That is the concerning revelation shared by Daily Star on Wednesday after a Russian broadcast threatened to “obliterate” the UK and permanently submerge the nation underwater.
According to the broadcast, which was uploaded to Twitter via an account called Terror Alarm, Putin’s chief propaganda reporter Dmitry Kiselyov claimed two Russian super-nukes launched from Moscow could “wipe the British Isles off the map.”
“Russia could obliterate the UK with its new hypersonic Satan-2 missile,” Kiselyov said before adding that Russia is poised to “plunge Britain into the depths of the sea using underwater robotic drone Poseidon”.
“It would only take a minute,” Putin allegedly told Johnson when the then-prime minister told the Russian leader that a war against Ukraine would be an “utter catastrophe.”
Russia’s recent threat to nuke the UK also comes shortly after Ukraine’s Western allies agreed to send tanks and other military arms to the invaded nation – something Russia called “extremely dangerous.”
“Red lines are now a thing of the past,” a Kremlin spokesperson cryptically said at the time.
The Admiral Gorshkov, which was scheduled to sail to the Black Sea before abruptly diverting towards the U.S. and Bermuda last week, is reportedly outfitted with nuclear-capable Zircon missiles that move at speeds up to 6,670 MPH and have a maximum range of 625 miles.
Putin’s navy has also reportedly been running missile tests involving the Admiral Gorshkov and the Mach 9 Zircon missiles, with the ship’s commander – Captain Igor Krokhmal – indicating in a recent video the weapons are allegedly working as expected.
“The electronic launch and the work by the shipborne combat team confirmed the missile system’s designed characteristics demonstrated during preliminary and state trials,” Krokhmal said last week.
While the nuclear risk may or may not happen, the Doomsday Clock has in recent years also been tracking the climate crisis with growing alarm, writes John Gibbons
Wed, 01 Feb, 2023 – 17:56
Today, a century and a half later, his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still ring true. There are more people alive now than at any other time in history, and more are living free from the shackles of abject poverty, hunger, disease and early death than ever before.
By many objective measures, especially for those of us in prosperous, stable countries like Ireland, these are indeed the very best of times. We enjoy levels of personal freedom, material wealth, comfort and physical well-being almost unimaginable even to our grandparents’ generation.
Paradoxically, we also live in an age of foolishness and incredulity, that threatens to propel humanity into an endless winter of despair. Last week, a panel of international scientists who maintain the so-called Doomsday Clock, moved its hands ominously forward, to 90 seconds to midnight.
The clock was first established by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, just two years after the devastating killing power of nuclear weapons was first unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For the first time in history, humanity was now a planetary force, capable of triggering a global catastrophe on a par with an asteroid strike. Such god-like power should come with commensurate responsibility, and the Doomsday Clock was set up as a stark visual reminder of the limits of our power.
In the three-quarters of a century since then, the clock has ticked back and forth in synch with the ebb and flow of world events. In 1953, it moved to two minutes to midnight following the test detonation of the devastatingly powerful hydrogen bomb. That had, in the assessment of the scientific panel, been our most dangerous moment — until now.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is the principal reason for the unprecedented pessimism in 2023. Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric since then has included repeated thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. This was repeated in recent days by former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, who warned darkly that his country’s defeat in Ukraine could lead to a nuclear strike by Russia.
The Russian invasion has also severely damaged international efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. Ukraine handed over its entire Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to the Russian Federation under a 1994 treaty signed in Budapest in which Russia, the US and Britain solemnly agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”.
Many in Ukraine and beyond are wondering if the only true deterrent to an aggressive neighbour is to have your own nuclear weapons. Russia’s recklessness extends to what the scientists call its “violation of international protocols and risking of the widespread release of radioactive materials” in its capture of the nuclear reactor sites at Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl.
With the heightened risk of an intentional or accidental nuclear incident, “the possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high”, the report warned.
While the nuclear risk remains binary – it may or may not happen – the Doomsday Clock has in recent years also been tracking the climate crisis with growing alarm.
The war in Ukraine has occurred at the worst possible moment as it “undermines global efforts to combat climate change…and has led to expanded investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should have been shrinking”, the report warned.
As a uniquely global crisis, effective efforts to tackle the climate emergency “require faith in multilateral governance”, which the scientists say has been weakened by the “geopolitical fissure opened by the invasion of Ukraine”.
