Monday, June 18, 2012

What Does Iraq’s Sadr Want?

What Moqtada al-Sadr wants out of Iraqi politics has been a major question on the minds of many since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. After the 2010 parliamentary elections, the Sadr bloc in parliament at first opposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s return to power, but then became the main supporters of his second term. Since February 2012 however, Sadr has become one of the premier’s leading critics calling him a dictator, and seemingly leading the push for a no confidence vote against him. A closer look at the bloc’s announcements however, show that it continually makes contradictory statements, convoluting its message, and making it hard to determine its true goals. It appears that Sadr does not want to depose the prime minister at this time, but is rather setting the ground work to challenge his State of Law list in the next round of elections.

Moqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have always had a difficult relationship. After the March 2010 parliamentary elections, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) won the most seats, but the premier immediately set about to out maneuver it. Sadr was initially opposed to Maliki’s return to office, calling him a liar and a schemer, and at one point came out in support of Iyad Allawi and his INM. After some pressure from Tehran, a meeting with Maliki in Qom, Iran, and the prime minister promising Sadr the most cabinet positions, other top offices, and the release of Sadr’s followers who were not charged, but still in prison, Moqtada relented. As a result, the Sadr Trend got the deputy speakership in parliament, and six ministries, the most of any list, in the initial cabinet put together in December 2011. By February 2012 however, the Sadrists started changing their tune. Sadr for example, gave an interview with Ashar al-Awsat that month calling Maliki a dictator. The next month, a Sadr lawmaker compared Maliki to Saddam. At the same time, the Sadrists were standing behind the prime minister’s policies. The list never wavered in its support for trying Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for instance. That showed that while rhetorically the Sadr Trend as coming out against the premier, it never took any substantive actions. Sadr appeared to be trying to maintain his populace image as someone outside of the government, who was standing up for his people and the general public, but all the time was benefiting from his association with Maliki with his seven positions in the new administration.
April 2012 statement by Sadr responding to one of his followers calling Maliki a dictator (Shatt News)
In recent months this has all played out once more with the Sadr list criticizing Maliki, while backing off really challenging him. In April 2012, Sadr replied to one of his followers by saying that the prime minister was an autocrat. Reports also emerged that the Sadrists were in talks with the Kurdish Coalition and the National Movement, the two main opponents of the premier. On April 26, Sadr went to a meeting in Irbil, where he met with the President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, Iyad Allawi, Adel Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Council, and President of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani to discuss their plans against Maliki. Four days later, Sadr issued a statement that Maliki and his Dawa Party were becoming sectarian. The next month, Sadr sent a letter to the National Alliance calling for the government to be reformed, and threatened a no confidence vote against the premier if his demands were not met. Sadr claimed that since the National Alliance nominated Maliki back in 2010, it was responsible for his actions. Opponents of the prime minister met once again at Sadr’s residence in Najaf in mid-May, and by the end of the month, Moqtada promised to throw his parliamentarians behind a no confidence vote if the Kurdish Coalition and the Iraqi National Movement did so as well. The Sadr movement contradicted every one of these statements at one time or another. In April, a Sadr lawmaker said that withdrawing confidence from Maliki would not be good for the country, and suggested that a national conference would be a better for all concerned. That same month, another Sadrist parliamentarian claimed that his list stood behind the prime minister. After the Irbil meeting, Sadr commented that he wanted to mediate between all the major parties, and that they should all support the government, not overthrow it. Then in May, Sadr issued a note to his followers that he was simply trying to help Maliki from becoming a dictator, something that was repeated after the Najaf conference, and at the very end of the month as well. April to the present has all just been a repeat of what happened at the beginning of the year. Sadr appeared to be taking a more hardline stance towards Maliki with his no confidence push, but almost every time he talked about that he or one of his followers would say they didn’t actually want to get rid of the premier. Again, Sadr was simply trying to differentiate himself from Maliki and the government.
In April, Sadrist parliamentarian Hussein al-Shirifi said removing Maliki would be bad for Iraq (AIN)
Iran also played a role trying to mediate between the two. On April 22, Maliki went to Tehran to nominally prepare for the 5 plus 1 conference over Iran’s nuclear program. While there, he met with Sadr and signed a letter of understanding, but it fell through. On June 1, it was reported that Iran shut down Sadr’s office in Tehran to pressure him to back off the no confidence vote. Then the spiritual leader of the Sadr movement, Ayatollah Kadhem al-Hussein al-Haeri issued a fatwa meant to influence Sadr away from his confrontation with Maliki as well. On June 4, Sadr went to Tehran for talks about Iraq’s political crisis. (1) Afterward, a Sadrist spokesman said that the list had not changed its position, but did say that it just wanted Maliki to reform. There were also articles that Iran had asked Sadr to give Maliki two months to make up with his opponents, and others that a deal had been struck. Finally, on June 14, Sadr called Maliki. The double talk by the movement continued, but it appeared as if something was in the works. One of Iran’s main goals has been to build up enough influence within Iraq to be able to shape events to its will. It is exerting a tremendous amount of power to try to bring the Sadrists and Maliki back together so that Iraq’s political crisis at least stabilizes if not ends. That’s because Tehran does not want ever increasing chaos on its doorstep, especially with the events in Syria. The problem is that Sadr has his own agenda, and may not listen.
One of Sadr's main goals has been to increase his influence over the security forces (Getty Images)
Ever since 2003, there has been plenty of speculation about what Moqtada al-Sadr’s goals are within Iraq. Some, such as Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs have speculated that his current actions might be at the behest of Iran to try to keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in check. It’s much more likely that Sadr is following his own plans, hence the attempts by Tehran to reign him in. Sadr’s maneuvers have made him a major player in Iraqi politics. The Iraqi National Movement, the Kurdish Coalition, and State of Law have all courted him to try to bring him to their side in the current crisis. This has raised Sadr’s standing amongst the country’s elites, something that he has always wanted since many dismissed him as an upstart and militia leader early on after the U.S. invasion. Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis recently returned from a trip to Iraq where he held discussions with the Sadr movement. They told him that their overall goal was to increase the number of ministries they controlled and positions they held within the security forces. Hiltermann believed that the list did not want Maliki out now, but were positioning themselves for the provincial and parliamentary voting to be held in 2013 and 2014. They could use their critique of the prime minister to gain seats at the expense of State of Law, and perhaps even replace Maliki. If he were able to come out on top again, the Trend would be able to convert their independence from him into even more places in the government as they would still hold a large position within parliament, and thus would be necessary to form a new ruling coalition. In the meantime, this all means that Iraq’s political dispute will continue on for the next several years. Sadr and Maliki will have periods of reconciliation, followed by more back and forth. At the same time, the movement will take no serious action against Maliki, limiting themselves to verbal jabs as they have for the last two years. The government will be deadlocked with no meaningful decisions being made as a result. There will simply be a continuation of the on-going arguments. Nothing is written in stone yet, but Sadr does appear to be committed to his strategy. In the end, he could very well achieve his goals if he is able to resist the intense pressure he will face from Tehran and Maliki.


