Why is Al-Sadr delaying his knockout?

Al-Sadr is trying to avoid a large intra-Shiite clash as much as possible in order to avoid provoking Iran and pushing it to target his uprising, implying one of the reasons why al-Sadr slowed down his steps.

16 mins read

Since Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from Iraq’s political process and resorted to people’s choices and will to achieve change in the deteriorating conditions of the country, he has been practicing a policy of popular pressure and gradual escalation against his adversaries. These adversaries succeeded in disrupting his project by forming a national majority government and forced him to take the step of issuing his orders to 73 MPs of the Sadrist bloc to submit their resignations from the Iraqi parliament in mid-June.

Al-Sadr’s escalating campaign began with unified prayers by tens of thousands of his followers in Sadr City in Baghdad in mid-July, followed by the storming of the parliament building carried out by thousands of his supporters within 72 hours in late July on two occasions. Since the second storming, thousands of al-Sadr’s supporters are still organizing a sit-in around the parliament building, resembling an encirclement. This is in addition to another united prayer by tens of thousands of Sadrists at the beginning of August that was held in the “Great Celebrations Square” in the Green Zone, which includes the headquarters of the government and parliament.

The popular activities of the Sadrists were accompanied by statements and tweets by Muqtada al-Sadr in hardline tones, and a firm speech, in which al-Sadr reiterated that what he is doing is a major popular revolution, to eliminate corruption and dependence on foreign parties in the political process, hold the corrupt accountable and prevent them from reaching authority once and for all. Al-Sadr named this in one of his statements in late July as a “Reformist Spring Revolution,” and then he called it the “Ashura Revolution” in a later statement. Al-Sadr called on all components of the Iraqi people to participate with the Sadrists in this revolution, as he called it.

Public opinion in Iraq interacted greatly with the Sadrists’ second storming of parliament and al-Sadr’s statements. Many of them believe that al-Sadr is serious this time to bring about a fundamental change in the failed political system that most Iraqis are tired of, which has only succeeded in creating more crises, chaos, and corruption since its establishment in 2003. Among these also include unemployment and the decline in the level of public services such as education and health. They think that this political system is clinically dead at present, and it is time to bring about a fundamental change in the political process in Iraq.

Everyone in Iraq now realizes that this is al-Sadr’s last battle. If al-Sadr does not achieve complete victory in it, and his adversaries manage to survive, they will not have mercy on al-Sadr and his followers in the future. Likewise, al-Sadr himself realizes that it is his last battle, he is at his strongest, and his adversaries are at their weakest, and if he cannot eliminate them this time, he will never have another opportunity to do so in the future.

Many Iraqis who are discontent with the current regime, who are not affiliated with the Sadrist movement, reacted to the recent uprising of al-Sadr in excitement due to their realization that al-Sadr and his movement are the only ones currently qualified to achieve such a comprehensive change. The Sadrist movement possesses the largest popular base among all political forces, in addition to owning the “Saraya al-Salam” faction, which is the strongest among all armed factions in Iraq. Most important of all, Muqtada al-Sadr possesses symbolism and a social, and religious position that no other Iraqi leader possesses. Al-Sadr’s followers are the most obedient and loyal and are willing to sacrifice for him unlike the rest of the followers of armed political forces.

However, this interaction and enthusiasm for al-Sadr’s uprising subsided a little, and their expectations for its results fell after Muqtada al-Sadr’s television speech on August 3, in which he explained the roadmap for his “revolution” with three main successive steps. These are: dissolving parliament, holding early elections, and forming a national majority government that does not adopt the principle of sharing. After this speech, the path of change seemed long to those enthusiastic about the speed of its achievement, and al-Sadr seemed to want to calm the situation and give his adversaries space to catch their breath after they were in a state of confusion, fear, and chaos. Their proximity to collapse was clear through their statements, leaks and reactions to the Sadrists’ storming and sit-in in the Iraqi parliament.

After al-Sadr’s speech on August 3, al-Sadr’s adversaries regained part of their self-confidence, especially the hawks of the framework most hostile to al-Sadr, Nouri al-Maliki, Qais al-Khazali, and the rest of the tire militia leaders, and they began to respond to al-Sadr’s roadmap for change by declaring their rejection of it and organizing counterdemonstrations.

Why did Al-Sadr choose this long, tiring, and costly path for himself and his supporters to change the political process, while he has the ability and strength to do it at a lower cost and time? The executive authorities in Iraq have been idle since the last elections in October 2021, and they are now just caretaker authorities to run the government. The legislative authorities have been idle since the conflict between al-Sadr and his adversaries began months ago, and only the judicial authorities are still working. According to these circumstances, al-Sadr, with his popular support base and his powerful armed faction, can topple the entire political process within hours, and he can impose the formation of an emergency transitional government, thus establishing a new political process according to his vision and conditions for reform and change in Iraq. Or he can impose an extension to the Mustafa al-Kadhimi government until the completion of Al-Sadr’s “revolution”.

On the other hand, why does al-Sadr repeat his calls to the rest of the Iraqi people, especially the masses of the October protests, to join the current Sadrist protests and to be part of al-Sadr’s revolution for change, despite al-Sadr not needing more demonstrators and while the Sadrist movement is capable of organizing a greater popular protest in any city in central and southern Iraq?