Having stumbled in the past into dangerous nuclear stand-offs, the hope is that once again sense will prevail and a nuclear disaster will be avoided. However, the climate crisis is an altogether different threat. Here, for a cataclysm to unfold simply requires that the international community fails to act in line with the science.
Division, disinformation, social media-fuelled polarisation and the resurgence of political extremism all undermine our faith in science and reason at the very moment in human history when we need to come together like never before.
ByMichael Callahan, Jennifer Hansler and Haley Britzky, CNNWire
Tuesday, January 31, 2023 1:10PM
Russia has stepped up its offensive attacks in Eastern Ukraine with a missile hitting a residential area.
Russia is violating a key nuclear arms control agreement with the United States and continuing to refuse to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday.
“Russia is not complying with its obligation under the New START Treaty to facilitate inspection activities on its territory. Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control,” the spokesperson said in statement.
“Russia has also failed to comply with the New START Treaty obligation to convene a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in accordance with the treaty-mandated timeline,” the spokesperson added.
In December, Putin warned of the “increasing” threat of nuclear war, and this month, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, threatened that Russia losing the war could “provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war.”
“Nuclear powers do not lose major conflicts on which their fate depends,” Medvedev wrote in a Telegram post. “This should be obvious to anyone. Even to a Western politician who has retained at least some trace of intelligence.”
And though a US intelligence assessment in November suggested that Russian military officials discussed under what circumstances Russia would use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the US has not seen any evidence that Putin has decided to take the drastic step of using one, officials told CNN.
Under the New START treaty — the only agreement left regulating the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals — Washington and Moscow are permitted to conduct inspections of each other’s weapons sites, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, inspections have been halted since 2020.
A session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission on the treaty was slated to meet in Egypt in late November but was abruptly called off. The US has blamed Russia for this postponement, with a State Department spokesperson saying the decision was made “unilaterally” by Russia.
The treaty puts limits on the number of deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons that both the US and Russia can have. It was last extended in early 2021 for five years, meaning the two sides will soon need to begin negotiating on another arms control agreement.
“Russia has a clear path for returning to full compliance. All Russia needs to do is allow inspection activities on its territory, just as it did for years under the New START Treaty, and meet in a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission,” the spokesperson said. “There is nothing preventing Russian inspectors from traveling to the United States and conducting inspections.”
According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Russia has roughly 5,977 nuclear warheads, 1,588 of which are deployed. The US has 5,550 nuclear warheads, according to the Center, including 3,800 active warheads.
On Monday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the last remaining element of the bilateral nuclear arms control treaty with the United States could expire in three years without a replacement.
Asked if Moscow could envisage there being no nuclear arms control agreement between the two nations when the extension of the 2011 New START Treaty comes to an end after 2026, Ryabkov told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Monday: “This is a very possible scenario.”
In brief: While the US has further tightened restrictions on chip-related exports to China recently, there are some entities in the country that have been on an export blacklist for decades. One of these is China’s top nuclear-weapons research institute, but that hasn’t stopped it from regularly buying Intel and Nvidia hardware.
The state-run China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP) was one of the first to be placed on a US export blacklist in 1997 because of its work in the field of nuclear weapons, preventing it from purchasing American technology. However, according to a Wall Street Journal report, the institute has obtained US hardware at least a dozen times since 2020, including Intel’s Xeon Gold processors and Nvidia’s GeForce RTX graphics cards, for use in academy computers.
Intel and Nvidia cannot sell their products directly to the CAEP; instead, the institute bought them from Chinese marketplaces such as Taobao, Aliexpress, and other resellers. A WSJ review of CAEP-published research papers found at least 34 over the last decade referenced using American semiconductors in its research. The laboratory studies computational fluid dynamics, a broad scientific field that includes modeling nuclear explosions; physicists at CAEP helped develop the country’s first hydrogen bomb.
Used for high framerates and nuclear-weapons modeling
The revelation illustrates the difficulty in enforcing US export restrictions on China. Nvidia said the millions of PCs sold worldwide means it cannot control where its products end up. Intel said it complies with export regulations and sanctions and so must its distributors and customers.
“It is insanely difficult to enforce the U.S. restrictions when it comes to transactions overseas,” former top Commerce Department official Kevin Wolf told the WSJ.
