Moqtada al-Sadr made another dramatic swing in direction. On January 24, Sadr held a rally in Baghdad against the U.S. presence in Iraq and told his followers to withdraw from the protests sites. The next day government forces began attacks on protest camps across the country with deadly results. Sadr had been supporting the demonstrations since their start in October, but reportedly abandoned them in return for Iranian backing. That deal fell apart, and Sadr reversed himself and is now trying to rejoin the protests. This is one of the biggest and quickest flip flops in Sadr’s career.
Al Aalem ran two stories that gave background to Sadr’s back and forth. First, it reported that Iran was changing its Iraq policy after the death of Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani. There was a meeting of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, intelligence service, the Foreign Ministry, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah that decided that Tehran would back Sadr in an attempt to remove the U.S. presence from Iraq. This led to Sadr meeting with various Hashd leaders in Qom, Iran where he resides and they agreed on a united front against the Americans. The next day he called for a million people to rally against the foreign military presence. This arrangement quickly fell apart. By January 28, Al Aalem said that pro-Iran groups could not agree with Sadr on who would be the next premier and who would replace Abu Muhandis, who was killed along with General Suleimani, as the deputy head of the Hashd Commission. The Iraqi groups aligned with Iran have always been fractious, and this was another example. The absence of Suleimani and Muhandis to rally them was an added problem. Three days after the Al Aalem piece Sadr called for his followers to head back to the protest sites. Sadr has a complicated history with Iran. While he complains about their interference in Iraq, he has always accepted their support at the same time. He is also living in Qom to not only pursue his religious studies, but because he fears assassination by some of the groups Tehran backs. He appeared to be extremely opportunistic to accept their backing this time around in lieu of the deaths of Suleimani and Muhandis.
Sadr is acting as if the protest movement will now forgive and forget his betrayal. This will be hard to do as government forces brutally attacked the sit in sites after Sadr’s announcement on January 24. Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the crackdown which included burning down tents, firing live ammunition at crowds, and an arrest campaign across Baghdad, Basra, and Dhi Qar. There were additional assaults upon the protest squares in Najaf and Karbala not included in the report. At least 12 people lost their lives as a result. Initially there was no response by the protesters about the Sadrist return, but it will be interesting to see what they have to say. It seems like Sadr would have no chance to rejoin them, but Iraqi politics is always messy and complicated.
Al-Aalem, “A coup in Iran’s policy towards Iraq: Sadr is a last resort to confront the United States,” 1/20/20
- “Has the Iranian decision at Qom meeting between Sadr and the factions collapsed?” 1/28/20
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Authorities Violently Remove Protesters,” 1/31/20
NINA, “Followers Of The Sadrist Movement Flock To Tahrir Square Again,” 1/31/20b