Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is attempting to transform Iraq’s politics. Hailing from one of the country’s revered clerical families, the forty-four-year-old politician enjoys an enviable position as leader of Iraq’s Shia poor. The son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, the young leader came of age under the U.S. occupation and has become one of Iraq’s most important political figures. Championing antipoverty and secular-oriented politics, Sadr is regarded highly across a large swath of Iraqi society. Exposing the failures of Iraq’s sectarian political system and making calls for widespread reform, Sadr’s recent deliberations represent a shift from the sectarianism that has wracked the country. Politically influenced by common grievances, Sadr has positioned himself to challenge the vested interests of Iraq’s political elites. Now, Sadr is increasingly playing the role of national statesman by working to build national and regional alliances, particularly with Saudi Arabia, and has also reached out to secular and Sunni groups in Iraq. By tapping into a resurgent Iraqi nationalism, he is threatening the sectarian political order. The electoral coalition Sairoun, established to contest parliamentary elections in May this year, is composed of Sadr’s chosen candidates, the Iraqi Communist Party, and secular political activists. Sadr’s efforts to counter the Shia elite’s stranglehold over the Iraqi state and stem Iran’s encroaching influence in the country is consolidating his position in Iraq as an anti-establishment reformist figure.

Mehiyar Kathem
Mehiyar Kathem is currently a research associate at University College London and holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His research interests include state-building, civil society peace-building, and the ways in which development, politics, and money interact at a local level. He tweets at @mehiyar and blogs on mehiyar.com.

Not since 2003 has there been such an opportunity for political reform. The defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the retaking of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)–held territory by the central government, a strengthened national army, and improved relations with its Arab neighbors have contributed to a positive outlook for Iraq. Yet, while the country’s politics is changing, not much else has improved for Iraqis. The delivery of basic state services continues to be abysmal, and major frontline institutions have been hollowed out by years of endemic corruption. Iraq’s faltering infrastructure—which has not seen any notable progress—is unsettling Sadr’s base of Shia poor and the Iraqi population, whose social and economic conditions continue to be characterized by harrowing levels of impoverishment. According to the Iraqi government, 33 percent of Iraq’s poor do not have access to safe drinking water, and 29 percent of poor individuals aged ten years and over are illiterate. In what could be a key turning point, Sadr’s next steps may shed light on Iraq’s future.

Nothing Less Than Radical Overhaul

The Sadrist Movement—a network of religious, political, military, and social organizations—came of age after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. With the collapse of authority and breakdown of the Iraqi state, large swaths of the Shia poor banded together under the movement’s broad banner to assert themselves at a time of significant change. Initially excluded from the formation of the governing elite in 2003, Sadr sought to include his movement in Iraq’s emerging politics to represent the mass following he had inherited from his father, a highly revered Shia authority who was assassinated by then president Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999. The Sadrist Movement’s use of violence to assert themselves at a critical point in the formation of Iraq’s post-2003 politics resulted in fierce battles fought with the U.S. military.

As an emerging political leader, Sadr understood early on the power millions of Shia poor could bestow to his movement. The politics of the Sadrist Movement evolved and became intimately intertwined with the situation of Iraq’s marginalized Shia communities.

For Sadr, both the politics of sectarianism and also political Islam have failed the people of Iraq. Having previously engaged in Iraq’s formal politics—premised on sectarian quotas and the distribution of state institutions to competing political parties—Sadr now states that only a radical overhaul of the political system will save Iraq from its constant cycle of volatility. Such calls for change echo widespread malaise and frustration among the Iraqi population. The emerging political environment in Iraq represents an opportunity to restructure politics and reinforce the country’s war to peace transition.

A major pillar of Sadr’s criticism of Iraq’s political elites has been an admission of the failure of the political system, as well as Islamist political parties. It shows a great deal of self-reflection, particularly in a context where his own political presence in parliament as part of al-Ahrar Bloc was partially responsible for the systemic corruption that ostensibly debilitated effective delivery of essential services from large frontline ministries. While rent extracted by government corruption and the manipulation of state institutions has helped the Sadrist Movement grow over the past few years, the war on the Islamic State has drained state resources. This has left the Sadrist Movement unable to recycle state resources to deliver basic welfare provisions to Iraq’s poor.

