Muqtada al-Sadr: Iraq’s militia leader turned champion of poor

Muqtada al-Sadr: Iraq’s militia leader turned champion of poor

Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr surprised the world when his Sairoon Alliance captured more parliamentary seats than any other party or alliance in Iraq’s parliamentary elections, in a remarkable comeback after being sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.

Once known as a staunch anti-American militia leader, al-Sadr has rebranded himself in recent years as a patriotic champion of the poor and an anti-corruption firebrand.

This rebranding, along with the low voter turnout of only 44.52 percent, were, according to analysts, the main factors that enabled Sairoon – an alliance between the Sadrist Movement and Iraq’s Communist Party – to win six of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including Baghdad.

Although final results are yet to be released, most of the country’s politicians have accepted the tally so far, which has seen Sairoon win more than 1.3 million votes, winning 54 out of 329 parliament seats. Without an outright majority, al-Sadr will still need to build an alliance with other blocs to form the new government.

Unlike Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – an ally of both the United States and Iran – al-Sadr’s positioning against dominant pro-Iran Shia blocs and away from the US is likely to rock established interests in Iraq.

‘Man of the poor’

By projecting himself as an Iraqi nationalist and mixing his resistance to US presence in the early 2000s with Shia religiosity – as the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a highly regarded scholar throughout the Shia Muslim world – al-Sadr became a figurehead for many of Iraq’s poor Shia Muslims.

Since 2003, his followers have provided healthcare services, food and clean water across many parts of Iraq’s poor suburbs and especially in Sadr City, a district of Baghdad named after his father. Al-Sadr’s militia has since acted in Sadr City almost unhindered by US and Iraqi forces to influence local councils and government. This established his zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed.

Similarly, Sairoon’s 2018 election campaign used anti-corruption rhetoric and focused on cutting across sectarian platforms, appealing to frustrated Iraqis who complained about their political elite’s systematic patronage, bad governance and corruption.

Iraq has been ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries, with high unemployment, poverty and weak public institutions.

“For a couple of years, Sadr has been arguing against the level of c

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