Muqtada al-Sadr doesn't appear to have quit Iraqi politics

Iraqi Shiite cleric and political powerhouse Muqtada al-Sadr has reversed his promise to quit politics. It now looks like gamesmanship ahead of April parliamentary elections.

Ali Abu Shish/Reuters
Sadr out of politics? Can a leopard change its spots?

Muqtada al-Sadr quitting Iraqi politics? That is, like, so 10 days ago.

What seemed like a stunning abandonment of power, money, and patronage opportunities now looks more like a bit of spring cleaning ahead of elections this April that could see a major redistribution of power inside the country.

On Feb. 16, Mr. Sadr, a Shiite cleric who built a far-reaching political machine in the decade after the US toppled Saddam Husseinsaid he was calling it a day for his network of political and social services offices.

Powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has withdrawn from politics, overnight dismantling his influential political movement in a move that has stunned his followers and handed a pre-election boost to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The young cleric announced in a handwritten note posted on his movement’s website Sunday that he was immediately withdrawing from politics and dissolving the party structure to protect his family’s reputation.

“I announce the closure of all offices and libraries in all religious, social and political fields,” the note read. “There is no (political) bloc that represents us from now on nor do we hold any positions inside or outside the government or parliament.”

It turns out he didn't mean it. Perhaps he was instead looking to shore up his own image as a champion of the poor, unsullied by the political corruption that is endemic in Iraq. Since the announcement, the leadership of his Ahrar political bloc has been reshuffled and the group has announced its intention to field candidates in the April election.

Ahrar was pivotal in helping Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki retain power after Iraq's last election. But Sadr has become a leading critic of the Iraqi premier, who hails from the Dawa Party, a rival Shiite Islamist group. Sadr has railed against government corruption and accused Mr. Maliki of taking on dictatorial powers. While Sadr's claim of a withdrawal from politics was seen as a boost for Maliki, the fact that Ahrar will be in the race – with the money and prestige of Sadr behind it – is bad news for the prime minister.

In a speech shortly after his announcement, Sadr once again denounced Maliki as a tyrant and hinted that he's a tool of both the US and Iran. It's hard to imagine Sadr leaving politics entirely.

Iraq's Shiite clergy, particularly during the rule of Saddam Hussein, was often crudely divided into two camps: The speaking hawza and the silent hawza, a reference to the main Shiite seminary in the Iraqi city of Najaf. The silent hawza were senior clergy like Ayotallah Ali al-Sistani, who tried to remain detached from politics. The speaking Hawza were clerics like Sadr's father, Ayatollah Mohamed Sadik al-Sadr, who saw religion and faith as inseparable and was murdered, along with two of his sons, in Najaf on Hussein's orders in 1999.

Within days of Hussein's ouster, Saddam City, a teeming Shiite slum in Baghdad's northeast, was renamed Sadr City in honor of Muqtads's father and uncle, also killed by the former dictator. That reverence, which has been bestowed on Muqtada as well, stems from their willingness to take on the state – and to die if need be. 

The Sadr legacy is a powerful one in Iraq. But a Sadr who shrinks from politics in favor of the quietest style of Mr. Sistani is no Sadr at all.

Iraq, which is gearing up for elections in its most politically violent environment since 2008, has not seen the last of the mercurial preacher. Expect him to play an important role in determining the election's outcome.

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