BAGHDAD — Moqtada al-Sadr, the troublesome cleric whose militia repeatedly battled U.S. troops more than a decade ago, is back in action in Iraq — this time as a champion of political reforms.
And what a comeback it has been, replete with high political drama, bold gestures of choreographed symbolism and moments of nerve-racking tension that have seen Baghdad brace for a potential new war.
Sadr’s return to the limelight began in February, when he emerged from years of self-imposed retirement from politics to lead a mass protest campaign calling for the creation of a new government and an end to the corrupt practices of the country’s despised political elite.
On Thursday, after spending five days holed up in a tent inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to press his demands, he was handed a victory, in the form of a proposed new government presented to parliament by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The new, streamlined cabinet is to be composed not of politicians but technocrats with the skills required to run ministries — meeting one of Sadr’s top demands.
Whether a new government will be formed is in question. Parliament won’t vote on whether to approve the candidates for another 10 days. This reform proposal may yet founder, like others before it, on the paralyzing squabbles of the country’s feuding politicians.
The proposal did mark a small first step toward a larger package of reforms long promised by Abadi but never implemented because of resistance from the country’s powerful political blocs.
It was also a significant triumph for Sadr, the heir to the legacy of one of Shiite Islam’s most revered religious families and also the overall commander of one of the country’s more powerful militias, known in the earliest years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq as the Mahdi Army and now called the Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades.
Yet again Sadr has demonstrated that he has the power to mobilize the street, tilt the balance of power in Iraq and dictate outcomes on his terms.
“Our efforts have been rewarded,” Sadr said, calling off the protests, in a televised speech beamed from his Green Zone tent to thousands of cheering supporters gathered just beyond the zone’s fortified blast walls.
“We will never be humiliated!” the crowd chanted back, pumping their fists at the screen on which his speech was being broadcast before dispersing into the night, tooting horns and waving Sadr’s picture. Sadr headed back to his home in the southern city of Najaf in a 24-vehicle armored convoy.
Abadi, in his speech to parliament, thanked Sadr for his role in organizing the protests that helped him formulate the proposed new government.
“Everybody comes out looking well, which was what was needed,” said Sajad Jiyad of Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, who has advised Abadi in the past. “Sadr has presented himself as an agent of reform. The prime minister kept his job and looked calm and reasonable, as if he is in charge.”
The deal culminated more than eight months of escalating unrest that has seen huge crowds gather in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand that Abadi boot out corrupt ministers and abolish the practice of distributing government positions according to sectarian quotas, adopted after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The momentum stalled after reforms swiftly promised by the prime minister failed to materialize — until Sadr stepped in. He gave Abadi a 45-day ultimatum to appoint a new government, after which Sadr would order his supporters to storm the Green Zone and do the job themselves.
To underline the threat, Sadrist supporters set up a tented protest camp just beyond the Green Zone’s fortified walls, echoing similar camps set up elsewhere in the region during the Arab Spring revolts — except that unlike those popular revolts, this one was underwritten by a private army.
When the deadline passed without result, instead of ordering an assault, Sadr strode into the Green Zone, flanked by just a handful of aides, and declared that he was ready to sacrifice his life for the sake of the people’s demands.
The soldiers, ostensibly there to keep outsiders out, embraced him. The general in charge of security knelt and kissed his hand. Sadr’s aides erected a tent for him. Then he took a selfie with five of his closest cleric and militia friends showing him inside the tent inside the Green Zone, which was transmitted across Baghdad via social media accounts.
The message was clear: The political elite living in luxury behind their fortified walls cannot be protected from Sadr’s wrath, and even the security forces could not be counted on to defend them.
Abadi was never Sadr’s target, his supporters say. Rather, they explain, the goal was to bolster Abadi’s wobbly hold on power by pressuring the more powerful politicians blocking Abadi’s reforms to acquiesce to changes that will presumably see them kicked out of their jobs.
“What we want to do is set Abadi free from the pressures of the blocs and the parties so that he can meet the people’s demands,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a Sadrist member of parliament and one of the select few who accompanied Sadr on his Green Zone foray.
And indeed, although Sadr has portrayed himself as the champion of the people against the government, it’s more complicated than that. His challenge has revived multiple, long-standing feuds within the powerful Shiite establishment, many of them predating its ascent to power after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s more Sunni-oriented regime.
They include some of the rising stars in the other Shiite militias who have soared to prominence because of their role in fighting the Islamic State, and who are poised to play a significant role in the country’s political future — perhaps taking support and future votes away from the Sadrists.
Sadr has demonstrated that “he has more popular support than those militias,” said Mohammed Naaina, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “No party right now would dare clash with Moqtada Sadr because they know they won’t win.”