Over the past month, Iraq has been beset by protests as hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the country’s dysfunctional and corrupt political process. The unrest culminated in the storming and occupation of the Iraqi parliament at the end of April by the followers of the radical anti-West cleric Muqtada al-Sadr after he gave a rallying speech in which he advocated for a “major popular revolution to stop corruptors.”
Sadr has become the voice of Iraq’s Shia underclass and has continued the legacy of his father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. The senior Sadr established a significant following and social base during the 1990s, when Iraq’s destitute Shia population suffered both from the repression of the Baath regime and from UN-imposed sanctions. As his father did against the pre-2003, Baath-controlled state, Muqtada has mobilized hundreds of thousands of his supporters, and indeed many other Iraqis, against the current Iraqi state. And, like his father, he has confronted and challenged the legitimacy of his ruling Shia rivals, whom the Sadrist movement has historically denounced for their elitism.
The firebrand cleric has certainly proved that he is still a commanding figure who can mobilize the masses and who could, potentially, accelerate the reform program that Iraq’s moderate but weak prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has attempted to implement amid fierce opposition from powerful rivals whose interests are vested in the status quo.
But Sadr is not Iraq’s savior. He is directly responsible for bloodshed, corruption, and dysfunction in governance, which Iraq has suffered from for more than a decade now. His mobilization efforts have more to do with reviving his own political significance, which had waned during the course of the war on Islamic State (ISIS) because of the rise of other Shia actors who have won widespread acclaim for their battlefield success against the jihadists. Sadr also contributes to Iraq’s problems by continuing to command his own militia, known as Peace Brigades. The presence of these militia groups not only weaken the rule of law and democratic process that Sadr ostensibly wants to strengthen; they also enable an environment that is conducive to breeding autonomous armed groups and bandits that work against the interests of the Iraqi state and people. The Peace Brigades are also a rebranded version of the purportedly demobilized Mahdi Army, a militia that was formed by Sadr in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and which killed Westerners and Iraqis alike. In other words, Iraq cannot reform until militias like the Peace Brigades are disbanded or integrated into an institutionalized army.
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