1. UPI, “Iran steps in to prop up to Iraq’s Maliki,” 6/5/12


AIN, “Araji: Attendants of Najaf meeting not to discuss withdrawing confidence from Maliki,” 5/19/12
- “Blocs not to withdraw confidence if government reformed, says MP,” 5/30/12
- “Iran pressurizes to prevent withdrawing confidence from Maliki, says Naji,” 6/6/12
- “Kinani denies reaching agreement between Sadr Trend, SLC in Iran,” 6/6/12
- “MP announces completing signatures required to withdraw confidence from Maliki,” 6/16/12
- “MP: withdrawing confidence from Maliki depends on political deals,” 4/29/12
- “Musawi expects holding meeting involves all blocs leaders,” 6/16/12
- “Musawi: Sadr Trend, SLC about to reach agreement to settle crisis,” 6/6/12
- “Sadr clarifies his stance towards Maliki,” 5/12/12
- “Sadr: To have Shiite dictator means “Real danger faces Shiite,” 6/16/12
- “Sadrist MP: Ahrar bloc insists on applying recommendations of Erbil Meeting,” 5/5/12
- “Sadrist MP: Investigating side for Maliki must be adherent to reformation demands,” 6/15/12
- “Sadrist MP: Withdrawing confidence from Maliki to affect Iraqi people,” 4/10/12
- “Sadrist MP: Withdrawing confidence from Maliki to reform State system,” 5/31/12
- “SLC not part of political negotiations conducted in Iran, says Allaq,” 6/6/12

Alsabawi, Jasim, “Sadr Movement Claims No Ulterior Motive to Leader’s Erbil Visit,” Rudaw, 5/9/12

Associated Press, “Hard-line Iraqi cleric urges political unity,” 4/26/12
- “Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Maliki fights off attempt to push him out of office,” 6/11/12

Aswat al-Iraq, “Desires to have Sadrist Premier in Iraq, MP,” 4/24/12
- “No 5-man alliance in Arbil, Sadrist spokesman,” 4/30/12
- “Al-Sadr in Najaf to take strong stance on unseating al-Maliki – source,” 6/14/12
- “Sadr’s letter timetable to withdraw confidence from government, MP,” 5/4/12
- “Sadr’s threats won’t go with national partnership, says MP,” 5/6/12
- “Six Sadrist nominees if Maliki’s trust withdrawn, Sadrist Trend,” 5/6/12
- “Withdrawing confidence from Maliki not under discussion, Mutlaq,” 4/27/12

