Of all the Iraqi religious scholars turned politicians, Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr is the most controversial, bold and charismatic. He comes from a family that has stood up to oppressive regimes on nationalistic grounds. At 47, he is still young and relatively inexperienced. Once an ally of Iran, he is now distancing himself from Tehran, but is also careful to underline his hostility to the US presence in the war-torn country.

At one point he led an armed militia, the Mahdi Army, to fight the Americans, only to break it up and form a political coalition of like-minded figures that is proud of its Shiite background, but not at the expense of the Iraqi national or Arab identity. Between the 2003 US invasion, which resulted in the dismantling of Baath Party rule, and the chaotic formation of an ethnosectarian political setup, Al-Sadr never fully embraced the new system, even when the Shiite politicians were firmly in control of the country.

Of all the major Shiite blocs and political parties, his was the only one brave enough to denounce the political quota system and the rampant corruption beleaguering the new Iraq. And he is among the few political figures to have called for the dissolution of the armed pro-Iran militias that were formed to stand up to Daesh, the radical Sunni revisionist movement that at one point was only a few kilometers from Baghdad.

The last decade, with its myriad seismic political and economic events, has ripened Al-Sadr’s political vision. He remains a charismatic figure, especially among Iraq’s disenfranchised Shiites, who failed to benefit from the rise of powerful leaders such as Nouri Al-Maliki and Haider Abadi.

This is perhaps why Al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance emerged as the clear winner in October’s general election at the expense of pro-Iran blocs such as Hadi Al-Amiri’s Fatah coalition — a political front for the pro-Iran militias. The phenomenal rejection by voters included Al-Maliki, Abadi, Ammar Al-Hakim and Ayad Allawi.

They all rejected the outcome of the elections, claiming nationwide fraud, and Al-Amiri and his ally Qais Al-Khazali threatened to use force. Their firebrand rhetoric may have prompted last month’s failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.

The Shiite powers formed a Coordination Framework that called for a manual recount of the ballots. And when the election committee confirmed the results after such a count, they invited Al-Sadr to a meeting. None wanted to dispose of the quota system that favored them. But Al-Sadr had another objective in mind: He reiterated that he wanted to form a national majority government that will be neither eastern nor western; i.e., that will end the convenient status quo that has brought the country to its knees. He will either form such a majority government with the help of the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds and the independents who were behind the 2019 mass protests, or else sit in opposition.

He would also welcome others to join, but only on his own terms. Even then, his demand that the pro-Iran militias be dissolved stands, while he continues to promise to expose those behind the assassination attempt on Al-Kadhimi.

When push comes to shove, Al-Sadr and his new-found allies — including the Arab Sunnis (Mohammed Al-Halbousi’s Taqaddum), the Kurds (Barzani branch) and the independents — do have the upper hand. His rivals, under the umbrella of the Coordination Framework, may lose the glue that keeps them together when they realize that the election results will not be overturned.

Al-Sadr is proving to be a maverick by opposing the Americans and insisting on doing away with pro-Iran militias. Timing is very important and it may be on his side. The Americans are supposed to be leaving by the end of the year as they review their military presence in the Middle East. The threat of the pro-Iran militias subjugating the political system has subsided since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani last year. It is now clear that Iran’s grip over Iraq is waning and for many reasons. The Iraqi people are fed up with Iranian meddling, the vast corruption of the ruling political class and the failure to deal with existential economic, political and environmental challenges.

Al-Sadr has praised Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to keep Iraq neutral in the US-Iran showdown. He may decide to let him stay as prime minister, even if this is anathema to his Shiite rivals. This would be a major step forward for Iraq, which is trying to revive its national identity and rejoin the Arab fold. If Al-Sadr succeeds in toppling the ethnosectarian system, it will be a historic milestone in the country’s recovery. His failure would be disastrous on all fronts, so his gambit must succeed.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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