Iraq's Moqtada Sadr: cleric and kingmaker

4 min

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 ex-minister Mohammad Allawi to become Iraq's new premier after four months of anti-government protests had brought political life to a standstill.

Sadr had backed the rallies early on, even though they called for the downfall of a cabinet and PM he had sponsored, and for early elections that may cost him seats in parliament, where he controls the largest bloc.

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

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 Mahdi 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 watchdog group Transparency International.

Sadr regularly dispatched his critiques to his more than 900,000 followers on Twitter.

But after years as a self-styled opposition, his Saeroon bloc won the largest share of parliament's 329 seats in the 2018 elections.

To form a majority, he allied with the next-biggest bloc, Fatah, the political arm of the Hashed al-Shaabi military network and his longtime rivals.

"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 in recent months as Sadr issued a dizzying series of tweets backing, then abandoning, then re-endorsing anti-government rallies rocking Iraq since October.

He also organised his own anti-US rally that saw tens of thousands flood the streets of Baghdad to demand foreign forces leave Iraqi territory.

"Sadr is torn between two competing trends -- one to try to unify the political leadership, and two, to try to bring protesters closer to it," Mansour added.

He has tried to walk the tightrope between them: asking his supporters to remain in protest camps but condemning student sit-ins and road closures -- the two main tactics used by other demonstrators.

- 'Winding trajectory' -

But Sadr's instructions have all been issued on Twitter as he is thought to still be in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

He has complex ties with Iran, a country to which his family was long opposed but where he is now completing his religious studies.

Sadr shocked many when he travelled to Tehran in September, meeting both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed months later in a US drone strike on Baghdad.

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.

Now, Sadr once again finds himself the main sponsor of Iraq's new prime minister but has insisted that he remains a rebel at heart.

At the bottom of a recent tweet urging a return to normal life, swiftly shared and reposted by thousands of his die-hard followers, Sadr signed off: "patron of the revolution."