Do not be alarmed by the great volume of posts which have all appeared on the same day – early in November. I had accumulated a backlog of articles intended for commentary, and simply did not have the time or interest to do so at the time. I have now flooded the interblags with them so as to give the impression of content within a fake newspaper.
In this case, we find ourselves examining the legacy of leading Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – a leading Shi’i religious authority who has gained enhanced prominence following the demise of the authoritarian Ba’athist government lead by Saddam Hussein. Worth noting is that the controversial former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also numbers among the Shi’a adherents. And yet, the two men have not been met with similar levels of popularity. This would lend credence to the age-old aphorism that all politics is local, and depends on location, location, location.
In the case of al-Sadr, he seems most well-known outside of Iraq as an institution unto himself, capable of administering a society despite having no official role within the Iraqi government. In the absence of a strong and centralized governing authority, it often falls to such individuals to deliver essential public services.
With this context in mind, please consider the following excerpt from a War on the Rocks column originally published this past May:
Sadr has since undergone a rebranding process. He disbanded the notorious Mehdi Army and later established Saraya al-Salam (the Peace Brigades), which semantically has a less aggressive and non-sectarian tone. Last year, in a battle against the Islamic State, Sadr withdrew his paramilitary fighters as soon as allegations emerged of crimes committed by his men. Moving away from strictly a sectarian militia, his fighters are also fighting alongside Sunni tribes, such as the Albu Nimr in Anbar, against the Islamic State. Moreover, members of his paramilitary have welcomed the idea of integration into the Iraqi state, but only when the government’s security apparatus is perceived as effective and legitimate. Many analysts criticize Sadr for hypocrisy, claiming to fight corruption while sending individuals from his own ranks to become government officials. His officials have been part of the very problem of corruption that Sadr claims to oppose. However, Sadr is increasingly cautious about who he sends to represent his voice in government. Under accusations of corruption, he has on occasion removed the bad apples and blessed the courts’ legal proceedings. For instance, when Abadi issued legal proceedings against Sadrist Deputy Prime Minister Baha Araji, Sadr issued a statement ordering Araji to resign and forbade him from leaving the country prior to completion of the judicial procedures.
For further evidence of the importance of the individual al-Sadr in the absence of meaningful institutions within the Iraqi state, we should also consult this summary of his political evolution highlighted by the Atlantic Council at roughly the same moment:
Just prior to sending his followers into the Green Zone, Sadr reportedly traveled to Beirut to consult with Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General — who is respected by Iraqi Shia leaders. Sadr has not been shy in expressing his admiration of Nasrallah, describing himself once as “the striking hand of Hezbollah in Iraq.” Sadr’s recent speech was also replete with Qur’anic references, likely thrown in to reflect his improved religious scholarship gained from recent studies in Iran, and a Nasrallah-style delivery, down to hand gestures and an emphasis on the interests of those he represents rather than on any personal ambition of his own. Nasrallah’s influence could be positive or negative, depending on how Sadr chooses to use it. The former’s pragmatism could induce the latter to be satisfied exercising influence from behind the scenes without seeking to assume power directly. He has said in his recent speech, as well as on previous occasions, that he seeks only to influence government rather than replace it. While all signs thus far indicate a commitment to a nonviolent movement, it remains to be seen whether the relatively young and passionate Muqtada al-Sadr has accumulated enough political wisdom in recent years to exert his influence on Baghdad’s power elite peacefully or, if in a rush to cash in on his popularity, he might precipitate a violent confrontation in an already tense and complex Iraqi environment.
At any rate, Muqtada al-Sadr is an important man worth keeping an eye on, both by deeply interested parties who would have known that already, and by casual observers of international affairs. One, he is and will remain incredibly influential in the shaping of the modern Iraqi state (or what remains of it) and, two, his is an interesting case study in the growth and development of grassroots institution-building when the state finds itself incapable of adequately exercising its full sovereignty. Sometimes you get this guy, sometimes you get Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The goal of policymakers needs to be to differentiate between the two (OBVIOUSLY) and find some appropriate means of supporting the one without granting any legitimacy to the other. Again, this should not be a particularly brilliant insight, but some people seem to need a reminder.