Shiite frustration with U.S. support in Iraq grew out of a failed uprising in the south following the first Gulf War.

Shiites felt a Washington call to mount an insurrection against Saddam Hussein in March 1991 would be met by U.S. military support.They were wrong and the acrimony lingers. Meanwhile, the already strained Shiite relationship with the Sunni power centers in Baghdad was fractured further by the 1999 assassination of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

Greeting the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the Grand Ayatollah’s son, Moqtada Sadr, who is becoming the éminence grise in Iraqi politics. U.S. administrators in post-invasion Iraq brought much of the exiled opposition and former Shiite militants to power in the new Baghdad. The Shiite population in Iraq, many of whom were marginalized by sanctions and Sunni oppression, cried foul with the new power structures. Washington later through its surge policy propped up Sunni tribal elements, leaving Shiite supporters of Moqtada Sadr looking to street politics to stake their claim to power. More than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion and a several democratic elections later, the Sadrists in their rise from street tactics to political power-house may have christened a king.

Sadr’s ideals

Drawing on a historic clerical lineage, the modern Sadrist movement grew in part out of a Shiite population frustrated with Western-backed sanctions and the anti-American sentiment that evolved in the wake of a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein in the south in the 1990s.

The Sadrs as a clerical establishment, meanwhile, had broke with the dominant Shiite clerical ideology in Iraq that largely shunned political involvement. This division, coupled with a strong social organization based on Islamic nationalism and storied clerical lineage, positioned Moqtada Sadr as the embodiment of Shiite martyrdom in the political vacuum of post-invasion Iraq.

Sadrist ultranationalism, meanwhile, manifested itself as opposition to former Shiite exiles like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who came to power under the umbrella of American occupation. Washington, for its part, hoped Maliki would diminish the political influence of the radical cleric Sadr, whose forces waged a bitter war with the U.S. military, and embrace tribal Sunni elements in the post-invasion political landscape.

Sadrists make no secret of their disdain for Maliki, especially in the wake of a 2008 offensive in the south where Maliki militarily wrestled control away from supporters of the anti-American cleric. Sadrists under the newly-christened Iraqi National Alliance (INA) banner, however, launched a successful campaign against Maliki’s State of Law party in the March 7 election for Council of Representatives. Despite talk of a coalition between State of Law and INA, a bitter rivalry between Maliki and Sadrists remains.

The Sadrist movement, rallied by a base of disenfranchised Shiites, emerged from the March 7 vote with 40 seats, the largest take for any INA member.  An alliance with INA would be four seats shy of  the majority needed to form a new government and possibly a position Maliki for a second term. Sadrists, however, said Maliki must give up his leadership role.

Political trends

Maliki in 2006 opposed U.S. pressure on Sadrist forces in order to preserve alliances, but later acquiesced along with Sadrist rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), splitting the main Shiite political alliance. Maliki later launched his 2008 offensive into Basra, the economic capital of Iraq, to reduce the political influence of Sadrists ahead of provincial elections in January 2009.

Washington had advocated a bottom-up strategy of state building in Iraq with its “surge,” which coincided roughly with Maliki’s push against ultranationalists in the south. By backing the former exile groups and Sunni tribes, however, Washington left much of the populist element of the domestic Shiite population to rally around the political momentum of the Sadrists, who like Hezbollah in Lebanon, had nurtured a strong base through its social programs.

The Sadrist insurgent response to American occupiers and Shiite exiles was not simply an expression of frustration, however, as political influence in post-invasion Iraq was often gained by a show of strength in the violence that often comes with emerging democracies. Sadr through his insurgency was simply staking out his political turf.

The potential for sectarian violence in Iraq amid the current phased withdrawal of American troops and a looming political vacuum, meanwhile, suggests Sadr could effectively reactivate his militia, moving the political fight to the streets, as was the case in the wake of the U.S-led invasion.

Reconciliation in a young democracy is open to groups with violent pasts. This is true in Iraq both for the anti-Saddam former militants in Maliki’s Dawa Party as much as it is for the ultranationalist Sadrist movement regardless of what Washington wants for Baghdad.

The coming of the king

Sadrists drifted toward isolation in the wake of the Basra offensive, moving away from the main Shiite power centers while Sadr took exile in Iran to take up clerical studies. The 2008 assault left Sadrists shoved to the sidelines in the south, but they returned in 2010 as kingmakers. This suggests that while Sadr learned that militancy wasn’t the only path to power, his strength as an anti-establishment force gave him noted political influence for a low-ranking cleric.

Sadrists and ISCI political entities under the INA banner make up a remarkable show of Shiite unity in Iraq, yet many of the factions in the organization reveal deep divisions once the façade of the alliance is pulled back. Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of ISCI, labeled the Sadr militia as killers in the months before the March vote, re-igniting storied animosity between the two Shiite sects. While the endurance of Sadr as the embodiment of Shiite martyrdom is a threat to ISCI and the rest of the Shiite political elite, former exiles and otherwise, it forces them to make room for his nationalist and anti-American zeal.

In the wake of a brutal street fight between the Sadrist militia and American forces, Sadrists in 2005 elections emerged with roughly 10 percent of the seats in Parliament. The rise of the anti-American Sadr was met with an equal assault on U.S. ambitions in the region through the vast political support that Iran gave to many of the Shiite forces operating in Iraq.

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. Unless Maliki and his Washington backers are somehow able to sideline the firebrand cleric, Sadr may return from his studies in Iran with the dual distinction of a clerical and political force.

The new status quo?

Sadr denounced the interim government in Iraq as soon as it was formed by U.S. administrators in July 2003 by establishing a Shiite quasi-theocracy in the south. The Bush administration as a result branded the firebrand cleric and his supporters outlaws, giving disenfranchised Shiites even more reason to rally around the young Sadr.

Sadr’s opposition to the U.S. occupation was a continuation of his family’s legacy of nationalism in Iraq. The political decision by Washington to back exiled Shiite elites, many of whom lacked street credibility back home in Iraq, accompanied by a later decision to practice selective reconciliation during the surge, emboldened Sadr’s frustrated constituents, leaving him in a position of political strength.

U.S. military officials accused Iran of playing a major role in Shiite political alliances in Baghdad to the tune of roughly $17 million. Sadr, meanwhile, is no doubt influenced by his overseers in Qom. But the Sadrist tradition of ultranationalism not only keeps U.S. dominance at bay, but also checks Iranian ambitions of hegemony as well. While the surge strategy may have brought Iraq back from the brink of civil war, it did little in the way of settling old political scores.

The main components under the Shiite political umbrella, ISCI, Maliki’s Dawa Party, and the Sadrists, while divided, represent some of the most dominant power centers in Iraq. The Sadrist move away from religious neutrality in political affairs, meanwhile, gives the movement political and clerical staying power. With his 40 seats in Parliament, Sadr isn’t going anywhere.

Iraq in the wake of the March 7 parliamentary elections stands at a political divide. Maliki, through a political alliance with the INA, would be just four seats shy of the majority needed to form a new government in Iraq. Sadrists, the largest component of INA, however, maintain Maliki will not serve again as prime minister, leaving the shaky political alliance, and the Iraqi government, in the hands of Moqtada Sadr.


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.

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