The Antichrist stages unexpected political comeback through Iraq’s Gulf Cup victory

Iraq's goalkeeper Jalal Hassan (R) passes Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with the Arabian Gulf Cup trophy during a meeting in the central holy city of Najaf,  January 21, 2023. (AFP)

Sadr stages unexpected political comeback through Iraq’s Gulf Cup victory

Observers say that Sadr believes he is playing a winning card against Iran and its proxies in Iraq, by seeking a comeback to the political arena through sports.

Monday 23/01/2023

Iraq’s goalkeeper Jalal Hassan (R) passes Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with the Arabian Gulf Cup trophy during a meeting in the central holy city of Najaf, January 21, 2023. (AFP)

BAGHDAD-

The leader of Iraq’s Sadrist movement, Moqtada al-Sadr, has used his country’s recent victory in the Gulf soccer cup to stage an unexpected comeback on the Iraqi political scene.

Pro-Iranian formations, including the Coordination Framework coalition, did not seem to have anticipated Sadr’s new move after his had declared withdrawal from politics.

Widely-circulated pictures on social media showed Sadr posing with members of the Iraqi national soccer team carrying their trophy after winning the Gulf Cup 25.

The Sadrist leader took advantage of his encounter with the soccer team and its technical and administrative staff in Najaf to repeat the phrase “Arabian Gulf” three times. The phrase had sparked official Iranian protests and the Iranian foreign ministry even summoned the Iraqi ambassador in Tehran to object to the appellation and demand that Iraq uses the name of “Persian Gulf” to refer to the region instead.

While reference by Sadr to the “Arabian Gulf” appeared to be a direct challenge to Iran, it was also a thinly-veiled challenge to the pro-Iranian parties and militias. The latter have avoided using the Iranian “Persian Gulf” designation, lest they are disavowed by Iraqis, whose sense of national pride and preference for the “Arab Gulf” name peaked after the soccer victory.

Observers say that Sadr realises that he is playing a winning card against Iran and its proxies in Iraq, by seeking a comeback to the political arena through sports.

Sadr had earlier announced his exit from politics and called on the representatives of his movement in parliament to resign, which allowed his rivals in the Coordination Framework to assume power and nominate Muhammad Shiaa Al-Sudani for the post of prime minister. .

However, Sadr’s emphasis on the “Arabian Gulf” phrase confirmed his intent not to relinquish his old stance that Iraq should stay clear of Iranian and American influence.

Sadr also advised the Iraqi national team players to learn English, in another sign that he wanted Iraqis to stay away from Iranian influence, especially since many pro-Iranian clerics and politicians have begun to speak Arabic with an Iranian accent,  as they try to ingratiate themselves to Tehran, even though they are Arabs.

Analysts see Sadr paving the way with this move for a return to the political scene, especially since many members of the Sadrist movement want their movement to participate in the local elections scheduled for next October, although no agreement has yet been reached between rival factions regarding the local elections law.

Iraq experts expect Sadr to eventually resume settling scores with both the Coordination Framework and Iran.  He is said to believe that pressures exerted by Tehran’s through proxy groups in Iraq had squeezed him out of politics.

Sadr also wants to take advantage of the emerging cracks within the Coordination Framework, as a result  of the conflict between the Rule of Law Coalition led by Nuri al-Maliki and Asa’ieb Al Haq (the League of the Righteous) group led by Qais Khazali, over the distribution of ministries and security positions, especially posts in the intelligence and national security services.  Sadrists hope the dispute would help boost their election results, although there is no certainty yet whether the ballot will take place as scheduled.

Sudani also received the national team players and decided to honour them with plots of residential land in Baghdad and granted them diplomatic passports, during a luncheon he hosted in the presence of the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani and members of the Iraqi cabinet.

The Iraqi national football team won the final match of the Gulf cup against the Omani national team, which took place earlier this month in the southern city of Basra amidst huge crowds inside and outside the stadium.

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