In August 2013, Iraq’s mercurial Moqtada al-Sadr said that he was quitting politics. His movement at first claimed that this was a distortion by the media, and that their leader was simply taking a break after Ramadan. That story quickly changed as hundreds of his followers and militiamen pledged their allegiance, and begged that he return. This appears to just be a ploy by Sadr to rally his forces, and deal with factions that might have been considering breaking away.
Letter to Sadr signed by his militia commanders pledging their support with their bloody thumbprints (Al-Mada)
Sadr’s movement seemed unsure of their leaders’ status at first, but then turned it into a rallying point. At the beginning of August, it was announced that Sadr was withdrawing from politics. That story was then denied. It was said that Moqtada was simply upset with the security situation, and his conflict with the League of the Righteous, a rival Shiite party, and taking a break as a result. Then it was revealed that Sadr was in Qom, Iran where his followers visited him with a letter signed in blood by his militia leaders pledging their allegiance. A few days later hundreds of Sadrists rallied in Najaf to renew their support for Moqtada as well. They called for him to reverse his decision, and return to the national stage. Before this, Sadr was complaining that people were tarnishing his group’s image, and collecting money for their own benefit. This was a theme that he had been pushing for several months, and resulted in him creating a special committee led by Hazim Araji to reform his militia. In July, Sadr warned that the name of the Mahdi Army was being exploited, and that factions might be contemplating breaking away. Then in just a few days, he froze the commission with little explanation. The Sadr Trend has always been a fractious group. His militia especially was never under central control rather comprising local armed groups with little coordination. Pats of his political movement have also broken off throughout the years. Apparently, Sadr was facing another such situation, and felt frustrated at his inability to deal with it; hence the formation and quick suspension of the Araji led commission. This might have then led him to claim that he was pulling out of politics, and retiring to Iran as a way to rally his supporters, and find out who was truly with him. Some have also speculated that Sadr might have bowed out due to clashes with the League of the Righteous, which is vying for the mantle of being the true legacy of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father. However, there have been shootouts, assassinations, and confrontations between the groups for months now, and there didn’t appear to be any large escalation before Sadr’s announcement. Internal problems within the Trend appear to be a more plausible explanation for his course of action.
Moqtada al-Sadr is coming off a high point after the 2013 provincial elections, and now may want to enforce some order throughout his large and fractious movement. His party was not only able to gain seats in local governments this year, but posed a serious challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law. Since then his followers have become more and more confrontational and critical of the premier. Then it was announced that Sadr was withdrawing from politics, which at first was denied, but then became a huge issue within the organization. With a national vote pending next year, perhaps Sadr thought this was the time to get his house in order, and deal with whatever groups were not following his orders. His tactic has succeeded in getting his forces riled up with their acts of devotion towards him. This will probably lead to a staged return where Sadr will assure everyone that he is now back, but more importantly, he is reassured of his command over his movement.
Alsumaria, “Moqtada As Sader quits Iraqi politics and closes down his office,” 8/5/13
Bezhan, Frud, “Reports Of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Political Demise May Be Greatly Exaggerated,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8/19/13
Buratha News, “Sadr freezes Commission Hazem al-Araji, and demanding leader of the
Dar Addustour, “Violent clashes between the Mahdi Army and Asaib,” 8/3/13
Al-Mada, “Araji: We want to restore prestige to the Mahdi Army in the street through the cultural and ideological work,” 7/23/13
- “Sadr accused “the people of falsehood” of trying to assassinate al-Araji, and declared three days of mourning,” 6/3/13
- “Sadrists “renew their allegiance” to their leader and they call to reverse retire from politics,” 8/20/13
- “Tensions between the Sadrists and Asaib worry neighborhoods of Baghdad and al-Khazali and clings to the truce,” 6/11/13
National Iraqi News Agency, “Sadr condemns clashes between his supporters and / Ahlil-Haq militia/in Baghdad,” 6/3/13
New Sabah, “Sadr solemn assembly a “threat” addressed to the Government,” 8/6/13
Al Rafidayn, “Sadr’s Mahdi Army: Be ready to support the doctrine,” 7/21/13
Sotaliraq, “Mahdi Army Leaders “blood” loyalty and obedience,” 8/17/13
Ur News Agency, “War fires between Asaib and the Sadrists,” 7/4/13