The Department of Defense said China has been accelerating its nuclear weapons development in recent years. The People’s Liberation Army currently has more than 400 warheads, a figure that could reach about 1,500 by 2035 if the current rate of expansion continues.
With the export restrictions in place, China has been trying to create its own chips, a plan the US is trying to scupper by prohibiting the sale of advanced chipmaking tools to the Asian nation. The Biden administration recently came to an agreement with the Netherlands and Japan that will see the two countries impose their own export controls on chipmaking equipment to China.
Andrey Gurulyov, a State Duma member and former military commander, made the comments during a discussion on a show broadcast on the Kremlin-controlled Russia-1 network.
In a panel moderated by host Vladimir Solovyov, Gurulyov said that Americans “won’t come to their senses” until they “get hit with a nuke on their skull,” according to a translated clip posted on the Russian Media Monitor YouTube channel by journalist Julia Davis.
Gurulyov also said that a Russian strike involving nuclear weapons was the only path forward to ensure lasting peace.
“There is no other way to talk to these fools,” Gurulyov said before adding that people have tried unsuccessfully to convince him otherwise.
“Today, considering our strategic initiative—and right now we have it for sure—along with our current successes, I very much want for us to envision the future,” Gurulyov said. “We should make plans beyond the horizon so that we know what happens in one year, three years, five years and 10 years and harshly move toward it in this paradigm.
Putin no longer leading Ukraine effort, Girkin says: “A complete failure”
“We will win, 100 percent. Where? Everywhere! Everywhere! And this is by far not about Ukraine. Everywhere!”
Gurulyov continued by saying that Russia is a country that brings peace to the world.
“Russia was, is and will be a great nation, capable of bringing peace,” he said. “Peace is the key word! We bring peace and calm!”
The comments from Gurulyov about striking the U.S. are not his only recent talk of nuclear war.
Gurulyov made those remarks while discussing a statement from U.S. President Joe Biden that condemned the idea that Russia could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Gurulyov said his country would not resort to using nukes in Ukraine because Russian people would eventually settle there.
“Biden says there would be a reaction, per their Article 5, but if we turn the British Isles into a Martian desert in three minutes flat, using tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones, they could use Article 5, but for whom?” Gurulyov said. “A nonexistent country, turned into a Martian desert? They won’t respond.”
Newsweek reached out to the White House and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
A contingent of military officials is quietly pushing the Pentagon to approve sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to help the country defend itself from Russian missile and drone attacks, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.
Ukraine has kept American-made F-16s on its weapons wish list since the Russian invasion last year. But Washington and Kyiv have viewed artillery, armor and ground-based air defense systems as more urgent needs as Ukraine seeks to protect civilian infrastructure and claw back ground occupied by Russian forces.
As Ukraine prepares to launch a new offensive to retake territory in the spring, the campaign inside the Defense Department for fighter jets is gaining momentum, according to a DoD official and two other people involved in the discussions. Those people, along with others interviewed for this story, asked not to be named in order to discuss internal matters.
Spurred in part by the rapid approval of tanks and Patriot air defense systems — which not long ago were off-limits for export to Ukraine — there is renewed optimism in Kyiv that U.S. jets could be next up.
Biden announces U.S. will send Abrams tanks to UkraineShare
“I don’t think we are opposed,” said a senior DoD official about the F-16s, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive debate. The person stressed that there has been no final decision.
However, Ukraine has yet to declare that fighter jets are its top priority, the official stressed, noting that the Pentagon is focused on sending Kyiv the capabilities it needs for the immediate fight.
But fighter jets may be moving to the top spot soon. Kyiv has renewed its request for modern fighters in recent days, with a top adviser to the country’s defense minister telling media outlets that officials will push for jets from the U.S. and European countries.
One adviser to the Ukrainian government said the subject has been raised with Washington, but there has been “nothing too serious” on the table yet. Another person familiar with the conversations between Washington and Kyiv said it could take “weeks” for the U.S. to make a decision on shipments of its own jets and approve the re-export of the F-16s from other countries.
“If we get them, the advantages on the battlefield will be just immense. … It’s not just F-16s: fourth generation aircraft, this is what we want,” Yuriy Sak, who advises Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told Reuters.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment for this story, but pointed to remarks by deputy national security adviser Jon Finer. He said the U.S. would be discussing fighter jets “very carefully” with Kyiv and its allies.
