May 3, 2016

Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr flexes his political muscles

Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr
Caption on right: Yes, yes to Iraq / Lower caption: Love of country comes from faith

In a demonstration of his political power, radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr engineered a huge demonstration on Saturday, April 30 inside Baghdad's heavily fortified and defended "Green Zone" (officially the International Zone).

Thousands of al-Sadr's followers moved blast walls and fences, pushed their way into the zone and entered several of the government buildings that constitute the seat of power of the Iraqi government. The zone is also the home of the huge American embassy as well as other foreign missions.

The ease by which the demonstrators entered the facility is telling. Iraqi security forces are perfectly capable of defending the zone and repelling the demonstrators, but there was little resistance from the guard force. Many of the demonstrators remarked that they were treated fairly by the soldiers and police as long as they did not pose a threat. Reportedly, the general in charge of security personally welcomed al-Sadr to the restricted area. Why was there no armed confrontation?

I suspect there was almost no violence because Muqtada al-Sadr and the demonstrators are demanding the same thing Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has been advocating for months - the end of the rampant corruption and cronyism that permeates virtually every level of the Iraqi government.

The nonviolent demonstrations are a departure from al-Sadr's past. The cleric has a long history of violent confrontations with the Iraqi government, and his Iranian-trained and supplied jaysh al-mahdi (JAM, or Army of the Mahdi) was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops between 2004 and 2007. It was only the American "surge" of 2007-2008 that saw the demise of the JAM - al-Sadr assessed, correctly, that his thugs were no match for the newly-deployed U.S. Army combat battalions tasked with securing Baghdad. Al-Sadr fled to Iran.

The cleric remained in Iran for over three years, returning to Iraq in early 2011. Ostensibly, al-Sadr was in Qom to continue his Islamic studies and attain the title of ayatollah; he had been a hawjat al-islam prior. I suspect this claim was only for his followers, since he has not attained the title of either mujtahid (one authorized to issue fatwas, or religious rulings) or ayatollah. His return to the Shi'a holy city of al-Najaf, site of the martyrdom of the first Shi'a imam 'Ali (son in law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad), was greeted with almost uncontrollable revelry in the streets.

Why is this 42-year old such an influential figure in Iraqi politics?

Muqtada al-Sadr is a sayyid. Sayyid is the Arabic word for mister, or sir. However, in Shi'a Islam it denotes a person who is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and Imam 'Ali. Sayyids are entitled to wear the black turban.

The Shi'a believe that leadership of the faithful should have been restricted to the prophet's bloodline, and al-Sadr clearly qualifies. His family lineage is traceable back to the sixth iman, Ja'afar al-Sadiq, and the seventh imam, Musa al-Khadhim. The shrine of the seventh imam is located in the northwest section of Baghdad, appropriately named al-Khadhimiyah. While Westerners sometimes dismiss the cache of direct lineage to the prophet, Iraqis do not. Coincidentally, the annual remembrance ceremony for the seventh imam is this week.

Muqtada al-Sadr is arguably now the key power broker in Iraq. When he called his followers back from the demonstration in the Green Zone, he issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister al-'Abadi that the Iraqi leader has until Friday (May 6) to effect changes in the Iraqi cabinet, replacing corrupt politicians with qualified technocrats. If that deadline is not met, the demonstrations will resume. Al-Sadr has further threatened to bring down the al-'Abadi government and force early Parliamentary elections - elections he can greatly influence.

Al-'Abadi should take Muqtada al-Sadr seriously. The firebrand cleric has proven that he can mobilize thousands of disciplined demonstrators and create problems for the Iraqi government - at a time when the government needs to devote its time and energy to the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Of note, Muqtada al-Sadr flew to Iran this morning - is he there to get his marching orders? I guess we will find out when al-'Abadi does not meet the Friday deadline.