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Middle East and Africa

Muqtada al-Sadr: from Warlord to Populist Leader

During the war in Iraq, his troops were among the most ruthless opponents to the U.S. army and they contributed to the exacerbation of sectarian tensions. Today, the Shiite cleric has reinvented himself as the leader of protests demanding an end to corruption and reforms

Last update: 2018-02-06 14:46:00

Turmoils in Baghdad. Photo: The Daily Beast

He was the leader of one of the most sanguinary militias during the war in Iraq, today Muqtada al-Sadr is at the head of a movement that takes to the streets in Baghdad in mass anti-corruption protests. With populist tones, he asks for reforms and the end of corruption in the government of Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The protesters, who for weeks had protested around the Green Zone -- the heart of Baghdad and, for many Iraqis, the symbol of political corruption, protected by high concrete walls and meters of barbed wire -- broke into the Shiite majority Parliament a few weeks ago. Muqtada al-Sadr represents one of the most relevant and complex actor in the Iraq landscape following the U.S. invasion in 2003. A member of one of the most important Shiite dynasties in the country (he is the son of the Grand Ayatollah, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated in 1999, and son in law of the Grand Ayatollah, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, killed in 1980), al-Sadr has showed his multi-faceted personality in recent years -, so multifaceted in fact that it is impossible to give an unambiguous representation of his character. Al-Sadr – political agitator with a massive following especially among the poorer layers of the Iraqi Shiite population, and yet a strong supporter of an Iraq free from corruption, clientelism and sectarian reasoning; member of the Shiite clergy but not necessarily aligned with the positions expressed by the hawza [seminary school] in Najaf or Qom, in Iran; (former) head of the Mahdi Army, known for the brutal actions conducted during the Iraqi civil war, but also nationalist leader who did not hesitate to publicly support the cause of the protesters (largely Sunni-Arab) who, in 2013, paralyzed all of central-western Iraq in open opposition to the sectarian policies adopted by then Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. And also a ferocious opponents of American influence in Iraq (and, as such, close to the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran), but by no means prone to the demands of Tehran, against which he has often found himself in strong opposition; a point of reference for the al-Ahrar bloc and yet outside the political system due to a self-imposed “exile” proclaimed in 20141. Al-Sadr is all of this, and the events of the past weeks have only confirmed this apparently schizophrenic nature. Nevertheless, behind this image of the “crazy horse” of Iraqi politics, lie very well defined interests and objectives that the Shiite cleric has pursued since his beginnings when, at a very young age, he appeared to pick up the legacy of his father and become a point of reference for the entire Iraqi system. It is with this in mind that one should interpret his move to transform the network of foundations and charitable “family” activities into an instrument capable of significantly leveraging the political establishment, thanks in part to the substantial following in the capital and in particular in the so-called Sadr City, his stronghold. This clear strong point has, however, represented a limitation. Presenting himself as champion of the poor and of the dispossessed, together with his young age, stormy past and radical style, has limited his appeal to within a well-defined social class, preventing his message from resonating among the religious bourgeoisie and much of the middle class. In order to free himself from these constraints, al-Sadr launched a process aiming at transforming his image from a leader of the Shiite community to a leader with “national” credentials. Or, at the very least, with a projection that is not limited to his community alone. It is in this light that one should interpret his support for the 2013 protest movements (clear expression, although underestimated by the Iraqi administration and by the international community, of the rising opposition that was forming within the Sunni-Arab community) as well as attempts recorded in the same year to bring together the main Iraqi-Kurdish movements in an anti al-Maliki effort2. Far from limiting his maneuvers to the political class alone, al-Sadr has focused on presenting himself as one of the few leaders that are strangers to scandal and are not involved in the political maneuvers that brought such discredit to the country's institutions. In this way he has managed to voice the vast dissent which grew in a transversal manner within Iraqi society, and use the popular anger produced by the bad management of the res publica and by the corruption that has hit Iraq on all levels. It is in this light that al-Sadr’s recent moves arise, seemingly with the desire to ride popular unrest to pursue his political aspirations. Unrest which, already last Summer, has translated into a series of protests that saw growing activism among al-Sadr supporters. From a more institutional point of view, al-Sadr seems to be trying to overcome the quota system which, since the fall of president Saddam Hussein, has actually allocated the different positions on an ethno-sectarian basis, as well as to form a leaner cabinet made up of non-partisan technicians. On the political level, on the other hand, the unstated goal is that of “overshadowing” the other big players of the Iraqi panorama. Nuri al-Maliki above all, but also al-‘Abadi, paradoxically, to whom the Shiite cleric has repeatedly declared support. On April 16th, al-Sadr gave Parliament an ultimatum to nominate a new government within 72 hours. The decision to proceed with a partial reshuffling with the change of six ministers was not, however, deemed satisfactory by the cleric, who did not hesitate to order his supporters to break into the Green Zone and occupy the Parliament. The act had very strong symbolic connotations and important implications even in terms of security and internal and international relations, considering that the area is home not only to the main Iraqi institutions but also many embassies. For the first time in the history of the “new Iraq” the international zone3 had been violated and thousands of citizens entered in an area which had become the expression of the privileges bestowed upon a ruling class accused of corruption and negligence. Even though the move increased the popularity of al-Sadr, at least in the immediate aftermath, it renewed doubts surrounding his responsibility both within the Iraqi political system as well as on the international level, once again highlighting the lack of clarity and the many facets of a leader who eludes any and all classification and who seems to perfectly embody the myth of Janus. 1 Andrea Plebani, Muqtada al-Sadr and his February 2014 Declarations. Political Disengagement or Simple Repositioning?, ISPI Analysis (244), April 2014 2 Toby Dodge, Iraq: from War to a New Authoritarianism, Routledge, London 2013, pp. 434-435 3 Another name used to refer to the Green Zone in the times of the presence of coalition forces This article was translated from the original Italian

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