As Iraq’s elections draw nearer Moqtada al-Sadr and his movement are going in opposite directions. On the one hand his movement is continuing with its attacks upon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For the first time it appears that Sadr is serious about challenging the premier this year. On the other hand his party appears to be in disarray. It is running three separate lists and the recently created Board of Trustees that was supposed to take care of politics after Sadr’s retirement has been disbanded. This is an inauspicious start to the official campaign period before the vote.
In March and April the Sadr movement continued to criticize Prime Minister Maliki. From March 10 to 12 Sadrists held rallies in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Basra, Kirkuk, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Babil, Wasit, and Diyala against the premier for his remarks belittling Moqtada al-Sadr. There were also reports of attacks upon Dawa offices, which were played down by both parties so that the election didn’t get sidetracked by violence. March 23, Sadr’s Ahrar List said it opposed Maliki serving a third term, stating that other parties and the Iraqi people wanted change. It went on to say that Maliki had failed to secure the country or to provide political stability. Continuing with that line on April 3 Sadr gave a speech calling Maliki a dictator who was leading the country towards one party rule by banning his opponents. Sadr was joined by parliamentarian Jawad Shahlya from Ahrar and independent lawmaker Saban al-Saadi, both of which had been barred from running in this year’s vote. Sadr went on to accuse the prime minister of attempting to marginalize Sunnis by launching military operations in Anbar. Sadr finished by calling on Maliki to step aside so someone else could try running the country. Finally, on April 5 Shahlya claimed Maliki was attempting to pass a law that would give him broad powers that would lead to the declaration of a state of emergency and the dissolution of the parliament. Many of these themes the Sadr movement has touched on before. Sadr has called Maliki an autocrat and challenged his rule. Other points like Shahlya’s criticism of the proposed law were cheap political posturing as there was little chance that the legislature would pass any bill like that before the elections. The Sadrists were also using this period to rally its followers with the demonstrations. The party is one of the few that has a popular base that can be called out into the streets. The intensity of the campaign against the prime minister was also highlighted by the attacks upon his party’s offices.
At the same time, the Sadr movement appeared to be going through a bit of organizational confusion. On April 5 the Sadrists officially launched their election campaign. Rather than just running its Ahrar bloc it said that would have two others lists in the race as well, the Elites and the National Partnership. Then on April 7 the Board of Trustees headed by Karrar Khafaji, which was supposed to run the political party after Sadr’s retirement on February 15 was dissolved. The Sadrists have run multiple parties in previous elections, but Ahrar has been established and run alone in recent votes. Although the movement has a strong machine with its offices and social services, which should get out the word about what lists to cast ballots for, adding two more parties to the mix just looks to be muddying the waters. The dissolution of the Board of Trustees ends the myth that Sadr retired. He is probably taking a more hands on leadership role now that the elections are just a few weeks away, and there was no need to keep up the façade of a separate group running things. Still, both moves were sending the wrong message at this crucial time. First, the movement is splitting its resources across three parties instead of just one. Second, everyone knows that Sadr maintains control over his movement, but the quick creation and dissolution of the Board of Trustees points towards short-term thinking and a lack of strategic planning. It also maintains Sadr’s mercurial image, which goes against his attempt to become a national leader.
Sadr believes that the conditions are finally right to depose Maliki from office. His movement has been building up its criticism of the prime minister for the last several years. Before Sadr would attack the premier, and then go back to supporting him. Now the gloves are off and Ahrar wants to stop Maliki from a 3rd term. Given the seriousness of this effort it’s surprising that the Trend would be making so many mistakes at the same time. Running three parties and getting rid of the Board of Trustees so soon after it was created show poor decision-making. In the end, Sadr probably believes that his base will come out and vote for his representatives no matter what, and then the real game will begin when he has to negotiate with other parties to try to put together a coalition that will depose the prime minister.
Al Arabiya, “Sadr urges Iraqi PM Maliki not to run for third term,” 4/3/14
Buratha News, “Muqtada al-Sadr supports the Liberals and confirms they will be on top this year and will be the voice of the Shiite,” 4/3/14
Iraq Team and Ali, Ahmed, “Iraq Update 2014 #13: Sadrists Challenge Prime Minister Maliki before Iraqi Elections,” Institute for the Study of War, 3/21/14
Iraq Times, “Liberal confirm its rejection of Maliki’s nomination for a third term,” 3/23/14
Al Mada, “Liberal bloc launches its election manifesto declares hope for formation of a majority government consisting of everyone,” 4/5/14
National Iraqi News Agency, “Muqtada al-Sadr : the government seeks to target the true opposition,” 3/21/14
- “Sadr, decides to dissolve the Board of Trustees of Sadrist movement,” 4/7/14
Sabah, Mohammed, “Liberals: We fear al-Maliki will dissolve the parliament and declare a state of emergency, taking advantage of the absence of the President,” Al Mada, 4/5/14