Antichrist emboldens rivals after political retreat but could make a comeback

Followers of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdraw from the streets after violent clashes, near the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, August 30, 2022. (Reuters)

Iraq’s Moqtada Sadr emboldens rivals after political retreat but could make a comeback

Sadr’s decision to retreat may already be driving away some of the swathes of followers who helped propel him to the centre of Iraqi politics.

Monday 02/01/2023

Followers of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdraw from the streets after violent clashes, near the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, August 30, 2022. (Reuters)

BAGHDAD-

Moqtada al-Sadr, the Muslim Shia cleric who dominated Iraqi politics for two decades, seems isolated for now after his move to step back from formal politics emboldened his Iranian-backed rivals and raised the prospect of fresh factional flare-ups.

Iran, which already controls dozens of heavily-armed Shia militias in its oil-producing neighbour, may now have an opportunity to expand its influence over Iraq’s government, a worst case scenario for the United States and its allies.

Although Sadr won a parliamentary majority in a 2021 election, he chose to withdraw in August after his failed, year-long bid to form a cabinet without rivals close to Iran.

Sadr’s decision may already be driving away some of the swathes of followers who helped propel him to the centre of Iraqi politics in the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

“Some of the followers who support his eminence Sayed Moqtada have started to complain that retreating from politics and parliament will leave the path more open for corrupt parties to control government,” said Ali al-Iqabi, a Sadrist activist.

“Unfortunately that has happened now,” he said.

New Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani has reshuffled several top security posts and installed officials who are close to Iran-backed parties, including in the critical position of chief of military intelligence, four security officials told Reuters.

The post was previously held by a more pro-Western official.

But Sudani has privately rejected calls by Sadr’s opponents to sack pro-Sadr government officials, fearing that would push Iraq back into violence, five Shia lawmakers and two senior Sadrist officials said.

This account was corroborated by four Shia lawmakers who attended meetings between Sudani and Shia politicians in October and December.

Sadr’s followers took to the streets after he stepped back from politics, and the country briefly slid towards civil strife between Shia factions until the bloody protests were called off.

“Sudani is struggling not to awaken the dragon,” said one Shia government official who attends weekly cabinet meetings.

Members of Sadr's Peace Brigades fighters gather during clashes with the Iraqi security forces near the Green Zone, in Baghdad, Iraq August 30, 2022. (Reuters)

Members of Sadr’s Peace Brigades fighters gather during clashes with the Iraqi security forces near the Green Zone, in Baghdad, Iraq August 30, 2022. (Reuters)

Likely comeback

Sadr, who has not made the kind of public appearances that once fired up supporters and intimidated rivals, has retreated from politics before only to make a return. Some of those close to the mercurial cleric expect this withdrawal to be temporary.

“As soon as there is a sign of a new election Sadr will sign up,” one of those close to him said.

Sadr, who has closed several of his offices since his withdrawal from politics, could not be reached for comment.

A representative of the cleric in the city of Kerbala said: “Sadr is watching closely the political developments and performance of Sudani’s government which he (Sadr) believes would not last much longer.”

A 2022 survey by British think-tank Chatham House found Sadr supporters were more likely to vote than other groups.

But, alongside losing some backing on the street, his hand may now have been weakened y his reluctance –when he had a chance– to show more pragmatism in forming a government with those backed by Tehran, which some see as an ally in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group.

“The failure of Sadr to form such a government and the collapse of his alliance in the face of pushback from Iran and its allies in Iraq has affected Moqtada’s political position and forced him and his movement to take back seats,” said Baghdad-based analyst Jasim al-Bahadli.

Pro-Sadr clerics, former legislators and analysts say Sadr has no clearly defined political role for the first time since 2005, leaving him at his weakest since entering Iraqi politics.

In August, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, a religious scholar in Iran who was anointed as a spiritual adviser by Sadr’s father, angered Sadr’s supporters by saying Sadr had split Shia forces.

Sadr officials, pro-Sadr Shia clerics and religious sources in the sacred Iraqi city of Najaf said they believed Tehran was behind the pronouncement.

Haeri told Sadr’s followers to seek future guidance on religious matters from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a scholar who is Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Sadr himself also suggested Haeri spoke under pressure without naming who was to blame. “I don’t believe he did this of his own volition,” Sadr wrote on Twitter.

Ghazi Faisal, chairman of the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies think-tank, said Haeri gave “momentum to Iranian efforts to consolidate the powers of its allies in Iraqi politics.”

When asked for comment, a representative of Haeri said the scholar did not comment on politics.

Many Shia Iraqis still view Sadr as a hero of the downtrodden. He inherited much early legitimacy from his father, a revered cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s agents, before building his own powerbase and leading hundreds of thousands of followers in protests against everything from corruption to inflation.

Human rights groups accused Sadr militiamen of kidnapping and killing Sunnis at the height of Iraq’s civil war. Sadr says his fighters were hunting down Sunni extremists not civilians.

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