Back in Black: The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr
Iraq’s nascent democracy faces a new dilemma: whether or not to embrace the political comeback of a former militia leader. Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric, has launched a public relations campaign, rebranding himself as a voice of sectarian harmony. Should Iraqis welcome Sadr with open arms, or be wary of his new persona?
Sadr first made a name for himself as an erratic demagogue who stoked sectarian fighting and helped bring Iraq’s young democracy to its knees. From 2003 to 2008, Sadr’s Mahdi Army took up arms against successive Iraqi governments and committed widespread atrocities against the country’s Sunni minority, in addition to targeting U.S. installations and personnel until American forces left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Then, last spring, he abruptly changed course, and he has spent the past year reforming his image and serving as a voice of moderation in Iraq. Sadr now openly decries violence, advocates the peaceful resolution of Iraq’s political disputes, and prays with religious leaders from other faiths and sects.
On the one hand, Sadr’s new tune could reflect his genuine maturation and a newfound desire to play a positive role in Iraq’s dysfunctional political system; on the other hand, it could be just a new tactic to expand his influence and power. Either way, the more Sadr can convince Iraqis — disenfranchised Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis alike — that he is a reliable and moderate partner, the more power he will accrue at the expense of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds face a tough choice, because working with Sadr could lead to two very different outcomes. Joining him to challenge Maliki could perhaps promote a more inclusive political process, but it could also re-empower the rule of sectarian militias. The key for Iraqis is to vet the new Sadr carefully and insist that he backs his sweetened rhetoric with concrete actions.
THE PRODIGAL SON RETURNS
Sadr hails from a family of distinguished clerics with a long history of political activism. Both his uncle, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a prominent religious philosopher, and his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a senior cleric, were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government. Sadr himself first appeared on the political stage in the summer of 2003. His oratory, which drew upon hate speech and conspiracy theories, resonated with disenfranchised Shia, who quickly became his base of support.
Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army — along with Sunni counterparts in al Qaeda — was responsible for much of the sectarian bloodletting that plagued Iraq from 2005 to 2008. The Mahdi Army terrorized large parts of Iraq’s center and south, and it pursued bloody purges of Sunni neighborhoods throughout Baghdad. During this period, Sadr did not hide his views or actions. Indeed, he was once recorded bragging about his ability to kill Sunnis under religious cover provided by Shia clerics. Between 2006 and 2008, he openly challenged Maliki’s government for control of Basra, Karbala, Maysan, and several neighborhoods in Baghdad, thereby precipitating a large-scale military confrontation with the government. His offensive was ultimately unsuccessful.
Anticipating defeat following the United States’ implementation of the “surge” strategy in 2007, Sadr left for Iran and stayed there for four years in self-imposed exile. Sadr’s relations with Maliki have oscillated more than once between direct military confrontation and close political cooperation. He returned to Iraq in early 2011 with a newfound confidence, following elections in which his faction won an impressive 40 seats in the new parliament. Upon returning, Sadr maintained a defiant tone and sought to leverage his sway in the parliament to force the appointment of a weak and malleable prime minister. But Maliki’s persistence, coupled with Iran’s fear of fracturing the Shia alliance in Iraq, compelled Sadr to grudgingly help Maliki win a second term in office. Without Sadr’s support, Maliki would have lost the premiership. Sadr proceeded to transform his party into the linchpin of Maliki’s coalition government, thereby challenging the Kurdish parties as the kingmaker in Baghdad.
But Sadr has not had an easy time influencing Maliki. On the contrary, Maliki has used his new term to splinter the Sunni opposition, marginalize the Kurds, and otherwise consolidate his power. To do so, the prime minister has combined threats and a selective application of the law against his opponents, including a politically motivated show trial for terrorism charges against former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni. Meanwhile, Maliki also pushed aside Sadr and the various Shia parties. Together, these developments generated a backlash against the prime minister and complaints of a new dictatorship taking root in Baghdad.
A MODERATE MAKEOVER
Against this backdrop, Sadr began to change his stripes. In 2012, he started by distancing himself from Iran, deflecting blame for previous sectarian violence onto other Iran-backed groups, particularly Asaib Ahl al-Haq — a Mahdi Army splinter group that broke away and supported Maliki. Last April, Sadr publically joined the president of Kurdistan’s regional government, Massoud Barzani, and the leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition, Ayad Allawi, to denounce Maliki’s policies as autocratic and demand a vote of no confidence against the prime minister. He was explicit about his reasons for doing so, saying: “[T]he acts of marginalization . . . and politicizing the judiciary . . . lead to a dictatorship [and] . . . using the armed forces or the judiciary to eliminate [opponents] are two sides of the same coin.”