Sadr’s political survival rests on addressing Iraq’s social challenges, which are formidable. It is in this context that Sadr’s invocation of Iraqi nationalism and a stronger Iraqi state should be understood. As he sees it, the situation of Iraq’s poor will remain unchanged in the absence of effective and centralized state institutions. In recent interviews, Sadr has called for a strong, central state that is able to move beyond the challenges of sectarianism and cycles of instability.

The Sadrist Movement in a State of Flux

The Sadrist Movement is a countrywide network of political, social, religious, and military actors. Due to its enormous size, the network contains a large number of organizations whose leaders are, in one way or another, tied to the religious authority of Sadr’s family. Instilling a sense of organizational discipline has been one of the hardest challenges Sadr has had to grapple with, and his level of control over these organizations is one of the Sadrist Movement’s defining features. The movement’s rapid post-2003 expansion has been checked by the collapse in state resources available to Iraq’s politically controlled ministries. Sadr’s inability to maintain costly patronage networks has meant that his grip on parts of the Sadrist Movement has, at times, been considerably weakened. This was most glaringly apparent during the early years of the occupation when the Mahdi Army—Sadr’s motley militia group—splintered into Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteousness), which benefited from substantial Iranian largesse and grew into one of the largest militia groups in Iraq.

While not a member of parliament (MP), Sadr has participated in all three national parliamentary elections since 2003. Sadr led al-Ahrar Bloc, the Sadrist Movement’s parliamentary coalition that organizes the movement’s formal politics and was led by Diaa al-Asadi, a respected MP. Members of al-Ahrar rely on their own salaries to sustain the political nature of the Sadrist Movement, though many are said to have exploited their positions to amass substantial personal fortunes, such as former deputy prime minister Bahaa al-Araji. Recently, in the run up to elections, key al-Ahrar members, many of whom have since left the party, have openly criticized Sairoun, Sadr’s political alliance with the secular-leaning Iraqi Communist Party.

Sadr’s private office in Najaf plays an important role in the internal regulation and management of the Sadrist Movement. While al-Ahrar Bloc and Sadr’s private office have worked together to devise policy, Sadr has regularly and openly criticized his affiliated MPs for their inability to clamp down on corruption, particularly in the ministries they control. Sadr’s recent statements call for nothing less than radical change to the movement’s political party presence in Iraq’s May 2018 general elections, openly stating that al-Ahrar’s members have not championed the interests of Iraq’s constituencies.

A key component of the Sadrist Movement is the network of schools, mosques, seminaries, and welfare organizations that provide social and religious support to the Shia poor. In places like Sadr City—a large slum area of Baghdad that, along with its adjacent neighborhoods, houses over 3 million people—the Sadrist Movement provides much-needed social support at the local level. With the drop in oil prices in 2014 and the ensuing war against the Islamic State—which meant less money could be extracted from the Iraqi state—funding for this component of the Sadrist Movement has rapidly declined, weakening Sadr’s ability to deliver nonstate social services to his constituencies. The capacity of these organizations varies from one to another, but the vast majority are financially constrained and rely on handouts. The inability of Sadrist-affiliated organizations to effectively address the conditions of the Shia poor is, in large part, due to the scale of the social and economic challenges facing Iraq.

Calls for change from the Shia poor are getting louder, and they are critical of both religion and politics. These frustrations have been expressed against both Iraq’s political elite and religious establishment leaders in Najaf and Karbala, many of whom have been unwilling to openly criticize Iraq’s politicians. For Sadr, this current state of affairs, in which state services are weak and in disarray, represents an untenable situation that must be immediately addressed. Sadr’s anticorruption drive and partnership with Iraq’s secular political activists, who have been similarly critical of sectarianism, emerges in large part from the wretched conditions of Iraq’s growing poor and the lack of reform to address their situation. According to the Iraqi government, absolute poverty levels stood at 22.5 percent of the total population in 2014, which is widely thought to be a gross underestimation because it assumes extreme poverty to be less than $1 a day. Other estimates point to just under 10 million Iraqis living in abject poverty.

