The Shiite cleric's supporters stormed the Green Zone and are calling for the demise of the corrupt status quo. But can they accomplish their goals without plunging Iraq into chaos?
- By Jane ArrafJane Arraf has covered Iraq since 1991 and was CNN's bureau chief and correspondent in Baghdad from 1998 to 2005. As a freelance journalist, she reports from Baghdad for Al Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor.
Muqtada al-Sadr has long served as the spark in a volatile Iraq. When the Shiite cleric ordered his followers to fight U.S. forces in 2004, it was the gravest challenge to the United States in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled. More than a decade later, the mercurial leader has taken on Iraq’s entire political establishment in a crisis that some fear could tip the country over the edge.
The miles of concrete blast walls that protect Baghdad’s Green Zone are the most enduring symbol of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Last week, a wave of protesters, most of them loyal to Sadr, pulled down the walls and stormed the Parliament building. Some protesters beat up members of Parliament, broke furniture, and sent legislators fleeing for their lives.
Iraq’s largely Shiite security forces, with no orders to use force, didn’t stop the storming of the gates.
The political crisis is shaking the foundations of a system where government ministries have been carved up among Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish political blocs, and corruption has run rampant. The rivalries it has exposed among rival armed Shiite groups have raised alarm even in neighboring Iran.
Sadr was little known to the outside world before 2003. However, he was revered among the followers of his father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam in the 1990s. He emerged from the war with a militia of poor young men armed with rifles, who began to attack American tanks in the streets of Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, and Basra. His Mahdi Army militia fought Iraqi forces in 2008 and, when the United States jumped in to back the army in Basra, he agreed to a cease-fire and later reinvented himself as a major political player.
If Sadr styled his persona in the early postwar years as the savior of Iraq’s sovereignty, in recent years he has burnished his credentials as an Iraqi nationalist prepared to reach out to Sunnis and other Iraqi minorities, as well as other countries.
A few months ago, Sadr appeared in danger of being eclipsed as a political force by the Shiite paramilitary leaders who are leading key battles against the Islamic State and could potentially erode his support among the Shiite population. But, over the past year, he has catapulted back onto the national stage by organizing mass protests to press for government reform.
In doing so, Sadr has demonstrated that his forces can still defy the Iraqi government. But he may have also undermined his claims of being in command. While he had long threatened to have his followers storm the Green Zone, as they did last weekend, the subsequent beating of lawmakers, including the Kurdish deputy speaker and a senior Shiite lawmaker, was not the peaceful protest he said he was calling for.
“This is not the storming he intended,” said Dhia al-Assadi, head of the Al-Ahrar political bloc, the Sadr movement’s political wing.
Sadr officials blame the violence on members of groups such as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), an Iran-backed militia that broke with Sadr after he agreed to a cease-fire with U.S. forces in 2004. Sadr is said to fear that his former militia allies are planning to assassinate him.
Following the chaos in Parliament on Saturday, fighters from the Badr Corps, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and forces loyal to Sadr emerged almost instantly to reinforce Iraqi security forces at checkpoints in Baghdad, including the Green Zone. Militia fighters have also spread through Baghdad neighborhoods, and some have pulled their fighters from the front lines to the capital.
“Every group has brought out its armed people,” said a former senior Iraqi official who, like others, preferred to remain anonymous when speaking about the militias. “The risk of a Shiite-on-Shiite confrontation is there.”
Senior Iraqi officials say Iraqi security forces were given no orders to stop the protesters. When Sadr walked into the Green Zone for the first time in April, an Iraqi Army general in charge of security there kissed his hand in obedience.
Some witnesses say vehicles bearing the flag of Sadr’s paramilitary brigades were parked outside Parliament, indicating that storming the building might have been more organized than the spontaneous outpouring of anger the Sadrists have portrayed.
Whatever machinations took place behind the scenes, there is significant popular support for changing Iraq’s stagnant and corrupt political status quo. The sight of members of Parliament throwing punches and water bottles at one another in April on national television was just the most visible part of a broken system.
For most Iraqis, the Green Zone has become a symbol of corruption and decadence. After the U.S. invasion, the area was expanded well beyond Saddam’s original palace compound. Most young Iraqis have never seen its wide, empty streets, which flank former public parks that were favorite gathering spots before 2003. They could only dream of seeing the decorative canals and manicured lawns surrounding politicians’ publicly subsidized homes – or even the inside of their own Parliament.
