Muqtada al Sadr will always have a place and a role to play in the dysfunctional Iraqi status-quo, which helps Iran weild its influence in Iraq.
After last week’s deadly clashes across central and southern Iraq between supporters of controversial cleric Muqtada al Sadr and his rivals in the overtly pro-Iran Coordination Framework, some have wondered whether Sadr’s retirement announcement will finally spell the end of the firebrand.
However, the mercurial and notoriously fickle cleric almost always makes a comeback – as his frequent retirement announcements in the past have shown. This time will be no different.
Clerical cloaks and daggers
The fighting came after Sadr announced that he was permanently retiring from the political scene, triggering a wave of violence that briefly enveloped several urban centres, including Baghdad and Basra – Iraq’s two largest cities. As quick as the fire of armed violence was sparked, it went out again due to the interventions of neighbouring states and powerful local actors.
Sadr’s pledge to withdraw from public life followed hot on the heels of another Iran-based cleric, Kadhim al Haeri, who acts as a spiritual guide to the Sadrists but has frequently had tensions with Sadr. Haeri resigned from his position as a marji’ – one of the learned Shia scholars who has spiritual authority over lay Shia – which is almost entirely unprecedented as these aged and senior Shia scholars tend to preside over vast religious endowments and wealthy educational and spiritual establishments until their deaths.
Haeri not only retired, but took a veiled stab at Sadr’s legitimacy, stating that the Sadrists should cease looking to Haeri for religious guidance, stop heeding the words of the unlearned (widely viewed as an attack on Sadr), and should instead swear fealty and pledge their allegiances to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is, of course, Iran’s supreme leader.
While I have previously written about Sadr’s intimate ties to the Iranian regime, the fact that Haeri – once the student of Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al Sadr – decided to retire in such dramatic fashion placed the younger Sadr in a predicament.
Making matters worse was another clerical intervention. According to some reports, the violence only abated after Iranian pressure convinced Iraq’s most senior Shia spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to threaten Sadr either with backing down and ordering his supporters to return to their homes, or else he would denounce them and their violence, thereby indicating that Sadr would take the blame for causing the intra-Shia rift.
If these reports prove true, Sistani taking such an action would have been catastrophic for the decidedly unlearned Sadr who relies on his lineage and his father’s and uncle’s reputations to legitimise his role as a leader.
Unlike his now-deceased family members who were ayatollahs and considered to be extremely learned in Shia theological and jurisprudential matters, Muqtada al Sadr cannot hold a candle to them. Therefore, to have two of the biggest ayatollahs in the region denounce him one after the other would have destroyed his credibility among the Shia masses he so desperately needs to further his political ambitions.
A sight we have seen before
This is not the first time Sadr has parted ways with politics. By some estimates, the capricious cleric has quit and made a comeback at least seven times, which is almost an average of once every three years over the past two decades. Moreover, and interestingly considering his posturing as being an anti-Iran nationalist, most of the times Sadr retired or withdrew from political life, he found himself seeking refuge in Iran.
In 2007, and fearing an American crackdown, Sadr stayed in Iran and had clerics junior to him make statements on his behalf until his return. Similarly, in 2011 and after having not been seen for four years, Sadr gave a speech in Najaf to an audience of thousands before again retiring to Iran again to “continue his studies” – studies, as Haeri and others have been at pains to point out, he has never finished.
With each semi or full retirement announcement, Sadr backtracked and made a return to the scene. And, despite his supposed opposition to Iran, each of Sadr’s political sabbaticals ended up with him being sheltered by his supposed enemy in Tehran.
Additionally, even last week’s violence within the Shia house was not unprecedented, particularly between Sadr and his main domestic rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Maliki – who was blamed for the rise of Daesh by parliament – is the driving force behind the Coordination Framework.
However, and early on in Maliki’s reign as premier, the tensions between the two Shia preachers reached such a level that there was an all-out military confrontation between Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia on one side and Maliki’s US-backed Iraqi security forces on the other.
Over a period of six days in March 2008, Maliki – backed by British and American forces – failed to dislodge the Mahdi Army from Basra during the “Operation Charge of the Knights” campaign. In the end, and in a pattern that has repeated itself ever since, a ceasefire was negotiated by Iran, leading Sadr to command his men to stand down and leaving Maliki holding power.
These trends give a good indication as to where the current crisis will take Iraq. With Iran being the main beneficiary of the US-led invasion in 2003 which catapulted it into its present position as the most powerful regional actor in Iraq while meddling in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, it is highly unlikely that Tehran will simply stand by and watch the crown jewel of its new “empire” slip out of its hands.
Instead, Iran will engage in intensive diplomacy and coercion to get the situation in Iraq to stabilise once more with the status quo of the past two decades that it has benefited from so much secured and in place.
In this scenario, there are no real winners amongst the Iraqi factions, but simply Iran would continue to impose its influence over the war-ravaged country. If past popular protests against Iranian hegemony are anything to go by, the expected Iranian intervention in this crisis will simply kick the can down the road, and we can expect significant turbulence again in the near future.
This is not the first (nor probably the last) time that intra-Shia political violence has spilled out onto Iraq’s streets in such dramatic fashion, and it is likely that regional shot-caller Iran will play an active role in ensuring that the dysfunctional Iraqi status quo of the past two decades remains in place so as to further serve Tehran’s interests at the expense of the Iraqi people. And, in such a system, Sadr will always have a place and a role to play.
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