The young men storming the entrance to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone as part of an antigovernment demonstration in February were waving Iraqi flags as a sign of their commitment to country. But there was no question their loyalty was at least as strong to Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who called for the protests against a leadership he considers illegitimate and irredeemably corrupt.
While Iraqi forces push further into the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, a fight over the future of Iraq is brewing in Baghdad. As has been the case since Saddam Hussein was toppled, the mercurial cleric from a revered Shiite family is playing a leading role.
At least five protesters and a policeman were killed when the Feb. 11 protest turned violent. Mr. Sadr, who commands his followers to wave only the Iraqi flag as a sign of nationalism, had called for peaceful protests, though his history as a militia leader may have undermined that request. And in Iraq, where religious and political leaders command paramilitary forces, armed confrontation is always a possibility.
“Whatever he says we do – if he says ‘live’ we live, if he says ‘die’, we die,” said Haider Kamal, a laborer from Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Shuala, at a protest called by Sadr last summer. “All my family and all my neighborhood follows Sayyid Moqtada. He is a resistance leader.”
Over the past two decades, Sadr transformed from a young man little known outside religious circles to a militia leader who posed a major threat to US forces. Now, he is reemerging in Iraqi political life as a nationalist political figure agitating against corruption and in favor of government reform.
He is challenging Shiite political elites and, in fact, the entire Iraqi political system. He has reached beyond Sunni-Shiite divides, testing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Shiite, and threatening to boycott upcoming elections in the absence of reforms to Iraq’s electoral commission, which Sadr accuses of being under the sway of rival Shiite political parties he says are corrupt. On many Fridays he brings thousands into the streets in protest.
In the process, the still relatively young cleric, the son and the son-in-law of two Shiite clerics revered for their concern for the poor, has increasingly made an effort to portray himself as an Iraqi patriot. Now, he is poised to consolidate his position not only as an influential political kingmaker but as someone who can mobilize potentially millions of followers from Baghdad to the southern coastal city of Basra.
In April, he even broke with other Iraqi Shiite leaders in calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Iran, to step down to save the country from more bloodshed.
“He really is someone who has provided a social and political outlet for the impoverished, particularly for those southerners who have never had a chance to have their say in middle-class and upper-class politics, which defines much of what goes on in Baghdad,” says Ahab Bdaiwi, a specialist in Islamic history at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Known by the honorific al-Sayyid, connoting a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, he only rarely appears in public and normally only in his home base in the holy city of Najaf. A rare appearance at an entrance to the Green Zone a year ago was the first time that many of his most devout followers had seen him in person. Some wept with emotion as he spoke.
Weeks later, in a move to reshape the country’s political system by pushing Mr. Abadi to appoint a cabinet of technocrats, he ordered supporters to storm the Iraqi parliament.
With Iraq’s Sunni leadership deeply fragmented and accused by many of selling out to wealthy Gulf Arab states, Sadr’s demand for an Iraqi government that benefits Iraqis has found fertile ground among some Sunnis. It’s a major shift from the leading role played a decade ago by his militia, whose death squads fueled the flames of Iraq’s civil war.
How it began
The fall of Saddam Hussein freed Sadr to organize millions of his family’s followers, creating an armed wing as well as a political and public service organization, and in 2004, Sadr mobilized his Mahdi Army militia to drive out US occupation forces.
Young fighters armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades fought American soldiers in the streets of Baghdad and cities across the south, including the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
In the Iraqi capital, the militia took over neighborhoods, running death squads and expelling Sunnis and Christians. In a security vacuum, some Sunnis turned to Al Qaeda to protect them, igniting Iraq’s civil war.
Sadr ultimately disbanded his militia in 2008, but still considers the United States and Britain occupying authorities and has declared that American troops deployed to fight ISIS will be legitimate targets.
Unlike Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely engages in politics, Sadr has nourished the following he inherited with political activism, nationalism, and promises of social justice that resonate particularly with the poor.
“Sayid Muqtada stands for justice … he supports us,” said a protester, Um Yas, at a demonstration last summer over Bahrain’s detention of a Shiite cleric. A pin shaped like a map of Iraq superimposed with Sadr’s face held her headscarf.
Although Iraq’s Shiite underclass form Sadr’s traditional base, he has made an effort in recent years to reach out to Iraqi Sunnis and religious minorities as well as the international community – except for the United States and Britain.
The overwhelmingly Shiite protest near the Bahraini embassy last June included two young Sunni men who wore tight jeans and T-shirts, carefully gelled hair, and black sneakers with gold-colored accents.
“I decided to follow him when I saw his statements and protests,” says Saif Ali, a cleaner from Ghazaliya neighborhood who is Sunni. “There is a big difference between him and the Sunni leaders. I also follow some of them, but Sayid Muqtada is different.”
