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ICSR Insight – Sadr: From A Firebrand Cleric To A Political Brand Of Reform

18/05/2018

Having just returned from Iraq, ICSR Research Fellow Inna Ruldolf offers some context on the Iraqi elections. A full ICSR report on the Iraqi elections and the role of al-Hashd al-Sha’abi will be released in a fortnight.

Earlier this week, Iraq held its first elections since formally declaring victory over Islamic State. Muqtada al-Sadr claimed a surprise victory, in an election that saw an unusually low turnout. Thus, while Sadr was able to consolidate a support base that remained largely unchanged, more prominent parties failed to mobilise their constituencies to participate in the election.

Described by many as an anti-Western ‘firebrand’, Sadr’s platform is indeed distinctly populist and nationalist. The election is significant for a myriad of reasons, not least because, from a western perspective, it was Sadr’s Mahdi Army which staged a significant and violent insurgency against Coalition troops around Basra and elsewhere following the 2003 invasion. The extent to which his election can be construed as a lack of acknowledgement or appreciation for the instrumental effort by Western forces played in accelerating the decline of Islamic State is debatable, but is indicative of the complexity that Sadr’s re-emergence poses.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Sadr is not just opposed to the West, but also eschews Iran’s growing influence in Iraqi affairs. This Insight provides a brief overview of Sadr’s rise within the broader context of the region’s politics.

Tainted Love – Sadr’s Relationship with the West 
Back in the 2000s, Sadr’s name had become the one most associated with the popular resistance, with his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia (the Mahdi Army) sowing fear among both the agitated Sunni population and British and coalition troops in Iraq. And though the sectarian antagonism may have disappeared, his anti-Westernism has not. Regardless of this, analysts, diplomats and policy-makers have come to regard him as one of the more tolerable options for Iraq’s political leadership.

In view of the widespread scepticism regarding the alleged ‘Hezbollahisation’ of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), known by their Arabic name as al-Hashd al-Sha’abi; the undeniable electoral success achieved by PMU-affiliated political leaders running on Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah list; Abadi’s disappointing election performance; and Maliki’s undoubtable will to make the most of the 25 seats won by his Dawlat al-Qanun (State of Law) Coalition, Sadr’s Sa’iroun Alliance represents both the most attractive option, and the limit of what Iraq’s Western and Gulf allies can wilfully swallow. In order to understand Sa’iroun’s vision for Iraq’s future, one must first acknowledge their origin and the content of their electoral manifesto.

Sa’iroun Alliance – the March of strange bedfellows to the Ballot Box
With his newly formed political party Istiqama (Integrity), Sadr succeeded in forming a political alliance with Iraq’s secularists and the considerably weakened Communist party. Building on his preferred theme of anti-corruption (the motto of the social protests orchestrated with his blessing in October 2016), Sadr has managed to brand the rather unorthodox alliance Sa’iroun, translated literally as ‘being on the move’, as a non-sectarian and inclusive march toward political reform and good governance. As Iraq’s Former Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi indicated in a recent interview in Baghdad, both parties had something to gain. The secularists and Communists could tap into Sadr’s broad popular base, allowing Sadr to successfully frame the move as perfectly feeding into his carefully nurtured image of an Iraqi nationalist.

An alliance between Islamists and Communists may appear incongruent, however it is not as isolated as it seems. Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who in his youthful years had demonstrated a healthy curiosity towards Marxism, explained that the fascination with leftist ideas across the Middle East can basically be attributed to a rather misleading translation of the term “socialism” in Arabic as ishtirakiyya. Drawing on the Arabic root of ‘Sh-R-K’, ishtirakiyya implies the aspect of sharing and equal access to limited resources. Instead, Adil Abd al-Mahdi advocated for the term ijtima’iyya, which as reflected in its root “J – M – ’ ” would put the focus on the society, without artificially imposing that this society remained equally “disadvantaged”. In this spirit, the idea of enabling equal opportunities, instead of merely levelling the playing field, helped glue together what some might perceive as irreconcilable ideological camps. Using the principles of fairness and the rule of law as a common denominator, the electoral manifesto emphasizes the six key fields of action: reforms and state-building; social justice; fight against corruption; basic public services; socio-economic issues; and the professionalization of the armed forces. The last point may be seen as directly addressing the highly disputed state-actor character of the PMU.

Sadr’s Relationship with the PMU – it’s complicated…
Having re-branded his Mahdi Army to the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Regiments), and concentrated them in Samarra, Sadr’s statements regarding Saraya al-Salam’s membership status within the PMU have remained ambivalent. High-ranking members from within the PMU Commission openly criticize Sadr for continuously calling for the demobilisation of the PMU, while his own Saraya al-Salam are still seen as profiting from their PMU affiliation. On the other hand, representatives from the Sadrist circle prefer to circumvent the question, establishing a safe distance from allegedly pro-Khamenei PMU factions. Furthermore, Sadr’s vocal opposition to the PMU offers him another occasion to demonstrate his skilfully marketed anti-Iranian stance.

The drafted Sa’iroun electoral manifesto underlines the state’s monopoly on violence. The PMU, though, have been officially legalized as a state-sanctioned security institution by the so-called Hashd law in 2016, which frames them as part of the country’s armed forces, and provides them with license to a certain level of independence. Therefore, PMU leaders have shown a zero-tolerance attitude towards Sadr’s repeated calls for the PMU’s disarmament, as voiced during his latest visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In their opinion, PMU weapons already constitute state property, as the PMU falls directly under the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister and Commander in Chief. And when off the record, some PMU members still perceive Sadr’s narrative as more of a political tool than an ideologically motivated reorientation of allegiances.

Sadr’s Coalition Pitch 
Tasked with the burden of forming a sustainable government coalition, Sadr listed in a Twitter post on May 14 all the names of his most desirable coalition partners. Among those were Abadi’s Nasr (Victory) Coalition, Iyad Allawi’s al-Wataniya (Iraqi National Alliance) and Ammar al-Hakim’s Tayyar al-Hikma (Wisdom Movement) Party. As indicated in a pre-election interview with al-Hakeem’s political advisor and Hikma party member Baleegh Abu Gelel, Sa’iroun, with its emphasis on anti-corruption measures, has been regarded by Hikma as a sensible choice of partner in pushing forward al-Hakeem’s ambitious reform agenda.

At the same time, the Middle East’s ‘Grey Eminence’, Qods Force General Qassem Soleimani, is said to be trying to broker an understanding between Sadr and the more favourably viewed Fatah and Dawlat al-Qanun. And yet, even if these publicly known efforts fail to produce a predominantly Shiite coalition between Sadr and the internationally designated Iran-aligned camp, it will not necessarily strike a blow to the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, having a Shiite, battle-proof cleric, who has been re-branded as a non-sectarian Iraqi nationalist committed to a multi-directional foreign policy, might unlock a convenient back door channel for Iran. This is of particular prescience given the U.S.’ recent withdrawal from the still fragile Iran nuclear deal, and the continuing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thus, keeping the line open between the various parties might have a stabilizing effect on the region.

This scenario might also benefit the Western security agenda supporting Iraq’s geopolitical emancipation. The next government of the slowly recovering country can capitalize on its leverage as potential “Iran whisperer” and play this winning hand to serve Iraq’s national interests. This of course is only true if its leadership remains committed to curbing the interference efforts of Iraq’s neighbours on both sides of the axis of resistance.

Inna Rudolf is a Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow her on Twitter @inna_veleva