I Fought Against Muqtada al-Sadr. Now He’s Iraq’s Best Hope.

The former militia leader who once terrorized U.S. forces has reinvented himself as an Iraqi nationalist and a pragmatist.

Iraqis celebrate with a picture of the Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, after the general election in Baghdad on May 14, 2018.
Iraqis celebrate with a picture of the Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, after the general election in Baghdad on May 14, 2018. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD — I’ve fought against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militias in Iraq. I’ve ducked from rockets from his Mahdi Army and lost friends to improvised explosive devices from his Promised Day Brigade. But the Muqtada al-Sadr of 2018, whose Sairun coalition won the most seats in this recent Iraq parliamentary election, is not the Muqtada al-Sadr of 2004. The man who once directed his Mahdi militias to fight U.S. forces in Najaf and Baghdad has changed for the better.

While Sadr may have acted counter to U.S. interests in the past, he is now more aligned with Western attempts to reign in Iranian influence and Sunni extremism. Sadr has, in his view, always been a pragmatist. But his pragmatic approach went from trying to change the situation in Iraq through physical violence (2003 to 2008) to understanding the power of politics and civic actions (2011 to 2018). Today, Sadr understands the need for coalition support to help bolster Iraq’s security forces, thereby preventing another collapse that allows an extremist group like the Islamic State to emerge.

I have read the doom and gloom articles. I have received panicked e-mails, Facebook messages, and WhatsApp texts from friends who have served in Iraq. They all ask the same question: “Sadr? Really? Didn’t we fight this guy for years? How can this happen?” They, too, lost loved ones fighting against Sadr’s militias in Najaf, Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood, and along the infamous Route Irish from the Green Zone to the Baghdad airport.

I understand their fears because I once shared the same concerns. However, having been in Iraq for multiple combat tours and during last month’s parliamentary election, I now have a much more positive view of the country than I ever would have imagined. The Sadr I witnessed leading his Sairun alliance in the 2018 election, while not pro-American, was both pro-Iraqi and anti-Iranian. This is a huge shift from 2004.

This is the first Iraqi election since the defeat of the Islamic State and the fifth since Saddam Hussein was deposed. I was in Iraq for the 2010 parliamentary elections. I remember being in a U.S. cavalry squadron operations center in Baghdad as reports of improvised explosive devices, rockets, shootings, and Iraqi casualties at polling places came pouring in. One could feel the reverberations of an IED echoing through the walls of Forward Operating Base Falcon at the southern end of Baghdad in 2010. This year there has been nothing of the sort: No explosions, no incoming rockets, no car bombs.

The Iraqi security forces, along with their coalition partners from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and over 80 other nations have provided solid security for the population. While there were minimal incidents in other areas of Iraq, Baghdad was quiet on Election Day. Unlike in 2010, when two Shiite-led political blocs dominated the share of votes, 2018 split the spoils across Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish lines. In such an atmosphere, Sadrists, who received roughly 30 to 40 seats in previous elections, were poised to make a much stronger showing. As the election results came in, it became clear his list would win a plurality of the 329 seats in the Council of Representatives. That’s when the angst, bordering on panic, began in Washington, London, and in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Iraq War veterans who only knew the Sadr who’d tried to kill them during past deployments in Iraq.

After all, Sadr doesn’t like the United States. He never has and most likely never will. Sadr and his militias fought numerous battles against U.S. forces whom he viewed as occupiers. Even the government of Iraq launched Operation Charge of the Knights against Sadr and his militias in Basra in 2008 with massive help from coalition forces, an operation that prompted Sadr to flee to Iran. Following the 2008 cease-fire, Sadr shifted the Mahdi Army’s focus away from military operations to the provision of social services, establishing a nonmilitary wing called the Mumahidoon and reassigning most of the Mahdi Army’s members to it. Attacks against the Iraqi military and citizens were halted, although a small number of Mahdi militia members were assigned to the Promised Day Brigade and continued their attacks on U.S. forces until the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011.

The Sadr who returned to Iraq in 2011 from his exile in Iran was different. He disbanded the Mahdi Army, ordered his militias not to attack U.S. forces, and, in 2014, instructed them instead to defend Iraq against the Islamic State. The rise of the Islamic State coupled with the fall of Mosul resulted in an odd coalition: Iraqi Shiite militias, Iranian-backed forces, Iraqi counterterrorism forces, and U.S.-led coalition forces all fought against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Sadr’s forces, unlike other Shiite militias, cooperated with Iraqi government forces in that fight. More important, after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in December 2017 that the Islamic State had been defeated in Iraq, Sadr ordered his militias to disband and continued to follow the instructions of the Iraqi government.

