Washington Worried About the Rising Role of Sadr’s Shia Movement in Iraq

sadr_iraqA main feature of the last Iraqi parliamentary election, held on March 7, was the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement. Sadr, a Shiite cleric and son of Mohammad Baqir al Sadr, one the most prominent Iraqi Shiite scholars, has been a fierce opponent of the US occupation of the country. The Sadrist forces and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) make up the bulk of the Iraqi National Alliance, which has supported Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki for a second term of premiership. Maliki hailed the deal with these parties, casting it as a decisive breakthrough to put an end to the political stalemate that the country reached after the election.

In these seven months, the Barack Obama administration claimed that it would “not interfere” in Iraq’s internal political process. However, it tried to promote the creation of a pro-Western government coalition between Maliki and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a former “CIA asset.” The US Administration demanded that a quick agreement be worked out. “We have been under tremendous pressure by the Americans … in clearly asking President (Jalal) Talabani to step down,” a Kurdish official told Jane Araf of the Christian Science Monitor. Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden personally called Talabani to demand the resignation in order to let Allawi become the new President, he said. However, the Kurdish parties showed no desire to accept that US demand.

However, the Iraqiyya bloc, led by Allawi, reached under pressure a coalition agreement with Maliki’s State of the Law bloc. Under the agreement, the job of Speaker of parliament went to Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of al-Iraqiya, who, along with his brother, controls the northern city of Mosul. The surprise came when the Iraqi lawmakers massively abandoned a parliamentary meeting where Maliki was going to be again appointed Prime Minister. Allawi then denounced the agreement and warned about more violence in Iraq.

Therefore, the new political equation in Iraq is that Maliki will remain in power – thanks to support by the Sadrist bloc. The Los Angeles Times called the agreement with the Sadrists “a stunning victory” for Maliki and “a strategic defeat for Washington, which had pressed for a prominent role for Maliki’s rival, and appeared to be caught flatfooted by the rapid developments.”


Sadr’s Madhi Army launched two rebellions in April and August 2004 against US occupation in Iraq. There were more clashes in the years 2007-2008. Muqatada was then described as “the most dangerous man in Iraq” by US media. However, for Iraqis and more particularly for Shiite Iraqis he was a hero; a man who dared to oppose to the hateful occupiers not only with words but also with acts. The new political agreement between Sadr and Maliki both provide fresh evidence that General David Petraeus’s war against the Mahdi Army in 2007-2008 was a futile exercise.

Sadr had up until recently opposed a second term for Maliki. Backed by US forces, Maliki in 2008 launched an offensive against Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Baghdad’s Sadr City as well as in the southern city of Basra. Both sides then reached a deal and Sadr called his supporters to put down their arms, but he continued to denounce the US occupation and to call for the total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

In 2007, Sadr settled in the Iranian holy city of Qom where he started religious studies in order to strengthen his religious status among the Iraqi Shiites. In Iran, he established a network of important relations with political and religious leaders. According to several sources, Iran has helped Maliki and Sadr to overcome their past problems and political differences in order to reach the government agreement.

Sadr’s political comeback was the result of careful planning. A year before the March elections, he and his top aides set up an election strategy committee they dubbed the “machine.” The goal was to use the electoral system as best as they could. A team of experts built an extensive database of voters in every province and designed a bright electoral campaign.

Actually, it was not difficult. Sadr’s anti-occupation posture, his trend of religious nationalism and his image as the defender of the Shiite community made his party, the Free Movement party, become the only one that gained new seats in the election. The Free Movement won 39 of the 325 positions. In the election, the Iraqiyya bloc got the most seats, 91, while Maliki’s State of Law bloc won 89. However, both Allawi and Maliki fell far short of the overall 163 majority. However, the Shiite religious parties, including Maliki’s own party, Ad-Da’wa, had a clear majority.


