Muqtada al-Sadr is the scion of one of Iraq’s most important families of Shia clerics, which has traditionally been associated with the country’s poor underclass. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sadrist movement took up arms against the occupation and quickly spiralled out of control. Members of his Mehdi Army were widely accused of engaging in extortion, kidnappings, and murder. Most famously perhaps, Sadr followers are said to have killed Sayed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, the son of another of Iraq’s most prominent Shia authorities, just as he returned to Iraq following more than a decade in exile.
But since then, Sadr is a changed man. He formally dissolved his Mahdi Army in 2008, has moderated his discourse and has focused much of his attention on government corruption and on failing public services. He has grown extremely critical of Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who he has (rightly) held responsible for the Iraqi army’s rout against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in 2014. In the war against ISIL, his paramilitary group Saraya al-Salam has mainly kept away from the front lines and has not been accused of any major abuses (contrary to many other regular and irregular military units).
He has also called on a number of occasions for all paramilitary groups that were recognised by the Iraqi state to be dissolved after ISIL is completely defeated. His public statements have called for all foreign forces (including Iran) to leave Iraqi territory as soon as ISIL is defeated, and his followers have in their many protests lead chants calling for Iran to stop interfering in Iraqi public affairs.
Most recently and perhaps most surprisingly, Sadr has visited the crown princes of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which many commentators have interpreted as an attempt to counterbalance Iran’s influence in Iraq. This has provoked a flurry of speculation by commentators and actors alike, as well as significant criticism from some Iranian circles.
It is impossible to tell whether Muqtada Sadr’s about-turn in favour of moderation and political negotiation rather than confrontation and violence is the result of a genuine change of heart, or whether he is merely trying to survive in a challenging environment. Regardless, he has been consistent in his approach over the past few years and it would be safe to assume that he is unlikely to waver in the near future.
Reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the UAE
What is Sadr hoping to achieve through these openings to Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Some have speculated that he is trying to secure funding before the 2018 parliamentary elections (reference has been made to a Saudi commitment to provide $10 million in funding), but that is an unlikely proposition. Sadr’s is one of the country’s only genuine grassroots movements, which attracts a very solid amount of support in each round of elections. He requires very little funding, and whatever funding he does need, he can easily secure from within Iraq.
Others have argued that the trips burnish Sadr’s credentials as a national and regional leader, but that is equally unconvincing. Sadr has been an international figure since 2003, and his followers hold him in great esteem. While the overtures are unlikely to affect his position within Iraq, if anything they are more likely to damage his standing with some of the more hardline elements within his community, particularly those who accuse Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries of supporting terrorism in Iraq since 2003.
Some have even reported that Sadr’s actions are part of an effort to mediate and lessen tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While some attempt may be made in that direction, in current circumstances, very little progress can be achieved. Iranian institutions are not in agreement on Saudi, and many of its more hardline elements operate outside civilian oversight or control. Saudi Arabia also appears to be drifting in favour of a more erratic and aggressive foreign policy. Considering the regional context, which has been worsening steadily over the past few decades, the most any mediation effort can hope to achieve is to moderate some of the worst consequences of an already deteriorating relationship.
Another possibility is that al-Sadr is aiming to influence shifting grounds within Iraq’s political circles. A rift has opened between Shia parties and movements who aim to establish a more independent Iraqi state and those who aim to bring Iraq more firmly within Iran’s resistance camp. By reaching out to Iraq’s Gulf neighbours, Sadr is providing explicit support to the Iraqi government’s own policies, which are to maintain good relations with all neighbouring countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Sadr’s visit may have been far more high profile, but the Iraqi government has been reaching out to Saudi for some time. Most recently, a decision to establish a joint trade commission and to reopen a border crossing that had been closed back in 1990 was taken. Other efforts are also in the pipeline.
Sadr’s actions may not have been coordinated with the Iraqi government, but their net effect is to push Iraqi policy and state institutions more firmly in favour of the independence camp. The next elections and the government formation process that will follow will play a determinant role in Iraq’s future, and Sadr’s actions will play a larger role in shaping developments than most observers appear to appreciate.
Zaid al-Ali is an Iraqi lawyer. He has law degrees from Harvard Law School, the Universite de Paris I (Sorbonne), and King’s College London. From 2005 to 2010, he was a legal adviser to the United Nations, focusing on constitutional, parliamentary and judicial reform in Iraq. Since the beginning of 2011, he has been working on constitutional reform throughout the Arab region, in particular in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. He has published widely on Iraq and on constitutional law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.