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Muqtada al-Sadr: the most dangerous man in Iraq, revived Open in fullscreen

Tristan Dunning

Muqtada al-Sadr: the most dangerous man in Iraq, revived

The protests have already prompted the resignation of several ministers in the Iraqi government [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 March, 2016

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Comment: Iraq’s political class has survived the Islamic State group, but can it survive the political renaissance of Muqtada al-Sadr? Asks Damian Doyle and Dr. Tristan Dunning.

Friday’s threat by “radical” Shi’a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, to storm Baghdad's Green Zone marks a sharp escalation of street politics after weeks of mass protests denouncing government corruption and ineptitude. Protests, he said, would be directed against politicians who fail to support anti-corruption reforms.

True to his word, al-Sadr has now, literally, pitched a tent and taken a “selfie” in the Green Zone – which many Iraqis regard as symbolic of the isolation and privilege of the political elite – in order to inaugurate a sit-in on behalf of the crowds camped outside.

Once branded "the most dangerous man in Iraq” for his uncompromising insurgency against the US occupation, al-Sadr may now very well be a mortal danger to Iraq’s kleptocratic political class. The protests have already prompted the resignation of Oil Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, Transport Minister Baqer Solagh, and Youth Minister Abdel Hussein Abtan. Hundreds of other Iraqi politicians and foreign embassy staff have reportedly fled the Green Zone, underscoring the palpable sense of trepidation felt amongst official quarters.

Having apparently withstood the violent eschatological onslaught of the Islamic State group, will Iraq’s political elite finally be toppled by popular discontent over relatively mundane matters?  

Growing frustration

Iraqis have had enough of poor or non-existent public services, unemployment, and endemic corruption. Since July 2015, civil society groups have held weekly Friday protests across multiple cities calling for urgent action against corruption and prompting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to launch a reform program. Priorities include measures to combat corruption, reform the judiciary, and establish meritocratic government appointment processes. But progress has been slow as politicians protect their interests and public frustration has grown.

Al-Sadr may now very well be a mortal danger to Iraq’s kleptocratic political class.



Now al-Sadr has reinvigorated the protests by mobilising masses of his supporters to bolster the numbers in the streets, first in weekly convergences in Baghdad and now in the form of a sit-in at the gates to the Green Zone. The pressure on the government is intensifying. At the sit-in, a Friday prayer leader unambiguously identified the target for outrage: "Our enemy; the Islamic State, and corrupt politicians all aim to destroy and drain the Iraqi people."

A new image for al-Sadr

The Sadrist mobilisation has been an impressive escalation of street politics. The first mass demonstration brought an estimated 100,000 Iraqis into the streets of Baghdad; the second, which al-Sadr addressed in person, was thought to be twice that size. The sit-in began slowly and there was uncertainty about how Iraqi Security Forces would respond. Now there are small tent cities at the three main gates to the Green Zone. Al-Sadr says the sit-in is his way of providing al-Abadi with popular support that he can’t mobilise himself.

The emergence of different media narratives signifies the uncertainty – perhaps fear – generated by al-Sadr’s re-emergence. The “firebrand cleric” label is back in vogue. Some have even warned that the involvement of the Sadrist Movement in street politics will turn a secular, civil society protest movement into a sectarian one.

So far, al-Sadr’s statements and actions demonstrate the opposite: he positions himself as a nationalist and unequivocally denounces sectarian politics. Sadrists are asked to wave Iraqi flags, not raise posters of Shi’a leaders, and are encouraged to spot trouble makers in their midst. Al-Sadr promises the protests will remain non-violent.

This is a message and an image that al-Sadr has been refining for several years. It is all the more remarkable given that his militia, the Mehdi Army, was responsible for some of the worst sectarian atrocities during Iraq’s insurgency and civil war that reached horrific levels of violence during 2006 and 2007. Unsurprisingly, some doubt al-Sadr’s makeover and fear a return to violence. An alternative view is that the Sadrists have learned from the past that sectarian violence is harmful not only to national unity, but also to the reputation of their movement.

Broad support for protest

While international media reports emphasise the role of the Sadrist Movement, civil society groups – primarily reliant on social media to get their message out to the English-speaking world – talk of a popular movement with clearly stated goals of social justice and the establishment of a civil state.

Patrick Cockburn, one of the most prominent observers and analysts of Iraq’s complex political landscape, notes that the protests have broad support across Iraqi society, particularly as the country’s economic crisis bites ever harder. The Sadrist Movement’s organisational capacity – and al-Sadr’s legitimacy as a leader – have certainly been instrumental in the escalation, but the anger and frustration is broadly based and civil society organisations remain at the forefront.

It is all the more remarkable given that his militia, the Mehdi Army, was responsible for some of the worst sectarian atrocities during Iraq’s insurgency and civil war that reached horrific levels of violence during 2006 and 2007.



One of the key demands of the protestors, both before al-Sadr’s involvement and especially today, is reform of Iraq’s ethno-sectarian political quota system. Iraqis consider it the source of multiple problems: it institutionalises sectarian politics, entrenches corruption, and prevents the development of a genuine meritocracy in government departments.

This is exactly what analysts warned it would do when it was imposed by US occupation in 2003. Street protests have called for its abolishment or reform ever since.

Uniquely positioned

The evolving politics of Muqtada al-Sadr is an appropriate metaphor for the dynamism of Iraqi politics. He was a feared militia leader during the insurgency period, was later spoken of as a kingmaker for his decisive role in the rise (and fall) of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and now he’s positioning himself as a figure of national unity.

Al-Sadr is carefully balancing twin roles as politician – his bloc holds 34 seats in parliament – and critical outsider, that is, as a representative of everyday Iraqis voicing their frustration in the streets. His level of political engagement has shifted over time. While this has led to criticism, in hindsight it resembles a strategic approach that may be about to pay off. Indeed, polls show that al-Sadr is now the second most popular national politician in Iraq after the Prime Minister.

Al-Sadr is supporting al-Abadi’s reforms, warning rival politicians not to oppose them, and positioning himself to play an influential role should the reforms come to fruition. Concurrently, he presents himself as a strident and critical outsider - a champion of the people as such - enabling him to escape blame should reforms continue to be delayed.

Muqtada al-Sadr occupies a unique and powerful position in Iraqi politics today, despite or even because of his past endeavours. He can mobilise hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, commands a reformed militia that is currently protecting holy sites against Islamic State attacks, and now sits on a white plastic chair outside his tent in the Green Zone.

The Sadrists have reinvigorated Iraq’s popular protest movement. It now looks like a dynamic movement capable of engendering genuine institutional change. Muqtada al-Sadr, in particular, has thrown down the gauntlet demanding that Iraq’s crooked, self-serving and venal political class finally take decisive action vis-à-vis corruption, national unity, and the provision of adequate government services.

Iraq’s politicians have only belatedly recognised the threat posed by al-Sadr’s populist brand of street politics. It seems that they will have little choice but to acquiesce to his demands.  In short, the “most dangerous man in Iraq” appears to have been reborn as a genuine reformer.  And that makes him all the more dangerous to Iraq’s sclerotic political elite.


Damian Doyle is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research is focused on the Sadrist Movement in Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @toaf

Dr Tristan Dunning is an adjunct research fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.  He is the author of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine published as part of Routledge’s Critical Terrorism Studies Series in February 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @trisdunning

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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