Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, powerful Shia cleric whose supporters have thrown Iraq into turmoil?
Muqtada al-Sadr is a mercurial figure who has emerged as a powerful force in Iraq’s cutthroat political scene with a nationalist, anti-Iran agenda. He is the son of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, who Saddam Hussein had assassinated in 1999
FP Explainers August 01, 2022 19:31:08 IST
Followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold posters with his photo during a sit-in, inside the parliament in Baghdad. AP
Iraq is in turmoil with hundreds of followers of influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday camping inside the Iraqi parliament after toppling security walls around the building and storming in the previous day.
The followers of Muqtada al-Sadr have vowed to hold an open-ended sit-in to derail efforts by their rivals from Iran-backed political groups to form the country’s next government.
Their demands are lofty: early elections, constitutional amendments and the ouster of al-Sadr’s opponents.
The developments have catapulted Iraq’s politics to center stage, plunging the country deeper into a political crisis as a power struggle unfolds between the two major Shia groups.
But who the man who has mobilised hundreds and thrown the country in turmoil? Let’s take a closer look:
Life and career
Muqtada al-Sadr is a mercurial figure who has emerged as a powerful force in Iraq’s cutthroat political scene with a nationalist, anti-Iran agenda.
Born in 1974 in Kufa near the holy Shia city of Najaf, al-Sadr is described by some who are close to him as easily angered.
The round-faced Islamic leader comes from an influential clerical family and is the son of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, who Saddam Hussein had assassinated in 1999.
As per Britannica, al-Sadr was greatly influenced by his father’s conservative thoughts and ideas and by those of his father-in-law, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, founder of the Islamic Daʿwah Party, who in 1980 was executed for his opposition to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
As per Indian Express, al-Sadr founded the Al-Sadrist movement, which is it at its apex at the moment and draws the support of the poor of the Shia community across Iraq.
As per Reuters, members of the Al-Sadrist Movement have been appointed to senior jobs within the interior, defence and communications ministries.
They have had their picks appointed to state oil, electricity and transport bodies, to state-owned banks and even to Iraq’s central bank, according to more than a dozen government officials and lawmakers.
When he raises his index finger and frowns, Iraq holds its breath.
Al-Sadr has time and again emerged as a powerful player in Iraqi politics, and been able to mobilise his loyalists.
Hundreds of them have for days occupied the country’s parliament with adherence to one guiding principle: obedience to al-Sadr. He has urged other political factions to support the protest.
Iraqi protesters fill the Parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq. AP
Today, as in past years following the 2003 US-led overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq cannot ignore the grey-bearded preacher who once led a militia against American and Iraqi government forces.
As per Indian Express, Al-Sadr emerged as US’ enemy number one after the fall of Saddam.
In 2004, The Guardian quoted Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez saying, “The mission of US forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr.”
As per Indian Express, in 2003, the Al-Sadrist and the affiliated militia (Mahdi army) started a resistance against the US troops following the country’s invasion.
These militias under al-Sadr are now called the “peace companies,” as per the report.
Analysts have said Al-Sadr, who wears a black turban symbolic of a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, is now using street protests to signal that his views must be taken into account in government formation.
On Sunday he lauded on Twitter the takeover of parliament inside the capital’s fortified Green Zone of diplomatic and government buildings.
Al-Sadr called it a “spontaneous revolution… a first step” towards “an extraordinary opportunity for a fundamental change”.
That’s his position now, but the chameleon-like figure has made several reversals over the years, including in 2008 when he suspended activities of his 60,000-member Mahdi Army, which had been one of Iraq’s most active and feared Shia militias.
He reactivated the group after a US drone strike in Baghdad killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
Al-Sadr retains a devoted following of millions among the country’s majority Shia population, including in the poor Baghdad district of Al-Sadr City.
“The Al-Sadrist base is significant in Baghdad and the southern provinces because it represents a Shia underclass that struggled during the previous government but viewed Muhammad al-Sadr as a religious authority who cared for them and preached to them when no one else dared to. This base continues to feel marginalised today, and al-Sadr appeals to them as the heir to his father’s position, but also as they feel he is their voice against all other political and religious factions,” Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at Century International and director of the Shia Politics Working Group, told Al Jazeera.
“He can occupy the streets. No one in Iraq can do it as well as him,” said Hamdi Malik, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Perhaps uniquely in Iraq, al-Sadr has “a very obedient base” which also comprises a formidable online presence attacking his rivals in cyberspace, Malik said.
“Everything is revolving around him. That in Iraq is very important,” he added.
During youth-led protests that erupted in 2019, Al-Sadr sent thousands of followers to support the movement.
He then called them back, and later invited them to “relaunch the peaceful reformist revolution”.
Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a specialist in Shia movements at Aarhus University in Denmark, said Al-Sadr “tries to position himself simultaneously in the centre of the political system while distancing himself from it”.
A Iraqi protester holds a poster of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his late father Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr as others breach the Parliament. AP
His religious character, the researcher said, “allows him to create this illusion of transcending politics”.
He has a chequered relationship with Iran.
Al-Sadr’s bloc contested the 2010 legislative election in an alliance with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a Shia group with links to the Islamic republic.
Nationalist, potential kingmaker
In October, though, Al-Sadr campaigned as a nationalist and emerged as a potential kingmaker.
Al-Sadr initially said he would not take part in the October election but then backtracked to campaign on vague themes of reconstruction, opposition to Iranian influence, and a pledge to “end corruption”.
Nearly 10 months after elections, the oil-rich but impoverished country is still without a new government.
Al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from the ballot as the biggest parliamentary faction, but intense negotiations since then have failed to bridge the divide between it and rival Shia groups.
In June, his 73 lawmakers quit in a bid to break the logjam but that led to a pro-Iran bloc, his opponents, becoming the largest in parliament.
The current standoff pits him against the pro-Iran Coordination Framework which includes lawmakers from the party of Al-Sadr’s longtime foe, ex-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki — who gained the premiership in 2006 with support from Al-Sadr but whose followers later pulled out of Maliki’s cabinet.
As a result of past deals, the Al-Sadrists have been accused by their opponents of being as corrupt as other political forces.
Supporters of Al-Sadr, however, are ready to follow him almost blindly and view him as a champion of the anti-corruption fight.
“All the people are with you, Sayyed Muqtada,” the protesters chanted, using his title, before they stormed parliament on Saturday.
With inputs from agencies