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Sadrists: Unstable opportunists or pragmatic power brokers?


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Iraq is still without a government more than three months after Iraqi voters gave the secular Iraqiya slate of Iyad Allawi a narrow victory over the State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  

Many observers -- and several of the Iraqi leaders themselves -- believe there may not be a new government seated until after American forces start to leave this summer.  Despite some early political violence, most of the bickering appears to be in the form of intense debate. Moving behind the scenes are lawmakers loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr who not only control more than 10% of the new Parliament, but also hold considerable sway over any future political alliance in Baghdad.  

   
The Middle East Political and Economic Institute [MEPEI] organized an e-roundtable with three analysts with first-hand experience with the influence Sadr holds over Iraqi political developments.  

   
Ambassador Ronald Neumann was stationed in Baghdad during the height of the insurgency, most recently serving as the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan from 2005 - 2007.  

   
Wayne White is a former diplomat and career intelligence officer who served as the head of the State Department's Iraq Intelligence Team from 2003 - 2005.  

   
Daniel Serwer is from the U.S. Institute of Peace, who answered these questions during talks with Iraqi politicians in Baghdad in mid-June. 


Middle East Political and Economic Institute

The Iraqi National Alliance and State of Law announced a formal partnership following consultations with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in early June. A 2006 report from the International Crisis Group [ICG], meanwhile, notes Sadrists are somewhat opposed to the traditional school of thought embodied by Sistani on political involvement. The same day of the alliance announcement, scores of prisoners loyal to Moqtada Sadr were released from jail.  

With Iraq struggling to form a new government what do these developments suggest about the post-election clout of the Sadrists?  

   
Ronald Neumann

Iraqi politics are nothing if not fluid. Sadr should be expected to maneuver for power and make any alliance that can advance that. However, all groupings and parties in Iraq are unstable and I would not make too much of a formal partnership. Such things come and go.  

Wayne White

Sadrists have more clout than they may have expected in the wake of their election success. And holding their own impromptu poll [in April] on potential prime ministerial candidates rather quickly could have been the first indication that they surely plan to capitalize on that advantage. Sadrist gains represent an especially daunting challenge to Maliki who, after thrashing them militarily back in 2008, is likely to continue finding himself at odds with Sadr, and the vast bulk of his supporters, in his struggle to retain the premiership.  

Daniel Serwer

The Sadrists are likely to have substantial clout in the next government, or outside it if they go into opposition. The group is well-disciplined, thoroughly under Moqtada’s control and heavily influenced by Iran. They are the largest group within the Iraqi National Alliance [INA], one of the four major coalitions, and know how to throw their weight around. Most of the non-Sadrist political forces in Baghdad, including important Sunnis, want to see the Sadrists in the government, fearing they would present a serious challenge if they were outside it.  

MEPEI

Sadrists took the largest share of the votes in the Iraqi National Alliance with 40 seats. There is much division within the grand INA, however, suggesting internal disharmony could handicap the new Parliament. What does this say about the future direction of the government given this sentiment from such a strong minority [(Sadrists]?

Would Sadrists turn on their foes, and fellow INA members, in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq?  

Neumann

Of course they would turn on their allies if conditions were right or they felt endangered.  

White

If there was opportunity, or as Ron comments, a threat, the Sadrists would turn on their INA colleagues in a heartbeat. That said, after the beating they took two years ago and the further strengthening since then of government security forces, he and his followers are well aware of their vulnerabilities and probably will tend toward a bit more caution in abandoning the current political approach that has garnered them so much clout.  

Serwer

The Sadrists are only one possible source of disharmony in the new Parliament, but they are certainly rivals to [INA members in the] Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, as they competed successfully for votes in the same mainly Shiite southern electorate, and less successfully with Maliki’s State of Law in Baghdad. There are really no other main constituencies for the Sadrists, who have no appeal to Sunnis, Kurds or secular Iraqis.   

MEPEI

Sadrists are bitterly opposed to members of the Shiite exile community that formed the political elite under the America occupation. Sadr loyalists during the early part of the war responded to U.S. oversight and the imported Shiite power centers with a vibrant expression of political violence.  

What are the chances Sadr could return to street fighting as a way to stake out more political turf?  

