In 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr saw the walls closing in around him. His fellow Shi’ite leaders in Iraq were opposing his militia, Iran was turning against him and the Americans were hunting him. He decided enough was enough. His Mahdi army militia would “stand down” for six months and Sadr would quietly leave Iraq.
Then, one of Sadr’s advisers approached a US diplomat in Iraq. According to notes of the January 2008 meeting that were made by the American and later transmitted to Washington, the Sadrists had a new view of the Iranian threat to Iraq. The cable was one of many published by Wikileaks.
“A growing number of other Sadrists have come to the conclusion that Iran, not the United States, is Iraq’s greatest nemesis.” The Americans were nonplussed. The Mahdi army had killed numerous American soldiers since 2004, when they revolted in Sadr City in Baghdad. Sadr was seen as a deplorable. He deserved to be defeated.
So Sadr exited the stage for a while. Today he is back, the kingmaker of Iraq, after taking 54 seats in the new parliament, the most of any party. The man who was born in 1973 and whose father was murdered by Saddam Hussein has come a long way. He emerged in 2004, with his robes and black beard becoming a symbol of Iraqi opposition to the US. His power lay in Shi’ite slums, which one American called “hovels.” His militia were called “gangs” and “rabble” but they were effective and respected on the street. From 2004 to 2008 Sadr led a kind of insurgency. Then he disappeared.
He returned in 2011, showing up in Najaf – where he was born – and discussing the new government of Iraq. There had been elections in 2010 in which Ayad Allawi, the secular candidate, had come in first. But Nouri al-Maliki, a pro-Iranian chauvinist, placed second.
Maliki was, oddly, the favorite of the Americans who were fixing to withdraw from Iraq. The administration of Barack Obama thought – incorrectly as it turned out – that Maliki would bring stability.
Washington was slowly pivoting to discussions with Iran. Having a pro-Iranian strongman in Baghdad could help in the long run with the Iran deal. Sadr thought he could play a role in the government that formed in 2011, but Maliki betrayed him, canceling a deal with Sadr and the Kurds. Both parties were enraged, but Maliki had a powerful bloc in parliament supported by his own Dawa Party and the Badr Organization of Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri was a former veteran of Iran’s war against Saddam in the 1990s, and he had opposed Sadr’s militia in 2007.
So Sadr went into the wilderness again from 2011 to 2014. Then Islamic State showed up in Iraq, fueled by Sunni Arab hatred of Maliki. The Iraqi Army melted away and the black flag of ISIS was only a few kilometers from Baghdad. Sadr mobilized his militia, which marched through the streets, armed and prepared to repel the enemy at the gates.
But Sadr wasn’t happy with the government and accused it of corruption. He focused on local politics during the war on ISIS, mobilizing his followers for a mass protest in Baghdad where his men swept into the Green Zone and appeared to be willing to sack parliament. For anyone who discounted his support, the mass protests in 2016 were a symbol of what was to come. Sadr, shrewd and constantly zig-zagging, disbanded his militia, now called Saraya Al-Salam, and said the other Shi’ite militias should also be disbanded.
In 2018, his supporters fanned out in Baghdad and into the Shi’ite south. When elections were held on May 12, Sadr trounced all their rivals. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s “victory” list came in third. Amiri, the hardened militia leader, came in second. Sadr, his beard now gray, came in first.
Sadr has recently been holding court in Najaf and Baghdad. He met with ambassadors from Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia after the election, trying to position himself as an Iraqi nationalist, which he has always been. He wants a third way between Washington and Tehran.
In an unusual twist, Washington and Tehran are on the same page regarding Iraq. They both like Abadi. Iran’s Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soelimani has been in Iraq trying to figure out how to steal the elections from Sadr. The Iranians stole the elections in 2010, so why not do it again? The US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk has also been in Iraq discussing the situation with the Kurds and others.
The question for Washington is whether it can discuss things with Sadr. He was not only instrumental in fighting Americans but has warned the US about moving its embassy Jerusalem. However, he has also reached out to Riyadh and appears to have changed. He’s no more militant than Maliki or Amiri, both of whom are pro-Iranian extremists. Sadr also seems to have gained respect from the Kurds in the north and the Sunni Arabs, both of whom fear Iran’s tentacles in Iraq.
Sadr now has to decide what his third incarnation will mean. He has gone away before, in 2007 and then again in February 2014, claiming he would leave politics. He has constantly shifted, wanting to be a militia leader, cleric and populist. He has never really been a politician. Like Donald Trump, he has no experience in government. Perhaps this has been his greatest asset and reason that many Iraqis voted for him.