Moqtada Al-Sadr has moved into the center of Iraqi politics once again. His movement led a take over of the Green Zone in Baghdad demanding parliament approve a new technocratic cabinet. That threw the entire government into a tailspin, which could last for months. Both western and Iraqi papers have been full of articles trying to explain his strategy and tactics. To add to the debate is Michael David Clark of Darwin College, Cambridge who has been studying the Sadrist movement.
1. Western newspapers, politicians and analysts have been trying to analyze and characterize Moqtada al-Sadr since 2003. “Firebrand”, “mercurial”, “erratic”, etc. have all been used to describe him. What would be your best way to explain who he is as a political leader in Iraq?
I’d like to answer this question in two stages. Firstly, I think it is worth noting that Muqtada al-Sadr certainly is a significant political leader, but beyond that he sees himself and wishes to be seen as a religious and social leader too. In fact, this may even be more important to him than his political trajectory per se. We should recall his abstention from the Iraqi political scene on numerous occasions over the last few years, in part to protect his religious image and credentials, his continued religious study, and the way in which he seeks to depict himself through the Office of the Martyr Sadr to illustrate the importance of this holistic leadership role. In a sense, it is probably fair to say that he is for his followers a national leader figure. Secondly, the terms that you refer to in this question are very instructive as to the problem with Western analysis of Muqtada al-Sadr, which highlights another important point for our understanding of who he is as a political leader in Iraq. Terms like ‘mercurial’ and ‘erratic’ owe more to the analyst, in this case, than the subject himself. They indicate little awareness of the processes of change that Sadr, like all other political figures, has undergone over the years, due to changes around him, in his circumstances and in his movement. They also demonstrate a lack of understanding of his motivations and rationales. Two things are probably most vital here. The first is the difficulty that Western analysis faces when Sadr is at once deeply nationalistic, and also profoundly Shiite. It appears easier for Western analysts to take as sincere religious statements or to understand behavior that fits a religious mold, and to dismiss nationalistic statements or behavior as erratic. Yet, Sadr should be seen as a thoroughly nationalist figure. Evidence of this are his frequent alliances, dating back even to 2004 and the Fallujah insurgency, but particularly since 2011, but also the fact that he has denounced sectarianism in other militias, sought to curtail Iranian influence, had his supporters hoist the Iraqi flag, and uttered numerous statements on the importance of national identity if Iraq is to survive or thrive. Perhaps, then, understanding Sadr as a religio-nationalist would be a good start. The second thing is that Sadr has clearly developed over the years. When his father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was murdered in 1999, he was ill-prepared for leadership and his father’s lieutenants largely ran the show, with Ayatollah Kazim Hussayn al-Haeri providing religious legitimacy. When the US and its allies invaded in 2003, he sought to re-assert his hereditary claim to the leadership, provoking splits first with erstwhile colleagues such as Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi and Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. This two perhaps represented various strands of thought, or political doctrine; pragmatism in the case of the former and extremist nationalism in the case of the latter. This left the more Islamist component dominant among Muqtada al-Sadr’s advisors until the split with Qays al-Khazali, Akram al-Kabi and others in 2008, after much wrangling. After this point, we saw Sadr withdraw to pursue his religious studies. But upon his return from Qum in 2011, we witnessed the emergence of an older, wiser and more savvy Sadr, clearly committed to inter- and intra-sectarian national dialogue, and with a clear programme for Iraq. Like all other political leaders, Sadr has developed over the years, learning from experience, and following his exposure to or the absence of certain advisory influences.
2. Sadr presented himself as one of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s main backers. He constantly demanded that parliament approve a new technocratic cabinet offered by the premier. He used the protest movement to pressure the politicians, first joining in the weekly Friday marches, and then starting a sit in outside of the Green Zone, climaxing with taking over the government complex. What is your interpretation of Sadr’s strategy behind these moves?
I think Sadr sees his country as being at a crucial point now, a historical juncture in the direction of the ‘new Iraq’. This is because it is at once embroiled in the fight against ISIS and also seemingly evermore falling under the sway of Tehran. In short, I think that Sadr perceives that now is the moment to fight for the soul of Iraq, and in particular its self-determination and sovereignty. It is at a particularly weak point, but perhaps this represents an opportunity to ‘break and re-make’. The question is whether this represents his strategy or a tactic? It is a tactical and judicious intervention at an opportune moment in Iraq’s political history. It is probably with the strategic intention of guiding a susceptible Iraq to reform in the image that he wishes for it, which would be largely populist and nationalistic, with strong religious overtones.
3. Immediately after the Sadrists took over the Green Zone it was reported that he would go to Iran for two months. Some took that as Sadr having to appear before Tehran who was displeased with his actions. Others thought taking over the Green Zone was Sadr’s ultimate act and had nothing to follow it up with afterward. What do you think about this turn of events?
This is not without precedent. We should recall Sadr’s sojourn in Qum between 2008 and 2011, or his ‘retirement’ in 2015. I think that he likes to see himself as a sage religious figure who stages the above mentioned judicious interventions at opportune moments. In short, to maintain the image of a holistic religious, social and political leader that he has cultivated, he cannot be permanently at politics. He must ‘dip’ in and out, focusing primarily on his religious studies and duties in the meantime. After all, these are largely the source of his legitimacy. Yet, he can ‘return’ from these when Iraq ‘needs’ him (as he sees it). This form of intermittent political activism should be compared against Ayatollah Sistani’s more quiescent approach.
4. Sadr’s actions have thrown the Iraqi government into complete paralysis. Parliament is split into various factions with some refusing to show up, others trying to form an opposition bloc, etc. There is no sign when this will end. Was this Sadr’s ultimate goal, and if so what was to be achieved by that? Or conversely was Sadr just thinking short term about pressuring the political class and didn’t contemplate the repercussions?
Here, I would ask whether it was because of Sadr’s actions that parliament is split into various deadlocked factions, or even that have rendered Iraqi politics a seemingly impossible quagmire. One could very well argue that this was already largely the case, and that Sadr’s actions are a symptom, not in any way a cause, of this. Moreover, that being the case, the question arises as to what the alternative was. It did not seem that the political class was ever going to resolve the issues of rampant corruption and the inherent problems in the ta’ifi system. Playing Devil’s advocate for one moment, should the citizenry and Sadr have accepted that Prime Minister al-Abadi be stymied by an Iranian influenced bloc loyal to the disgraced former prime minster (al-Maliki)? And even if they had, it seems extremely likely that Iraqi politics would still have been paralyzed, due to the systemic problems alluded to above. In short, I think that Sadr felt that there was little other alternative. It may not have been a thoroughly well thought out plan, but more a reaction to events. That said, I do not think that disruption is his ultimate goal. Sadr wants what is best, in his view, for Iraq, as explained above. It is probably more the case that this highlights his naivety; he clearly has still much left to learn as a political leader. This means that it is likely the case that Sadr was indeed just thinking short term about pressuring the political class and didn’t contemplate the repercussions. However, we should note that the saga is far from over yet; it may be from his next moves that more light can be shed on exactly how astute a political leader he has come to be.