Moqtada al-Sadr upends Iraq politics as summer protests loom
In the meantime, the country’s problems are piling up: price increases, a faltering power grid and the near-unbearable summer heat have brought fresh misery to a population that rose up in 2019 to demand an end to the U.S.-forged political system that has brought them here.
And so last week Sadr, a populist with hundreds of thousands of loyal followers, announced that his 74 parliamentary candidates, more than a fifth of the total, would be resigning altogether.
“I have decided to withdraw from the political process and will not take part with the corrupt people,” he told followers in the southern city of Najaf last week, wiping his brow as electric fans beat weakly from the ceiling on a sweltering night.
The struggle to form a government — which has been a protracted political ritual after each election — has pointed to the painful persistence of a political system that many Iraqis say no longer represents them.
Installed in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country, the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system entrenched corruption and was exploited by Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian politicians alike for maximum political and personal gain.
In recent years, Iranian-backed factions, which have since united into the Coordinating Framework, have increasingly gained the upper hand from the U.S.-backed groups.
But when they performed poorly at the ballot box last year, Sadr tried to rewrite the political game, excluding his Shiite rivals to form an alliance with the Sunni and Kurdish blocs instead — but to no avail.
The cleric’s decision to withdraw his candidates has now shuffled the deck yet again, leaving the Coordination Framework with nearly a third of the parliament’s seats, but still needing Kurdish and Sunni help to form a government.
“The tactics of Sadr were smarter,” said Jassim al-Helfi, whose Communist Party allied with the cleric’s forces in 2018. “The next government will be the weakest since 2003.”
Sadr is a storied figure both here and abroad, with a history of battling U.S. troops and fierce loyalty from his working-class followers.
Since 2003, the cleric has positioned himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who can unify the country. At times this has been achieved through Iranian support. More recently, it’s involved the tacit backing of Western nations.
Even with no more seats in parliament, Sadr retains vast influence in the government and his people occupy powerful positions across the prime minister’s office and cabinet, all major ministries, the governorships of strategic provinces, and the state-owned oil company.
“Sadr would retain significant political clout,” agreed Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University, who studies the movement.
As wrangling continued over government formation this month, the Sadrists were able to push through an emergency financing bill for food and energy, despite resistance from the Iran-aligned bloc.
Stepping away now, experts say, leaves the cleric’s forces able to point to their achievements without taking responsibility for its implementation.
“He wants to be able to say, ‘well it’s not my fault that this is happening, I’m not one of the members of the political elite, because I’ve pulled out,’” said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation, who said Sadr’s ability to mobilize his followers remains his greatest strength.
In Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City district, where the cleric’s loyalists adorn shops and vehicles with his pictures, supporters said they would welcome a return to the streets.
“Of course we’d go out and join them,” said 49-year old Nashad Faysal, who lives in the Sadr City slum. “Our only hope right now is Sadr.”
Among supporters, Sadr draws much of his legitimacy from a reputation for opposing oppression, as his revered relatives did before him, and unlike most other political leaders, he has never lived outside Iraq for long periods of time.
When mass protests across Baghdad and southern provinces demanded the downfall of the country’s kleptocracy back in 2019, it was Sadr’s forces who initially protected the public squares as security forces and militias killed hundreds.
But he later ordered them to withdraw, allowing Iran-backed armed groups to decimate what remained of the movement.
This summer, scattered protests have become the norm again, with small groups demanding jobs or better services from the country’s north to its south. As temperatures rise along with public frustration, experts predict that Sadr may once again position himself as a street leader to rally around.
“If he calls on his followers, they will come from all the provinces, but he will not show himself as a demonstrator right away because people will accuse him of pulling out simply to use the street,” Helfi of the Communist Party said.
A summer or fall of demonstrations will likely see the other political factions scrabbling for the cleric’s support. The 2019 demonstrations left Iraq’s political elite “scarred psychologically,” Robin-D’Cruz said, adding that Sadr’s people believe the other political groups will need “the Sadrists onside to face down future protests.”
Support for Sadr remains strong across the south and his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, but in some of the slum’s streets, a sense of disillusionment over the endless wrangling amid a worsening reality was also creeping in.
“Well he hasn’t done anything for us,” said 25-year-old Mortada Miryal, leaning across the counter of his perfume stall to take a glimpse of the street view outside. Trade was depressed, he said. Few in the area had much extra cash these days to put food on the table, let alone to spend on luxuries like cosmetics.
Several blocks away, a group of older men had gathered on the sidewalk’s rickety plastic chairs to talk politics, noting that Sadr’s support comes from the patronage and jobs he hands out.
“The problem with our politics is that we don’t have anyone trustworthy in the right place,” said Mishaan Hamid, 56.
As the blazing sun dipped below the horizon, rumors of a new announcement from the cleric were swirling. Hamid smiled. “I guess we’ll see what he says now,” he said. “It’s all a circus.”