Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Is Moqtada al-Sadr Trying to Stage a Jan. 6 Insurrection in Iraq?

The cleric’s “spontaneous peaceful revolution” is more of a bid to maintain his own influence—and the political status quo.

By , a journalist based in Baghdad.
Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather outside the Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone in Baghdad, on the seventh day of protests against the nomination of a rival Shiite faction for the position of prime minister on Aug. 5, 2022.
Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather outside the Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone in Baghdad, on the seventh day of protests against the nomination of a rival Shiite faction for the position of prime minister on Aug. 5, 2022.
Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather outside the Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone in Baghdad, on the seventh day of protests against the nomination of a rival Shiite faction for the position of prime minister on Aug. 5, 2022. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

BAGHDAD—On July 30, a boisterous crowd tore down the concrete slabs that surrounded the Green Zone, a heavily protected government district accessible only to the country’s most powerful. For the second time that week, thousands of rioters flooded the otherwise orderly avenues, passing monuments, embassies, and government offices and taking selfies with soldiers who had been told to stand down.

Without much resistance from security forces, they made their way to the Iraqi parliament, occupied lawmakers’ seats, and climbed atop the speaker’s table while chanting slogans in support of Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric. “Yes, yes to our leader,” they sang in unison, pumping their fists into the hot, stuffy air of the crowded halls. Outside, trucks began to arrive with supplies to prepare for a multiday siege.

“Moqtada al-Sadr is rejecting this parliament. The parties are corrupt, and they have violated the law by being affiliated with armed groups,” said Ahmed Abdel Jalil, one of the demonstrators. Like many others, he hailed from the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, the cleric’s eponymous stronghold.

BAGHDAD—On July 30, a boisterous crowd tore down the concrete slabs that surrounded the Green Zone, a heavily protected government district accessible only to the country’s most powerful. For the second time that week, thousands of rioters flooded the otherwise orderly avenues, passing monuments, embassies, and government offices and taking selfies with soldiers who had been told to stand down.

Without much resistance from security forces, they made their way to the Iraqi parliament, occupied lawmakers’ seats, and climbed atop the speaker’s table while chanting slogans in support of Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric. “Yes, yes to our leader,” they sang in unison, pumping their fists into the hot, stuffy air of the crowded halls. Outside, trucks began to arrive with supplies to prepare for a multiday siege.

“Moqtada al-Sadr is rejecting this parliament. The parties are corrupt, and they have violated the law by being affiliated with armed groups,” said Ahmed Abdel Jalil, one of the demonstrators. Like many others, he hailed from the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, the cleric’s eponymous stronghold.

The Iraqi rioters breached the Green Zone at the behest of a populist leader who had failed to take power through constitutional means.

Though emerging from entirely different contexts in countries thousands of miles apart, the recent scenes in Baghdad are reminiscent of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The Iraqi rioters, who first breached the Green Zone on July 27, did so at the behest of a populist leader who had failed to take power through constitutional means. By occupying parliament, they sought to overturn a political process they claimed was stacked against them, despite having won last October’s election.

Iraq’s government formation process, characterized by intense bargaining among the country’s Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties, tends to last months. But the current post-election crisis has been unprecedented in both length and magnitude due to an unusual rift within the Shiite political establishment, which has thus far ruled Iraq through consensus. In June, Sadr had ordered his party to resign en masse after he failed to form a majority government. A standoff on the streets appeared inevitable.

As fear of escalation gripped the capital, Sadr refused to send his followers home, instead fanning tensions through fiery tweets. “The spontaneous peaceful revolution that liberated the Green Zone is a first phase of a golden opportunity for all those stung by the fire of injustice, terrorism and corruption,” Sadr tweeted on July 31, calling on more Iraqis to join the crowds. He demanded to “fundamentally change the political system,” which he said had been “rigged” by a “deep state.” In an Aug. 3 televised speech, he called for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.

But the so-called revolution wasn’t a revolution. Nor was it a spontaneous, popular uprising of those marginalized from the political process or an attempt to curtail Iran’s influence in this Shiite-majority country, as the Sadrists repeatedly claimed to bolster their nationalist credentials. Instead, it was a calculated move by a powerful populist leader who, after failing to shore up sufficient support in parliament to nominate the next prime minister, decided to take his fight to the street by inciting an insurrection.

“Sadr overplayed his cards and now he is trying to put on a show,” said Marsin al-Shamary, a research fellow at the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, in response to questions from Foreign Policy. “He wants to be the most powerful Shia leader in Iraq and in order to do so, he has to sideline all the other Shia political leaders. But the issue with Shia political leadership in Iraq is that it’s a multipolar world where there isn’t one clear leader.”

For days, the country appeared to teeter on the brink, with residents worrying that the unrest could spiral into armed conflict between the Sadrists and the Coordination Framework, a loose grouping of Shiite parties formed after the last elections to foil Sadr’s attempt at forming a majority government. Bridges were closed, roads blocked off, and shops shut early as the capital braced itself for the possibility of a violent fallout between the rival sides, both of whom command powerful armed groups.

But an intra-Shiite conflict would spell the downfall of the consensus-based, Shiite-dominated political order that has been in place since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled the late Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. Sadr’s insurrection was a message to his rivals that he remained a formidable figure who couldn’t be excluded from government formation talks, despite having officially abandoned the political process.

The Coordination Framework, or Frame, as it’s known locally, staged a brief counterprotest. But so far, no red lines were crossed, as if all sides were guided by a common understanding that the priority was to preserve the status quo. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who rose to power with Sadr’s support and is hoping to remain in office, did little to end the siege.

“Nobody was concerned about violence. Everyone knows that at the end it will be solved without hard power,” said an official from the Frame, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the tense political climate.


