After the nation’s top court declared it could not abolish parliament, political tension may spark further protests in the upcoming days.
In an effort to prevent the Sadrists from disrupting the political power dynamics among its many diverse partners in Iraq, Iran appears to have made the decision to openly confront them. The biggest setback was an apparent coordinated effort to delegitimize Muqtada al-Sadr, the political leader of the Sadrist movement, in order to subdue it and bring it back into the fold of Shia Islam.
The movement gained steam after Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, the organization’s spiritual leader, announced his retirement last month. Haeri requested that his followers join Ali Khameini as their spiritual leader in an unusual declaration.
Without specifically mentioning Sadr, he also poked fun at him by telling his supporters to stay away from anybody who wants to split Iraqis or Shias, claiming that some of them could “lack the appropriate religious qualifications” even if they are related to Sadr.
To participate in politics, Islamist Shia factions need religious permission, which is often given by a grand ayatollah. After Sadr’s father was murdered in 1999, Haeri was chosen to serve as the Sadrists’ spiritual leader.
Since the declaration made last month, Sadr is no longer officially eligible to head the movement since he no longer has the religious authority that Haeri had granted to him. Sadr promptly declared his “final retirement” from politics despite implying that Haeri had been forced, most likely by Tehran, into making that declaration.
Join Sadrists, A Mistake
Although this appears to be a deadly blow, the Iranians could be misjudging the situation. All attempts to persuade the Sadrists to join forces with other Shia groups that support Iran after the legislative elections in October have only served to bolster their defiance.
A constitutional judgement given by the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq in February established the requirement for a two-thirds legislative majority to elect the president. This was widely perceived as the result of Iranian pressure, which aimed to persuade the Sadrists to drop their proposition for a majority government and switch back to the national unity government formula, which distributed power proportionally among all parties with parliamentary seats and resulted in underperformance, corruption, and a lack of transparency.
The Sadrists took the situation so far as to quit the house of representatives. They’ve participated in coordinated protests as well.
This time around, a similar act of disobedience may appear. Sadr emerged to show the depth of his power as protests and violence erupted following his resignation, pleading fervently with his supporters to withdraw within an hour. They obliged, and the situation became more peaceful.
Sadr appeared to lose the argument, but the larger conflict is far from done. Currently, there is a tenuous cease-fire, which is helped in part by the impending annual pilgrimage to Karbala, where huge masses of Shia assemble to demonstrate religious solidarity.
In the meantime, Sadr continues to criticize his rival Shias harshly, accusing them of hypocrisy and ruling out any chance of working together. But if the Sadrists want to retake the initiative and be successful, they have a lot of work to do.