Nearly 14 years after being surrounded on two separate occasions by thousands of US Marines in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has once again defied expectations by outpacing his well-funded rivals and coming out on top of parliamentary elections held on May 12.
Al-Sadr, who leads a coalition that includes the Iraqi Communist Party, independents, secularists as well as his die-hard religious followers from the Shiite heartland in central and southern Iraq, has seen his fortunes turn from besieged renegade insurgent leader to kingmaker in just over a decade.
With his powerful Shia paramilitary Mehdi Army in tow, al-Sadr was once considered the scourge of US occupying forces in the pre-ISIS years immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. His emergence as a religious, nationalist, populist – with an equally deep-rooted hatred for foreign intervention, be it American, British, European, Iranian, Russian, or Saudi – has made him a man that all in the region will spend equal amounts of time loathing, fearing, and trying to court.
Al-Sadr has successfully shed the firebrand radical cleric persona that was widely considered an Iranian proxy by the Americans – an image that was only partially based on reality as the Tehran generally considered al-Sadr far too much of a maverick to be trusted to do the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ bidding in Iraq with the same gusto as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
What has, instead, driven al-Sadr’s quest for power has been his ambition to re-established his family’s influence as a religious dynasty in the region. Al-Sadr has long believed that his destiny was to pick up the mantle of his father-in-law, Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, who was executed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein, and his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shia religious leader who also met his end at the hands of Hussein’s feared Ba’athist secret police in 1999.
The legacy of those deaths, as well as al-Sadr’s belief that he is following in the footsteps of his forbearers, is matched only by the mysterious disappearance of Musa al-Sadr – his Iranian-born uncle, who later became one the leading political figures in Lebanon and the founder of that country’s main Shiite political party known as Amal.
Musa al-Sadr disappeared without a trace in 1978 while in Libya to meet with Muammar Gaddafi. At the time, Gaddafi was a close ally of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, and its leader Yasser Arafat. Amal and the Shiites were engaged in a murderous brand of urban warfare with the PLO in southern Lebanon at the time of al-Sadr’s disappearance. Various conspiracy theories still abound in the region about who was responsible for al-Sadr’s death, but most agree that he was tortured to death by Gaddafi on the orders of Arafat after he publicly chastised the famously non-religious Gaddafi for his poor grasp of Islamic theology and inability to explain the difference between Sunnis and Shias.
None of this has been lost on Muqtada al-Sadr as most of his political beliefs have likely been shaped by what he sees as a region where natural allies and eternal brotherhood is in short order when it comes to the Middle East’s leaders.
The success of the “Sadrists” is not likely to come as a welcome surprise by either Washington or Tehran as al-Sadr’s deep-rooted hatred for both the Americans, who he sees as having supported Saddam Hussein prior to his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and Iran, whose attempts to install a puppet Shiite government in Baghdad that would be wholly subservient to Tehran, has angered the nationalist in al-Sadr’s psyche.
Al-Sadr’s ability to play various outside players off one another, while at the same time keeping a distance from them will be the measure of his success. If al-Sadr is capable of maintaining his independence from the region’s main power-brokers, at only 44-years-old he could position himself to be a driving force in Iraqi politics for many years to come.