Contrary to the image he has tried to cultivate, Sadr is inextricably intertwined with the system he claims he wants to upend. Drawing on his family’s religious authority, he mobilized an insurgency to fight the U.S. Army following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but he then used his military and religious credentials to build a devout political base.

His party has participated in national elections since 2010, gradually spreading loyalists through lucrative institutions as part of a sectarian power-sharing system that allows elites to use state resources to fuel patronage networks. The ministries of health and electricity, two important institutions long run by the Sadrists, are riddled with corruption and mismanagement, unable to provide basic services to Iraqis.

Last October, the Sadrists came first in the parliamentary election, securing 73 out of 329 seats, after co-opting mass demonstrations that called for sweeping reforms and capitalizing on the subsequent changes to the electoral law. Sadr tried to use his success at the polls to tighten his grip over the state. He broke with the previous custom of sharing power with his Shiite rivals, many of whom had performed poorly at the polls.

Brushing aside accusations that he was dividing the Shiites, he formed a cross-sectarian, tripartite alliance with Sunni and Kurdish parties. After nine months of fierce political infighting, he failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed form a government and ordered his lawmakers to resign.

The Coordination Framework, now the largest bloc in parliament, saw Sadr’s withdrawal as a strategic mistake and an opportunity to nominate a prime minister of their liking. But their unilateral choice of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, a former minister in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, peeved Sadr, prompting the insurrection.

“There is no indication that the Frame will change its candidate, at least for now,” Izzat Shabandar, a veteran Shiite politician who has been involved in government talks on the Coordination Framework’s behalf, told Foreign Policy. “The opposition of Moqtada al-Sadr is not official, and even if it was, he is not a partner. He is a man who withdrew from the political process and he is now outside of parliament.”

The Frame consists of competing Shiite groups, including Iran-aligned parties and former prime minister Maliki, who has been Sadr’s nemesis ever since he ordered his government forces to fight Sadr’s militia in 2008. Since then, Maliki and Sadr have competed for state capture, each using different mechanisms to win over the Shiite vote. While Maliki bought loyalty through mass appointments in the security services, Sadr’s trump card has been religion.

Sadr’s decision to rouse the streets coincided with the onset of the holy month of Muharram, when Shiite pilgrims mourn the killing of Imam Hussein.

Sadr’s decision to rouse the streets coincided with the onset of the holy month of Muharram, when Shiite pilgrims flock to the southern shrine city of Karbala to mourn the killing of Imam Hussein, one of the holiest figures of Shiite Islam whose martyrdom has become an enduring symbol of injustice.

“In Iraqi history there’s a correlation between religious pilgrimages and protest movements. It’s easy to mobilize people during a time of heightened religious fervor,” Shamary said. “Sadr really equates Imam Hussein’s story of fighting oppression with fighting corruption and has even started comparing himself to Imam Hussein.”

The protests were awash with invocations of Imam Hussein’s struggle, aimed at mobilizing supporters and legitimizing their cause. “Drink water and curse Maliki,” called one of Sadr’s supporters inside the Green Zone as he distributed water bottles to his fellow demonstrators. A reference to the storied Battle of Karbala in 680, the saying had been modified to curse Maliki instead of Yazid, the Sunni caliph who is loathed among Shiites for ordering Imam Hussein’s killing.

Inside parliament, the protesters raised green Imam Hussein flags and rhythmically thumped their chests as part mourning rituals typically performed during Muharram. On Aug. 5, thousands turned out despite scorching temperatures to attend a midday prayer in the Green Zone’s festivities square—a vast parade ground otherwise used for national celebrations.

Through it all, Kadhimi did not intervene to forcibly remove the Sadrists from the Green Zone, an act that would have defied his powerful backer while pitting the state’s security forces against one of Iraq’s most capable armed groups. When the crowds first stormed parliament, Kadhimi appealed for calm and warned of the dangerous consequences of “sedition.”

But he also ordered security forces to protect the crowds, a move that sparked speculations over collusion. In the lead-up to Friday prayers, photos circulated on social media of Iraqi Army officers discussing preparations with members of Sadr’s militia, further fueling the perception that Kadhimi was implicitly supporting the protests in a bid to extend his term in office.

Kadhimi has had a strained relationship with the Frame’s Iran-aligned parties and their armed wings.

“When the Sadrists entered the Green Zone, the Frame thought that everything was facilitated by the government,” the Frame official said.

Kadhimi, a former spy chief who has no political base of his own and is seen as having close ties to the United States, has had a strained relationship with the Frame’s Iran-aligned parties and their armed wings. He has repeatedly ordered arrests of militiamen accused of targeting their Iraqi critics as well as U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and has in turn been accused of doing America’s and Sadr’s bidding.

“Nobody in the Frame accepts Mustafa al-Kadhimi to continue,” the official said. “He isn’t balanced. He is seen as a Sadrist prime minister who is ruled by his advisors.”

But the ongoing paralysis of the political process is likely to keep Kadhimi’s caretaker government in power for the near future, a scenario that was laid out by one of Kadhimi’s advisors months ago.

“Kadhimi’s prospects of prolonging his term in office have improved in the last week or two,” said Fanar Haddad, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen and a former advisor to the prime minister. “You have a legislative and constitutional void that has been created by this insurrection. The government formation process is now completely paralyzed.”

Keen to end the standoff, many political leaders appear to have acquiesced to Sadr’s demand for early elections. But analysts say that doing so would still require the current parliament to vote in a new government, which would then be charged with holding the vote. After all the upheaval, reaching a consensus may still be the only way out of Iraq’s political morass.

Simona Foltyn is a journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @SimonaFoltyn

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