In April 2004, as American troops in Iraq were fighting multiple insurgencies, U.S. officials announced a warrant for the arrest of Muqtada al-Sadr, a young, brash Shiite cleric who had bedeviled the Americans and their Iraqi allies. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Baghdad at the time, declared Sadr an “outlaw.” President George W. Bush labeled him an enemy of the United States.

The warrant, which had been issued by an Iraqi judge months earlier, charged Sadr with instigating the April 2003 murder of a rival cleric, who was hacked to death in Najaf, Shiite Islam’s holiest city. Sadr went underground, as his supporters fought U.S. troops for months in southern Iraq and in Shiite districts of Baghdad. For years afterward, Sadr inspired fear in the United States as a ruthless warlord-cleric. In 2006, a Newsweek cover branded him “The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq.”

On May 12, when Iraqis voted in the country’s latest parliamentary elections 15 years after the U.S. invasion, a new image of Sadr emerged: a smiling cleric with a snowy beard, holding up his ink-stained index finger after casting his ballot in Najaf. In his left hand, he held a plastic Iraqi flag.

The contrast of these two images underscores the remarkable way Sadr has been able to reinvent himself over the past decade—from a sectarian militia leader who oversaw the killings of thousands of Iraqis to a populist, nationalist anti-corruption crusader. Sadr’s political alliance—a mixture of Shiite Islamists, the Iraqi Communist Party, secular civil society activists, and Sunni business leaders—unexpectedly won the parliamentary elections, securing the largest share, 54 seats, in Iraq’s 329-seat Parliament. Sadr is still far short of the 165-seat majority needed to appoint a prime minister and form a government. 

In a region racked by wars and dominated by monarchs and strongmen, the voting offered a welcome juxtaposition: a relatively free and fair election in the Arab world, where the results were not preordained. And in this election at least, populism appeared to supplant sectarianism as the dominant force in Iraqi politics.

Sadr’s victory caught the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even many Iraqis by surprise. In a region racked by wars and dominated by monarchs and strongmen, the voting offered a welcome juxtaposition: a relatively free and fair election in the Arab world, where the results were not preordained. And in this election at least, populism appeared to supplant sectarianism as the dominant force in Iraqi politics.

But the election is not a seismic event that will alter Iraqi politics, which is still plagued by corruption, inertia, and foreign meddling. In fact, several of these ills contributed to Sadr’s victory: Iraqis’ frustration with their political class led to the lowest turnout, 44 percent, since the country’s first national elections, in 2005, after the U.S. invasion. (Participation in previous elections had not dipped below 60 percent.) 

This election’s low turnout worked in Sadr’s favor. As with other Islamist groups in the Middle East, the Sadrist movement has built a formidable social and political organization that can deliver votes. Sadr also successfully cast himself as an Iraqi nationalist who would support a new government made up of technocrats and stamp out rampant corruption. (One of the movement’s most popular slogans was “Corruption Is Terrorism.”) Sadr’s own legislators and ministers have been tainted by graft charges, so ahead of the latest vote he forbade the 34 legislators from his previous parliamentary bloc from seeking reelection—a signal that Sadr was planning to clean house. In early May, the Shiite religious hierarchy led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, urged followers not to vote along sectarian lines and reminded them of the corruption plaguing the country’s political class. Sistani also told voters that he and the religious establishment in Najaf had not endorsed any party or candidates.

Since early elections results were released in mid-May, Sadr has been thrust into the role of kingmaker, negotiating a governing alliance with other parliamentary blocs. He signaled that his most likely ally would be Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose bloc was expected to win the election but came in third. Sadr also met with the second-place finisher, Hadi al-Amiri, a powerful militia leader and Iranian ally who led a bloc associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, the government-aligned Shiite militias that played a key role in the fight to expel Islamic State (ISIS) fighters from Iraq. Sadr is also negotiating with Kurdish parties and other Iraqi nationalist groups that won smaller parliamentary blocs.

The political jockeying over forming a new government will be tricky, partly because of the Iraqi parties and politicians who have an entrenched interest in maintaining a system of sectarian spoils where government ministries and associated patronage are divvied up. The system is also susceptible to foreign interference, especially by Iran, and to a lesser extent, the United States, which has about 5,000 troops that helped advise and train Iraqi forces in their three-year battle to oust ISIS militants from Iraqi cities. While the Trump administration has largely avoided public comment after the election, a top Sadr aide said that U.S. officials used intermediaries to contact members of Sadr’s political alliance after its victory.