Sadr has always been an Iraqi nationalist, placing his country before all others, including the United States and, more importantly, Iran. He is a pragmatist, and while he would never say it publicly, Sadr appears to understand that Iraq alone — without the United States and its coalition partners — cannot strengthen its security forces to prevent another implosion like what happened from 2013 to 2014, when the Islamic State took over large swathes of the country. In 2013, the citizens of Baghdad could hear Islamic State artillery firing in the distance; Iraq was that close to total defeat. The Iraqi people, including Sadr, remember this.

Now, with the Islamic State almost vanquished in Iraq, sectarianism and corruption are the two biggest challenges facing the country. Sadr knows what sectarianism can do to Iraq; he was a major participant in it and his militias were directly responsible for numerous atrocities against fellow Iraqis. The bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites from 2006 to 2008 killed thousands and tore at the very fabric of Iraqi society. Entire neighborhoods were ethnically cleansed and mutilated bodies were pulled from the Tigris River every day. It was sectarianism combined with corruption under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that provided the opening for the Islamic State to emerge in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar.

Corruption is the other major challenge facing Iraq. Despite current Prime Minister Abadi’s pledge to rein in government corruption, he didn’t accomplish much during his four years in office. As an oil-dependent economy, Iraq needs to diversify its economic portfolio, create jobs for hundreds of thousands of citizens, and redevelop its nonexistent middle class. Forty percent of Iraqis are employed by the state — a government rife with systemic corruption. As Sarah Chayes argues in her 2015 book, Thieves of State, corruption “is a cause — not a result — of global instability.”

Sadr and his Sairun list have the best chance to positively impact both of these issues by forming a broad-based, ethnically diverse, government to lead Iraq forward. Sadr’s list has brought together strange bedfellows: His Shiite group joined Iraqi communists united in their calls for government reform and to fight systemic corruption. Sadr is continuing to work closely with a variety of other lists in an effort to form the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament. This includes outreach to Prime Minister Abadi and his Victory Alliance (Nasr), Vice President Iyad Allawi and his predominantly Sunni list, as well as Kurdish lists. A nonsectarian, multicultural government bodes well for Iraq. Rather than the Fatah Alliance, a heavily Iranian-influenced list dominated by violent Shiite militia groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, a Sairun and Nasr list seems the best hope for a stable Iraqi government.

That said, Sadr will still need to embrace elements of the Iranian-backed Fatah Alliance to avoid military confrontation during government formation; a worst-case scenario would be the militias of Fatah and Sairun fighting for power on the streets of Baghdad. Sadr seems to recognize that elements of the Fatah list, such as the Badr Organization, were responsive to Iraqi government during the fight against Islamic State forces and would more than likely be allies with Sadr as he seeks to form a governing coalition. More extreme elements of the Fatah Alliance, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, who openly receive support from Iran and publicly call for the removal of coalition troops from Iraq through violence, are reminders that a list like Fatah has varying elements and Sadr must deal with them carefully as he negotiates.

Most important, Sadr’s list does not have a single current politician on it. Rather than putting the same people in office to do the same poor job of managing the country, Sadr wants to put technocrats in office — people who have the skills to manage and reform the bloated bureaucracy. These technocrats come from across Iraqi society: private sector leaders, engineers, doctors, academics, and former military leaders. The next Iraqi government needs to focus on security sector reform, institution building, countering corruption, and wholesale economic reform to develop a viable middle class once again. Sadr believes he can do this.

His metamorphosis from the little-known son of a famous father, to a violent militia leader, to the leader of the winning party in the 2018 parliamentary election is encouraging. As an Iraqi nationalist, religious leader, and pragmatist, Sadr has both the credibility to form a stable government and the ability to do so effectively.

Things could still take a turn for the worse. Iran is actively working to make sure their Shiite coalition forms the next government. We’ve seen this before in 2010: a hard-fought election result quickly slipped away from the Iraqi people mostly due to Iranian interference, U.S. apathy, and Sadr buckling under pressure to support then-Prime Minister Maliki.

Transitions in Iraq are always painful; they are a time of both opportunities and risks. I’ve witnessed many of them: the start of the Iraqi insurgency in 2004; the surge of U.S. forces in 2007; the transition of U.S. forces out of Iraqi cities in 2009; the lost chance for change during the 2010 Iraqi elections; the emergence of Operation New Dawn in September 2010 and the eventual drawdown of U.S. troops and withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

Unlike all those previous transitions, this election has left me with a feeling I’ve rarely experienced in all of my years in Iraq and certainly one I would have never thought I’d associate with Muqtada al-Sadr: hope.

Michael D. Sullivan, a colonel in the U.S. Army, served five tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2018. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and currently works at the U.S. Embassy Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq in Baghdad. His views are his own and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense or any other government agency.

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