Skirmishes and violence – Iraq is heading towards a civil war between supporters of Iran and troops of populist preacher Moqtada al Sadr. After around 30 people were killed in clashes in the capital Baghdad on Tuesday, Sadr ordered his supporters to withdraw from occupied government buildings and the streets.
His order was initially followed. The withdrawal is not the end, however, but merely a respite in the power struggle between Sadr and the government of Iran, which sees Iraq as its backyard.
The 48-year-old Sadr is the son of prominent cleric Mohammed Bakir al-Sadr, who opposed dictator Saddam Hussein, and is held in high esteem by many Shiites, who are Iraq’s largest ethnic group.
Sadr’s militia, formerly known as the Mahdi Army and now called the Peace Brigade, fought the Americans after the 2003 US invasion. Sadr has millions of followers in Iraq and presents himself as an Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iranian and US interference in his country.
Sadr’s Saairun Alliance – the political arm of his movement – won the most parliamentary seats in the 2018 and 2021 elections. After the most recent election in October, however, he failed in his attempt to form a government without pro-Iranian forces.
Tensions between the Sadr camp and Tehran-backed militias and parties in Iraq have been growing for months. In February, according to the Reuters news agency, Sadr rejected a compromise proposal by Iran and demanded that Tehran stop interfering in Iraq. In June he withdrew his supporters from parliament, and in July Sadr loyalists occupied the parliament building in Baghdad.
In doing so, Sadr demonstrated his ability to stall Iraqi politics, but Iran hit back, using Sadr’s religious mentor, Ayatollah Kasem al Haeiri.
Haeri, 84, was a close confidant of Sadr’s father and previously an advisor to the younger Sadr. On Sunday, Haeri, who lives in Iran, announced his resignation as a senior cleric and called on all Shiites to recognize Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their supreme leader.
This is a problem for Sadr: Haeri’s resignation and appeal undermine his legitimacy as Shia leader. No wonder he took the announcement as a declaration of war and accused Tehran of forcing Haeri to retreat.
Just one day later, Sadr announced his retirement from politics and sent his supporters onto the streets. They stormed the so-called Green Zone in central Baghdad, where government buildings and foreign embassies are located, occupied the government palace and engaged in skirmishes with security forces and pro-Iranian militiamen.
Sadr’s declaration of resignation is not the first – and should not be taken as a sign of resignation. He had already announced his retirement from politics in 2014, but nevertheless became one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
This time, too, political calculations are likely behind Sadr’s withdrawal. In a televised appeal to his followers, the preacher said his movement should not act “uncontrolled”. It is not known what Sadr is up to now. By withdrawing from politics, he is distancing himself from a corrupt and dysfunctional political system that is delaying reforms in Iraq and keeping the country in poverty despite its oil wealth.
That’s in line with Sadr’s populist style, but it doesn’t mean that he no longer wants to play a political role. So he calls for a dissolution of parliament and new elections.
Sadr is demanding that Iraqi politicians, who have been active since the US invasion of 2003, step down from all posts to allow for reforms of the political system. The appeal is aimed at his main opponent, the pro-Iranian ex-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. If there are new elections, Sadr is likely to return to politics as in the past.
According to observers, it is not to be expected that Sadr will give up the fight against Iranian influence in Iraq.
Monday’s fighting showed that Sadr and his pro-Iranian opponents expect an armed struggle for power in Iraq. Even the most recent clashes were not a spontaneous outbreak of violence. Both sides were prepared, writes Middle East expert Charles Lister from the Middle East Institute in Washington on Twitter.
Sadr’s troops used heavy weapons; pro-Iranian groups are said to have fired bombs from drones. Rockets were fired at the Green Zone early Tuesday morning. Because of the clashes in the green zone, staff from the Dutch embassy sought protection in the German representation, Lister reports. The state security forces were powerless in the face of violence.