The checkered and turbulent past of the man best poised to take on the role of “kingmaker” in Iraq may return to impact his ability to form a government, and Iraq’s relationship with the United States.
The ethnically and politically diverse Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform, led by prominent Iraqi political figure Muqtada al-Sadr, won the greatest number of seats in the May 12 Iraqi parliamentary elections on an anti-corruption, Iraq-first platform. Whether Sadr has the ability and desire to form a government committed to a better future for all Iraqi people, remains uncertain.
Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army
Sadr made a name for himself in the years following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite being the son of a prominent Shia cleric who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein, Sadr did not welcome US forces in his country.
In attempts to stabilize the Shia community in the religiously significant city of Najaf, the United States propped up a moderate Shia cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, in the city. However, Khoei was stabbed to death in broad daylight three weeks after the initial invasion, allegedly on Sadr’s orders.
Sadr led a militant group called the Mahdi Army, which, concurrent to Khoei’s death, formed and established an initial presence in parts of Baghdad and Najaf, which included the Baghdad suburb of Saddam City—renamed Sadr City.
The Mahdi Army, under Sadr’s leadership, was responsible for the deaths of perhaps thousands of US troops and coalition forces, particularly through extensive use of use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), in the early years of the US occupation. It also controlled large swaths of Iraq, including parts of Baghdad and predominantly Shia areas in southern Iraq.
While Sadr assisted in former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s 2005 parliamentary victory, their alliance eventually broke down, with a major US-backed Iraqi operation to defeat the Mahdi Army in Basra in 2008 exemplifying its demise.
The Mahdi Army, and by extension Sadr, has also been accused of brutal sectarian violence against Iraqi Sunnis. Members allegedly led anti-Sunni “death squads” in 2006 and 2007, and engaged in extensive violence against civilians throughout the conflict. Sadr denies both the attacks and his involvement and it is not clear to what extent the highest levels of his organization directed the execution of these atrocities.
Transition from Violent Resistance
In 2011, Sadr denounced violence upon returning to Iraq after four years of self-imposed exile and religious study in Iran. While Sadr remained committed to rejecting the US occupation of Iraq, demanding troop withdrawal by 2012, he told his followers to resist in their minds and hearts rather than through violence.
Sadr’s true intentions during this period remain uncertain. While in exile but still under his leadership, the Mahdi Army rebranded itself as a political organization known as the Momahidoun after its 2008 military defeat and, by 2011, controlled forty of 325 seats in Iraqi parliament as a result of a renewed alliance with Maliki. At this time, the Sadrist movement pushed not only for US withdrawal from Iraq but also, more importantly, the replacement of political elites with technocrats in ministerial positions consistent with an emerging populist ideology.
Despite a history of direct conflict, the United States provided air support to the Sadrist militia, again rebranded as the Peace Brigades in June 2014, in the fight against their mutual enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Members of the Peace Brigades were reportedly not only less brutal than other sectarian militias fighting ISIS, but also saw armament as a temporary solution—preferring formal integration into the Iraqi military after the conflict.
Beginning in 2016, nationalist and populist rhetoric, in combination with political demonstrations, largely defined the Sadrist movement. At this time, Sadr demanded the end of corruption and the positioning of technocrats in government, as well as the integration of militias into the Iraqi military.
When the Iraqi parliament stalled in considering a list of technocrats that current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had presented for ministerial positions, consistent with Sadr’s demands, hundreds of protestors stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and entered the parliament building.
Building on earlier efforts to form a cross-sectarian committee to develop a “national plan” for Iraq, Sadr reached out to a variety of political parties and sectarian groups ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections. His list, known as the Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform, included diverse parties representing communists and liberals, Sunnis and Yezidis, and secularists and Islamists, among others.
Sadr’s list won the greatest number of parliamentary seats on an anti-corruption platform committed to replacing the political elites and placing Iraqis first. While the Revolutionaries for Reform out-performed the anticipated three Shia front-runner lists led by Abadi, Maliki, and leader of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Ameri, the end of the parliamentary elections marks only the beginning of an alliance-building period because no list attained a majority of seats.
Implications of the Sadr Victory
Whether Sadr is able to form a government and, if so, what type of government remains uncertain in the weeks following the parliamentary elections. While Sadr himself did not run for a parliamentary seat and therefore cannot be a prime ministerial candidate, he could play a critical role in determining the next prime minister if he is able to form an alliance with at least 165 members in Iraqi parliament.
The history of cooperation with Abadi and his ready acceptance of the election results makes a Sadr-Abadi alliance likely. Such an alliance could benefit from Sadr’s popular support and Abadi’s experience.
Abadi has also maintained a generally balanced relationship between the United States and Iran, which is generally consistent with Sadr’s rejection of foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. Iran sought to extend its influence with a Maliki or Ameri victory, and will likely have limited influence over a nationalist Sadr-led Iraq—if Sadr is able to form a government. Meanwhile, while a US-Sadr relationship would be tainted by past conflict and Sadr’s strong anti-US rhetoric, the United States far prefers an independent Iraq over an Iranian-allied Iraq.
Ultimately, however, questions remain regarding both Sadr’s ability to form a government and his true disposition. Iran is attempting to form an Ameri-Maliki alliance that seeks to attain a majority of seats, despite the victory of the Sadr list. Meanwhile, government formation requires alliances, but popular support for Sadr could suffer if political elites pervade the alliance, particularly amid popular fatigue toward politicians.
Finally, whether the Sadrist movement has truly left its militant, sectarian identity in the past to seek a better Iraq through the political system for all its citizens remains to be seen.
Andrea Taylor is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.