Former Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani (R), Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (C) in Tehran, Sept. 10, 2019. (EPA-EFE)

By Track Persia

August 31, 2022

On Tuesday, two days after he had announced that he was resigning from politics when at least 30 of his followers had been killed and hundreds more had been injured in clashes with security forces and Iran-backed militias during storming Iraq’s most fortified Green Zone,  the Shiite populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stressed in a press conference that his retirement was definitive. Sadr ordered his followers the closure of all political functions of the Sadrist movement and seizure of their military clashes with other armed Shiite factions backed by Iran. He even ordered that all Sadrists’ peaceful protests be stopped and the protesters go home.

The protesters of the powerful Sadr who has millions of faithful supporters across Iraq, some comprising an armed militia, descended on Monday and Tuesday on Baghdad’s Green Zone and clashed with the Iraqi security forces and rival Shiite  Iran-backed political factions after Sadr had given the unexpected announcement on Twitter saying that he was leaving politics indefinitely.

The demonstrators stormed the headquarters of Iraq’s cabinet and pulled down cemented barriers which were installed to protect the republican and presidential palaces, in addition to other government institutions and embassies in Baghdad.

A month earlier, large numbers of Sadr’s followers had marched on the Green Zone, the capital’s high-security Green Zone, home to government buildings and diplomatic missions. The protesters wanted to express their refusal to the nomination of Mohammed al-Sudani of a rival bloc aligned with Tehran, for the premiership. Shortly after Sadr had posted a message on Twitter calling on the protesters to leave telling them that their message had been “delivered, and terrified the corrupt ones”, the protesters began to withdraw from the Parliament complex in the evening.

Last month Sadrists’ protests took place after  Sadr’s bloc had gained the highest number of votes in the parliamentary elections held in October 2021 in which they defeated pro-Iran parties leading to a stalled government. In these protests, Sadr seemed to want to send a message that emphasised his control over his followers sending a warning to his rivals in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework bloc that he could clash with them if they kept going on with the formation of a new government under their candidate al-Sundani. Sadr also wanted to tell his rivals in the Coordination Framework that he should not be ignored during their attempt to form a new government without him and that he was still capable of changing Iraq’s political order.

Al-Sudani was a member of the State of Law that is led by Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister and old-time foe of al-Sadr. Al-Maliki wanted the premier post for himself, but audio recordings have been leaked showing that he purportedly was attacking and criticising  Sadr and even his own Shiite allies. The leaks have effectively cost Maliki losing his candidacy. Sudani is said to be Maliki’s candidate for Iraq’s next prime minister. However, Sudani, who was Iraq’s former labour and social affairs minister, is seen by Sadr’s loyalists as a figure through whom Maliki can exert control over Iraq.

Why has Sadr decided to quit politics?

The storming of the Green zone by the Sadrists on Monday that led to the violent clashes with rival Shiite militias loyal to Tehran came shortly after Sadr had announced that he was quitting politics indefinitely ordering the closure of Sadr offices all over the country. Sadr’s withdrawal triggered wide violence and increased the already inflamed tensions in the country.

Sadr’s move is interpreted by many as a rebellion against Tehran which has been interfering in Iraq since the US-led invasion that led to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Specifically, Sadr’s resignation was a response to a statement from Iran-based Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Kadhum al-Haeri,  who many Sadrists are following on religious matters.

Haeri is the successor to Sadr’s father Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. He was also a student of al-Sadr’s uncle the late Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr who was executed in 1980 for supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, the late Supreme Leader.

In his statement, Haeri said that his resignation as a marja (a cleric who learned enough to be a religious guide to followers) was because of health issues and old age. He also pointed out that he was closing his office and no longer accepting religious taxes.

What is most interesting in Haeri’s statement is that the cleric told his followers to follow Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instead. In response to Haeri’s statement, Sadr tweeted that despite he had not reached the level of a marja, he could still promote goodness and prohibit evil among Muslims.

While being a leader of a mass movement which is rooted in religious identity, Sadr unlike his father, Haeri or the most senior Shiite  Najaf-based cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is not a marja. This issue means that Sadr’s followers need to seek a marja to follow on religious matters after the resignation of Haeri.

The emulation of Haeri by the Sadrists came after the death of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father who had advised his followers to do so after his demise. In his statement, Haeri indirectly attacked Sadr by saying that he lacks religious credentials and authority to be a marja. He also accused Sadr of using divisive rhetoric and exploiting the legacy of his family (Sadr’s father Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and his uncle  Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr).

The retirement of Haeri who is based in Iran’s holy city of Qom and who is a staunch loyalist of Iran’s Supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is unprecedented among Shiite marjas in the world. More specifically, his request for his followers to emulate Khamenei in Iran. Haeri’s move indicates that Tehran attempts to strip Sadr of his religious authority and drive his followers to emulate Khameini.

Over the last few months after the political situation in Iraq had reached a standstill that could negatively affect the position of its allies, Tehran sent Esmail Ghaani, to Baghdad. Qaani is the commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, which is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Qaani has made numerous trips to Baghdad with the mission to support Iran’s allies and order them to keep united.

Is Tehran’s strategy of weakening Sadr successful?

The Iranian strategy of stripping Sadr from his religious authority by ordering the retirement of Haeri will unlikely to succeed, simply because the relationship between Sadr and Haeri has been strained even before the rise of Sadr following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. On the contrary, Haeri’s attack on Sadr and his request for followers (some of whom are Sadrists) to follow Khamenei instead will most likely turn Sadr’s followers against Haeri.

Tehran seems to have underestimated the authority of Sadr whose followers and sympathizers in Iraq see him as the most legitimate political leader who can truly represent the Shiites in Iraq given he is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr who led a revival of the Islamist movement in Iraq in the 1990s. The pro-Sadr Iraqis think that all other Shiite politicians returned to Iraq from exile with the help of occupation forces after 2003 and these politicians have been sponsored by Tehran to implement the agenda of their sponsor.

Tehran could be wrong that it can weaken Sadr in this way given that Sadr has tremendous grassroots support that comprises millions of Iraqis from all over Iraq, particularly after Sadr has become the political king of the Shiites in Iraq after the victory of the Sadrists in the October 2021 elections.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.