Iraq's Moqtada Sadr: cleric and kingmaker

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Baghdad (AFP)

Whether in protests, elections, secret negotiations or government formations, one man always seems to have the last word in Iraq's tumultuous political scene: sharp-tongued cleric Moqtada Sadr.

The onetime militiaman has earned himself a cult-like following in Iraq which he can mobilise with a single tweet to crown -- or bring down -- a government.

He appeared to do just that this week, endorsing mass protests in Iraq that have demanded the collapse of a government he himself brought to power only a year ago.

Mind-boggling politicking is par for the course when it comes to Sadr, said Renad Mansour of the London-based Chatham House think-tank.

"He was concerned with how the government he formed had failed so he decided to take it down," said Mansour.

"He's a guy who has multiple sides: an anthropologist who goes with the street, making him inconsistent over the years."

Sadr, 46, was born in the southern Iraqi town of Kufa to a family with deep political roots.

His father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999, was one of Iraq's most respected Shiite clerics and a fierce opponent of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Moqtada Sadr is also related to Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr, the prominent thinker who was executed by Saddam in 1980.

This legacy fuelled the younger Sadr's fire, and he saw his opportunity in Saddam's 2003 ouster by a US-led invasion -- which he also opposed with his Mehdi Army.

Sadr virtually disappeared in 2006, spending the next few years studying to become a cleric in Iran's Qom before returning to Iraq's holy city of Najaf in 2011.

- Ruling reformist -

As he returned to public life, Sadr began railing against corruption and its main symbol in Iraq: Baghdad's once-exclusive "Green Zone" which hosts government offices and embassies.

In 2016, he held weekly Friday protests against graft in a country considered the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International.

Sadr regularly dispatched his critiques to his more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.

But after years as a self-styled opposition, his Saeroon bloc won the largest share of parliament's 329 seats in elections last year.

To form a majority, he allied with the next-biggest bloc Fatah, the political arm of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, and brought Adel Abdel Mahdi as premier.

"Sadr presents himself as an anti-establishment champion of reform and a populist voice of the millions who have been let down by the system," said Fanar Haddad, an expert at Singapore University's Middle East Institute.

"But the fact remains that the Sadrists have been an integral part of the political classes and have had no shortage of ministerial posts and high ranking public office," he added.

That contradiction has been strained by the protests, which put Sadr and the Hashed on opposite sides of the swelling anti-government movement.

More than 240 people were killed and thousands wounded in rallies that erupted on October 1 in anger at unemployment and corruption before evolving into calls for regime change.

Amid the protests, several Hashed offices were torched in southern Iraq in what observers said was an escalation of the rivalry between Sadr and the Hashed.

But in a slick about-face, Sadr invited Fatah chief Hadi al-Ameri late Tuesday to jointly drop their support for Abdel Mahdi.

- Back to the driver's seat -

Their apparent rapprochement came hours after Sadr returned from Iran, a country with which he has complex ties.

His family was long opposed to the theocratic ruling system there and Sadr even visited its regional foe Riyadh in 2017.

He shocked many when he travelled to Tehran in September, meeting both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Qasem Soleimani.

An observer who was tracking the visit said it was sparked by fears for his life.

"Sadr was asking for protection because he was afraid he may be assassinated," the source said, citing his worsening ties to the Hashed at the time.

It was another indication of Sadr's "winding trajectory," said Karim Bitar, an international relations analyst at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

"A nationalist anti-American troublemaker during the Iraq war, who we then find allied to Saudi Arabia, before he makes another radical turn again to get closer to the Iranians," Bitar said.

In the weeks since his meeting with Khamenei, Sadr has cleverly turned the tables.

He backed protests with sharp-tongued tweets as Saeroon shut down parliament with a sit-in, a show of force that ultimately scored him key political leverage.

After landing in Najaf from Iran, he immediately drove his car to the swelling protests, finding himself in the driver's seat again.