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Will Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr end his political quarantine?

Will Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr end his political quarantine?
7 min read
10 April, 2024
Analysis: Amid the complexity of Iraqi politics, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is stirring anticipation with a potential return to the fold.
Shiite and non-Shiite forces alike are either awaiting or indirectly pushing al-Sadr to reassert his previous demand for early elections. [Getty]

In the intricate landscape of Iraqi politics, few figures have commanded as much attention and speculation as Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential leader of the Sadr movement.

Recently, signs have emerged indicating al-Sadr's return to the political forefront after a period of strategic withdrawal.

Muqtada al-Sadr has a history of engaging in Iraqi politics, withdrawing, and then re-entering the scene. His influence stems from both his family's historical significance in Shia Islam and his ability to mobilise support among marginalised communities.

This possible resurgence holds significant implications not only for Iraq's internal dynamics but also for regional stability.

In an unexpected step on 18 March, Sadr visited Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at his house in the holy city of Najaf. Although there were no official statements on the contents of their conversation, some Iraqi sources said that the latter had given the green light for Sadr to return to the Iraqi political arena.

Moreover, Sadr has taken several steps since the visit that might be indicators of his possible return to politics, including reactivating his parliamentary bloc after he had frozen it following his "quitting politics" strategy.

He also instructed his Saraya al-Salam militia to be vigilant and activated a special institution tasked with reaching out to the public.

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'Firebreak for Iran'

“Muqtada al-Sadr owns significant religious and popular influences, and his return or boycotting politics is related to Iran’s agendas in Iraq. Sadr is implementing the other side of Iran’s policies in Iraq,” Bahrooz Jaafar, a Kurdish political and economics scholar, told The New Arab.

“Whenever Iran’s influence in Iraq is endangered, Sadr resurges into Iraq’s political arena and rescues Tehran’s goals. Currently, Iran’s influence in Iraq is represented by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister and head of the state of law coalition,” Jaafar added.

“Whenever Maliki’s position is at stake, Sadr is a ready alternative. Hence, Sadr’s role is like a firebreak for safeguarding Iran’s politics in Iraq.”

Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Iraq by late 2025. However, some Iraqi politicians have called for holding an early vote in the country. 

Shia and non-Shia forces alike are either awaiting or indirectly pushing al-Sadr to reassert his previous demand for early elections, as has been his custom in the past two years.

Al-Sadr's possible resurgence holds significant implications not only for Iraq's internal dynamics but also for regional stability. [Getty]

Mohammed al-Halbousi, the ousted parliament speaker and the leader of the Progress Party, recently said he might "withdraw from the political process" if the political agreement with the Coordination Framework (CF) is sidestepped.

"I am in favour of early elections if al-Sadr requests it," al-Halbousi told an Iraqi television channel.

A well-informed Iraqi source told The New Arab that there are negotiations between Sadr and al-Maliki with a focus on Sadr's return to the Iraqi political scene. 

Maliki’s motivation is to limit the possibility that Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani will win a second term if he decides to participate in the upcoming elections with his electoral list.

Maliki recently expressed his concerns openly and said if al-Sudani wants to participate in the elections, he should resign six months before. He hinted that Sudani should not exploit public funds, and his cabinet’s achievements, for personal electoral campaigning.

Approaching Iran 

The Coordination Framework (CF), an alliance of Iran-backed Shia blocs and political parties, supported Sudani in October 2022 for Iraq’s premiership. He also enjoyed support from the Coalition for the Administration of the State, an amalgamation of influential pro-Iran Shia factions and Sunni and Kurdish forces. 

The CF is currently experiencing widespread divisions, with an increasing number of political forces and figures pledging support for Sudani and turning their backs on Maliki.

Najah Muhmmed Ali, an Iraqi political observer with close ties to Iran, told Ahmed Mullah Talal's current affairs program on Iraqi UTV that Sadr’s possible return to the Iraqi political process does not necessarily mean his participation in any early parliamentary elections.

He claimed that Sadr has recently been in touch with senior Iranian officials and the nature of the rapprochement is linked to international and regional power dynamics, especially the relationship between Iran and the United States in Iraq.

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In the early election held on 10 October 2021, Sadr emerged victorious, securing 73 seats. He pledged to establish a "national majority" government in collaboration with several Sunni and Kurdish blocs, indicating disagreements with other Shia blocs aligned with Iran.

However, failing to fulfil his promise, Sadr instructed lawmakers from his bloc to resign, which they duly did on 12 June 2021. 

Consequently, Iraq's capital turned into a battlefield as clashes erupted between militias loyal to Sadr and Iran-backed factions. As a result, at least 30 individuals were killed, and over 180 others sustained injuries. Then, Sadr surprisingly announced his "retirement" from Iraqi politics and has served since then as a cleric. 

The move allowed the Coordination Framework to replace al-Sadr's MPs with their representatives, thereby becoming the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

Following over a year of political deadlock, the Iraqi parliament approved a new consensus government on 28 October 2022, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sudani. 

Sudani has committed to organising early general elections "within a year," combating corruption, fostering economic growth, and addressing issues of poverty and unemployment.

Al-Sadr's decision to step back from active political engagement was not arbitrary but a calculated move in response to internal and external pressures. Facing setbacks and challenges within the Shia political spectrum, including confrontations with rival Shia factions, al-Sadr opted for a strategic retreat to reassess and recalibrate his approach.

Al-Sadr's decision to step back from active political engagement was not arbitrary but a calculated move in response to internal and external pressures. [Getty]

Assessing al-Sadr's return

“Al-Sadr does not easily agree to return to the political arena once again. This time, if he decides to return, and many see it as an imminent return, he will not do so until he fully ensures a genuine will to implement the conditions that he has been absent from the scene,” Iraqi political observer Kadhim Al-Juhaishi told The New Arab.

However, recent developments suggest that al-Sadr is preparing to reassert his influence with renewed vigour. Through subtle signals and strategic manoeuvres, such as mobilising his grassroots support base and realigning with former allies, al-Sadr is laying the groundwork for a comeback.

This resurgence is not merely symbolic but carries tangible implications for Iraq's political landscape.

Central to al-Sadr's resurgence strategy is his preparation for the upcoming parliamentary elections. By positioning himself as a formidable contender, al-Sadr aims to secure a decisive victory that would not only consolidate his political power but also shape the trajectory of Iraqi governance.

His ability to mobilise popular support and navigate coalition dynamics will be crucial in determining the outcome of these elections. Al-Sadr's political resurgence does not occur in isolation but within the broader context of regional geopolitics.

As Iraq seeks to navigate complex regional dynamics, including tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbours, al-Sadr's role becomes increasingly significant. His ability to balance domestic imperatives with regional interests will shape Iraq's stance on critical issues, including its relationship with Iran and its neighbours. 

Despite his resurgence, al-Sadr faces formidable challenges on multiple fronts. Internal divisions within the Shia political spectrum, competition from rival factions, and the broader context of regional instability pose significant obstacles to his political ambitions.

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Additionally, navigating Iraq's complex ethno-sectarian dynamics and addressing the aspirations of diverse constituencies will require astute leadership and strategic acumen.

Muqtada al-Sadr's impending return to the political arena could herald a new chapter in Iraq's complex political saga. As he seeks to reclaim his position as a key player in Iraqi politics, al-Sadr's resurgence holds both promise and peril. 

How he navigates the challenges ahead will not only shape the future of Iraq but also reverberate across the broader Middle East region.

As the countdown to the parliamentary elections begins, all eyes are on al-Sadr as he embarks on his quest for political redemption and relevance in a rapidly evolving landscape.

Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's Iraq Correspondent, writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy