Amid Iraqi Chaos, Moktada al-Sadr, an Old Provocateur, Returns


FEB. 26, 2016

Supporters of Moktada al-Sadr listened to his speech at a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on Friday. Credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence

BAGHDAD — They came from the slums of this city’s underclass, the alleyways and the simple halls of the seminary in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, and the outer reaches of the rural south.

They waved Iraqi flags and demanded change. The crowd packed Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Friday morning, chanting by the tens of thousands against corruption and for decisive reforms in how politics is conducted here, as they waited for their man to appear.

“No, no to thieves! Yes, yes to reforms!”

Then Moktada al-Sadr, the cleric and political provocateur whose command of the Iraqi Shiite street is unmatched, stepped up to the rail of a makeshift stage on the rooftop of an old girls school and appealed to the people’s grievances in terms at once revolutionary and patriotic.

“After today, the prime minister has to act!” he said. Referring to the barricaded heart of the central government, he said, “Today we are at the door of the Green Zone, and tomorrow the people will be inside!”

The time is ripe for demagogues again in Iraq, where the public is seething with anger over corruption, a grinding war and a collapse in oil prices that has shaken the economy. With an ineffective political class unable to rise above internal scheming, Iraq is struggling to face its most pressing concerns, the primary one being winning the war with the Islamic State and reuniting the country.

Mr. Sadr called for governmental reform and the elimination of corruption. Credit Ahmed Saad/Reuters

Mr. Sadr and his fearsome militia were once a primary enemy of the United States, and he played many roles in shaping Iraq after the American invasion: populist cleric, Iranian proxy, Iraqi patriot, political kingmaker. In seizing a chance on Friday to return to the political spotlight, he positioned himself as a nationalist in the face of Iran’s growing role in Iraqi affairs, and as a source of aid for a weak prime minister.

“Today I am among you to say to you, frankly and bravely, that the government has left its people struggling against death, fear, hunger, unemployment, occupation, a struggling economy, a security crisis, bad services and a big political crisis,” Mr. Sadr told the crowd.

Above all, it was a reminder of the confused state of internal Shiite politics that even as he was seeking to harness public rage against the political elites, he had actually called the street rally to support the reform policies of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Mr. Abadi’s proposal to tackle corruption and install technocrats in the country’s ministries has stalled over the opposition of powerful militia leaders and some pro-Iran politicians. For his part, Mr. Sadr has offered to have his ministers resign in protest to lend Mr. Abadi’s agenda some steam. Despite that, and the support of the most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, it remains unclear whether Mr. Abadi’s agenda will be able to win the help of any other political blocs.

If nothing else, Mr. Sadr’s appearance in Baghdad on Friday was a chance to “get himself back in the center of things,” said Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in Amman, Jordan, who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

Mr. Sadr was once at the very heart of things in Iraq, but in recent years had receded somewhat from the public eye.

When the United States invaded in 2003, Mr. Sadr was just shy of 30. But he drew on the political inheritance of his father, a pivotal and immensely popular Shiite cleric assassinated on Saddam Hussein’s orders in 1999, to emerge as a powerful voice for the Shiite underclass.

He forged a movement that melded martial, political and social elements. His militia, the Mahdi Army, once fought the Americans and the Iraqi state, and it was blamed for atrocities during the sectarian civil war of 2006 and 2007.

Nowadays his militiamen are largely under the control of the government, and his anti-Americanism, once a defining issue for him, is less ardent. Recently, through his contacts among Shiite militia leaders, he helped secure the release of three Americans kidnapped in Baghdad. At the rally there was some bashing of the United States, but it felt more perfunctory than strident.

Once an open client of Iran, Mr. Sadr has in recent years gone his own way, and is widely seen these days as an Iraq-first advocate of cross-sectarian unity. His militia, reconstituted after the extremists of the Islamic State captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, was renamed the Peace Brigades.

Today, as he seeks to redefine himself once again, Mr. Sadr, now 42, has positioned himself as a backer of Mr. Abadi, who is seen as increasingly weak in the face of the growing influence of Iran. Tehran supports Mr. Abadi’s political rivals, who command militias.

“Abadi, as a person, is kindhearted,” said Saad Thamer, 37, a supporter of Mr. Sadr’s who attended the rally. “But he is very weak.”

The militias have become exceedingly popular among the Shiite public, challenging Mr. Abadi’s authority, because they are seen as the protectors of the Shiite majority against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.

It has also been a challenge to Mr. Sadr, who has lost of some of his support at the grass-roots level as young men flock to other militias seen as more powerful. His embrace of the Iraqi state has also sometimes worked against him by contradicting his image as a populist figure.

“From an anti-establishment young leader, he compromised his stance by working more with the Iraqi political establishment, which cost him a loss of some popularity among his followers,” said Maria Fantappie, the Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Iraq is a place where everyone has his enemies, and Mr. Sadr has his share. One of his chief critics is the former prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who once counted on Mr. Sadr’s support to secure a second term after national elections in 2010.

Mr. Sadr later broke from Mr. Maliki, and tried to oust him from the premiership. In a recent interview, Mr. Maliki said Mr. Sadr was seeking to exploit Mr. Abadi’s weakness to re-establish his own influence. “He’s supporting Abadi, but in his own way,” Mr. Maliki said. “He wants to control Abadi.”

During his time in office, especially in 2011 when the Arab Spring uprisings set off a protest movement in Iraq, Mr. Maliki feared what would happen if Mr. Sadr commanded his followers to take to the streets. He did not, and the protests died out.

But Mr. Maliki said Mr. Sadr’s re-emergence presented dangers for Iraq, and warned, “He has power and weapons.”