“We have not ruled in or out any specific systems,” Finer said on MSNBC Thursday.
“We have nothing to announce regarding F-16s,” said a DOD spokesperson. “As always, we’ll continue to consult closely with the Ukrainians and our international Allies and partners on Ukraine’s security assistance needs to enable them to defend their country.”
Ukraine wants modern fighters — U.S. Air Force F-16s or F-15s, or their European equivalents the German Tornado or Swedish Gripen — to replace its fleet of Soviet-era jets. Dozens of the more modern planes will become available over the next year as countries such as Finland, Germany and the Netherlands upgrade to U.S. F-35 fighters.
Despite the age of Ukraine’s jets, Kyiv’s integrated air defenses have kept Russia from dominating its skies since the Feb. 24 invasion.
But now, officials are concerned that Ukraine is running out of missiles to protect its skies. Once its arsenal is depleted, Russia’s advanced fighter jets will be able to move in and Kyiv “will not be able to compete,” said the DoD official involved in the discussions.
Modern fighter jets could be one solution to this problem, argues a group of military officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere. F-16s carry air-to-air missiles that can shoot down incoming missiles and drones. And unlike the Patriots and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems the West is currently sending, fighter jets can move around an area quickly to protect different targets.
“If they get [F-16] Vipers and they have an active air-to-air missile with the radar the F-16 currently has with some electronic protection, now it’s an even game,” the DoD official said.
Even if the U.S. decided not to send the Air Force’s F-16s, other Western nations have American-made fighters they could supply. For example, Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra told the Dutch parliament last week that his Cabinet would look at supplying F-16s, if Kyiv requests them. But the U.S. must approve the transfer.
Senior Pentagon officials acknowledge that Ukraine needs new aircraft for the long term. But for now, some argue that Ukraine has a greater need for more traditional air defenses, such as the Patriots and NASAMs that the U.S. and other countries are supplying, because jets may take months to arrive.
Sending Ukraine F-16s “does not solve the cruise missile or drone problem right now,” the senior DoD official said.
Big push for training
Others say the need for fighter jets is more urgent. Ukraine has identified a list of up to 50 pilots who are ready now to start training on the F-16, according to a DoD official and a Ukrainian official, as well as three other people familiar with the discussions. These seasoned pilots speak English and have thousands of combat missions under their belts, and could be trained in as little as three months, the people said.
Many of them have already trained with the U.S. military in major exercises before the invasion. In 2011 and 2018, Americans and Ukrainians participated in military drills in the skies over Ukraine. In 2011, the Americans brought over their F-16s and taught the Ukrainian pilots, in their MiG-29s and Su-27s, how to protect a stadium in preparation for the 2012 Euro Cup.
After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the U.S. and Ukraine held a second joint 2018 exercise aimed at teaching Ukrainian pilots homeland defense tactics and controlling the skies. The American pilots used their F-15s to replicate Russian fighter tactics.
Ukraine is pushing the U.S. to start training its fighter pilots on the F-16s now, before President Joe Biden approves supplying the jets, according to the Ukrainian official and one of the people familiar. But there is no appetite in the Pentagon for this proposal, U.S. officials said. One alternative under discussion at lower levels is to start training Ukrainian pilots on introductory fighter tactics in trainer jets.
Ukraine has also considered contracting with private companies in the U.S. to begin training pilots, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.
It’s likely U.S. military training would not start without a presidential decision to supply American fighters. One concern for the Biden administration all along is that sending advanced weapons could be seen by Russia as an escalation, prompting Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons.
But officials point out that the F-16 was first built in the 1980s, and the Air Force is already retiring parts of the fleet. While sending Ukraine the stealthy American F-22s or F-35s would be considered escalatory, sending F-16s would not, they said.
“Let’s face it, a nuclear war isn’t going to happen over F-16s,” the DoD official said.
One European official agreed, saying F-16s “cannot be considered escalatory.”
“It’s simply part of the toolkit of having conventional weapons,” the person said.
Yet F-16s are complex systems that also require massive infrastructure and highly skilled technicians to operate and maintain. Training Ukrainian maintainers would likely take longer than training the pilots, and the U.S. may need to bring in contractors to do some of that instruction.