The Sadrist Movement’s military wing, Saraya al-Salam (or the Peace Regiments), was hastily put together from the remnants of the Mahdi Army in the wake of the Islamic State’s takeover of parts of Iraq. Similar to his political party, Sadr has a troubled and uneasy relationship to the movement’s military unit. As a key part of the al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Saraya al-Salam’s focus is only on Iraq—as opposed to other militia groups working in Syria. In the battles against the Islamic State, it was one of the few militia groups to work with the Sunni PMF in both Nineveh and Anbar Provinces. Sadr has expressed concerns about human rights violations committed by Saraya al-Salam’s members, even personally giving orders to expel those accused of such acts. Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which challenged the occupation in Iraq and fought fierce battles with other Shia militia groups, still leaves a bitter taste among most Iraqis who remember the sectarian bloodbath of post-2003 Iraq. Sadr’s decision to not send Saraya al-Salam to Syria’s macabre theater of war was in part dictated by the recent past: he did not want to repeat past mistakes in which unruly members of the Sadrist Movement were given free rein to engage in massive human rights atrocities. After the bloody sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007, Sadr’s decision to leave Iraq in late 2008 to pursue religious studies allowed him to reflect on Iraq’s sectarian troubles. Upon his return in 2011 to Iraqi politics, Sadr more actively pursued the nationalist politics that has become a pillar of his leadership.

Sadr is adamant that a stable Iraq will require the PMF to be folded into Iraq’s national security forces, a process that will ostensibly mean the eventual disbandment of Saraya al-Salam. He has been highly critical of the PMF’s entry into Iraqi politics, evidenced by its electoral list to contest May’s elections. Sadr believes the past three years of fighting the Islamic State have hugely benefited his Shia political rivals and the militias they control, namely Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, which, unlike the Sadrists, benefit from Iranian state financial and military support. Sadr has maintained cordial relations with Kurdish political leaders, who recently asked him to act as mediator between Baghdad and Erbil after the Kurdish referendum.

Sadr’s Protests

National demonstrations against corruption and Iraq’s political elite have deeply affected local politics. For the past two years in Baghdad, the Iraqi Communist Party has organized weekly Friday protests in Tahrir Square, just a short walk away from the Green Zone and the seat of Iraq’s government. Sadr actively supported these antisectarian and anticorruption protests, and encouraged his followers to join in 2016. After the Iraqi parliament was stormed later that year, Sadr realized the potential show of power that the protests could provide. Through his private office in Najaf, Sadr has worked closely with the Iraqi Communist Party to coordinate demonstrations and capitalize on the potential political windfalls that this could bestow on his brand of reformist politics.

The protest movement offered Sadr the opportunity to reach out to people beyond his existing network. Ongoing demonstrations meant that Iraqi Communist Party leaders—representing Iraq’s secular but largely diminished middle-class groups—were now working together with Sadrist activists to strengthen the effectiveness of the protests. Sadr was quick to realize the potential benefits this could have for his own movement. Many secular-leaning members of the Iraqi Communist Party and other protest organizers were granted access to the Sadrist Movement’s social and religious network, particularly in areas such as Sadr City, where events to train and raise awareness of activist politics were jointly organized. The political electoral alliance between Sadr and the Iraqi Communist Party that is now fielding candidates to Iraq’s national elections was born out of Iraq’s national protest movement.

Mosques that had largely been no-go areas for secular-oriented activists were now revitalized as sites for training and political organization. To sustain the new momentum emerging from the protest movement, a central committee was established—comprised of Sadr himself, Iraqi Communist Party leaders, and other secular protest organizers—which regularly convenes in Sadr’s private office. Reflecting his changed politics, secular protest organizers have gradually earned Sadr’s trust and become key political advisers. Jassim al-Hilfi, an active member of the Iraqi Communist Party, has not only become a close adviser to Sadr—often meeting foreign dignitaries together—but is known to be working to reform the Sadrist Movement’s network of national activists in order to contest Iraq’s corrupt sectarian elites. Sadr’s political partnership with the Iraqi Communist Party represents a major shift in his thinking by markedly disassociating himself from the atrocities and destabilizing politics of sectarianism.

