In February 2013, Foreign Affairs published an article, “Back in Black The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr” by Eli Sugarman and Omar al-Nidawi. It covered Moqtada al-Sadr’s attempt to transform himself from a militia leader to a politician. Sadr’s list did well in the 2010 elections, and he has been meeting with other political leaders, and challenged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki since then. Below is an interview with Omar al-Nidawi about his thoughts on Sadr’s attempt to remake himself.
Sadr has tried to change his image from a militia leader to a political leader in recent years by conducting meetings such as these with Iyad Allawi (Al Jazeera)
1. In the last few years Moqtada al-Sadr has gone through quite a transformation. After the 2003 invasion he was known as being a staunch opponent of the U.S. occupation, and a militia leader whose forces were responsible for much of the cleansing of Baghdad of Sunnis. In your article you wrote that Sadr bragged about being able to kill Sunnis during the civil war. Can you explain what he said and meant?
I think what Sadr meant at the time was that there was a growing Sunni militant threat and that he was ready to exterminate Sunnis if that was necessary. In the article we were referring to a specific remark Sadr made during the times of sectarian violence, and can be seen on YouTube, in which said that he was ready to kill the “Nawasib”, a term loosely used in Shiite literature to refer to Sunni Muslims, and that he had the religious cover to do so. Of course at that time there were also radical Sunni clerics who said the same about killing Shiite Muslims. Perhaps if you confront either side today they would claim that their rhetoric was directed only against Al-Qaeda or Iran’s agents, respectively and that they never wanted to harm ordinary Sunni or Shiite Iraqis. But we all know that in fact it was the ordinary innocent civilians who paid the highest price in that war.
2. Today Sadr is trying to transform his image into being a politician. In 2010, his Ahrar bloc did quite well winning 40 seats in parliament. Who would be his greatest rivals in the upcoming elections in April 2013 and the parliamentary vote in 2014?
Sadr is still competing exclusively for Shia votes. On the national level, in light of the decline of other Shia parties like Fadhila and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the latter also fragmented and its Badr wing is now aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the main competition will be Maliki’s Dawa party and its allies, including the political wing of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH). On the provincial level ISCI and Fadhila could still pose a challenge to Sadr in their traditional strongholds in the provinces of Najaf and Maysan, and to some extent Basra too.
3. After the 2010 vote, Sadr became the kingmaker in Iraqi politics when he threw his support behind Nouri al-Maliki allowing him to remain premier for a second term. Since then the two have had a rough relationship with Sadr often criticizing the prime minister’s rule. Has Sadr taken any substantive actions against Maliki or is he just taking verbal jabs at him?
I think Sadr’s decision to join with Massoud Barzani and Ayad Allawi in spring-summer 2012 in calling for a vote of no confidence against Maliki was more than just rhetoric. Sadr also worked with Iraqiya and the Kurds against Maliki in Parliament, including preventing Maliki from dissolving the Election Commission in late 2011, and passing a term-limiting bill in January that in theory prevents Maliki from running for office again.
4. What is Sadr attempting to achieve with these attacks upon the prime minister?
Sadr’s relationship with Maliki has always been turbulent and fraught with sharp shifts in attitudes from all-out armed confrontations to uneasy alliances. They don’t trust each other, and because they both seek to be #1 Maliki will continue to see Sadr as a threat, while Sadr will continue to view Maliki as an obstacle. I believe that Sadr sees in the current crisis between Maliki on one hand, and Iraqiya and Kurds on the other an opportunity to pile on the pressure and present himself and his party to Kurds and Sunnis as an alternative partner that can replace Maliki as the Shiite component in a new government.
5. Do you think such an alliance is possible given Sadr’s past militia activities, etc.?
I think it’s theoretically possible, but also quite unlikely. The three can try to work together and they might even be able to maintain a working alliance until the point Maliki is removed, which is quite a task, but beyond that point it will be very difficult for the Kurds, Sunnis and Sadrists to work together to form a new government. The problem here is that these three groups are united only by their mutual opposition to Maliki, but have very little in common aside from that. Each one of the three groups wants the help of other two to get rid of Maliki, but they are all quite suspicious, and have good reasons to be, of each other’s view of what the replacement should look like.
6. What has been Sadr’s position on the protests now occurring in Anbar, Salahaddin, Ninewa, Diyala, and parts of Baghdad, and how does it play into his larger political strategy?
Sadr has been cautiously supportive of the protests and Sunni demands. The expression of support is a typical ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ situation. Sadr couldn’t possibly care about Sunni prisoners or other forms of discrimination against Sunni provinces and their residents. Supporting the protests, however, gives Sadr a chance to find new, and unlikely allies against Maliki. Sadr has been cautious though, and had to politely object to some Sunni demands, particularly when it comes to the deBaathification and counter-terrorism laws. These are sensitive issues for his platform and constituency, and supporting Sunni demands in this area could be very damaging to his image among Iraq’s Shia.
7. Maliki took on Sadr in 2008 when he went after his militia in Basra, Maysan, and Baghdad. Do you think the premier could once again take on Sadr if he feels threatened by him?
I actually do not think Sadr can pose a military threat to Maliki at this stage. While Sadr’s militia shrank considerably since 2008, national security forces, which Maliki commands, have become substantially stronger and more capable.
8. Do you believe that Maliki is currently playing on the League of the Righteous to cut into Sadr’s base?
This appears to be one important purpose that relations with AAH serve. But encouraging AAH to join politics and lower its military profile also means Maliki and Iraq’s security forces have one less security threat to worry about.
9. Does Sadr think he has a chance to move up and join the marjaiya, the Najaf ayatollahs?
The succession process has standards and requirements that have been followed for centuries, and I doubt Sadr could compete for the top Ayatollah position that Ali Al-Sistani currently holds. For a cleric to assume this position he needs to be recognized by his peers and the public as the most knowledgeable. Sadr can challenge the mainstream establishment, but it would be very difficult for him to overtake it.
10. Ultimately, what is Sadr’s vision of how Iraq should look?
Sadr is a radical Shia Islamist, so for him Ideally Iraq would be a theocracy roughly similar to Iran’s in which he would have a role not so dissimilar to Khamenei’s. But since in reality this is very unlikely given Iraq’s demographics, Sadr would perhaps settle for a role similar to or slightly more robust than Hezbollah’s in Lebanon.
Sugarman, Eli and Al-Nidawi, Omar, “Back in Black The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr,” Foreign Affairs, 2/11/13