Asked how he reconciles Sadr’s call for inclusion with his militia’s attacks on Sunni Iraqis a few years ago, Ali says both Sadr and Iraq have changed.
“That was true in sectarian times, but now Muqtada Sadr teaches us how to avoid sectarianism,” he says.
In Baghdad, most of Sadr’s support comes from the dusty streets of Sadr City, a two million-strong neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. Almost all the residents are Shiites who for generations have been the underclass.
He has strong opposition credentials: When Moqtada Sadr’s father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was assassinated in Najaf in 1999, his followers in Sadr City rioted in a rare and dangerous show against Saddam Hussein.
The latest Sadr has taken up the family mantle of speaking for the poor and dispossessed but his support taps into a much deeper vein of religious belief that transcends politics and the trials of day-to-day life in Iraq.
“Muqtada’s popularity has much to do with his family name,” says Bdaiwi. “His father was revered because of his revival of messianic sentiment in Iraq.”
Iraq is the modern-day successor to ancient empires that included the cities of Ur and Babylon. Shiite Islam traces its roots to the south of Iraq where Imam Ali, believed by Shiites to be the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad, and his son Hussein were killed in the 7th century.
“Since the advent of Islam, the idea of redemption and suffering Messiah-like figures are all associated with the southern regions of Iraq, but in the 20th century that messianic sentiment died down,” says Bdaiwi. He says the elder Sadr articulated and "rebranded" messianic beliefs in language that ordinary Iraqis could understand.
In Sadr City, the crowded outdoor markets are a frequent target of bombings claimed by ISIS, which like Al Qaeda, views Shiites as unbelievers.
In the Hamidiyah district, the poorest part of the generally poor Sadr City, children dart between makeshift houses illegally built on vacant property. A tangle of electricity wires run from private generators for those who can pay. Sewage runs in the streets. There are no police.
Near a corner store, a group of boys play games on the sidewalk. Ali Sadr says his parents took him out of school in the fifth grade because they could not buy uniforms.
“Nothing here works,” says his friend Saif Mahmoud, who dropped out in the third grade. “Every time it rains our houses get flooded.”
For all of Sadr’s emphasis on social justice and economic equality, there is little in Sadr City to show that residents have reaped tangible benefits from the movement’s activism.
Before he announced he was withdrawing from active politics two years ago, Sadr decreed that members of parliament in his movement live in the neighborhoods they represented – a radical thought in a country where many politicians flee to the relative safety and luxury of the green zone.
Most of his followers blame the lack of development in their neighborhoods on corrupt government officials and Sadr’s political opponents.
Sadr is still little understood by the West, described as a mercurial firebrand and belittled for his lack of religious credentials.
Before 2003 he was portrayed as lacking intellectual prowess – a young man more interested in playing video games than his religious studies. Patrick Cockburn, the author of "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the struggle for Iraq,’’ suggests after the assassination of his father, the image was deliberately fostered by his followers to persuade Saddam he wasn’t a threat.
By 2009 Sadr had moved to Qum, the center of religious scholarship in Iran, to continue his religious studies.
In 2013, Mr. Cockburn met him in a rare one-on-one interview with a Western journalist.
“He was highly intelligent and I thought fairly open,” Cockburn recalls. “He was very quick to take a point and very quick to argue and quite convincing. He was friendly, and I thought very much engaged with what was going on in a realistic way.”
The Sadr movement has undergone a political evolution. UK-educated men in suits have replaced some of the starkly sectarian political operatives who were on the front lines of Sadr movement. Sadr has replaced his Mahdi Army with a paramilitary group he calls the Peace Brigades, whose role in the fight against ISIS has largely been guarding Shiite shrines.
While Sadr’s militia was supported by Iran and he still spends time there, his relationship with Iranian leaders is said to be strained. Sadr has increasingly made an effort to portray himself as an Iraqi patriot. Most of the movement’s discourse now is about nationalism and inclusiveness.
“I think there are lots of hidden and open regrets about what happened to the Mahdi army and its involvement in the sectarian killings in the height of 2006 and 2007,” Cockburn says. “It was explained away subsequently by saying they were those who were not obeying orders … but certainly there is a very strong desire to show that things are genuinely different.”
And some of his followers have undergone a political evolution as well.
Yousef Mukthadh, who graduated from law school two years ago and is still looking for a job, has been a Sadr follower since he can remember, but says it is no longer out of blind loyalty.
“I was young when I first started following the movement – It didn’t know what it meant,” he says. “But as I became older my way of thinking changed.”
Mukthadh, one of the several thousand young Iraqis who made it to Europe and then returned, describes Sadr as a revolutionary and says he welcomes the new openness of the movement.
“Before they were radicals. Now they have taken off their religious clothing and they have become open-minded,” he says. “Sayid Muqtada has changed according to the situation. When the Americans were there he was focused on fighting the Americans and when the Americans left, he changed his thinking as well.”