Countering the Legacies of Sectarianism

Sadr is currently positioning himself to address the manifold challenges facing the Iraqi state. At a political level, he supports strengthening Iraq’s central state and advocates using qualified and experienced “independent technocrats” for this task. Sadr sees a natural ally in Iraq’s secular-oriented politicians, who are also deeply concerned about the rising influence of Iranian-supported militias, endemic corruption, and Iraq’s deeply flawed political system. Sadr has openly stated that some countries—often indirectly referring to Iran—want to see a weak and fractured Iraq. The emerging alliance between Sadr and secular politicians may prove indispensable to making progress on these challenges and establishing a less sectarian politics in Iraq.

For Sadr, Iraq’s Shia elites have not only been unwilling to reform the sectarian system but have extracted significant riches from it. The wealth gap between Iraq’s ruling political elite and the wider population has grown exponentially. This divide, glaringly visible in everyday life in Iraq, has aggressively pitted the Sadrist Movement against Shia elites, particularly the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Hikma Movement, the Dawa Party, and the Badr Organization, all of which are seen as top-down political parties rather than grassroots-oriented political organizations. In recent statements, Sadr has criticized Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s electoral partnership with the Islamic Supreme Council, an alliance brokered for the May 2018 elections that Sadr believes could undermine his politics.

Since 2003, Iraq’s political elites have largely remained at the helm of power, clinging to state riches that political sectarianism has facilitated. Progressive change, at this level, has been slow to come. Efforts at reform may turn into a complete restructuring of the political system, though this is unlikely to happen. Emerging alliances may bring a semblance of stability to an otherwise uncertain future. The end of the war on the Islamic State may translate into a war on corruption, which could prove just as destabilizing. Reform, if substantial and deep enough, may unsettle the vested interests of many political parties whose livelihoods are deeply intertwined with sectarianism. Sadr’s plans to restructure Iraq’s politics are thus seen as a direct threat by his rivals, who depend on state largesse to maintain their political presence and extensive networks of patronage.

Sadr’s challenges are not only political. Another challenge is emerging in Najaf, which has been dominated by years of Iranian-directed investments and a political economy increasingly tied to Iranian interests. Sadr feels deeply uneasy about the presence of Iranian interests in Iraq’s Shia religious establishment, or marjaiya. Historically, the survival and also independence of Iraq’s clerical class was, in large part, derived from pilgrimage trade. With a view to its long-term interests in the country, Iran understands it cannot directly control Iraq’s Shia establishment and instead has focused on controlling the economies of Iraq’s shrine cities as well as Iraq’s markets. Controlling key sources of religious-based rent, such as the pilgrimage trade, has been one way Iran ensures that it will continue to shape Iraq’s shrine cities for years to come. Such policies attempt to check the influence of Iraq’s religious classes, not least the nationalist politics promoted by Sadr and other clerical leaders. In the event of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s passing, Iraq’s shrine cities will also be characterized by religious competition. Statements made by Ali Akbar Velayti, a key adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have suggested deep unease about Sadr’s coalition with secular political leaders, saying Iran “will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq.” Working to counter Iranian interests now rather than later may bode well for Sadr’s interests, by ensuring that any potential candidate for the role of supreme ayatollah—the spiritual head of devout Shia—will be Arab, Iraqi, and not beholden to Iranian interests.

Sadr’s Foreign Diplomacy

In Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he visited last year, Sadr may have found a much needed regional ally to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq. Subsequent trips to the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt imply a focus on regional politics that may bring Iraq closer to its Arab neighbors. This recent thaw in relations, which has been welcomed by Sadr, represents a key policy change toward Iraq.

