This posting offers the following arguments. First, Muqtada al-Sadr is the most powerful politician in Iraq today. Second, his star has risen in direct relation to the decline in the power of the ability of the Kurds to mediate between opposing Arab parties. Third, his efforts to curtail Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's power is promoting, at least in the short term, democratic reforms in Iraq. Finally, as long as the central government refuses to address corruption and provide government services, especially to the poor, Sadr will retain his role as the (youthful) "Godfather" of Iraqi politics.
When he first appeared on the political scenes in 2003, Muqtada al-Sadr was not taken seriously, even by the Iraqi Shi'a who adore his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad al-Sadr, who Saddam Husayn ordered assassinated in 1999. Compared with his two brothers, who were killed along with their father, Muqtada was viewed as a family member with little interest in religion. Indeed, his nickname during the 1990s, "Mr. Atari," drew attention to the fact that he seemed to enjoy playing video games to the study of religion.
Since 2003, the younger al-Sadr has surprised all factions of the Iraqi political spectrum. Not only did he create the powerful Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army)which challenged US occupation forces, especially in al-Najaf in August 2004, but he also built a powerful political coalition which has become a core element of all political coalitions since 2006.
While the Mahdi Army was rendered ineffective in 2008 when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched an attack on it in Basra, Baghdad and Amarah, al-Sadr quickly moved to strengthen his political movement in place of his now defunct militia. In the March 2010 national parliament elections, Sadr's forces, known as the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri), shocked its coalition partner in the Iraqi National Alliance - the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) - by winning 39 seats to its 17 seats. SIIC's loss of its position as the most powerful Shi'i party, having dominated the December 2005 parliamentary elections, caused great resentment towards the Sadrists.
When Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition failed to win the most seats in the 2010 elections, it was only through the support of the Sadrists and the Kurdish List that Maliki was able to retain his office. While the Arbil Agreement of November 11, 2010 set the parameters for overcoming the gridlock in forming a government that followed the March elections, the agreement was never implemented because Maliki failed to deliver on his promises to incorporate the al-Iraqiya Coalition, which won 91 to the State of Law's 89 seats, into the Iraqi government. As struggles have increased between Arbil and Baghdad (see my posting, "Will Iraq's Kurds declare independence?," July 26th) .
Maliki's failure to implement the Arbil Agreement and his increasing authoritarian tendencies caused a large group of political parties to introduce a vote of no-confidence in the Iraqi parliament this past spring. Sunnis feel he is intent on marginalizing them politically, the Kurds feel that he might attack them over their dispute over oil once fighter aircraft are purchased from the US, and many Shi'a feel that he is excluding them from power.
Particularly disturbing to many parties has been Maliki's failure to appoint ministers to important security posts such as the Defense and Interior ministries which he continues to head. Maliki promises to make amends which have never been followed through have only fueled the political firestorm.
For the no-confidence vote to be successful, there need to be at least 164 votes (half of the 335 members of the Council of Delegates). The al-Iraqiya, Kurdish List (including the Gorran Party), the Sadrists, members of the United National Alliance, and even members of Maliki's own State of Law Coalition, all signed on initially to the effort to oust Maliki. However, sicne then a number of delegates have had reservations becasue there is no clear replaement for Maliki.
Sadr has manipulated the effort to oust Maliki for his benefit by first strongly criticizing the prime minister, but then backing off on his initial commitment to add his crucial "Ahrar" bloc to the vote of no-confidence. Without this support, the vote cannot succeed. Instead, he has used his central role to force concessions from Maliki, especially limitations on his power. When Maliki responded by once again offering to make concessions, Sadr pushed still further, demanding term limits on the post of prime minister (al-Hayat, July 9) and, more recently on July 12th, the Sadrists in parliament proposed a law that would limit the terms of the three vice presidents as well (al-Hayat, July 14).
Ironically, the efforts by Sadr to hold Maliki hostage to his threats to join the coalition to oust him - a coalition that has about 160 solid votes but is having problems gaining the support of additional delegates - is having an impact on curtailing the power of the prime minister. First, it has forced Maliki to offer a number of concessions which have been incorporated by the Iraqi National Alliance into a "Reforms Proposal." Second, Sadr's demands for terms limits on the prime minister and the vice-prime ministers is actually promoting democratic reforms in Iraq by placing legal limits on Iraq's executive branch.
We can expect Sadr's power to increase based not just on the large amount of support he maintains in the Shi;i community but on his more broadly based nationalist credentials as well. He has invited Sunnis and Christians to run under the Sadrist banner in next year's provincial legislative elections. This follows a tradition of consistently reaching out to non-Shi'i sectors of the Iraqi populace, such as the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars which was organized to combat the US occupation of Iraq after 2003.
Posturing himself as an Iraqi nationalist rather than a strictly Shi'i leader, Sadr aspires to national leadership. Thus he is in a stronger political position than his political competitors in the Shi'i community such as the Iranian sponsored militia, the League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq), which broke away from the former Mahdi Army, and the SCCI which aspires to dominate Shi'i politics but does not have much credibility among Iraq's other ethnoconfessional groups.
In the final analysis, Iraqi Arab and Western commentators make a crucial mistake in continuing to view Sadr as a political actor divorced from a larger political economic and social context. He is a shrew political leaders to be sure, and he derives much power from the "halo effect" of his prominent uncle, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is beloved among the poor Shi'a.
Still, Muqtada al-Sadr would not enjoy the power he has were he not the head of a powerful social movement which provides myriad services to the poor and lower middle class Shi'i communities in Iraq. Forward looking Iraqi political leaders need to seriously address the needs of the poor and the economically marginalized groups in Iraq by addressing the extensive corruption that dominates the Iraqi government. More importantly, they need to seriously address the lack of social services which Iraqis increasingly resent not receiving in a country awash with massive amounts of hydrocarbon wealth, both oil and natural gas.
At the end of the day, Muqtada al-Sadr does not support a tolerant, pluralistic and democratic Iraq. Nevertheless, he will use the existing legal and constitutional system to further his end of dominating Iraqi politics. Unfortunately, few analysts recognize the powerful relationship between corruption and lack of services, on the one hand, and the undermining of efforts at democratization in Iraq, on the other. The Sadrists' power is an example of the failure to view Iraqi politics through the conceptual lens of political economy.