Brusk, Raman, “Maliki’s party insists on public referendum on withdrawing confidence from PM,” AK News, 6/2/12
- “National Alliance doesn’t need to implement all Erbil meeting demands within 15 days, says Ahrar leader,” AK News, 5/14/12
- “PM Maliki given two weeks to implement Erbil agreement,” AK News, 5/5/12
- “Sadrist Movement supports withdrawal of confidence from PM Maliki,” AK News, 6/4/12
- “We’re awaiting request to parliament to hold emergency no confidence meeting, says Ahrar bloc,” AK News, 6/9/12

Al Estiqama, “Iran shut down Sadr’s office in Tehran because of its demand to withdraw confidence from the Maliki,” 6/1/12

Hatem, Oudai, “Muqtada al-Sadr Ignores Fatwa Against Secularist Candidates,” Dar al-Hayat, 6/4/12

Hiltermann, Joost, conversation, June 2012

Hussein, Adnan, “Will Barzani “Checkmate” Maliki?” Rudaw, 4/29/12

Ibrahim, Haidar, “Sadrist MP holds parties responsible for “unilateral” decision-making in Iraq,” AK News, 4/27/12

Knights, Michael, “The Effort to Unseat Maliki: Lessons for U.S. Policy,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 6/5/12

Mohammed, Fryad, “Sadrist leader’s Erbil visit is proof of coalition between Shiites and Kurds, says Iraq’s deputy PM,” AK News, 4/30/12

National Iraqi News Agency, “Husseini says that talks underway between State of Law, Ahrar bloc,” 6/15/12
- “MP for Sadrist describes meetings by cabinet in provinces as the play of hundred days already granted by al-Maliki for political reforms,” 6/16/12
- “Sadr accuses Dawa Party of using to sectarian issues, expects its loss,” 4/30/12
- “Sadr calls for investigation on forcing lawmakers not to sign on withdrawing confidence from Maliki,” 6/5/12
- “Sadr demands NA to find replacement for Maliki,” 5/24/12
- “Sadr: our alliance with Maliki not result of pressures, we had to,” 4/30/12
- “Sadr thanked Maliki for holding cabinet’s sessions in the provinces,” 6/14/12
- “Sadr’s visit to Arbil will not discuss the withdrawal of confidence from Maliki,” 4/26/12
- “Source: Sadr discussed with Maliki means to get out of current political crisis,” 6/14/12

Osman, Hiwa, “Sadr and the Kurds,” Thoughts from Iraq,” 5/24/12

Rahman, Mohammed Abdul, “Many more signatures ready for withdrawing confidence from PM Maliki, says bloc,” AK News, 6/11/12

Al-Saadi, Ahmed, “Sayyed Moqtada Sadr attacked Maliki violently and dub again dictator,” Shatt News, 4/8/12

Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics No. 38,” 5/16/12

UPI, “Iran steps in to prop up to Iraq’s Maliki,” 6/5/12

Visser, Reidar, “Endgame for the Prime Minister?” Sada, 5/29/12

Zahra, Hassan Abdul, “Sadr ‘against’ fall of current Iraqi government,” Agence France Presse, 4/27/12

1 comment:

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...


I agree with you that Sadr is not likely to be acting at the behest of Iran. Visser's line echoes Nimrod Raphaeli who as I recall described Sadr as 'Iran's mouthpiece in Iraq'. That's not to deny that Sadr has ties with Iran, but he is sensitive to the notion that he is a foreign agent and I think his rejection of Ayatollah al-Haeri's fatwa is significant. In fact, according to some sources in Najaf and the Sadrist movement, Sadr made clear that he would only accept such a fatwa from Sistani or al-Fayad, since he sees them as voices acting on behalf of Iraq and not foreign powers.

I believe what foremost motivates Sadr is that he is a relatively young figure eager to establish himself as a kingmaker among political factions if not leading the Shi'a of Iraq, hence his eagerness to 'show up' the likes of Maliki.

On a final point, I note many observers say that Sadr turned to Iran after the U.S. began targeting him. Isn't it also relevant to consider the fact that in 2007 Maliki began turning against the Sadrists to consolidate his power at the time (e.g. shuffling his cabinet to exclude the Sadrists) as he no longer perceived the Sunni insurgency to be an existential threat, in contrast to the previous year when his forces were protecting the Mahdi Army in the sectarian civil war centred on Baghdad?