December 20, 2019

KNOWING YOUR ALLIES:

Moqtada al-Sadr: The 'firebrand' cleric who could calm Iraq (Jim Muir, 12/20/19, BBC)

Barely had the Americans and their allies settled in than Moqtada al-Sadr shot to prominence as the loudest voice calling for their ouster.

Words were followed by action, as he mobilised his followers into the Mahdi Army (a name with messianic Islamic connotations) which US commanders rapidly came to see as their biggest threat in Iraq.

From 2004 onwards, the Mahdi Army clashed repeatedly with US-led coalition forces and was blamed for numerous roadside bombings and other attacks. Moqtada al-Sadr also lambasted Iraqi leaders co-operating with the Americans.

His followers were deeply involved in the Shia-Sunni sectarian atrocities and general gangsterism of 2006-7. In 2008 his men fought pitched battles with Iraqi army troops sent in to tame Basra by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Through successive phases of turmoil since then, Moqtada al-Sadr has been adept and pragmatic in both the military and political spheres.

The Mahdi Army has been through several mutations, and is currently labelled the Peace Companies.

Politically, the Saeroun is the latest morph produced by the broader Sadrist movement.

Such shake-ups have allowed Moqtada al-Sadr to keep a grip on both spheres and prevent complacency.

In the 2018 elections he forbade any of his 34 incumbent MPs from standing again and ran a successful list which, astonishing for a supposedly Shia clerical-based outfit, included communists, secularists and Sunnis.

His decisions have often seemed fickle and bizarre, not least when it comes to relations with outside powers.

While he has been consistently against American interference in Iraq, he has often criticised Iran too, for its interference both in Iraq and in Syria. In 2017 he even visited Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional arch-rival.

Yet he took refuge in Iran from 2007 until 2011, studying in the Qom seminaries to try to upgrade his clerical credentials; and in September this year, he was filmed sitting with the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the mastermind of Iran's regional influence, Gen Qasem Soleimani - images that caused a frisson through much of Iraq.

For Patrick Cockburn, author of a biography of Moqtada al-Sadr, there is no real contradiction in all this.

"He and his father have pursued a pretty consistent line as populist nationalist religious leaders in the context of Iraqi politics with its multiple power centres at home and abroad. This means that nobody is a permanent friend or a permanent enemy."

"In Moqtada's case, political ambivalence is exacerbated because he is, at one and the same time, leader of the biggest party in parliament, while his followers are playing a central role in the protest movement.

Posted by at December 20, 2019 6:10 PM

  

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