“This is the greatest day of my life,” one protester shouted as the gates fell.
Tehran, however, was among the many capitals watching with alarm. Deeply worried at the prospect of intra-Shiite fighting, Iran fears the effect of rifts within the Shiite ranks on the fight against the Islamic State. Iranian officials were also said to be particularly offended by chants of “Iran out!” by some protesters as well as deeply alarmed at the prospect of intra-Shiite fighting.
Sadr officials publicly condemned the chants. Sadr is widely believed to have been summoned to Iran to account for the debacle, and announced before the Green Zone was stormed that he was taking a two-month spiritual retreat.
It isn’t the first time he has disappeared from view. He decamped to Iran after his troops were driven out of Basra in 2008 and, amid scandals over corruption by Sadr movement politicians, announced in 2014 he was withdrawing from politics.
“If you look at the pattern of the past six or seven years, every time he steps out of line he gets called to Iran and he goes quiet,” said a Baghdad analyst who asked to remain anonymous.
Although he studied in Iran for several years, Sadr is not among Iraq’s senior religious clerics and has not always been treated there with the respect he believes his religious legacy deserves. He is the son of a revered Shiite cleric assassinated by Saddam — to millions of followers, his word is law.
Sadr rarely appears in person, but his supporters are ready to die for him. On Tuesday, in Tahrir Square, named to commemorate the bloody 1958 revolution that toppled the monarchy, a few of his followers waited for instructions.
The protest tents erected in the square weeks ago for sit-ins are largely gone, but another major protest is planned for Friday. Underneath the sweeping monument depicting the Iraqi struggle for freedom, a large sign quoted Sadr as telling his followers: “Your faith in your leader imposes the responsibility to not ask questions about the reasons.”
“I’m following the orders of Sayid Muqtada,” said Saleh Mohammed, a 35-year-old civil servant. “I won’t leave even if I’m killed here.”
Mohammed said he was among the protesters who stormed Parliament.
“We wanted to ask them what they are doing for the country,” he said. “The first lesson was telling them [the MPs] there is no place for them in government. The next lesson will be more difficult for them.”
Although the core of Sadr’s support is made up of the poor and jobless, it also includes educated Iraqis who believe in his message of equality and social justice.
“Educated people are in the street selling Kleenex at intersections,” said another protester, a university-educated single mother. “Our children aren’t getting a proper education, and the poor are dying because they don’t have money to pay for medical treatment.”
The protests began as broad-based demonstrations last year to demand better government services and an end to the corruption that some Iraqis see as a bigger threat than the Islamic State. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite religious scholar, lent his support to the demonstrations, effectively giving Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a mandate to implement sweeping changes. But without the standing in his Dawa Party or among other political factions to push his proposed reforms through Parliament, they have stalled. Although some relatively low-level officials have been charged with corruption, no major political figures have been indicted.
Sadr and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are the two key figures in Iraq’s ongoing political crisis, although neither holds an official political position. They are also sworn enemies whose forces previously battled each other in Basra and Baghdad.
Sadr withdrew his government ministers to allow Abadi to move forward with a new cabinet of technocrats – appointed for their qualifications and not their loyalty to political blocs. Maliki loyalists, however, refused to vote on the new cabinet in a normal parliamentary session, organizing instead a sit-in in April and demanding to convene their own session with a new speaker to vote on the new cabinet and eventually a new prime minister. Maliki, who lost his position as vice president when Abadi eliminated those posts last year, has said he is not seeking to regain power, although few Iraqis believe him. Parliament managed to agree on only five new ministers in the week before the protesters stormed the gates.
Kurdish members of Parliament, deeply shaken by the attacks on some of their members, left en masse for Kurdistan last week after Parliament was stormed. If they come back, they are likely to demand more political power and revenue sharing as conditions.
Amid the political chaos, and the impossibility of holding new elections while the Islamic State controls parts of the country, some politicians are calling for an emergency “national salvation” government to replace the current one.
“The cabinet is still an issue, but this is way beyond that,” said a high-level Iraqi official. “What happened Saturday has shaken the foundation of the political system. Finding common ground will be a challenge.”
Photo credit: HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images