Sadr ordered his blue hats to withdraw from the protest sites, then return and attack the activists and then withdraw again and disband in just 18 days (AFP)
One of the adjectives often used to describe Moqtada al-Sadr is mercurial, meaning to make sudden and unlikely changes. That has been shown more than ever in the last few weeks as he has flip and flopped and flipped again in his stance towards Iraq’s protest movement.
On February 11 Sadr announced that he was disbanding the blue hats. These were Sadrists who had joined the protests and provided an irregular security force for them until recently. No reason was given, but this happened after a public outcry occurred when the blue hats attacked and killed protesters in several cities. That included Mohammed Allawi the prime minister designate threatening to turn down the job if the violence continued.
This was the latest in Sadr’s dramatic swings regarding the demonstrations. On January 24 Sadr held an anti-U.S. protest in Baghdad and withdrew support for the protests. They then came under a series of deadly attacks by the security forces. Then suddenly on January 31 Sadr called for his people to return to the protests. This was not a peaceful reunion as the blue hats started assaulting the activists. On February 2 for instance, four people were shot and another stabbed and killed in Babil’s provincial capital of Hilla. Then on February 5, the blue hats attacked the sit-in square in Najaf, burned tents, another 11 died, and 122 were wounded. Just as suddenly, the next day Sadr withdrew his people from the demonstrations and put out an 18 point platform that the activists were supposed to follow. That included not blocking roads, ending the school boycott, not violating private property, not attacking the security forces, not being involved in any politics other than protesting, amongst other things. This was followed by his delegates going to the protest squares and holding talks. Sadr thus went from pulling his backing and allowing the government to go after the protests, to having his people assault the activists, to withdrawing his blue hats, and now disbanding them all in the span of 18 days. This sets a new record for the young cleric to be unpredictable.
The question now is why Sadr kept changing his position and where does it leave him now? The initial move to say he was no longer with the protests was due to a deal with Iran. It and Hezbollah had negotiated with Sadr and its allies in the Hashd and political parties to have Sadr be the main representative for Tehran after the deaths of Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander General Suleimani and the deputy head of the Hashd Commission Abu Muhandis. That included putting an end to the protests that threatened the Iraqi government and called for an end to Iran’s influence. The Iraqi parties were too fractious however and the agreement quickly fell apart, which led Sadr to shift course and head back to the sit-ins. The day before Sadr had backed Mohammed Allawi to become the new premier however, which the street widely rejected. Having the blue hats attack the activists might have been an attempt to beat them into submission and support Allawi, but that failed. Finally, the blue hats’ bloody attacks were condemned by many sectors including the religious establishment and Allawi, which might have led Sadr to back off. Of course, Sadr is not one for being subtle and he decided to disband the blue hats. That doesn’t mean his people will still not be amongst the demonstrations, and could still be a threat to them. Most importantly Sadr has made so many flip flops in such a short period of time it has hurt his credibility as one of Iraq’s main leaders. He has a reputation for being difficult and unpredictable, but this took that to a whole different level. There are reports that Iran is still trying to mend fences amongst the major Shiite leaders including Sadr. How can anyone trust anything him after this display?
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqi officials: At least 8 shot dead in southern Iraq,” Associated Press, 2/5/20
AIN, “Al-Sadr’s military advisor vows to withdraw the blue hats from the demonstration grounds and apologizes to the attackers,” 2/8/20
Al Arabiya, “Iraqi protester stabbed to death in clash between rival camps,” 2/3/20
Al Forat, “High casualties of the demonstrators in Najaf and news of anti-terrorism assuming security in the province,” 2/6/20
Al Ghad Press, “Groups of the Sadrist movement suppress a rally rejecting Mohammed Allawi’s assignment in Tahrir Square,” 2/1/20
Ghafuri, Lawk, “Sadr disbands ‘blue hats’, calls for independent government,” Rudaw, 2/11/20
Al Hurra, “After the Hollywood movie video comment .. Sadr’s deputy admits what happened in Najaf,” 2/8/20
- “Allawi calls on the resigned government to protect demonstrators in Najaf,” 2/5/20
- “Coinciding with Allawi’s announcement .. Sadr supporters control the Turkish restaurant,” 2/1/20
- “Video .. crying and blood and panic in hospitals in Najaf after the bloody night,” 2/6/20
- “Why did the sayid take off his blue caps?” 2/11/20
Al Mada, “Sadr is retreating and his adviser fails to persuade the sit-ins of the prime minister designate,” 2/8/20
NINA, “4 Protesters Injured As A Result Of A Clash With The Blue Has Wearers In Hilla,” 2/3/20
Rudaw, “Sadr’s ‘blue hats’ clash with protesters in Najaf,” 2/5/20
Rwanduzy, Mohammed, “Iraqi PM-designate threatens to quit after Najaf protester killings,” 2/7/20
Sotaliraq, “Al-Sadr withdraws blue hats from the squares and announces the reform revolution charter,” 2/8/20