Moqtada al-Sadr is attempting to become the pre-eminent party boss in Iraqi politics. After years of trying he finally co-opted the anti-corruption protest movement in Baghdad. That culminated in his followers temporarily taking over the Green Zone in the heart of the capital during the weekend. He has also become one of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s only supporters as he attempts to push through his reform package for the government. As Sadr has done before he wants to turn his pull with the Iraqi street into political power by dictating terms to the prime minister and threatening the other elites with future demonstrations if they do not comply.
Moqtada al-Sadr was able to take over the protest movement in Iraq to push his agenda. The latest demonstrations started in 2015. As usual they demanded an end to corruption, better services like electricity, and political reform. Sadr first called out his followers to join them in August. He then attempted to gain credibility with the masses by ordering his deputy premier Bahaa al-Araji to resign his position when Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced that he was dismissing his deputies to save money. Then in February 2016 Sadr announced his own reform program that included a new non-partisan, technocratic cabinet like the one the prime minister suggested. He then gave Abadi a 45 day deadline to enact change. In the meantime he would hold more demonstrations. By March his people started a sit-in outside the Green Zone, culminating in Sadr himself walking into that sector and having his own personal protest. Finally, on April 30 Sadrists led crowds into the Green Zone occupying the area for the weekend. There were all kinds of complaints by Iraqi politicians against these actions, calling it mob rule to claiming it was the end of the post-2003 political order. Similar views were expressed in the foreign press. Mob rule might be the closest of those evaluations. Sadr has tried to take over these demonstrations unsuccessfully for years now. In 2016, he finally succeeded. His followers were able to co-opt the protesters’ and then impose his demands. He can now use them to threaten and intimidate the other ruling elite. That’s exactly what the march through the Green Zone was meant to do. Sadr did not want to overthrow the governing system as some claimed, but control it instead.
Sadr has also thrown around his weight in parliament and with Prime Minister Abadi. First, as Abadi pushed his reform package the other parties that backed him began peeling away, while Sadr’s Ahrar bloc remained with him. At the same time, the Sadrists became increasingly critical of the premier. For example, in November 2015 and January 2016 the bloc complained that Abadi wasn’t pushing hard enough on his changes. In February, a Sadr spokesman claimed the prime minister had missed a great opportunity to reform the government. Later that month the movement threatened to withdraw their support for Abadi if he didn’t move forward with his program, followed by remarks about a no confidence vote against him. Sadr then created a committee, which came up with 90 nominations for Abadi’s new cabinet. Finally, when the PM got his ministerial candidates before parliament in April the Sadrist MPs joined a sit in protest, which attempted to dismiss Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Jabouri, a strong ally of Abadi. Sadr then pulled his members and said the demonstrations should end so they could vote on Abadi’s ministers. All of these moves highlighted Sadr’s attempts to become the new boss in Iraqi politics. He wasn’t just satisfied with being a backer of the premier, he wanted to dictate the terms of his reform package using threats, protests, and jabs. His move to join the protesting MPs who tried to vote out Speaker Jabouri was meant to cut Abadi’s allies so that he would become more dependent upon Sadr. Just as the protests outside and eventually inside the Green Zone were meant to pressure the premier’s actions, Sadr’s machinations within the government were meant to strong arm Abadi to comply with Moqtada’s demands.
It is unclear what will become of Sadr’s strategy. Abadi’s attempt to take the ministries away from the ruling parties has angered almost everyone. That has fractured the dominate Shiite National Alliance with Dawa splitting between pro-Abadi and pro-Maliki factions, and the Supreme Council abandoning the PM. Again that is part of Sadr’s plans to make Ahrar the only bloc that Abadi can rely upon outside of his own Dawa members. On the other hand, the political discord makes it almost impossible to get anything through parliament, which is necessary to change the government. Sadr’s coercive methods must also be trying on Abadi’s nerves. In the end, Sadr could just be adding to the dysfunction in Baghdad, which would undermine his goal of becoming the kingmaker as paralysis will ensure rather than any meaningful change.
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