February 15, 2021
Monday and Tuesday, Iraq’s major cities such as the capital Baghdad and southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf witnessed the deployment of hundreds of members of Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), a militia affiliated to chameleon-like radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The military parade which is mainly seen as a show of power and intimidation. came shortly after a warning on Twitter by Sadr’s aide Saleh Mohammed al-Iraqi in which he alleged that there was a plot between Ba’athists and members of the Islamic State (IS) to attack holy Shiite Shrines.
Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was too weak to condemn such unlawful action by a powerful militia which clearly encroached on the state power. However, Kadhimi’s statement which came shortly after Saraya’s military deployment cannot go unnoticed. Instead of taking measures to stop such action or at least condemn them, Khadhimi indirectly took the side of this militia when his tweet seemed to attack anti-government and ant-Iran protesters which have been the main target of these militias. Khadhimi stated in his tweet that the statecraft in Iraq could not be implemented by “encroaching on religious and national symbols and sanctities, attacking institutions or blocking roads, but rather through backing the government.” Many see such statement from the prime minister as empowerment and endorsement of the actions of al-Sadr and his militia and the other militias in Iraq, in particular those linked to Tehran. All these militias have increased their criminal and terror activities in Iraq after Joe Biden has taken office in the United State because they see him as former US president Barak Obama who adopted a soft policy toward Tehran and its Shiite proxies in Iraq and other regional countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The deployment of Sadr militia also coincided with its campaign of killing and wounding dozens of young activists in Baghdad and major cities in the middle and south of Iraq. Some activists say that Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam carried out this military deployment and started to target them because some of them had attended a seminar a day before to commemorate the first anniversary of the ‘Najaf Massacre’ which witnessed the killing and wounding dozens of them at the hands of Sadr’s militia.
How Sadrists increased their power in Iraq
Shortly after the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Sadrists adopted a strategy focused on local economic gains to increase their power. Their status was dramatically empowered when they started to form a paramilitary wing called Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army ) which was involved in a wide-scale of violent and criminal activities against Sunni Arab Iraqis for sectarian reasons. Such criminal activities were kidnapping, forcefully displacing and brutally killing thousands of these Iraqis, in addition to unlawfully seizing their properties and properties belonging to the state. Sadr’s militia was also accused of extortion, corruption and smuggling. By using their political influence inside state institutions, Sadrists further increased their financial benefits. However, there are two major factors greatly empowered the Sadrists: the marginalised Shiite class which looks for installing an Iraqi religious Shiite leadership instead of the predominantly non-Iraqi one which is currently headed by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
Between 2010 and 2018, the Sadrists managed to manipulate many inside and outside Iraq by claiming that they would no longer be involved in sectarian violence. Their leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s ordered the disbanding of his militia Mahdi Army and that was convincing that he would change his volatile behaviour and make a major overhaul in Sadr movement, including adopting anti-sectarian policy and he would adhere to the position of his late father Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr toward the absolute ‘wilayat al-faqih’ (the leadership of cleric), a Shiite political ideology which has been practised in Iran since the success of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Sadr’s father believed that this Shiite political doctrine should only be practised by a cleric within the borders of the county where he lives. To convince others that he was serious he had changed, Moqtada al-Sadr changed the name of his militia Mahdi Army to ‘The Promised Day’ and again in 2014 to Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades)to get rid of the burden of sectarian and violent connotations of the previous names. Similarly, in the run-up to the 2018 general elections, Sadr made alliances with the Communist Party and other secularist individuals to indicate that he and his movement had become moderate.
It seems that Sadr realised that the significance of adopting opposition to the governments would enhance his influence and empower his movement. Therefore, Sadr ordered his followers to participate in several anti-government protests after 2011 in a bid to use them as bargaining chips with the successive governments and to control them.
Why Sadr adopted a moderate policy after 2008?
It seems that Moqtada had learned the lesson form the losses his militia Jaish al-Mahdi suffered from its confrontations with the American and Iraqi forces in Iraq in 2004 and 2006 and then in 2008 during the military campaign ‘Sawlat al-Fursan’ in Basra and then in Baghdad’s Sadr City, the Sadrists’ stronghold, during the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The then young radical cleric Sadr realised that only his political participation would maintain the influence of his movement and that would secure the flow of the funds he and his followers received through the ‘Economic Committees’ inside ministries and state institutions that are cover for rampant corruption and unlawful. Sadr, therefore, adopted a double-standard strategy that his father adopted, a non-confrontational, but it focuses on anti-American rhetoric, while at the same time distances himself from publicly allying himself with the Iranian policy in Iraq.
Sadr is targeting activists
After a few months overtly supporting the popular Teshreen (October) protests which started in early October 2019, Moqtada al-Sadr turned against the activists. Over the last few months, Sadr has been prompting his militiamen to target the activists and dozens of them have been killed or wounded by his militia. Sadr’s antagonistic position from the protests can only be interpreted that he has found that these protests as a major threat to his power.
Sadrists managed to win the highest number of seats in the current Iraqi parliament which was produced by the 2018 elections after they held alliances with non-Islamic and independent individuals and parties such as the Communists. Shortly, after the declaration of elections results, it became clear that Sadr public moderate position was merely a tactic he had adopted to control the state and government. This is reflected in his alliance with the rival Shiite bloc al-Fatah which is dominated by Shiite Islamic parties controlled by Iran-backed militias. In a breach of the Iraqi constitution, Sadr-Fatah alliance assigned unelected Shiite politician Adel Abdul Mahdi for premiership without declaring which one of them was the winner in the elections.
More recently, Sadrists and their leader Moqtada al-Sadr have expressed their intention to control the entire state by seeking the position of the prime minister in the next government which is expected to be formed after the next general elections next year. To secure the next premiership, Sadr is expected to call for changing the Iraqi governing system from parliamentary presidential, which most Shiite elites stressed it is the suitable system for the Iraqi case. The ultimate goal of Sadr and his Shiite rivals such as al-Maliki, Qais al-Khazae’i and Hadi Amiri is to control Iraq and confiscate the entire Iraqi state.