In December 2012, Sadr again demonstrated his new stance. That month, several Sunni-majority provinces erupted in protest against perceived injustices inflicted by Maliki’s government. Sadr rushed to lend his support to the protesters — who hailed from the very same communities that his militia had butchered in previous years — and endorsed nearly all of their demands. He even went so far as to make a very rare public appearance in which he prayed alongside Sunni clerics in one of Baghdad’s landmark Sunni mosques, and he subsequently paid a visit to one of Baghdad’s churches that was targeted in a deadly attack in 2010.
He now frequently issues written statements that are much more tolerant toward non-Shia and, arguably, quite reasonable. “[Y]ou cannot fight sectarianism with more sectarianism,” he wrote to Sunni protesters in December 2012. These words indicate a commitment to inclusiveness and nonviolence, but they come from the same man whose followers, just a few years ago, routinely killed and pillaged their sectarian enemies.
Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq, the Sunnis have been sidelined both politically and militarily, and the Kurds are anxious to find a Shia partner other than Maliki, Sadr sees an opportunity to return to the political scene and succeed where he previously failed. Several factors are driving this new, moderate approach. For one, Sadr’s military forces are weak and cannot afford another open confrontation with the government of Iraq. Because the balance of power has shifted considerably against Sadr, he must now win hearts and minds if he wants political power. His revised message of moderation and inclusion seeks to take advantage of widespread public disillusionment with Maliki’s government.
Moreover, Sadr’s political movement has been fragmenting over the past five years. Sadr fears that Maliki will marginalize him, too, once he is done with the Sunni Arabs. Meanwhile, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the group that splintered away from Sadr’s Mahdi Army, is creating its own political party to challenge Sadr for the backing of his core constituency. Sadr’s challenge, therefore, is to find a way to retain his base of support, while also attracting new followers in time for Iraq’s next provincial and general elections, in April 2013 and early 2014, respectively.
Ultimately, it is probable that Sadr views himself as a possible successor to Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In order to be perceived as such, Sadr needs to jettison his violent reputation. Securing such a position would enable him to take a more hands-on role in politics and infuse greater clerical oversight into the Iraqi political scene.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
From the perspective of Maliki’s rivals, Sadr’s new persona presents a conundrum. If they embrace the new Sadr, they risk empowering a former enemy with blood on his hands. But if they reject him, it is possible that he will return to his old, violent ways. Iraqis would be wise to assess the sincerity of Sadr’s inclusive tone. There are a number of conceivable litmus tests. For starters, Iraqis should urge Sadr to broaden his movement into a cross-sectarian party that welcomes non-Shia members. Actively including Kurds, Sunnis, and other groups would signal to all ethnic minorities and sects that Sadr views them as equals, not inferior heretics.
On Sadr’s part, he could mollify his skeptics by demonstrating his commitment to the Iraqi constitution and the rule of law. One way of doing so would be to help Sunni Arabs and Kurds pass legislation on the functioning of Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court (comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court), which has been held hostage by fundamentalists’ demands to allow sharia scholars to possess veto power over legislation. Supporting such legislation would help demonstrate that Sadr believes in Iraq’s constitution and its emphasis on power sharing among factions.
Furthermore, Sadr could try to win Sunni Arabs’ trust by approaching the question of de-Baathification (the process of purging members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from political positions) in an impartial fashion. Previously, Sadr demanded amnesty for, and secured the release of, hundreds of detained Shia militiamen as part of his bargain to support Maliki for another term. But Sadr continues to voice strong opposition to the reintegration of former Baath officials into Iraqi society. By punishing Sunnis for past abuses more than Shia, Sadr has undermined political reconciliation in Iraq.
Finally, to win the Kurds’ trust, Sadr could offer support for their causes, namely, a more robust role for regions and provinces in the development of oil and gas resources, a more equitable distribution of energy profits, and control over disputed territories. In this vein, Sadr could join the Kurdish parties in parliament to push through new hydrocarbon-investment and revenue-sharing laws that could resolve the chronic and destabilizing disputes between Erbil and Baghdad over energy contracts and budget allocations. The Iraqiya bloc, the Kurds, and the Sadrists previously succeeded in defeating Maliki in parliament when he attempted to dissolve the country’s independent High Election Commission in 2011, so it is conceivable that the three blocs could jointly muster enough votes to pass other laws, too.
Will Sadr continue his surprising transformation from a violent, sectarian demagogue to an advocate for inclusive dialogue? His past record of killing civilians, military confrontation against the Iraqi government, and attacking U.S. personnel necessarily brings into question the credibility of this fresh persona. Nevertheless, his revised tone could also reflect an honest change in ideology and objectives that bodes well for Iraq’s democratic transition. Iraqis would be wise to welcome Sadr’s new message with caution, and they should press him to prove his sincerity through concrete actions, not just words.
Eli Sugarman is a Truman Security Fellow. This article was co-authored by Omar al-Nidawi. It originally appeared on Foreign Policy.