While Iran has forged extensive ties with Iraq’s political elites and has deep interests in the country, Saudi Arabia has, until recently, been largely absent from any real engagement. The kingdom is starting from a weaker diplomatic position, having had an uneasy relationship with Iraq’s post-2003 elites. Any attempts to improve its relationship with Iraq will rely on a number of actors, not just the central government. The United States has promised its full support to the new Saudi-Iraq partnership, but Sadr’s backing may prove to be much more valuable.

Sadr’s new alliance does not bode well for Iran. An improved Saudi-Iraq relationship will mean that Shia politicians in Baghdad and southern Iraq can now seek support from their Arab neighbor. Iran feels threatened by what it views as a coalition of regional and domestic actors working to uproot it from Iraq. It is not surprising, then, that Sadr was admonished for visiting Saudi Arabia by Iranian diplomats in Iraq, and he is increasingly seen as a threat to Iran’s regional interests.

Sadr’s growing alliance with Iraq’s secular leaning and nationalist activists is viewed with apprehension by the Iranian government and its Iraqi allies, including the Shia religious establishment in Najaf and Karbala. A fierce competition over resources, legitimacy, and popular appeal is emerging among rival religious groups in Iraq’s shrine cities. Sadr, his followers and religious clerics, such as Kazem al-Haeri, and others connected to his religious family and activist politics comprise one faction that is in competition with the establishment marjaiya, Ayatollah Sistani, and elitist political parties like the Hikma Movement, the Supreme Council of Iraq, the Dawa Party, and the Badr Organization. One of the defining differences between these groups has been the degree to which they are critical of political corruption and the role of Iran in Iraq. Sadr’s Iraqi Shia nationalist identity has largely determined the emerging struggle for the Iraq’s Shia masses and religious resources, which pits the Sadrist Movement against those connected to or from Iran. As a result, Iraq’s marjaiya has become increasingly polarized, reflecting the country’s fractured politics. Given the formative development of its political system, religious actors have become increasingly active in Iraq’s political affairs.

Iraq’s Sunni political elites will undoubtedly welcome Sadr’s improved relationship with Sunni Arab states in the region. Sadr has previously discussed partnering with al-Wataniya, a largely Sunni political coalition led by Ayad Allawi. The fragmenting of the post–Islamic State Sunni political leadership and the constituencies they claim to represent has made it particularly difficult for Sadr to build bridges with his Sunni counterparts. However, there are signs that this is changing, inspiring hope that political alliances can be established after the elections in May. Additionally, Sadr has actively encouraged candidates from Sunni constituencies to join him in contesting May’s election, which is evidence that the list of electoral candidates represents a wide swath of Iraqi society.

Since Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve relations with Iraq will not go unchallenged—and interference by Iran will be the norm—only a long-term vision of the Saudi-Iraq partnership can help counter Iran’s influence among religious and political elites. Many who oppose this recent rapprochement are also Sadr’s Shia political rivals. Given Iran’s expansive presence and influence in Iraq—and support for the country’s security, particularly in the face of the Islamic State—it is unlikely that Iraq’s Shia elites will cut relations altogether with the Islamic Republic.

Iraq’s New Politics

Sadr’s politics attempts to address Iraq’s numerous state fractures and social fissures. From 2003 to the present, Iraqi expectations for improved security and welfare have largely not been met. Sadr’s frustration with Iraq’s ethnosectarian politics has driven him to seek nonsectarian partners. Sairoun, the Sadrist and secular electoral list, is now considered a real threat to the power of Iraq’s sectarian elites. The divisive political system has ripped Iraqi society into increasingly fragmented communities, which gave rise to the Islamic State. The gap between Iraq’s ruling elites and the people they claim to govern has grown wider. State institutions, under the sectarian quotas, have been redesigned to serve political party interests rather than deliver essential social services. Sadr, recognizing the enormity of these problems, advocates a new way of governing Iraq that focuses nonreligious and nonsectarian identities.

Iraq will require a coalition of domestic and regional actors to help break the cycle of instability it has faced since 2003. Sadr’s recent diplomacy may be the start of a campaign to address these massive social, economic, and political challenges. Positioning himself firmly with domestic secular groups and pursuing new regional partnerships may be just the beginning of Sadr’s endeavor to remake Iraqi politics.