Providing F-16s is likely to win some support on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans alike have chided the administration for not moving quickly enough or for withholding certain capabilities, such as longer-range artillery. Sending Russian-made MiG fighters to Ukraine, via Eastern European countries that still fly them, won bipartisan support, though a weapons swap ultimately never came to fruition.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who co-chairs the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, said he’s “not against” providing F-16s to Kyiv, but broadly favors providing Ukraine with “whatever works.”
“You can’t half-ass a war. Putin’s not. You’ve got to meet Putin armor for armor, weapon for weapon, because there’s already an extraordinary disadvantage in number of troops,” Quigley said. “Whatever works, whatever they need, send to them.
“My message when I first started talking about this is what were once vices are now habits,” he said. “Everything we ever proposed was seen as escalatory.”
But the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), cast doubt on the need to send F-16s into the conflict, where fighters haven’t proved pivotal.
“I’m not opposed to it,” Smith said. “It’s just not at the top of the list of anybody’s priorities who’s focused on what [weapons] the fight really needs right now.”
He noted that F-16s, much like older MiG jets debated last year, would be vulnerable to Russian air defenses and fifth-generation fighters. Instead, Smith underscored the need to supply ammunition for air defense batteries, longer-range missiles, tanks and armored vehicles.
“What we really need to be focused on is air defense, number one,” he said. “And number two, artillery.”
The decision to move the hand forward resulted from the progressive interconnected threats of nuclear war, climate change, and global pandemics coupled with the current war in Ukraine.
The risk of nuclear war — either by accident, intent, or miscalculation — is ever heightened in today’s world. Each of the nuclear nations is modernizing their nuclear arsenals, erroneously thinking that these weapons will make them safer or that there can be a winner in a nuclear war.
The non-nuclear nations of the world are refusing to be held hostage, bullied by the nuclear nations, and are moving forward to abolish these weapons by ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty makes it illegal to use, stockpile, build, transfer, or threaten to use nuclear weapons — and just this past Sunday celebrated its second anniversary since entering into force. Currently 92 nations have signed the Treaty with 68 nations having ratified it. These countries understand the growing danger of these interrelated issues and the reality that there is no adequate medical or humanitarian response to even a limited use of nuclear weapons.
By contrast, the legal obligation to work in good faith to abolish nuclear weapons under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons, (NPT) has been ignored by the nuclear nations. Our national elected officials lacking the courage to take the bold initiatives necessary to reverse the arms race, and funded by the very manufacturers of these weapons, have made little progress, if any, toward reducing the nuclear threat.
Ultimately, it is up to the people to build the political will — and provide the political cover — for our elected officials to take these necessary steps.
While most reasonable people understand the need to abolish these weapons, few officials have been willing to suggest elimination as a first step. Fortunately, there is a voice of reason in a growing grassroots coalition in the United States, endorsed by 426 organizations, 66 cities and 7 state legislative bodies along with 329 local, state and federal elected officials. This Back from the Brink movement supports the elimination of nuclear weapons through a negotiated, verifiable time-bound process with the common sense precautionary measures necessary during the process to prevent nuclear war. It calls on the U.S. to lead a global effort to prevent nuclear war by:
1. Actively pursuing a verifiable agreement among nuclear armed states to eliminate their arsenals; 2. Renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first; 3. Ending the sole, unchecked authority of any U.S. President to launch a nuclear attack; 4. Taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; 5. Cancelling the plan to replace the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal with enhanced weapons.
Back from the Brink can be endorsed by all persons and will be reintroduced into our national legislative process in the weeks to come.
Each of us has a role to play in the final outcome.
Remaining silent implies consent with the status quo. We must demand that our elected officials endorse these bills and work together for our future with the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. It’s 90 seconds till midnight.
Robert Dodge, M.D., is a family physician practicing in Ventura, Calif. He is the President of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (www.psr-la.org), and sits on the National Board serving as the Co-Chair of the Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons of National Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org). Physicians for Social Responsibility received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize and is a partner organization of ICAN, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Price. Dodge also sits on the Steering Committee of Back from the Brink.
On Jan. 24, history was again made when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ organization moved the seconds hand of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. It is now at ‘90 seconds to midnight,’ the closest it has ever been to the symbolic midnight hour of global catastrophe.
