When the protest movement broke out in Iraq in October 2019, Muqtada al-Sadr held a hesitant stance, probably because the nature and strength of this protest were not entirely clear. This is also despite the fact that the idea of starting protests a year after outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi took office had been in fact discussed by some Sadrists before it was abandoned later under pressure on Al-Sadr to give Abdul-Mahdi six more months to further before assessing his cabinet's performance. However, Al-Sadr moved to openly express support for whom he hailed as "revolutionaries," and called for the early resignation of Abdel-Mahdi, and used the term "revolution of reform" to describe the protest movement. Although he refrained from explicitly inviting his supporters to participate in the demonstrations, many of those affiliated with Al-Sadr actually joined the protests and played an essential role that gave further thrust to the protest movement. Furthermore, Al-Sadr asked members of his movement, known as the "Blue Hats", to take charge of protecting the squares from militia attacks.
Al-Sadr's strategy at that point was to support the protests and invest them in pushing for reforms from within the system. This, of course, would strengthen his political position as he leads a broad popular movement against political forces with no popular bases, which rely mainly on clientelistic benefits and armed wings to sustain their existence. Although Al-Sadr was wary of expressing positions openly against Iranian influence and his criticism of the burning of the Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf, the most visible shift in his position emerged after the assassination of Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. After this incident, Al-Sadr discourse began to approach somewhat that employed by the pro-Iran camp. Since then, he has frequently made references to whom he labeled as “infiltrators” and “saboteurs” among the demonstrators, calling on security forces to deal with those elements.
Al-Sadr's Change in Position on the Protest Movement
The divergence between Al-Sadr and the rest of the non-Sadrist protesters began with his call for a large demonstration on January 24, 2020 to condemn the U.S. military presence in Iraq and demand its withdrawal. Pro-Iran factions, such as “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” and “Hezbollah Brigades”, were quick to embrace this call, but without acknowledging Al-Sadr’s leadership of this movement or accepting his implicit call to recognize him as the leader of the “resistance”, as reported in a statement issued by him. Nevertheless, the assassination of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis and the vacuum left in the leadership of the pro-Iran armed groups, has somehow created some sort of solidarity between the two sides and eventually paved the way for an Iran-sponsored coordination between Al-Sadr and the Al-Fatah Alliance. Of course, the presence of Al-Sadr in Qom facilitated this task, because the Iranians succeeded in convincing him that there was a threat to his life if he stayed in Najaf, and at a later stage, they employed the assassination of Soleimani to convince him that the protest movement is part of a larger U.S. project targeting the Islamic movement and the religious class in general. Moreover, the Iranians told Al-Sadr that he must distance himself from pro-U.S. project elements.
Al-Sadr has sought to introduce his new position not as a departure from the protest movement, but rather as an attempt to restore its previous "purity" and rid it of "infiltrators" and "saboteurs" as he said. Looking at his statements, it seems that Al-Sadr has become increasingly preoccupied with the need to continuously confirm that the protest movement neither runs contrary to Islamic values nor promotes concepts and practices incompatible with Islam. Clearly, Al-Al-Sadr is trying to produce a new ideological character for the protest movement in a manner that ensures he does not stand at loggerheads with "Political Shiism" to which Al-Sadr himself belongs and advocates for. On the one hand, Al-Sadr seeks to keep hold of the multiple identities of his movement by running a mix of conservative Islamic "populist protest tendency" in order to maintain its basic standing as a grassroots movement supported by the poor in Shiite cities. On the other hand, Al-Sadr strives to ensure that his movement remains a political force deriving strength and influence from the Shiite dominance over the country's political sphere, whether at the grassroots or the political elite levels.
