Sadr has been an indispensable political player since the US invasion of Iraq. Experts say he was in a dilemma about whether to be a cleric or a politician.
A fierce agitator with a reputation of being a kingmaker in Iraq, Muqtada al Sadr resigned from politics on August 29 – a decision that did not come as a surprise as the 48-year-old Shia cleric has pulled similar stunts in the past without honouring them in practice.
Many ponder how serious the Shia cleric is this time, especially when he has achieved quite a lot in terms of political numbers. Sadr’s party won most seats in the Iraqi parliament in last year’s election. Yet, he resisted forming a coalition government with pro-Iran Shia parties, revealing his uneasiness with Tehran.
“His decision to quit politics is not a new thing. In the last nine years, nearly nine times, he announced to give up politics,” says Haydar Karaalp, a Baghdad-based political analyst, referring to a period in which the Shia cleric has become a prominent Iraqi political figure.
“Prior to every election, he announced to withdraw from politics, but after a short period, he reversed his decision,” Karaalp tells TRT World. The latest example of his behaviour was evident prior to the October election when he stated that he would withdraw from politics and even called for election boycott.
Contrary to his rhetoric, his party participated in the election, gaining more parliamentary seats. With numbers on his side, he became an undisputed kingmaker.
For many analysts, Sadr’s numerous announcements signalling his exit from Iraqi politics amount to blackmailing of the political elite, which includes top Iraqi Shia clergy, his rivals and pro-Iranian groups.
In Iraq's turbulent political landscape, agitators like Sadr can quickly climb the power ladder and find opportunities to stoke public unrest for quick political gains, according to Mehmet Alaca, an expert on Iran’s Shia proxies across the Middle East.
“This is something which is not so surprising for those who follow Sadr closely,” Alaca tells TRT World, referring to the cleric’s numerous withdrawal announcements from politics. “He will come back to politics at some point when conditions are ripe for his return,” says the analyst.
Alaca also sees a psychological factor behind Sadr's repeated announcements of quitting politics. “Because he is living in a stalemate between politics and clericalism, he quits so often and then comes back again,” he says.
Sadr’s father Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al Sadr was one of the leading Shia clerics in Iraq. He was a Marja, a top ecclesiastical authority, which is awarded to very few religious men across the Shia world. Iraqi authorities killed Sadeq under Saddam Hussein's rule in the 1990s. His son Sadr has not become a Marja yet since he needs to meet various educational and religious requirements.
It was during the brutal US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Sadr emerged on the country's political scene. He used his father’s popularity and garnered support from poor Iraqi Shias while projecting himself as a leader who could play both sides with Washington and Tehran, a Shia-majority country, to increase his foothold in the country. The US and Iran have influenced Baghdad’s decision-making for nearly the last two decades.
While Sadr was able to increase his influence over Iraqi politics, pursuing a political agenda in which he promoted Iraqi nationalism and opposed Iran’s increasing influence in the Arab-majority country, he is known to have been in a dilemma for quite sometime, torn apart between his ambition to be in politics and his religious obligation to be a cleric.
“Will he be a religious leader or will he be a political leader? Or will he be a leader who combines both religious and political authorities? I believe he has psychological infighting in himself on which role he should embrace,” Alaca says.
Karaalp believes that Sadr has a goal to meet. “He wants to focus on his hawza (madrasa) education to become a Marja. He might seek the ways of being a marja,” Karaalp says. While some might see this possibility as a weak scenario, it should be considered given the fact that Sadr is an enigmatic man, he adds.
Qom and Najaf, where Sadr lives, are the two main hawzas for Shia theological education, being crucial cities for the Muslim minority sect’s clerical structure. Qom is located in Iran and Najaf is a city in Iraq. Both cities also represent the religious competition between the two different understandings of Shia theology.
Qom embraces the Velayat-i Faqih understanding of Shiism promoted by Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, in which the country’s Shia clerics should dominate politics. As opposed to Qom, Najaf’s traditional view advocates a softer approach toward Shia clergy’s role in politics.
The rivalry between the two approaches is clear from the onset. While Iran has an institutionalised religious authority represented by the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iraq has no such religious institution.
On the other hand, it’s a well-known fact that, unlike Khamenei, Iraq’s current Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the leader of the Najaf-based Shia religious authority, who is ethnically Iranian, not an Arab like many Iraqi Shias, has long chosen to stay away from politics.
If Sadr, who has long been a political player, wants to be a marja, then he should also show a willingness to comply with Najaf’s understanding of politics in which religious authorities should not be involved in policy-making much. Interestingly, Sadr has serious problems with both Sistani and Khamenei, the representatives of the two different schools of Shia understanding.
Against all odds, Sadr has so much ambition, Kayaalp says. “He wants to be the absolute Shia ruler of Iraq. He wants to be the sole ruler of Iraq,” he says.
Iranian clerical pressure
But a recent development prior to Sadr’s announcement to withdraw from politics has also shown that the firebrand Iraqi cleric has other problems. On Monday, Grand Ayatollah Kadhem al Haeri, a top Iranian religious authority, whom Sadr’s father appointed as his successor, condemned his religious master’s son, saying that he is now a liability not an asset to the Shia community.
The same day, when Al Haeri decided to retire from his Marja authority, Sadr also announced his withdrawal from politics. “Some say that Al Haeri’s condemnation made an impact on Sadr, leading to disappointment and pushing him to resign from politics,” Alaca says.
“In his retirement statement, Al Haeri accused Sadr of having no real wisdom. ‘You are not a political leader and you are also not a religious leader. You can not become anything,' Al Haeri said, referring to Sadr,” says Kayaalp, signalling clear tensions between Iranian clerics and Sadr.
During his retirement speech, Al Haeri, whom Sadr’s followers see as their Marja, recommended his supporters to follow Khamenei, a man Sadr had many disagreements with. After Sadr’s withdrawal announcement, his followers clashed with Iraqi security forces and pro-Iran militias backed by Khamenei, leading to scores of them being killed.
Following deadly clashes, which have seen a rare Shia versus Shia fight in Baghdad streets, Sadr urged his supporters to go home. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi and other leading politicians praised Sadr’s call as “the highest level of patriotism”.
Sadr’s withdrawal appears to favour Sistani’s position, pushing many Sadr’s followers to join their forces with the top Iraqi cleric in order to balance Iran’s influence, Alaca says.
If there is no deal behind-the-scenes between Sadr and Tehran, with not only his quitting but also the withdrawal of his forces from Iraqi streets, he “delivered Iraqi politics to pro-Iran groups on a gold platter”, Alaca says, referring to the possible formation of a Baghdad government under Tehran’s influence.