As protests have returned to Iraq for the third straight year, so have Moqtada al-Sadr’s attempts to co-opt them. Upon the new year, the cleric gave a press conference where he both supported and criticized the demonstrations going on in Anbar and Ninewa, while blaming the prime minister for the people’s unhappiness. This is exactly what he did during 2011when he went from banning his followers from participating in the marches to praising them, and taking swipes at the premier at the same time. In both circumstances, Sadr was attempting to maintain his populist image by appropriating the demands of the protest movement, while doing absolutely nothing substantive about them.
Moqtada al-Sadr is once again trying to co-opt the protest movement in Iraq for his own political gain (Shafaq News)
On January 1, 2013, Moqtada al-Sadr held a press conference in Najaf to express his feelings about the protests going on in Anbar. He said that people had the right to voice their opinions as long as they were peaceful. He stated that the demonstrators had legitimate demands, while at the same time criticizing them for hoisting pictures of Saddam Hussein, and using sectarian slogans. He claimed that his followers would have gone to Anbar if not for the latter. He suggested that the protesters not use images of the former dictator, because it alienated others, obviously referring to all those that suffered under the former regime who would be alienated by anyone praising the Baathist. He also gave a warning to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Arab Spring was upon Iraq, and that he was responsible for the unhappiness seen in the streets. While delegations from southern Iraq and Baghdad have gone to Anbar in recent weeks, if Sadr was to join them that would be a major coup for the demonstrators. It would show that their demands for the end of arbitrary arrests and the marginalization of Sunnis had major support in the country. Unfortunately this appears to be another example of political opportunism by Sadr. The cleric likes to portray himself as a man of the people, so when thousands started assembling in Anbar and other provinces to protest the arrest of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges it was only natural that he would try to appropriate them for his own gain. He did the exact same thing last year when far larger demonstrations swept Iraq.
At the beginning of 2011, demonstrations swept Iraq over the lack of services, corruption, and poor governance. On February 15, Sadr called for his own marches saying that they needed to stay peaceful. He said that Maliki was responsible for the lack of services, because he was the head of the country. This came after Sadr originally forbid his followers from participating in the protests. Then on February 23, he announced a national referendum on services and the protest movement, and said that there should be no more assemblies until the results were made public. This came just before organizers had called for a national day of protests on February 25. Sadr went on to say that he would hold his own protests in six months if the demands of the movement were not met. The poll was finished in March, and the results were unsurprising. It found that services were bad and the people were unhappy as a result. In the end, Sadr never had his followers join the protests, and he remained a strong supporter of Prime Minister Maliki despite the verbal jabs. It also overlooked the fact that Sadrists controlled key service ministries, including Public Works, Water, Housing, and Planning. What Sadr was trying to do, was just like he is attempting today, which is co-opt the protest movement. He wanted to show that he was attuned to what was happening in the street, and express his support for the people to score political points. At the same time, he never did anything for the protesters besides say a few words.
Moqtada al-Sadr is still in the process of converting his religious group and militia into a social and political movement. As part of this transformation he has hitched himself to Prime Minister Maliki, while trying to portray himself as a critic of the administration. That duality was shown in 2011 and this new year when Sadr came out in support of the protest movement, and criticized the premier for failing to meet the demands of the public. The fact that Sadr never had his followers come out into the streets, and remained a strong supporter of Maliki betrayed his true intentions. The cleric is simply trying to temporarily hitch his wagon to the demonstrators to maintain his populist image. He has no intention of helping them or actually turning on the prime minister right now. It is all a political show that will be maintained until the protests end, and Sadr has to focus upon more important matters like the 2013 provincial elections.
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