Al-Sadr’s Position on Allawi’s Nomination
In return for leading the "correction" of the protest movement, as a prelude to full control over it and ensuring it does not evolve into a more radical challenge to the political Shiism dominance, and thus controlling its continuity as happened in previous waves of protest, the Iranians and their allies allowed Al-Sadr to play a broader role in supporting an alternative to Adel Abdel Mahdi (from within the Shi’ite political Islam system) and introducing the new government as if it was a response to the demands of the pro-reform protest movement. At the same time, the Iranians and their allies seek to ensure that this formula does not produce a serious threat to the current balance of power and ensures that financial and security matters remain under the control and influence of the pro-Iran camp. In light of the foregoing, Al-Binaa Alliance (whose conditions for the prime minister job were based on those embraced by Al-Fatah Alliance that the new government should not tamper with the PMF and should pursue geopolitical options that do not collide with the "axis of resistance"), abandoned its insistence to nominate the new prime minister and gave way for choosing Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi as an option supported by Al-Sadr and most factions in the Al-Binaa Alliance. Only Nuri al-Maliki rejected the Allawi option because of personal disputes between the two since the the latter was minister of communications in the second government of Al-Maliki.
Allawi's nomination was driven by several reasons and considerations, foremost of which is the fact that the man maintains historical and deep relations with the Shiite Islamic forces and, therefore, he is not likely to threaten their interests or adopt positions contrary to their basic visions. He is also known to be deeply religious and in his youth and was a member of the Dawa Party.
Second, Allawi has dropped from the public scene for several years, during which he - as Abdul-Mahdi did - focused on addressing public issues through newspaper articles focusing on economic and administrative reforms and refrained from addressing issues of a sensitive nature or geopolitical impact. These facts help introduce Allawi as a reformer and an independent figure, especially as he has taken public positions sympathetic to the protest movement, but, at the same time, his movement can be restricted and controlled so he does not clash with the main centers of power.
Third, a government of "independents" or "semi-independents" and "technocrats" - a demand which Al-Sadr Movement has been raising for years with the aim of dismantling Al-Maliki loyalist network in state institutions - could be marketed at home and abroad as a reformist and moderate government rather than a government subject to Iranian influence, as was the case with the government of Abdul-Mahdi, which was largely influenced by armed factions whose political allies took control of sensitive posts such as the director of the prime minister’s office job.
Perhaps the protests and the recent clash with the U.S. - the killing of Soleimani- have convinced the Iranians that it would be safer for them to leave a wider margin for the Iraqis to determine the form of their government, while ensuring that this government does not threaten Iran's fundamental interests in Iraq, something the deal with Al-Sadr could guarantee.
Al-Sadr and Allawi and the Protest Movement Challenge
Al-Sadr was surprised by the strength and breadth of the rejection of his priorities, and that the protest movement had developed in a way that made it difficult for him to fully control its dynamics. In fact, the Sadrists clashed with other protesters in Najaf and Baghdad leaving a number of people killed. The incidents produced a new polarization which sometimes took on an ideological character between “Islamist” Sadrists and “secular” civilians. Therefore, Al-Sadr has found himself in a difficult and unprecedented situation, not only because he was no longer "immune" from public criticism as the case in the past with thousands of demonstrators chanting against him now, or the collapse of his previous alliance with the "civilian" forces, but also because he is seen as the prime advocate for the upcoming Allawi government at a time when the Shiite religious authority did not show much enthusiasm towards this government and the fact that the rest of Shiite forces refrained from voicing full support of the government. As a result, Al-Sadr has been recently trying to deescalate with the protesters and reaffirm that the Allawi government must not be controlled by political parties but rather must be an independent and technocratic government.
Allawi faces the challenge of reconciling his desire to gain popular legitimacy by forming a non-partisan government, and his need for the parties' votes in the parliament. This challenge is further exacerbated by the pressure exerted by Al-Sadr, the rejection shown by large sections of the protest movement to Allawi's nomination and the pressure exercised by some political forces seeking positions in the next cabinet. Nevertheless, if Allawi succeeds in retaining Al-Sadr's support and Iran's acceptance, and manages to introduce a lineup that does not provoke more popular opposition, he may succeed in endorsing it in the parliament only with the help of Al-Sadr's and Iran's pressure on the Shiite forces that can guarantee a majority even in the event of opposition by the Kurdish and Sunni forces demanding ministerial positions. However, the endorsement of this government will not likely be the end of the conflict between the political class and the grassroots, but rather the beginning of a new phase.
* Senior Fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center.
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