Iraq's wildcard cleric upends politics as summer's heat descends
The Washington Post June 21, 2022
BAGHDAD — The withdrawal of one of Iraq's most powerful political figures from the thorny process of forming a new government has shattered the political deadlock and sent foes and allies scrambling under the looming threat of renewed street protests.
Eight months after Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr's followers took the most seats in the election, Iraq's entrenched political factions have still not formed a new government, prompting the mercurial cleric to upend the political game board and walk out, in what he is framing as an indictment of the whole system.
In the meantime, the country's problems are piling up: Price increases, a faltering power grid and the near-unbearable summer heat have brought fresh misery to a population that rose up in 2019 to demand an end to the U.S.-forged political system that has brought them here.
And so last week Sadr, a populist with hundreds of thousands of followers, announced that his 74 parliamentary candidates, more than a fifth of the total, would be resigning altogether.
"I have decided to withdraw from the political process and will not take part with the corrupt people," he told followers in the southern city of Najaf last week, wiping his brow as electric fans beat weakly from the ceiling on a sweltering night.
The struggle to form a government — which has been a protracted political ritual after each election — has pointed to the dogged survival of a political system that many Iraqis say no longer represents them.
Installed after the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country, the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system entrenched corruption and was exploited by Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian politicians alike for maximum political and personal gain.
In recent years, Iranian-backed factions, which have since united into the Coordinating Framework, have increasingly gained the upper hand from the U.S.-backed groups.
But when they performed poorly at the ballot box last year, Sadr tried to rewrite the political game, excluding his Shiite rivals to form an alliance with the Sunni and Kurdish blocs instead — but to no avail.
The cleric's decision to withdraw his candidates has now shuffled the deck yet again, leaving the Coordination Framework with nearly a third of the parliament's seats but still needing Kurdish and Sunni help to form a government.
"The tactics of Sadr were smarter," said Jassim al-Helfi, whose Communist Party allied with the cleric's forces in 2018. "The next government will be the weakest since 2003."
Sadr is a storied figure here and abroad, with a history of battling U.S. troops and fierce loyalty from his working-class followers.
Since 2003, the cleric has positioned himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who can unify the country. At times, this has been achieved through Iranian support. More recently, it has involved the tacit backing of Western nations.
Even with no more seats in parliament, Sadr retains vast influence in the government, and his people occupy powerful positions in the prime minister's office and cabinet, and across all major ministries, the governorships of strategic provinces and the state-owned oil company.
"Sadr would retain significant political clout," agreed Ben Robin-D'Cruz, a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark who studies the movement.
As wrangling continued this month over the formation of a government, the Sadrists were able to push through an emergency financing bill for food and energy, despite resistance from the Iran-aligned bloc.
Stepping away now, experts say, leaves the cleric's forces able to point to their achievements without taking responsibility for implementation.
"He wants to be able to say, 'Well it's not my fault that this is happening. I'm not one of the members of the political elite, because I've pulled out,' " said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York who stated that Sadr's ability to mobilize his followers remains his greatest strength.
In Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City district, where the cleric's loyalists adorn shops and vehicles with his pictures, supporters said they would welcome a return to the streets.
"Of course we'd go out and join them," said 49-year-old Nashad Faysal, who lives in the Sadr City slum. "Our only hope right now is Sadr."
Among supporters, Sadr draws much of his legitimacy from a reputation for opposing oppression, as his revered relatives did before him, and unlike most other political leaders, he has never lived outside Iraq for long periods.
When mass protests across Baghdad and southern provinces demanded the downfall of the country's kleptocracy back in 2019, it was Sadr's forces who initially protected the public squares as security forces and militias killed hundreds.
But he later ordered them to withdraw, allowing Iran-backed armed groups to decimate what remained of the movement.
This summer, scattered protests have become the norm again, with small groups demanding jobs or better services. As temperatures rise along with public frustration, experts predict that Sadr may once again position himself as a street leader to whom to rally.
"If he calls on his followers, they will come from all the provinces, but he will not show himself as a demonstrator right away because people will accuse him of pulling out simply to use the street," Helfi of the Communist Party said.
A summer or fall of demonstrations probably would send the other political factions scrabbling for the cleric's support. The 2019 demonstrations left Iraq's political elite "scarred psychologically," Robin-D'Cruz said, adding that Sadr's people believe the other political groups will need "the Sadrists onside to face down future protests."
Support for Sadr remains strong across the south and in his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, but in some of the slum's streets, a sense of disillusionment over the endless wrangling amid a worsening reality also was creeping in.
"Well he hasn't done anything for us," said 25-year-old Mortada Miryal, leaning across the counter of his perfume stall to take a glimpse of the street view outside. Trade was depressed, he said. Few in the area had much extra cash these days to put food on the table, let alone to spend on luxuries such as cosmetics.
Several blocks away, a group of older men had gathered on the sidewalk's rickety plastic chairs to talk politics, noting that Sadr's support comes from the patronage and jobs he hands out.
"The problem with our politics is that we don't have anyone trustworthy in the right place," said Mishaan Hamid, 56.
As the blazing sun dipped below the horizon, rumors of a new announcement from the cleric were swirling. Hamid smiled. "I guess we'll see what he says now," he said. "It's all a circus."