Iraqi Flamethrower Finds He Has to Be a Firefighter
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Iraq’s parliament is convened Sunday, the pomp of the occasion will likely be greeted by apathy in the streets of Baghdad, but the circumstances are certain to deepen anxiety in the corridors of power in Tehran. The man responsible for both Iraqi indifference and Iranian unease is Moqtada al-Sadr, a political pyromaniac who now finds himself in the unfamiliar position of a firefighter.
Sadr is known in the West for his incendiary anti-American speeches and for occasionally unleashing his militia, the so-called Mahdi Army, against U.S.-led coalition forces after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. But Sadr has also discharged rhetorical cannonades in an easterly direction, and his fighters have clashed with militias armed and financed by Iran.
A Shiite cleric who has never held public office, Sadr casts himself as a nationalist, wishing a pox on American and Iranian houses alike, and claims to be above the sectarian divisions that have bedeviled Iraqi politics for most of the past two decades. (Shiites are nearly 60% of Iraq’s population, but in parliament their leadership is split between those who toe Tehran’s line and those, like Sadr, who claim independence; representatives of Sunni and Kurdish minorities tend to be united, gaining advantage by forming coalitions with the dominant Shiite faction.)
But most Iraqis see Sadr as an anarchist who offers no solutions for their country’s social and economic problems. He is especially unpopular among young Iraqis, who make up the bulk of the Tishreen Uprising, a protest movement that opposes corruption in government and Tehran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. They remember how he betrayed their cause in the spring of 2020, withdrawing the protection of his militias and making common cause with the Iranians. Exposed, hundreds of protesters were killed or injured by snipers deployed by the Iran-backed militias.
Disgusted by all parties, most young Iraqis boycotted the election: Overall participation was a record low 41%. This played into the hands of Sadr, who encouraged his loyalists to turn out. The result was that his Saeroon faction won 73 seats — well short of a majority in the 329-seat house but a sharp increase from 53 the last time around.
Even worse for Iran, its favored Shiite faction, known as the Fatah Alliance, performed disastrously, slipping to just 17 seats from 48.
After the 2018 vote, the two Shiite factions wrangled for five months before agreeing to share important cabinet positions, installing rival patronage networks in the ministries while appointing neutral — and essentially powerless — prime ministers, first Adel Abdul Mahdi and then Mustafa al-Kadhimi. This time, Sadr may be able to cobble together a coalition with the Sunnis and Kurds and leave the Fatah Alliance in the cold.
But that would require the inveterate renegade to be conciliatory and accommodating instead of antagonistic and stubborn. There is as yet no sign Sadr is capable of such a transformation. He is not demanding the prime ministership for himself, but it is hard to know whether this is an acknowledgment of his unsuitability for the job, a recognition that other groups won’t go along with it, or simply a desire for power without responsibility.
Certainly, he hasn’t reined in his tendency to make maximalist demands — that the Iran-backed militias be liquidated, for instance, or that American security personnel be withdrawn even from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The Iraqi state doesn’t have the strength to carry out the first, and Washington would never accept the second.
The challenge for Sadr now is to overcome the misgivings of Sunni and Kurdish parties as well as the hostility of the protest movement. If he succeeds, it will be because they are even more apprehensive of Iran than they are suspicious of him. They could conceivably be reassured if he agrees to a neutral prime minister; Kadhimi is keeping his fingers tightly crossed that he will again be the compromise choice.
For the U.S., this would be the least-bad scenario because Kadhimi and the Biden administration have agreed to preserve the fiction that the American military presence isn’t a combat mission. But were Sadr to install a frontman closer to his own sensibilities, Washington would struggle to maintain a stable relationship with Baghdad.
For the regime in Tehran, there are no good outcomes: More than likely, the next Iraqi government will be made up of groups with no allegiance to, or dependence on, Iran. This would force the Iranians to pull harder on other levers to influence Iraqi political affairs, such as the threat of the militias, the inducements of graft or simple economic blackmail. (Iran is one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners.)
Even if he does call the shots in parliament on Sunday, Moqtada al-Sadr will find his troubles are just starting.
More From Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.