Understanding Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr: Inside Baghdad’s Sadr City

After supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr storm the Iraqi parliament, a Chatham House survey of residents in Baghdad’s Sadr City gives a rare insight into the actions and motivations of the populist cleric.

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Dr Benedict Robin-D’Cruz

Postdoctoral Fellow, Aarhus University

Following their shock victory in the 2021 elections, the Sadrists claimed they were poised to push Iraq towards a new type of politics. But after nine months of failing to form a government, their leader, populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has seemingly given up and withdrawn from the government formation process. Instead, he called for mass protests, sent his followers to invade and occupy parliament, and demanded another election. In response, his opponents, Nouri al-Maliki and the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces, sent loyalists to Baghdad’s Green Zone, risking conflict between the two heavily armed sides.

Although it is still unlikely this will lead to a Shia civil war, there are increasing concerns about the lengths Sadr is willing go to. As one policymaker asked the authors, ‘can one man hold an entire country hostage?’

Understanding the base means understanding who Sadr’s audience is at times when his decisions and actions appear sporadic, unpredictable and miscalculated.

Despite the theatrics of occupying parliament, Sadr’s aim is not revolution or overturning the political system, but rather to gain more power from his Shia opponents, and Nouri al-Maliki in particular. As long Maliki is not in the picture, Sadr is willing to continue the ethno-sectarian system and work with the ruling Kurdish and Sunni elite.

But years of dominating a corrupt government has damaged Sadr’s role as a populist clerical leader and strained his relationship to his social base. His withdrawal from parliament is therefore not only about ratcheting up pressure on his political rivals, but crucially also an attempt to regenerate his legitimacy.  

Indeed, understanding the Sadrist base is key to understanding Sadr himself. To this end, Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative project have conducted a rare survey of over 1,000 Sadrists from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, giving unique insights into a group that is often misunderstood.

Understanding the Sadrist base

The survey shows that Muqtada al-Sadr will remain a key player in Iraqi politics.

One of the largest Islamist movements in the Middle East, the Sadrist movement consists of millions of people from a poorer, urban segment of the population. This base is a key source of Sadr’s power – but surrounded by misconceptions. Different groups have sought to use this base for their own purposes. For instance, the leftists and liberals tried to mobilize this base in their anti-corruption drive in 2016. More recently, the US believed the base could be used to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, while Iran itself – and allied groups – have also sought to win over the base from Sadr.

But such attempts have not worked and the findings of this survey help to explain why. Looking at the Sadrist base also offers a glimpse into the movement’s political trajectory, and its implications for Iraq’s stability.

Lack of trust in formal politics and preference for religious leadership

A key finding from the survey of Sadr City showed that a majority do not trust Iraq’s political institutions. 55 per cent of respondents claimed they absolutely do not trust parliament and 45 per cent claimed they absolutely do not trust the cabinet.

Figure 1: To what extent do you trust parliament?

To what extent do you trust parliament?

To what extent do you trust parliament?

Figure 2: To what extent do you trust the cabinet?

To what extent do you trust the cabinet?

To what extent do you trust the cabinet?

When asked who would be able to fix Iraq’s current political problems, most pointed to religious leadership.

This helps explain why Sadr often distances himself from politics. His followers view clerics as legitimate representatives who can and should address the bigger political issues, while politicians are untrustworthy, tainted with corruption, and make decisions that are harmful to Iraqis. However, since winning the 2018 election, Sadr has become more closely associated with these political institutions, creating a wedge between his religious identity and his growing political identity.

In interviews, senior Sadrists told the authors that the move towards institutional politics created a distance between Sadr and his followers and that this was why they initially wanted to boycott the 2021 election. When they did eventually decide to run – and won in a surprise result – they wanted to show the Sadrist base that they were not playing politics as usual. They believed their ‘majority’ government could replace the consensus style of politics that governed Iraq since 2003. But the Sadrists failed to form a majority government. Faced with the option of politics as usual, Sadr decided to withdraw from the formal government formation process to focus on a more activist politics rooted in religious leadership in a bid to reclaim some legitimacy.  

The survey also revealed that the Sadrist base is deeply religious. Most followers believe that the government and the state – even criminal law – should be governed by Islamic law. Religious leadership under Sadr is therefore essential to understanding the nature of the base, and a rebuttal of suggestions by analysts that this base can be mobilized by secular, liberal or other leaders. It also shows that while many of Iraq’s Shia Islamists groups have been hollowed out ideologically and are no longer mobilized around religious ideas and identities, the Sadrists remain an exception.

Figure 3: Who do you believe is capable of changing the situation in Iraq?

Who do you believe is capable of changing the situation in Iraq?

Who do you believe is capable of changing the situation in Iraq?

Figure 4: To what extent do you agree that ‘the government should enact laws in accordance with Islamic law’?

To what extent do you agree that ‘the government should enact laws in accordance with Islamic law’?

To what extent do you agree that ‘the government should enact laws in accordance with Islamic law’?

Negative views of the October 2019 protest movement

Although protests in Iraq are often viewed as one unified voice, or as holding potential for unity, the survey of Sadr City found mixed views of protest movements, including the dominant Tishreen movements. Over a quarter of respondents viewed Tishreen as somewhat negative, and another 16 per cent viewed it as very negative. This reveals the limited extent to which the Sadrists can mobilize with Tishreen – which will be a key agenda for Sadr’s attempt to reclaim the protest squares.

Figure 5: How do you view the Tishreen movement?

How do you view the Tishreen movement?

How do you view the Tishreen movement?

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Despite low voter turnout, Sadrists will still vote

Despite the plummeting voter turnout across Iraq, the Sadrists are still willing to vote. The survey found that 36 per cent are very likely to vote in the next election and 9 per cent somewhat likely to vote. While Sadr also lost votes in 2021 compared to 2018, the fact that his base is more likely to vote than other groups means decreasing voter turnout will affect his rivals more – and explains his calls for another election. The Sadrist base continues to be an important and empowering tool for Sadr in Iraq’s political process and the reason why he will continue to compete in elections.  

Figure 6: How likely are you to vote in the next election?

How likely are you to vote in the next election?

How likely are you to vote in the next election?

Sadr’s audience is his base

Because of its closed nature, very little sociological work has been done on the Sadrist base. However, these survey results offer answers to help make some sense of Sadr’s political decision-making. Understanding the base means understanding who Sadr’s audience is at times when his decisions and actions appear sporadic, unpredictable and miscalculated. They also help explain why past efforts to engage with the Sadrist base have not worked. The survey shows that Muqtada al-Sadr will remain a key player in Iraqi politics and understanding this element of his movement is critical to the country’s stability in the years ahead.