Analysis | Sadr Couldn’t Master Iraq’s Democracy So Now He May Crush It


After two nights of violence that left more than 20 dead in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which houses most of Iraq’s government apparatus, the political system that emerged after the 2003 US invasion is on the edge of collapse.

It’s hardly the first crisis of this sort, but it is the most dangerous in many years: Iraq’s most potent political figure, the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, finally appears willing to bring down a system he has failed to master.

Sadr’s career has been built on the legacy of his father and uncle, two of the most revered Shiite religious authorities of their generation. While he lacks their erudition and religious credentials, and had no governmental experience, Sadr succeeded in building religious and political authority in tandem, each complementing the other. And that has made him a remarkably toxic figure in contemporary Iraq.

After parliamentary elections in October 2021 left his supporters — the primary Shiite anti-Iran faction in Iraqi politics — with 73 seats, twice as many as the nearest rival, Sadr spent months trying and failing to form a government. His frustration led to a series of astonishing miscalculations culminating this summer.

On June 15, he ordered his members of parliament to resign en masse, hoping either to gain leverage for a final effort to form a government or to force new elections. Rival political factions called his bluff, and his seats at the Council of Representatives were quickly filled by runners-up from Shiite pro-Iranian parties. To stop them from forming a government, Sadr ordered his followers to begin a sit-in at the Green Zone to block parliamentary functions.

On Monday, his father’s clerical successor, Grand Ayatollah Kadhem al-Haeri, who is based in Iran, dealt Sadr’s ambitions a major blow. He announced his retirement and instructed his followers to transfer their loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while lambasting Sadr for ripping apart Shiite communities and being unworthy of his family name.

That prompted Sadr to suddenly announce he was quitting politics. His enraged supporters attacked the main government palace, setting off the clashes.

To salvage his reputation, Sadr cannily apologized to the Iraqi people for the bloodshed — a remarkable gesture in a country with a strong tradition of authoritarian-minded leaders — and ordered his followers to leave the Green Zone. They did so on Tuesday, ending the clashes and underscoring his unique ability to command not merely armed militias but vast and devoted crowds.

Still, since prevailing in last October’s elections, Sadr has been flailing wildly to convert his competitive advantages into practical political power. He’s not entirely at fault. His pro-Iranian Shiite rivals are more reckless, dangerous and violent. Kurdish groups are hopelessly divided, while Sunni factions are split largely between groups aligned with different Gulf Arab patrons.

The post-2003 Iraqi political system was always wretched, but why is Sadr only now ready, willing and able to bring it crashing down?

His political potency can’t gain him much more by way of clerical authority, particularly given the brutal denunciations such as Haeri’s. And his clerical and rabble-rousing qualities didn’t help him master the financial and patronage gamesmanship involved in forging a government in a parliamentary system.

Sadr’s efforts to combine religious authority based mainly on his ancestry and political power based on operating behind the scenes, in a system in which administrative authority rests with ministries and government offices, simply failed — just as he reached the peak of his ambitions. It’s unlikely that he, or another Iraqi political figure, will any time soon garner direct control of as many as 73 seats in the 329-member parliament.

Impatience is Sadr’s worst enemy. He lacks the discipline to earn the academic-based Shiite clerical authority to which he aspires. And he failed to endure the lengthy, frustrating negotiations to form a government that should’ve been his for the asking.

Now Sadr claims to be leaving politics, but no one believes him. He’s said it several times before, and he is still the most significant political figure in Iraq. But now he also insists that the post-2003 system has to go, presumably because it manifestly failed to serve his interests.

Yet he seems to have no plan, let alone a viable one, for an alternative national political structure. Any effort to formally combine religious and political authority in Iraq, along Iranian lines, is doomed since the nation does not have a large enough Shiite majority (Sunni Muslims compose at least 35% of the population), and there is strong opposition to such an agenda within the Shiite community itself.

Also, both Iran and the US have a vested interest in saving the political system; both would be deeply concerned by greater instability in Iraq. Iran, however, has given the green light to its proxies to confront Sadr politically, while the US is wisely keeping a low profile (while undoubtedly working behind the scenes to strengthen the caretaker prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi).

But the Iraqis are going to have to restore their own equilibrium. No one else can do it for them. Sadr’s effort to combine his religious and political ambitions, always somewhat contradictory, now appears to have reached an impasse. Iraq is paying the price.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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