|Sadrists conducting referendum (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)|
On February 23, Sadr returned to Najaf from Iran after leaving the country for two weeks. This was two days before the planned Day of Rage protests across Iraq. Sadr told his followers not to join the marches. Instead, he instructed his movement to carry out a nationwide referendum on services that would collect information about people’s demands. He then said there would be a one million-person demonstration in six months if the government didn’t deliver on better services. The move was meant to cap the turnout for the Day of Rage, while trying to get the public behind his own drive for reforming the administration and gaining greater power. Obviously, there are many upset with the state of electricity, water, sewage, corruption, etc. in Iraq, as there have been protests everyday in the country for several weeks now. Sadr hopes to harness this discontent so that he can have greater influence in the government by claiming that he speaks for the masses, while threatening it with even greater demonstrations if Maliki doesn’t meet Sadr’s demands.
As the other half of this strategy, Sadrists have stepped up their criticism of the prime minister. On February 28 for example, members of the movement said that many of the problems with services were due to the years of neglect under Saddam Hussein, but that the current cabinet also included many unqualified ministers. They went on to say that Maliki shared responsibility for the country’s problems, as he was head of the government. Sadr himself said that Maliki had to stand up for the shortcomings in the nation, that he needed to find solutions, and demanded that Baghdad’s governor, who was a member of the prime minister’s State of Law list, had to step down or he would be forced out. A Sadrist parliamentarian also blamed State of Law for the demonstration in Basra on February 28 because it had ignored complaints about Governor Shitagh Abbud’s incompetence because he belonged to Maliki’s list. On March 2, Sadrists were quoted as saying that they wouldn’t support Maliki in the future if he kept on failing, and accused him of protecting 4,000 corrupt officials. They threatened to back Iyad Allawi instead and form a new ruling coalition if the government didn’t meet its six-month deadline. Then on March 5, Sadrists in Karbala called on their supporters to clean up the streets of the city as a way to show the authorities what they should be doing. Again, all of these statements were meant to increase the pressure on Maliki, and appropriate the people’s demands for better governance in Iraq.
While Sadr did surprisingly well in the March 2010 elections and has always tried to portray himself as connected to the streets, he has limited influence with the on-going protests. Organizers in Baghdad have tried to keep their events free of religion and partisanship. One Facebook organizer in the capital even accused Iran of being behind Sadr’s statements against the Day of Rage event. At the same time, Sadr’s drive to use the protests for his own political gain may be more successful. Obviously his referendum is going to come out condemning the government’s performance. There is little it can do in six months to make the situation any better, so Sadr is almost guaranteed to call for a large march when his deadline passes. His threats to abandon Maliki will also be felt, as the Sadrists provided the support the premier needed to form his new ruling coalition. The problem for Sadr is that he can win greater influence for himself by using these tactics, but he can’t improve the country. His followers hold important ministries such as Planning and Public Works that are directly responsible for the delivery of services. While he may be able to rally his people behind his drive, and put all the blame on others like the premier, that may not go over with the demonstrators, which means they will continue no matter what Sadr tries to do.
Agence France Presse, “Radical Shiite cleric Sadr ‘back in Iraq,’” 2/23/11
Alkadiri, Raad, “Rage Comes to Baghdad,” Foreign Affairs, 3/3/11
Alsumaria, “Ahrar bloc to stop supporting Maliki,” 3/2/11
- “Sadr Front threatens to ally with Allawi,” 3/3/11
- “Al Sadr to conduct referendum in Iraq,” 2/23/11
Brosk, Raman, “Ahrar bloc MP blames SLC for Basra Governorate storming,” AK News, 3/1/11
- “Sadr accuses Maliki of passing blame for Iraqi protests,” AK News, 2/28/11
- “Sadrists launch referendum on public services across Iraq,” AK News, 2/28/11
Al-Haffar, Hasoon, “Sadr calls on supporters to clean up Iraqi streets,” AK News, 3/5/11
Najm, Hayder, “government and clerics disrupt the day of dignity,” Niqash, 3/9/11
Al-Rafidayn, Al Arab online, Alsumaria TV, “Al-Sadr Calls On Al-Maliki to Meet Demonstrators’ Demands, Threatens Action,” MEMRI Blog, 3/1/11
Schmidt, Michael and Ghazi, Yasir, “Iraq’s Top Shiite Leaders Urge Delay or Protests,” New York Times, 2/23/11
Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “Sadrists Initiate Public Survey To Evaluate Government Performance, Threaten Mass Demonstrations,” MEMRI Blog, 3/2/11