The announcement, made during a news conference held in Washington D.C., was delivered in English, Ukrainian and Russian. The released statement described our current moment in history as “a time of unprecedented danger.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/KxB9dM0u4mU?wmode=transparent&start=0The virtual news conference hosted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for the Doomsday Clock Announcement.
In the late 1940s, the new threat of atomic weapons cast a dark cloud over the world. The Doomsday Clock was meant to be a warning to humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons; later in the 20th century it was expanded to consider other human-made threats.
Nuclear weapons prompt a special existential anxiety, as weapons of mass destruction have the potential to eradicate entire cultures, lands, languages and lives. In the case of a nuclear attack, the future would be altered in a way that becomes inconceivable for us to process.
The significance of the Doomsday Clock as a metaphorical time-keeping exercise serves as a graphic symbol of human-made multiplying perils. As the time to midnight has drawn closer, the urgency of the threat is intensified.
The politically powerful Shia cleric has stood up to Iran and his volatile persona continues to mesmerise his Iraqi compatriots
Sat Jan 28 2023 – 05:00
Ask any Iraqi about politics and talk will soon turn to Muqtada al-Sadr. Widely known by the mononym “Muqtada”, he wields unparalleled clout as Shia cleric, militia boss and political leader. Often described as mercurial, his sudden shifts of mood and changes of mind have the country gripped.
He’s lying low right now, licking his wounds after a failed attempt to change the political system that involved some serious tussles with Iran – which views Iraq as its “near abroad”. Having been a permanent fixture in Iraqi politics since the 2003 US invasion, Iraqis are watching for his next move.
“Even Muqtada does not know what Muqtada wants,” comes the answer.
Sadr was long the bad boy of Iraqi politics. The Pentagon dubbed his Mahdi Army Iraq’s biggest security threat. This was back when his militiamen would attack US and British troops with Iranian bombs, later specialising in ultra-violence against Sunnis and mafia-style criminality. Anticipating a US troop surge, Sadr fled to Iran for four years.
By 2011, he was back. His militiamen, rebranded as Saraya al-Saram, fought Islamic State under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi, a group of mainly Shia militias backed by Iran. But, over the years, Sadr was playing it his way, competing with Iran’s proxies to embed his own people in key ministries, signing up to the ruling class while positioning himself as an outlaw reformist at the centre of successive protest movements.
It’s a strategy that gave him financial firepower and political leverage, turning his Sadrist movement into a major political force. But working against the dysfunctional system while being at the heart of that same system has led to some strange contortions.
Take the 2019 Tishreen protests, in which young Iraqis sought to overturn the system, blaming Iranian meddling for high unemployment, rampant corruption and abysmal services. Recognising a battle for the nation’s soul was under way, Sadr got involved, sending his “blue hats” on to protest sites to help defend the protesters against security forces and militias, who were shooting to kill. By the end of November 2019, protesters had brought down the government.
But the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis changed everything. Soon, Sadr was off to the Iranian holy city of Qom, breaking bread with the very Iran-backed factions the protesters were demonstrating against, agreeing to form an anti-US resistance front and selecting a new prime minister.
Feeling betrayed, protesters ignored Sadr’s calls to march against US presence in Iraq. They also denounced the new prime minister-designate, who would swiftly withdraw his candidacy, as an establishment stooge. In Qom, Sadr had also offered to neutralise the protests, pitching himself as a leader who could fill the power vacuum left by the US strike. Once he’d withdrawn his support, his “blue hats” switched from protectors to killers, torching sites, using blades and firearms to disperse protesters.
Having sacrificed protesters on the altar of his opportunism, Sadr’s bid to be Iran’s number one in Iraq failed. “The Iranians never went for it,” says Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a specialist in Shia movements at Aarhus University. “They don’t trust Sadr. They know that if they empowered him, he would become a weapon that could be dangerous to them. They prefer to keep things fragmented.”
But Sadr’s anti-establishment streak does run deep. This is the son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a hero among Iraqi Shia, a champion of the poor. Repeatedly locked up by Saddam Hussein’s regime, he was assassinated by regime forces in 1999 while driving his two sons home in the holy city of Najaf – a revered martyr.
