. His rhetoric can be heated, but he’s a pragmatic politician who regularly meets with Western ambassadors.
Despite his clerical background, Sadr’s goals line up with a strange array of otherwise unlikely allies: secular Iraqi reformists, liberals, Sunnis, militants who want to integrate into the Iraqi state, even some Western governments. Sadr wants a strong government in Baghdad, which makes room for Iraqis of every sectarian, ethnic and political stripe. He also argues that Iraq’s top political jobs cannot be distributed on a sectarian basis, as in Lebanon.
Since 2003, there hasn’t been any parliamentary opposition in any of Iraq’s governments — every single party that has won votes has preferred a position in government so it can extract its share of corruption.
The test for every reformist movement is what happens when it gains significant control over the state. Fulminating against the corruption of past leaders is easy; it’s far harder to resist the temptation to take advantage when your side is in power.
Iraq’s system is so deeply distorted that only a strong jolt can change it. Sadr benefits from longevity, low expectations, and the lack of any more attractive alternative. But sometimes that’s enough.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.