Al-Sadr’s domestic calculations

So far, al-Sadr has not been able to obtain a clear and explicit position from the supreme religious authority of the Shia in Najaf, al-Sistani or the Marja’, regarding his recent uprising, even though the position of al-Sistani in recent years is in line with al-Sadr’s demands for reform, change and the elimination of corruption. Therefore, al-Sadr monitors the position of al-Sistani and deals with them carefully and cautiously. This is one of the important issues that caused al-Sadr to slow down his surge and delay his decisive strike on the current political process. Al-Sadr fears that al-Sistani will adopt an opinion or take a position on the issue against himself, leading to change in the path of the uprising, and hindering his efforts to reach the goals he set for his uprising.

Al-Sadr is also not completely reassured of the positions of the judicial institution regarding his recent uprising and his demands to bring about a comprehensive change in the political process, especially since the recent positions and decisions of the judicial institution regarding the developments of the political blockage that has occurred since the 2021 elections, which seem to be in alignment with the interests of al-Sadr’s adversaries. Therefore, he wants to bring his uprising to a stage in which he puts the judicial institution in the face of popular pressure to neutralize the positions of this institution or to gain its support for the al-Sadr uprising, thus obtaining the required legitimacy for this uprising and its outcomes.

In this context, al-Sadr underlined, on August 10, his demand from the judicial institution to issue a decision to dissolve the current parliament within 10 days. He also asked the President of the Republic to set a date for early elections, based on thousands of cases to be submitted to the judiciary by the Sadrists, thus challenging the legitimacy of the current parliament after it violated all constitutional deadlines and rules. Namely, these are failures in electing a new president and forming a new government in the 10 months since the elections.

Iraq’s judicial institution is facing a difficult test. If it rejects al-Sadr’s demand to issue a decision to dissolve parliament, this will make it face the same popular pressure and targeting that al-Sadr’s adversaries are currently subjected to. This will increase the accusations that have been raised against the judicial institution in recent times, which indicate that it complements the “corrupt” and protects their interests at a time when al-Sadr and his followers, along with thousands of non-Sadrist Iraqis, rise to remove the corrupt from the political scene. However, if the judicial institution responds to al-Sadr’s demands and issues a decision to dissolve parliament, this will make it part of al-Sadr’s uprising, and this will expose it to targeting by those who reject change and will put it under threat from forces of the Coordination Framework and its Iran-backed militias. There are unconfirmed leaks that the presidency of the judicial institution may go to submitting its resignation before the expiry of the time limit given by al-Sadr in order to avoid this situation. Whatever decision the judicial institution will take regarding al-Sadr’s demands, it will be in the interest of al-Sadr’s uprising as its path will pass the obstacle of the judicial institution.

There is another legitimacy that al-Sadr seeks to obtain before he overthrows the current political process. This is the popular legitimacy from outside the framework of his traditional support base. Therefore, al-Sadr repeats his calls to the masses of the October protests, the “Tishreen”, to join his uprising. Although the October 2019 protests stopped, they currently represent a major trend in public opinion in Iraq, and they have become a promising cross-sectarian and ethnic project. There is no specific party currently claiming to be the sole representative of the October protests, and many Tishreen people accuse the Sadrist movement of targeting them at some point in those protests. As a result, if al-Sadr succeeds in gaining a lot of Tishreen people to join his latest uprising, this will be an added force to its popular legitimacy.

What about Iran’s position on the Al-Sadr uprising?

Al-Sadr is good at dealing with Iran as he does not present himself as an enemy of Iran. He always has open channels of communication with the country, and he was able to obtain military support for the establishment of the Mahdi Army of the Sadrist movement in July 2003. Iran has always been a haven for al-Sadr when he felt threatened and needed to leave Iraq for a while. However, at the same time, al-Sadr constantly criticizes Iran’s excessive interference in the internal affairs of Iraq and criticizes the policy of subordination pursued by Iran’s proxies in the country. This means that al-Sadr is ready to establish good relations with Iran within the framework of an “alliance of friendship”, not within a relationship implying some form of subordination.

Iran may not oppose the continuation of the al-Sadr uprising or its success in achieving its goals unless it leads to major intra-Shiite conflict. Limited Shiite-Shiite clashes may be acceptable to Iran at this critical stage, which revealed the great failure and weakness of Iran’s traditional proxies in Iraq. According to these facts, Iran may have to rely on al-Sadr and accept his vision for the future of Iran-Iraq relations to protect its interests in the country and begin to abandon some of its secondary proxies.

Therefore, al-Sadr is trying to avoid a large intra-Shiite clash as much as possible in order to avoid provoking Iran and pushing it to target his uprising. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why al-Sadr slowed down his steps.

Finally, it can be said that al-Sadr is like a boxer who prefers to win by earning round points, while he knows well that he can defeat his opponent with a knockout. But it should be noted that the spectators may get bored and create chaos, depriving both boxers of the results of the match.

Watheq Al-Sadoon

Watheq Al-Sadoon is the Director of the Arabic Studies Department and an Iraq Studies expert at ORSAM. He holds a Ph.D. in History of International Relations and a Master's degree in Strategic and Military Science. His research is concentrated on Iraqi affairs, security strategies and the security dimension in international relations. He wrote the books titled: "Weakness and Strength Factors in Iraqi-Turkish Modern Relations" and "The security dimension in contemporary Iraqi-Turkish relations." His joint books are: "Political Decision Making in the Arab Gulf Countries," "Studies in Contemporary Caucasus History" and "Iraq and Arab Gulf Countries." He has more than 30 research paper published in Iraqi, Arab and Turkish journals and tens of articles published in periodicals, newspapers and websites. He obtained a research fellowship and scholarship to cover a research program from the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York in 2014-2017. He is certified as a political analyst at TRT Arabi TV and Anadolu News Agency.

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