In order to understand the recent and sudden alliance that was established by Iran and the Iraqi cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, we must first investigate the origins and the nature of the relationship, and how the recent popular protests altered the approach between Sadr and Iran.
Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of one of Iraq’s most prominent Shia clerics, Mohamed al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999. Muqtada was revived in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003, to become one of the most influential figures to benefit from the power vacuum caused by the toppling of Hussein’s decades-old Ba’athist regime.
Sadr’s first prominent appearance began in 2003 as a leader of the paramilitary Mahdi Army which denounced and challenged the US military occupation in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Basra and the Shia holy city of Najaf. These events fed into the nationalist label he always pushed for. Iran took advantage of the Shia and anti-US ally.
However, Sadr’s popularity and networks gradually started failing, when the Mahdi Army got heavily involved in Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006-08. The militia was accused by many international NGOs and human rights agencies of leading targeted assassinations against Sunni Iraqis which led to their displacement from many areas in Baghdad and other provinces.
It is believed that his targeting of Sunnis was a reactionary sprout following the bombing of Al-Askari Mosque, a prominent Shia tomb in Samarra. Sadr’s alliance with Iran later on turned into a rivalry as various break ups from his own organization were separately empowered by Iran. A noticeable example is Asa’eb ahlul Haq, led by prominent pro-Iran Iraqi militia leader and politician Qais al-Khazali. Many Sadrists claim that this breakup was a result of Sadr’s lost patience with Iranian interference and its continuing prioritizing of its own interests over those of Iraq.
As Sadr allied and rivaled with various Iraqi governmental and parliamentary leaders such as Prime Ministers Nouri al-Malki (2008-14) and Haider al-Abadi (2014-18), and many more, he ensured that he was portrayed as a reformer, cross-sectarian, and anti-Iran.
The Iraqi protests
The Iraqi protests or the October Revolution kicked off in October in 2019 against the poor living standards, high rates of unemployment, corruption, sectarianism, and many other failures of the post-2003 Iraqi political regime. Sadr was very hesitant to join the protests for several reasons. For the first time, the Sadrist movement failed to take a leading role in the protests, and protesters made it very clear that they will reject any attempts by any religious or political figure belonging to the ethnic-sectarian political class to take advantage of the protest movement in order to guarantee themselves a presence in any transitionary period.
This power vacuum within Iran’s influential front in Iraq, was an opportunity for Sadr to become Iran’s new man
However, the Sadrist movement eventually broke through the uprising under the justification that they were providing aid and protection for the protesters against the pro-Iran militias. Many Iraqi activists remained vocal about their suspicion towards Sadrist involvement, and a clash of opinions about the legitimacy of Sadr’s participation was present within the protest movement especially that Sadr had ministers and members of parliament in almost every single post-2003 Iraqi government.
After all, the Sadrist presence in the Iraqi protests did not last for long and both Iran and Muqtada al-Sadr re-established their relationship based on one common interest: the American enemy. The US assassination of Iran’s general, Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes on January 3, 2020, broke the Islamic Republic’s strongest hand in the Iraqi arena. This power vacuum within Iran’s influential front in Iraq, was an opportunity for Sadr to become Iran’s new man as he was faced by major popular backlash, which rejected his attempts to portray himself as the leader of the popular uprising.
The anti-US rhetoric presented by the protests and the Iraqi parliament’s vote calling for the US military withdrawal out of Iraq, was an attempt by Iran and its Iraqi governmental ally to overshadow the protest movement, since it directly targeted them. Military clashes and political threats between the US and Iran allowed for news on Iraq to transform from being about a war-torn country witnessing a youth-led uprising to a playground for a US-Iran proxy war.
Sadr had not yet fully partnered with Iran when the pro-Iran militias led a protest against the US embassy in Baghdad and when the Iraqi parliament voted on the US military withdrawal following Iranian pressures. However, Sadr’s first public and formal admission to Iran’s sphere of influence in Iraq was when he led the anti-US march, portrayed by many western media outlets as a protest organized by ordinary Iraqi citizens who had been protesting against the corrupt political regime since October 2019. The Sadrist-led anti-US protest further complicated the stance of the Iraqi protests in the eyes of the western and in particular, US media. Nevertheless, the international community is witnessing a gradual progress in differentiating between the Iraqi protests against corruption and sectarianism, and the protests led by pro-Iran groups to divert attention away from the former.
A Sadrist-Iranian alliance against the Iraqi protest movement
Sadrists claimed that the Iraqi protests will lack logistical support, protection and decrease in numbers. The lack of protection was certainly evident as pro-Iranian militias committed bloody massacres against peaceful protesters in Baghdad, Nasriyah, Basra and Najaf, following the withdrawal of the Sadrist movement. It was as if the militias took the Sadrist withdrawal as a green light to attack the protesters. However, the Sadrist withdrawal allowed for the protest movement to clear any confusion and hesitation within its own ranks regarding its struggle against the corrupt and sectarian regime, and the violence committed against the protesters motivated a return of families and students to the streets, and revived the uprising following the distraction caused by the US-Iranian dispute, and it outnumbered any of the protests the Sadrists were in.
However, the Sadrist withdrawal allowed for the protest movement to clear any confusion in its own ranks
The Iraqi protest movement succeeded in obtaining the resignations of President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adil Abdel Mahdi who was replaced by another politician accused of corruption, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi. The protests are also the loudest post-2003 anti-Iran discourse against its interference in Iraqi domestic affairs. The government is now buying time with high-profile resignations and promises of economic reforms, while armed militias belonging to political parties in the Council of Representatives are openly killing and kidnapping protesters and students across the country.
Even Iran’s new ally, Muqtada al-Sadr is using his ‘Blue Hats’ organization, which emerged during their first appearance in the protests as supporters and defenders of the peaceful demonstrators, to evacuate the tents of civilian protesters through violence and intimidation. This change of attitude by the Sadrists is an approach adopted from the leader, who is known for easily and quickly changing his political positions. The Sadrists, or the ‘Blue Hats’ as they refer to themselves nowadays, were involved in sectarian-driven killings between 2006-08 under the Mahdi Army, then re-emerged as Saraya al-Salam during the war against ISIS, and now as blue topped ‘humanitarian volunteers’ with sticks and knives.
We can now say that this is not just an uprising against the political class, militias and regional interferences, but also an uprising to unmask and expose all public figures attempting to ride the wave of any popular momentum.