Sadr the son inherited his father’s massive support base. In good times and bad, he can count on the devotion of millions of Iraq’s Shia poor, people from places like the slums of Sadr City in Baghdad and southeastern Maysan province, who have been marginalised from politics, who will always keep the faith.
“It’s not like the other militias where people join for jobs and money,” says activist Hatem Tome. “Sadr’s people love him. His power is in his people, his millions of followers. He has the money and the guns and the most control over people.”
Sadr does not have the religious authority of his father, partly because he hasn’t finished his religious studies. But, ever the populist, he has cultivated a messianic persona, using a walking stick reminiscent of his father’s staff, turning up to meetings in Najaf in an old Mitsubishi Gallant, the same car his father was driving when he was shot. His cred is further burnished by his marriage to the daughter of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, another Shia giant, martyred in 1980.
All of this lends him a certain mystique. Some of his most fervent followers swear he is Imam al-Mahdi himself, the last of the 12 Shia imams, who will reappear in end times as the world’s last saviour, says Muhtada al-Quraishi, an Iraq-based political blogger. His family in the city of Wasit have been devoted Sadrists for decades.
But magical thinking will only get you so far in the ruthless world of politics. Emerging victorious in the 2021 election, Sadr tried to outmanoeuvre Iran, working to exclude its Shia proxies from power, joining forces with parliament’s Sunni and Kurdish blocs to form an alliance called “Save the Homeland”. US think tanks lauded him as a poster boy for Iraqi nationalism, a leader capable of extracting the country from Iranian influence, bringing it closer to its Arab neighbours.
Panicked, Tehran sent top general Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s successor as head of Iran’s foreign ops, to Sadr’s house in Najaf. According to a Reuters investigation, Ghaani told Sadr that if he included Iran’s allies in a coalition, Tehran would recognise him as Iraq’s main Shia political figure. Sadr reportedly replied: “What does Iraqi politics have to do with you?”
Last August, as Sadr struggled to form a government, Tehran went for the jugular, leaning on his Iran-based mentor, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, to denounce him in his resignation speech. Haeri accused Sadr of dividing the Shia, calling on Sadrists to seek guidance from Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was a low blow – Haeri had been anointed as the movement’s spiritual adviser by Sadr’s father.
Sadr reacted by tweeting his retirement from politics, inciting his followers to breach Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone, where they clashed with Iran’s proxies in a bloody battle that left dozens dead. Less than 24 hours later, he was on the airwaves, restoring calm. Sadr had shown he was a force to be reckoned with, but he’d brought the country to the brink of a Shia-on-Shia war in the process.
“There is a logic to how violence is used in the system,” says Renad Mansour, of London-based think tank Chatham House. “Sadr uses it within the confines of the system.”
The ship of state has since sailed on, with Tehran’s parties at the helm. It seems unlikely that there will be any changes before 2025, which leaves Sadr’s foes enough time to remove his allies from top government jobs and tinker with electoral law. Having recently announced his return to politics, it’s thought he will emerge as a protest leader.
“They will want to up the pressure gradually,” says Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq-based analyst. “One method would be to support protests, seizing on any government scandals or failures as a trigger. This could be about the cost of living, the decline in the dinar exchange rate, or something else that makes people angry…”
However, his betrayal of anti-government protesters has not been forgotten. Quraishi, who took part in the protests, thinks Sadr has blown it. “He lost the support of the people. They thought he would bring justice to Iraq. But he didn’t stand with Tishreen,” he says.
For many critics, Sadr is just a militia boss who can whip up a mob at whim. August’s battle in the Green Zone could have ended in more bloodshed, had it not been for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of Iraq’s Shia. Sistani told Sadr to order a stop to the violence, threatening to make a rare public intervention. In a system where clerics hold the real power, Sistani is arguably the most powerful man in Iraq.
At Baghdad’s al-Kadhimiya mosque, Shia pilgrims mill around on a long stretch of road, the gold domes of Imam Kazim’s shrine gleaming in the distance. Amid the stalls selling sweets and jewellery, Sadr’s portrait sits in a hall of fame of the Shia clergy, given equal billing to Sistani and his father. But one punter is not convinced. “The true leader of Iraq Shia is Sistani,” he says. “Even in Sadr City they look to him. Muqtada takes from the people, but he doesn’t give back.”