The Antichrist Turns Against Iran

Shia rabble-rouser turns against Iran
Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
August 26 2017, 12:01am, The Times
Moqtada al-Sadr, for long the West’s public enemy No 1 in Iraq, is now leading attempts to fend off Iranian domination of the Middle East.
A decade ago his Mahdi Army, drawn from the country’s Shia majority, was ambushing and killing American and British soldiers across southern Iraq while he sought refuge in Iran.
The Shia leader recently visited Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab world’s dominant power, and the UAE, and is about to visit Egypt. Saudi Arabia announced this month that it was reopening its land border with Iraq for the first time since the Gulf War in 1990, and that this was merely the start of a rapprochement by which it hopes to offer more direct flights, the opening of a consulate   in the holy Shia city of Najaf, and billions of dollars of investment.
The Saudis have even offered to build hospitals in Baghdad and in the oil-rich, Shia-majority city of Basra.
The shift in Mr Sadr’s position has drawn accusations of treachery from Iran. An editorial by Tasnim, a private news agency based in Tehran, asked how he could visit Riyadh when Saudi Arabia was bombing Yemen and attacking its own Shia minority.
“It is obvious that Riyadh is now seeking to change the status of its relations with Baghdad to effectively reduce the influence of Iran,” it added.
At the height of the Iraqi insurgency hardly a mention of Mr Sadr’s name went unaccompanied by the description “fiery Shia cleric”. A son and son-in-law of ayatollahs killed during the rule of Saddam Hussein, he is not a senior religious official but has inherited a role as favoured leader of Iraq’s long-oppressed Shia working classes.
His Mahdi Army was eventually crushed between 2006 and 2008 by US forces working with Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq at the time but, as is often the case in these parts, the alliance was a shaky one. Mr Maliki pivoted ever more towards Iran, alienating Iraq’s Sunni minority just as the Americans were trying to win their trust before their 2011 pull-out — culminating in the Islamic State takeover of large parts of the country in 2014.
Mr Sadr, who always said his opposition to America was nationalist rather than religious, has since come to see Iranian domination as the greatest threat to his goal of an Iraqi “Islamic democracy”. As a result, while Mr Sadr and Mr Maliki pursue their feud, they have swapped geopolitical sides. The West, Saudi Arabia and their allies are all determined to stop Mr Maliki, who was forced out in 2014, from returning to office in elections next year.
Kirk Sowell, a Middle East risk analyst, said that Mr Sadr’s reconciliation with Saudi Arabia arose from his appeal to “Islamist nationalism”. He said: “He’s realised that in order to balance Iran, he must lower the sectarian temperature, otherwise the Iran-aligned factions will run away with the next election.”
Mr Sadr has led demonstrations against Haider al-Abadi, the pro-West prime minister who is from the same Shia-dominated party as Mr Maliki but is deeply opposed by him. The protests, which focus on government corruption, are also veiled attacks on Mr Maliki, who appointed many of the officials accused of enriching themselves.
The reopening of the Saudi border came after a meeting between Mr Sadr and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; something that would have once seemed impossible.
Cynics say that every other foreign policy venture undertaken by the crown prince in the past two years has backfired, from the war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, and that Saudi Arabia will not re-establish influence until it forges better relations with Iran — rather than trying to undermine it.
Mr Sadr said in an interview with a Saudi-backed newspaper: “There are plans to secure peace and reject sectarianism in the region. It is necessary to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold.”
A lot depends on whether Mr Sadr remains popular and whether his instinct that Iraqis will put their national identity above their Shia one is enough to turn them against Iran.
Mr Sowell said that anti-Iran sentiment in Iraq was outweighed by hostility to Saudi Arabia, seen by many as having backed Isis. “Sadr is taking a risk here,” he said. “If he fails, it could hurt him.”

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