Some US officials now fear the Sadrist movement can duplicate the success of Hezbollah, a resistance movement which has developed a strong armed organization as well as a network of advanced social programs. The language Sadr uses when discussing the US presence in Iraq -resistance and occupation- is similar to some of Hezbollah´s statements against Israeli occupation.

Patrick Cockburn, author of the book “Muqtada”, wrote that Sadr represented “the only grassroots movement in Iraq.” He explains in his work that that while US media and government “demonize and belittle” Sadr, he has developed a “solid strength stemming from the Shiite faith.” “Muqtada and his followers are intensely religious and see themselves as following in the tradition of martyrdom in opposition to the tyranny established when (Imams) Hussein and Abbas were killed by the Umayyads on the plains of Karbala fourteen hundred years ago,” said Cockburn.

According to Los Angeles Times, there is no doubt that the agreement with Maliki will give Sadrists increasing influence over Iraqi security forces, governors’ offices and even its prisons. In recent months, Maliki’s government has freed hundreds of members of the Mahdi Army and handed security positions to veteran commanders of the militia who fought against US forces. Senior Sadr supporters are being brought into the Interior Ministry at high-level positions, Mahdi Army members and Iraqi officers told the Times. The group has secured political gains also. The Sadr camp won the deputy speaker position in Parliament and is said to be vying for the post of deputy prime minister too.


Los Angeles Times added that Sadr movement’s prominence will surely make it harder for the United States to keep its waning influence in Iraq. Washington is very worried about the increasing Sadr role in Iraqi politics and demanded Maliki to oust him from the ruling coalition.

US officials initially encouraged the Iraqis to form a government quickly, but then started pushing for a slowdown after it became apparent that Sadr’s Free Movement was poised to play a major role. The US clearly hoped to stall the formation of a new government long enough to undermine the deal between Maliki and Sadr. US Ambassador James Jeffries repeatedly said that Sadr’s inclusion in an Iraqi government was unacceptable to Washington. London’s pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat reported that the US Administration had called on Maliki to abandon the Sadrists and expressed reluctance over dealing with a Baghdad government in which Sadrists were holding key Cabinet positions.

However, Jawad al-Hassanawi, a leading figure in the Sadrist movement, told the Times that Maliki was “strongly committed” to the Sadrists. Iraqi lawmakers and political leaders are openly saying that they no longer follow Washington’s advice on political issues. Instead, Iraqis are turning to neighboring nations, and especially Iran, for guidance casting doubt on the future of the US role in this strategic country after a bloody war that killed more than 4,400 US Soldiers. Leaders from rival political coalitions in the last several months have been to Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia on official visits.

“The Iraqi politicians are not responding to the US like before. We don’t pay great attention to them,” Shiite lawmaker Sami al-Askari, a close ally of Prime Minister Maliki told Associated Press. “The Americans have their view on how to form an Iraqi government. But it does not apply to the political powers on the ground and it is not effective. The weak American role has given the region’s countries a greater sense of influence on Iraqi affairs.”

In an effort to push back, the Obama administration has dropped hints that it wants to prolong the US military occupation. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently said that he would welcome a request from the new government in Baghdad for an extension of the December 2011 withdrawal deadline negotiated between Maliki and George W. Bush two years ago.

Nevertheless, as a recent article in the New York Times hinted, a major concern of the US is that the strong presence of the Sadrists in the Iraqi Parliament and government would complicate its plans to maintain a substantial US troop presence in Iraq after the end of 2011, when all American troops are supposed to be removed under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between the two countries.

While some Iraqi political and military leaders have expressed support for the plan, the Sadrists remain opposed to the foreign occupation. Tens of thousands of Sadr’s supporters have been taking to the streets in the Iraqi cities to protest against the SOFA. “Sadrists in government will not meet with any US officials. We will not make any deals with them. We will abandon the Americans,” Khadem al Sayadi, a Sadrist MP, told the UAE newspaper “The National.”

“We have been consistent in our opposition to the US occupation of Iraq and we will refuse any attempt to get the occupation to continue (beyond the 2011 pull-out date).”

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