His was one of the most feared names during Iraq’s most violent years. But more and more, Muqtada al-Sadr seems to be treading a path of political expediency. The question is why?
Just a few short years ago, the followers of young Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, were out on the streets kidnapping and killing their Sunni Muslim countrymen, embroiled in sectarian violence that virtually dragged Iraq into civil war. But late in 2012, al-Sadr, who is often described as a “firebrand cleric” in the Western media, was seen in a rather unusual place: attending prayers behind a Sunni Muslim religious leader at the Abdul Qader Al Kilani mosque in central Baghdad.
The unified prayer meeting – unusual in bringing the sectarian foes together – was the culmination of a series of interesting moves by al-Sadr, where he had been openly supporting Sunni Muslims protesting against the current Iraqi government. That government is headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the bloc that al-Sadr heads, the Sadrist bloc, is one of its main supporters.
No wonder then, that some were confused. Was this a whole new al-Sadr? A different and more politically expedient man, than the one who was once exhorted his followers to kill?
Certainly, al-Sadr has sent out many confusing messages of late. When the major opposition Iraqiya bloc, led by former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, announced its intention to withdraw from the Iraqi government, al-Sadr first signalled that his group would join them in trying to end the current Prime Minister’s term prematurely. But when the time actually came for action, al-Sadr resisted joining the mostly Sunni Muslim Iraqiya bloc in withdrawing support.
In a statement issued by his office in Najaf, al-Sadr said that he was against the withdrawal from government because it would be detrimental to the interests of the Iraqi people. And it was yet another example of how al-Sadr keeps taking one step toward isolating al-Maliki and curtailing his power, but then, at the last moment, taking two steps back.
Our bloc could oust the government led by al-Maliki within a week, boasts Hakim al-Zamili, a leading member of the Sadrists. “We made him a prime minister,” he argues. “But we wanted to prevent the country from further political and security turmoil. So we couldn’t take any step that would have caused more suffering for the Iraqi people,” he explains.
“The stream’s position is clear in regard to the protests,” al-Zamili said. “The most important part of that position is that we oppose any calls for an end to the current political process. We also oppose those who are supported from outside of Iraq. We’re against the sectarian discourse. And we will criticize the government when it delays in dealing with injustice and when it does not meet the legitimate constitutional demands of the Iraqi people.”
In fact, the Sadrists are this confident because their party is founded on an ideological and religious basis, rather than a strictly political platform. This guarantees them a certain guaranteed level of popularity among Shiite Muslims. It also allows al-Sadr more flexibility and pragmatism, letting him adopt tactics that annoy and confound both his enemies and his allies. It allows him to bring pressure to bear from various sides.
The difference in the way that al-Maliki and his allies dealt with the growing Sunni Muslim protests in the western province of Anbar and the way that al-Sadr was able to deal with them, demonstrates this.
For example, in February he sent a delegation to meet ranking Sunni Muslim cleric, Abdul-Malik al-Saadi, who had returned from Jordan to support the protestors and who was a figurehead for them. Besides sending a delegation to meet al-Saadi, al-Sadr also expressed his solidarity with the Sunni Muslim cleric in regard to his anti-sectarian stance.
Meanwhile al-Maliki and his allies were slow in reacting to the protests, playing for time. Whereas al-Sadr seemed to spare no effort in trying to find acceptable solutions that would see protestors return home.
So is this a new al-Sadr? Has the former “firebrand cleric” matured politically and worked out how to play the game?
Foreign Policy magazine answered that question recently: “On the one hand, Sadr’s new tune could reflect his genuine maturation and a newfound desire to play a positive role in Iraq’s dysfunctional political system; on the other hand, it could be just a new tactic to expand his influence and power. Either way, the more Sadr can convince Iraqis - disenfranchised Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis alike - that he is a reliable and moderate partner, the more power he will accrue at the expense of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite.”
“The key for Iraqis,” the magazine carefully concluded, “is to vet the new Sadr carefully and insist that he backs his sweetened rhetoric with concrete actions.”