May 24, 2024

IntelBrief: Sadrist Return Might Upend Iraqi Politics and Regional Orientation

AP Photo/Anmar Khalil

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The popular Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr is preparing to return his movement to Iraq’s intra-Shia and broader political competition, potentially upending Iran’s influence in Iraq.
  • Outmaneuvered by pro-Iranian Shia rivals in 2021-2022, Sadr’s movement commands the loyalty of many Iraqi Shias who want political and economic reform.
  • Sadr’s willingness and ability to mobilize mass demonstrations could produce short-term instability, but his return might ultimately curb the influence exerted by Iran-backed militia commanders.
  • Sadr agrees with the current government on the need to balance Iraq’s relations with Washington and Tehran, but he is ideologically opposed to many U.S. interests and allies.

Iraqi stability and its future regional orientation might be upended by the apparent decision of the popular and mercurial Shia cleric, Moqtada Al Sadr, to return his movement to Iraq’s multi-tiered and fractious political competition. Reflecting the Shia majority population, Shia factions dominate Iraq’s institutions and, by an agreement that followed the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab-dominated regime, a Shia politician serves as prime minister. That post is the country’s chief executive and commands the Iraqi armed forces including, at least in principle, all Shia and other militias serving as part of the “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF) organized in 2014 to confront the challenge posed by Islamic State. However, differences among Iraq’s Shia groups provide opportunities for minority Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish community that is dominant in northern Iraq to become key swing players or even “kingmakers” in some circumstances.

On the strength of its strong support particularly among urban, poorer Shias, Sadr’s movement, competing under the “Sayeroon” banner, prevailed in the 2021 parliamentary elections, winning 73 out of the 329 seats of Iraq’s unicameral Council of Representatives. However, blocs dominated by pro-Iranian Shia militia commanders and politicians won enough seats to thwart Sadr’s efforts to form a “majority” government, including Sunni Arab and Kurdish factions. The more pro-Iranian leaders insisted instead that Sadr abide by the informal post-Saddam agreement among Shia leaders to assemble a “consensus” government encompassing all Shia parties. Unable to reach an accord, Sadr ordered the deputies elected under his banner to resign, then announced a "final withdrawal" from politics in 2022, following attacks on large Sadrist demonstrations by rival armed Shia groups.

In recent months, Sadr has signaled his movement will compete in the next national elections planned for 2025 – a development that will undoubtedly unsettle the fragile political stability that has prevailed since Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani took office in October 2022. In March, Sadr held a rare meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered by millions of Shias worldwide, who helped end the clashes in 2022 that preceded Sadr's political exit. Sadrists interpreted the meeting as a tacit endorsement of Sadr and his vision of an Iraq re-integrated into the Arab fold and not under the strategic or economic sway of either Tehran or Washington. Days after that meeting, Sadr reportedly instructed his partisans to re-engage with the movement's political base under a new banner entitled the “Shia National Movement.” Using that title signals that, for the first time, Sadr seeks to consolidate support among Iraq’s Shias, including those who have supported his rivals.

That goal directly challenges the politicians and militia leaders atop the pro-Iranian Coordination Framework that engineered Sadr’s political defeat in 2022 - as well as Tehran itself. In a late April social media posting, Sadr foreshadowed his line of political attack against his pro-Iranian Shia rivals, criticizing Framework leaders as those who “think that only the corrupt can rise to power and form a corrupt government.” Indirectly painting his Shia rivals as unpatriotic and beholden to Tehran, Sadr has characterized his popular base in Iraq as prioritizing the “country, its independence, security and sovereignty.”

Sadr’s apparent return to the political arena has energized his support among poorer Shias, including those concentrated in the large Sadr City enclave of Baghdad - named for his father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam’s regime in 1999. Supporters believe Sadr’s accession to power – even if Sadr himself does not seek to become prime minister – will bring jobs and services that Sadrists believe have been monopolized by the rival factions. Also encouraged by a Sadrist re-emergence are Sunni and Kurdish groups that joined his unsuccessful effort to form a government during 2021-22.

Anticipating Sadr will again try to form a governing coalition that excludes pro-Iranian Shia rivals, a former Sadrist parliamentary deputy told journalists: “This time, the Sadrist movement has stronger plans than the last time round to win more seats in order to form a majority government." Yet, Sadr’s willingness and ability to send large numbers of his supporters into the streets sets up the potential for renewed election-related violent clashes with Shia militia groups. Sadr’s movement, likely to win more seats than any other group in the 2025 national elections, is certain to respond to his opponents' efforts to thwart his government formation plans as they did in 2021-22.

U.S., regional, and global officials are concerned that the intense competition will shatter the current fragile political stability in the country. Still, at the same time, they welcome the potential for the Sadrist movement to reduce the influence of Tehran and its allies on governance. Some experts express optimism that the government formation process in 2025 will be less contentious than in 2021 because Sadr is reportedly willing to work with some Coordination Front members, particularly Prime Minister Sudani, who also wants to steer a middle course between Tehran and Washington. Sadr’s potential cooperation with Sudani illustrates that there are exploitable fault lines in the Coordination Framework and that, contrary to the view of many experts, Iranian influence on Iraqi politicians is tenuous and fragile.

A Sadr-Sudani alliance might, for example, serve to isolate such pro-Iranian figures as Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the powerful, Iran-backed political and military group Asaib Ahl al-Haq. For its part, Iran is said to view Sadr's return to politics as potentially important to maintaining the dominance of the Shia community in the Iraqi political system, even though Tehran rejects Sadr’s aspirations to be recognized as the community’s single most dominant force.

Although Washington wants to dilute Iranian influence in Iraq, many U.S. policy officials remain wary of Sadr’s potential to act against U.S. interests and allies. Sadr’s agreement that Baghdad needs to balance its relations with Iran and the United States explains why expelling U.S. military personnel from Iraq is not a Sadrist priority, or even a goal, as it is for his Shia rivals. However, U.S. officials recall that U.S. forces in Iraq were at war with Sadr’s “Mahdi Army” militia during 2004-2011. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense declassified a finding that pro-Iranian militias, which then included Sadr’s militia, killed at least 608 U.S. troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

Most of the pro-Iranian militias that have been attacking U.S. forces in Iraq since the 2014 U.S. military return to Iraq, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), are offshoots of the Mahdi Army, having organized during 2007-2009 as distinct factions. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad do not meet with Sadr, although they might have some contacts with Sadrist politicians or those operating Sadr’s social welfare and charity organizations. In July 2023, Sadr instigated a mass demonstration outside the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad in response to the burning of a Quran, by an Iraqi refugee in Sweden, in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm. The crowd set fire to the Swedish Embassy and, following Sadr’s call for Baghdad to take a “firm position” on the Quran burning, the government expelled Sweden’s ambassador.

In October 2023, Sadr called on the Iraqi government to close the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad because of Washington's "unconditional support" for Israel in its war with Hamas. In late April, Sadr publicly expressed his support for pro-Palestinian encampments at universities in the United States and called for an end to police action against them. He issued the following statement: “We call for a halt to the crackdown on voices advocating for peace and freedom…The voice of American universities demanding an end to Zionist terrorism is our voice." Still, U.S. strategists calculate that, on balance, an Iraqi political structure that includes Sadr is preferable to one dominated by Iran and its acolytes.