Muqtada al-Sadr, the Most Powerful Man in Iraqi Politics?

When on April 12 some 80 legislators staged a sit-in at the parliament building — allegedly to precipitate political reforms yet seen by many as muscle-flexing by those close to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — Sadr’s al-Ahrar bloc joined in, too. His loyalist parliamentarians soon, however, ended their participation in the action sensing the agenda might detour from their own.

“The main factor for al-Ahrar’s withdrawal from the members of parliament sit-in was their fear that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might benefit from their success,” said Abbas Kadhim, an expert on Iraq’s Shiites and a senior foreign policy fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Sadr’s relations with Maliki have often been characterized by tensions, especially after 2008, when Maliki, as prime minister, authorized Iraqi forces to move against the armed, pro-Sadr Jaish al-Mahdi in the oil-rich city of Basra and Baghdad suburb of Sadr City to curb in the group's armed activities.

Such a seemingly ill-measured move as joining a sit-in of mostly pro-Maliki parliamentarians is unlikely to harm Sadr’s standing with his supporters, who primarily revere him for the religious heritage he represents. “[The Sadrists'] involvement in the sit-in and their withdrawal were badly calculated. The good news for them is that their constituents will not hold them accountable. They never have,” Kadhim observed.

The storming of the Iraqi parliament by pro-Sadr protesters has angered many in Iraq’s polarized political landscape. They believe such actions can only contribute to destroying the space to try to arrive at political solutions in a country where armed conflict has long been a way of settling differences.

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