The 44-year-old Sadr, who was once an ally of Iran and lived there for extended periods during Iraq’s civil war, has become highly critical of Tehran’s support for Iraqi Shiite factions in recent years. He has repeatedly said that he would not enter into a governing coalition with Iran’s allies, but he has reached out to Amiri, who is Iran’s closest partner in Iraq, and to another Shiite leader, Ammar al-Hakim, who also receives support from Tehran. Sadr appears most eager to exclude another Iranian ally, the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose coalition won only 25 seats in the new parliament.

In the lead-up to the election, Iranian officials had pointedly said that they would not accept an Iraqi government led by Sadr’s allies. “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in February as Iraqi electoral alliances took shape. But after the surprise results, Khamenei dispatched Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations unit, to Baghdad to help organize Iran’s allies.

Shiite fighters from Saraya al-Salam, who are loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in Baghdad, Iraq, July 8, 2016.
Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

The Iranian regime has several interests in nurturing a friendly government in Baghdad: Iraq provides strategic depth and a buffer against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states that are competing with Iran for dominance over the region. Tehran also wants to guarantee that Iraq never again poses an existential threat to Iranian interests, as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did when he invaded Iran in 1980. Hussein was supported by the Sunni Arab states and most Western powers during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that devastated both countries.

The American invasion in 2003 aimed at toppling Hussein opened the door for Iranian influence over Iraq, and Tehran moved quickly to solidify alliances with all of Iraq’s major Shiite factions. For years after the U.S. invasion, Sadr had an outsized influence on the country’s politics: he was able to mobilize the Shiite masses in a way few other Iraqi leaders could match, his followers created one of the most powerful militias during Iraq’s civil war, and he played kingmaker in the selection of prime ministers and formation of coalition governments.

When he emerged in 2003, Sadr was not yet 30 years old—and he was decades away from attaining the title of ayatollah. Sadr did not have the theological standing to be a marja, or source of emulation for the Shiite faithful. But he is the only surviving son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by the Iraqi regime in 1999. The elder Sadr was a leading Shiite scholar, who, unlike Sistani, had advocated a strong political role for the clergy. The younger Sadr inherited his father’s political legacy as leader of the Sadrist movement.

Aside from his family’s pedigree, Sadr has another claim to leadership that his followers use to burnish his legitimacy over many other Iraqi leaders: he did not leave Iraq to live in exile during Hussein’s brutal rule. After Hussein’s ouster, Sadr and his supporters denounced the U.S. occupation and the Bush administration’s plan to install an interim government made up mainly of its favored exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi. Sadr’s followers seized control of hospitals, schools, and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala. They provided social services in the absence of a central government. Posters of Sadr lined the walls of Shiite neighborhoods, and he drew tens of thousands to his rallies and Friday sermons. He managed to recruit several thousand fighters, mostly young Shiite men from Baghdad’s slums and southern Iraq, to join his new militia, the Mahdi Army.

After President Barack Obama withdrew the last of U.S. troops from Iraq in late 2011, Sadr went into a self-imposed seclusion from politics, even as his supporters continued to run for parliament and to control several key ministries. Sadr was already beginning to refashion himself as an Iraqi nationalist and anti-corruption crusader. He was waiting on the sidelines for another opportunity to play the savior.

By the summer of 2014, Sadr found his new moment when ISIS militants captured the northern city of Mosul. Three days later, Sistani issued a call to arms and within weeks, tens of thousands of Shiite volunteers signed up to join the Iraqi military or one of a growing number of Shiite militias. While his supporters joined the fight against the Islamic State, Sadr also urged new alliances with Sunnis. By 2015, Sadr had joined a coalition of Iraqi secularists and communists who were campaigning against corruption and the political elite. In February 2016, Sadr instigated a mass protest campaign in Baghdad aimed at ending government corruption and financial mismanagement. In scenes reminiscent of uprisings in other Arab capitals, Sadr brought tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets of Baghdad over two months. The cleric demanded that Abadi follow through on his promise of reforms—eliminating the three posts of vice president, slashing spending, and removing sectarian quotas in political appointments. After months of protests, in late April, hundreds of Sadr supporters stormed Parliament in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The protesters withdrew after 24 hours, but Sadr threatened more mass protests. Security forces largely stood on the sidelines, allowing Sadr and his followers to enter the Green Zone.

The images from that day solidified Sadr’s new standing as an Iraqi nationalist, anti-corruption crusader, and one of the few leaders willing to stand up to Iran’s influence over Iraq. It was the catalyst for his surprise election victory. But today, to have a chance at genuine reform, Sadr must play politics and confront the very forces that he has spent years railing against.

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  • MOHAMAD BAZZI is Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University and the former Middle East Bureau Chief for Newsday.
  • More By Mohamad Bazzi