Neumann

Possible but the conditions would be tougher now than in the past.  However, there are lots of nasty possibilities between peace and all out war including demonstrations and selected assassinations.  

 White

Consistent with the above, Sadr and his leaders will likely be somewhat reluctant to take up arms again.  Even in the face of the pounding Sadr City was taking from suicide bombings that the still dysfunctional and corrupt police were not able to minimize, the movement recently shied away from even arming the former Mahdi Army cadres they deployed to mosques in an attempt to ward off such attacks. As with Ron, assassinations and less risky bullying are always possibilities. Taking off from past behavior, demonstrations are practically a given if things begin either turning in an unwanted direction, or if there is further opportunity to make matters worse for a competitor, especially Maliki.  

Serwer

Sadr has not been as successful at gaining political turf by street fighting as he has been by campaigning and delivering services. While he would certainly respond with violence if he feels his person or organization is seriously in danger, there really is no reason for him not to continue in a relatively peaceful vein for the moment.  

I found the Sadrists almost as concerned as everyone else in Baghdad about a possible power vacuum once the Americans leave. The Sadrists and many Sunnis have both been vigorous opponents of what they still call The Occupation, but they want the Americans to fix things before drawing down much farther.   

MEPEI

Sadr is pursuing his clerical studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom. Despite his lack of clerical credentials and little history with formal political action beyond grassroots fervor, Sadr and his supporters have shown remarkable political pragmatism in post-war Iraq. What happens when he returns?  

Neumann

Who knows?  Don't discount that in our previous experience there was some evidence that Sadr was a bit of a coward. Despite statements to the contrary there was little evidence that he is willing to be a martyr. Fears for his personal safety may keep him in Iran longer that one might expect. He also appeared unstable in his political judgments, sometimes surprising his colleagues by hasty decisions. He may have grown up. We don't know.

One can present various possibilities for what happens when he returns but trying to predict is probably useless. At a minimum, one would have to know a lot more than I do about his relations with his lieutenants, who has how much control over different groups within the movement and external pressures on his followers. I am much too far removed from the situation to do more than pose some of the questions that need answers.  

White

As to Sadr's return, and some related matters, Ron is spot-on in noting Sadr's erratic nature. In the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research [INR], especially back in 2003-2004, my pet wisecrack was to call him the post-war Iraqi scene's closest equivalent to [Libyan leader] Muammar al-Gaddafi. 

That said, since Sadr has been in Iran, the movement appears to have followed a steadier course, perhaps because of having some sense pounded into all concerned back in 2008. But it also could mean that a Sadr now ensconced among the clerical community in Qom, almost certainly subject to more direct Iranian government pressure, possibly with more cautious lieutenants back in Iraq -- closer to the realities on the ground --  or perhaps all the above, could be subject to a variety of pressures to pursue a less provocative and unsteady course.  

I must admit, however, echoing what Ron said, when I was in INR, one of the most difficult challenges we faced in analyzing the Iraqi domestic scene was getting any really decent read on the leadership dynamics inside the Sadrist movement. At the time, it seemed to be largely Sadr's show, with him calling the shots , save for a few more scattered rogue elements of the Mahdi Army. In fact, given all I noted immediately above with respect to current circumstances, it may well be that he simply is not in a position to call the shots -- and so impulsively -- as he once did for one or, more likely, a combination of the factors I outlined. Also, given the amount of violence and assassinations still rife in Iraq, he might well be very reluctant to return from the relatively sheltered circumstances in which he finds himself in Qom.  

Serwer

The political elite in Iraq believes that Sadr has remained firmly in control of his political forces while in Iran, and that the Sadrists are largely if not totally under the influence of Tehran.  His return from his religious studies in Qom is unlikely to change the overall direction of his Islamist, pragmatically welfare-focused politics, but it will be interesting to see if he remains a “firebrand” or takes on a more distinguished persona. If he aspires to leadership of the Shiite political establishment in Najaf, he likely will need to moderate his tone. That said, his substance clearly lies in a more activist and militantly Islamist direction than Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s quietism.


Daniel Graeber is a writer and political analyst based in Michigan. His work on Iraq and the broader Levant has been featured extensively with United Press International (UPI) as well as foreign media outlets. His academic contributions include an assessment of the U.S. doctrine of containment.

The interviews were conducted by Daniel Graeber exclusively for MEPEI.

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