Following the US strike on Qassem Solaimani and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has violently cracked down on youth-led protests in Iraq.
His paramilitaries and ‘blue hats’ – supposedly created to protect protestors from state and allied parastatal security forces – sought to end the months-long demonstrations by attacking the places where protesters have camped since October. In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, they successfully captured the famous Turkish restaurant which had become a symbol of Iraq’s ‘October revolution’.
Once the champion of Iraq’s protest movement, Sadr has seemingly changed course and now leads the counter-protests. This reversal has mystified many, from Iraqis who saw Sadr as an ally in their struggle for reform against an impenetrable elite to foreign diplomats who hoped Sadr could help pushback against Iranian influence in Iraq.
Yet this is not the first time that Sadr has drastically redefined his position. Since 2003, he has gone from Shia sectarian militia leader to pro-democracy reformist and Iraqi nationalist.
And in the past few months, he has given mixed signals, both supporting and criticising the protesters. The most recent incidents of Sadrist violence targeting demonstrators provoked a societal backlash, prompting Sadr to change tack once more and announce that he would disband the blue hats and investigate their crimes against protesters.
Sadr and the paramilitaries
Sadr’s latest change of course may seem to flow directly from the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the ensuing vacuum in the Shia paramilitary sphere. Prior to this move, the Sadrists were on the defensive, outflanked and outgunned by the growing coercive and political power of a constellation of Shia armed groups coalescing under Muhandis’s de facto leadership. Many of these groups competed for Sadr’s base, including Qais al-Khazali’s Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and Akram al-Kaabi’s Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
With Muhandis out of the picture, Sadr could reclaim the space by pushing his own right hand, Kadhem al-Issawi (Abu Do’a), to be the new centre of the paramilitary field and forcing competitors, including Khaza’li and Kaabi, to rally around his leadership.
Iran, in the short term, appears to be going along with this solution to bring more coherence to its allied forces in Iraq as it seeks to counter what it regards as US aggression. Iran also hopes that bringing Sadr back in will help neutralize the protest movement which threatens its stake in Iraqi politics.
The most visible sign of this Iran-brokered rapprochement was the 13 January meeting in Qom attended by Sadr, Issawi and several senior militia commanders including Laith al-Khazali (Qais al-Khazali’s brother).
Following the Qom meeting, a pattern of tit-for-tat violence and assassinations between the Sadrists’ Saraya al-Salam and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq – ongoing since the start of the October protests in Iraq – ceased.
A fragmented movement?
However, while the US strikes certainly changed Sadr’s political calculations, there are more persistent fundamentals at work that help explain his change of course. The first of these relates to long-standing fragmentation within the movement. This exists not only within Sadrist paramilitaries, but within the movement’s clerical networks, and also applies to the ties that bind the Sadrist leadership to its popular base. This fragmentation makes it difficult for Sadr to impose a coherent politics on his followers from the top down.
There are signs that Sadr’s recent shift in position has exacerbated this fragmentation. His attempt to reposition the movement’s base within the ‘resistance axis’ that supports the Shia militias in Iraq has only been partially successful. On 24 January, responding to the US assassinations, Sadr called for a million-man march focused on expelling US forces from Iraq. However, turnout was poor, especially given the huge logistical support for the march, and it lasted only a few hours.
Equally revealing, when Sadr called on his supporters to vacate the squares, many refused. One Sadrist protester in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square told the authors: ‘We’ve been camping with our brothers and sisters for four months. Why should we leave them to die?’
Meanwhile, fissures have also opened up within the Sadrists’ clerical elite. One senior Sadrist cleric, for example, is openly defying Sadr’s authority and siding with the revolutionaries in Nasiriyah.
Sadr’s attempt to dominate the paramilitary sphere is also unlikely to prove any more successful than his many previous failed attempts since 2003. He is neither trusted nor respected by the leaders of other groups. The Iran-brokered rapprochement is already showing signs of weakness. Two recent assassinations of Saraya al-Salam leaders in Basra and Maysan indicate a potential renewal of power struggles between the Sadrist militia and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Sadr is not a revolutionary
Sadr has never been a revolutionary, but someone who seeks to leverage a role as both ‘spoiler’ and ‘stabilizer’ to maximise his political leverage. This strategy is ultimately oriented towards sustaining Iraq’s extant political system, not its overthrow. Forced to choose between the roles of revolutionary or maintainer of the status quo, he has opted for the latter.
The protests that erupted in 2019 were not the same movement that Sadr led from 2015. The 2015 protests were an elite-driven phenomenon, integrated into the political field and carefully calibrated to exert pressure on the elite towards gradual reform.
By contrast, the 2019 demonstrations spring from a youth-led, bottom-up mobilization that rejects politicization and seeks a more radical form of change. Chatham House surveys in a forthcoming paper reveal that the protesters are younger that those who protested in 2015-16. Fewer have permanent employment. Instead of demanding better services or jobs, they are focusing wholesale transformation of the post-2003 political system.
A Sadrist official told the authors that their movement initially joined the protests in October 2019 expecting a similar reform-orientation to the protests which Sadr had previously led. However, according to him, the protesters failed to come forward with reasonable demands or alternative names for prime minister. He believed the protests would fade, and many would regret the ‘wasted time and blood’.
Sadr’s relations with Iran
A final long-term factor at play is Sadr’s receding autonomy from Iran. Ever since his movement’s electoral victory in May 2018, Sadr came under enormous pressure to reconcile with the political wing of the Iranian-allied parastatal armed groups in the formation of a new government acceptable to Iran.
Over the last year, Sadr has moved even closer to Iran, spending more time in Qom. Iran has offered Sadr security from his paramilitary rivals (such as Asa’ib ahl al-Haq), convincing Sadr that he is safer in Iran than Iraq. Moreover, Sadr is undertaking religious training in Qom, and may see this as a chance to enhance his standing in the Shia religious field as many look towards a future beyond the elderly Najaf-based marja Ali al-Sistani.
By keeping Sadr in Qom, Iran appears to be trying to isolate him from what they regard as negative influences. As tensions between the Sadrists and other protest groups intensified, efforts were made by some protest leaders and allied political groups to reach Sadr in Qom and try to persuade him to change course or restrain the worst abuses of his forces. However, this delegation was unable to make contact with Sadr. Those involved told the authors they have resorted to communicating with local Sadrist leaders in Najaf, Babil, Basra and Baghdad.
Crossing a line
This is a transformative moment for the Sadrists. Sadr is now defying the popular sentiments driving protests across central and southern Iraq. The sense of betrayal among former allies and friends of the Sadrists is palpable. One senior activist involved in cooperation with the Sadrists wrote that, no matter what moves Sadr makes next, the cleric has ‘terminated all partnership with the protesters,’ and ‘shattered the framework for cooperation’. A line has thus been crossed that Sadr cannot reverse; he will not be able to recover what he has now lost.
Iran, also, does not see Sadr as a dependable ally, and will look to isolate and side-line the cleric when the opportunity arises. Thus, in seeking to exploit a crisis for short-term gain, Sadr may well have sealed his fate – in the long term – as a declining force in Iraqi politics.