According to legend, nearly 1,300 years ago Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and the first imam according to Shi’a tradition, was secretly placed in an unmarked tomb on the left bank of the Euphrates River. Ali’s burial site remained a mystery until the Sunni Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid built a small structure around the tomb in 786 AD, which later led to the construction of a grand Persian-influenced golden mosque over the next several centuries.
That mosque emerged as the symbol of Shi’aism in Iraq and the third most holy site – after Mecca and Medina – for the world’s 200 million Shi’ite Muslims. In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Najaf and the Golden Mosque became the base of operations for a powerful young mullah named Muqtada al-Sadr, a man whose family came from a long dynastic line of Shi’a clerics, whose influence stretched across the Shi’ite heartlands from Iran to Beirut.
As prominent Shi’ite clerics and scholars, al-Sadr’s family line has long had deep ties to Iran. His father-in-law, Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, was executed in 1980 by Iraq’s longtime dictator Saddam Hussein; his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shi’a religious leader also met his end at the hands of Hussein’s feared Ba’athist secret police in 1999; and his cousin, Musa al-Sadr, the founder of Lebanon’s Shi’ite political movement Amal, was disappeared by Muammar Gaddafi at the request of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while on a diplomatic trip to Libya in 1978.
Shortly after the US’ invasion force toppled Hussein, al-Sadr went underground after a warrant was issued for his arrest following his involvement in the April 2003 murder of a rival Shi’ite cleric after he was hacked to death outside Najaf’s Golden Mosque.
Backed by his well-trained 60,000-strong Shi’ite Mahdi Army, al-Sadr fought Americans in the streets of Najaf and in Baghdad’s Sadr City district for months in some of the heaviest fighting that involved the sectarian-based Iraqi insurgency and the US’ occupation forces.
After disappearing from the public eye in 2006, al-Sadr re-emerged from self-imposed exile in Iran and after the Americans withdrew from Iraq in 2011 as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shi’ite parties allied with neighbouring Iran and a champion of the poor. Since his return, he has consistently promoted Iraqi nationalism – going so far as to call for the expulsion from Iraq of the influence of his former patron, Iran.
He has, in the past, courted relationships with the heads-of-state of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and supported the Sunni insurgent movements against the Americans in the 2004 Battle of Fallajuah, and has resisted Iranian pressure to back Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, instead insisting the Assad step-down after his chemical weapons attacks on civilians in 2017-18.
Leading up to Iraq’s May elections, US and European officials had hoped that al-Sadr’s brand of Iraqi nationalism – he has regularly emphasised his Arab rather than sectarian roots since his return from exile would – which would lead to a pragmatic working relationship with the charismatic cleric. In addition to promoting a nationalist populist political agenda, al-Sadr is also thought to harbour ambitions of becoming Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah, the highest religious authority for Shi’ites, which would be a boon for the anti-Iranian elements in Iraqi political society, most of whom fear that Tehran will always insist on having the final say on all matters involving Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
But following the inconclusive elections that left a-Sadr and other allied parties in a position to form a government, he and his Sadrist Movement’s unusual alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party have had to reach out to communities beyond their traditional base by including parties that are openly backed by Iran.
At a joint press conference earlier this month and standing in front of the Golden Mosque in Najaf, al-Sadr announced a surprise political alliance with the staunchly pro-Iranian, Persian-speaking Hadi al-Ameri, whose party views Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a source of political guidance. Al-Sadr called the move, “a true alliance to accelerate the formation of a national government away from any dogmatism”.
Though the move was seen by many in the region as a major about-face by al-Sadr, the pragmatist politician that he has proven to be over the last several years most likely decided that his ability to influence Iraqi politics over the course of the next four years would only come to fruition if he could rely on a strong junior coalition partner, a position the Communist Party lacked due to their relatively small numbers in the Iraqi parliament.
By allying with al-Ameri, a union that reportedly has the backing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General Qasem Soleimani and Mojtaba Khamenei, son of Ayatollah Khamenei, al-Sadr is positioning himself to be a political force that will not be removed from the national dialogue for years to come.
While it remains to be seen what a government coalition led by al-Sadr will mean for Iraq and the Middle East, as a whole, the longevity of an al-Sadr/pro-Iranian alliance will remain in doubt as the former’s nationalistic impulses will likely scuttle any long-term relationship with a political partner that is admittedly guided by Iraq’s traditional foe. So long as al-Sadr is able to hold on to his power base in Najaf, Shi’aism holiest city, there’s a fair chance that he will continue to pursue the independent “Iraq First” policy that he has cultivated since re-emerging on the political scene nearly a decade ago.