After the Iraqi election, a Shiite leader emerges as an unlikely US ally
In the 18 years since he formed the Mahdi Army’s militia to fight the US occupation forces, the former arsonist has refined his performance. His formal Arabic is more fluent and his voice more confident. He looked up to speak into the camera and raised a finger in remarks carefully crafted to send messages to both the United States and Iran after his party won seats in last week’s general election would have.
When Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters took rifles and rocket-propelled grenades against the US forces in Baghdad and the southern provinces in 2004, the United States promised to kill or capture the Shiite cleric.
Alongside al-Qaeda, he posed the greatest threat to the American occupation in Iraq by entangling US troops in the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities while the military fought both Sunni and Shiite insurgencies.
Though still unpredictable, the cleric is consistently an Iraqi nationalist and now appears to be emerging as an American ally at arm’s length helping the United States by preventing Iraq from tipping further into the Iranian axis.
“All embassies are welcome as long as they do not interfere in Iraqi affairs and the formation of a government,” said al-Sadr in a reference to the United States, whose embassy was stormed two years ago by suspected members of Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the largest from the United States Iran supported Iraqi militias. “Iraq is only for Iraqis.”
According to the preliminary results of last Sunday’s elections, the Sadrist Movement won around 20 seats and thus 73 seats in the 329-member parliament. This means that Mr al-Sadr has the largest single bloc in parliament and a decisive vote in the election of the next Iraqi prime minister.
In his remarks, the clergyman referred to the Iran-backed militias, some of which have become more powerful than the official security forces in Iraq and pose a threat to the US in Iraq.
“From now on, state-owned weapons must be restricted,” he said in the speech that was broadcast on Iraqi state television. “The use of weapons should be prevented outside of the state framework.” Even for those who claim to be the “resistance” to the US presence, he said, “It is time for people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, kidnappings and fear. “
The self-proclaimed resistance groups are the same Iran-backed militias that launched drone and missile strikes on the US embassy and US military bases after the US killed a leading Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official in Baghdad last year.
An adviser to the Shiite cleric said disarming groups outside of the government’s control would also apply to Mr al-Sadr’s own militias.
“No country wants armed forces that are stronger than its army,” said Dhia al-Assadi, a former top official of the cleric’s political movement. He said Mr. al-Sadr would leave it to the new administration to decide whether US forces should stay in Iraq.
The United States has agreed to withdraw all combat forces from the country by December 31, although Washington does not currently see its forces as in combat. According to this agreement, the number of US armed forces – around 2,000 in Iraq at the invitation of Baghdad – should remain the same.
“That means calling or classifying the troops as trainers and not as fighters,” said al-Assadi, who served as chairman of the former political bloc of Mr. al-Sadr in the Ahrar. “The decision should be reviewed again and passed by parliament and government.”
Mr al-Assadi said he did not see any change in an existing ban on high-ranking officials in the Sadrist Movement from meeting with US or UK officials.
Once a bitter sectarian defender of the Shiite majority in Iraq, Mr. al-Sadr has expanded his reach in recent years to reach Sunnis, Christians and other minorities. After telling his followers to protect Christians, young men from Sadr’s stronghold in the predominantly Shiite district of Sadr in Baghdad wore large crosses around their necks as a sign of solidarity. In an earlier election, the sadrists formed an alliance with the Communist Party, which is officially atheist.
Externally, he cultivated relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at a time when the Sunni rulers of these countries were hostile to the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Domestically, one of its main demands is to clean up Iraq’s dysfunctional and deeply corrupt political system, which appoints people to high government posts on the basis of party loyalty rather than competence.
“It has grown and evolved,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former State Department official who served in Iraq in 2003. “But I think we partially underestimated him at the beginning.”
Mr Khoury said he was approached by Mr al-Sadr’s advisors in 2003 when Iraq’s first governing council was being adopted.
“We had coffee, we had a chat, and they said Sadr was interested in playing a political role,” said Mr Khoury. an Atlantic Council Fellow. But Iraqi politicians who had returned from exile did not want Mr al-Sadr to be involved, Mr Khoury said, and the United States followed their advice.
A few months later, the clergyman formed his Mahdi Army militia to fight the occupation forces.
When the US forces had the opportunity to kill Mr. al-Sadr during a battle in Najaf, Washington urged them to withdraw, including on the advice of Iraqi foreign policy-makers, said Mr. Khoury, adding: “They knew whether Sadr was killed it would be a big problem for them. “
Mr. al-Sadr, 47, is the youngest son of a revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999 after calling for religious freedom for Iraqi Shiites. The Sadr family enjoys the loyalty of millions, many of whom are poor and disposition, most of whom believe that his election victory was ordained by God.
In Sadr City, the Sadrist Organization provides food, support for orphans and widows, and many other services that the Iraqi government cannot provide.
“He wants to achieve certain goals, and the main goal is social justice,” said Mr. al-Assadi of the cleric’s goals. He compared the goals of Mr. al-Sadr with those of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi.
But unlike the black civil rights activist or the pacifist icon of India, Mr. al-Sadr oversaw an armed militia that has increased and decreased but has never completely disappeared.
The Mahdi Army is accused of fueling sectarian violence in Iraq in the past. When she fought for supremacy in Iraq with Sunni al-Qaeda fighters between 2006 and 2008, the fighters were accused by Mr. al-Sadr of leading death squads and conducting sectarian cleansing in Baghdad neighborhoods.
Mr. al-Sadr said that not all fighters are under his control.
In 2008, after losing a battle with Iraqi government forces for control of Basra, Mr. al-Sadr – who lacks his father’s religious credentials – abruptly went to Iran to continue his theological studies.
Still, he has long had a troubled relationship with Tehran, and while he cannot afford to anger its leaders, he advocates an Iraq free from Iranian and American influence.
“I think it has its own space to move in and its base is not dictated by any country, especially the Iranians,” said Elie Abouaoun, a Director of the United States Institute of Peace, a US government-funded think tank. “I think he’s a lot less sectarian than many others because he has a nationalist vision of Iraq.”