Why you should care

Because this former U.S. battlefield foe has channeled the people’s voice.

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The recently concluded Iraq election and shift in the political rifts that frame the region have showcased a surprising mise-en-scène: the rising and advancing of long-backbenched Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. With post-election reports showing his Sadrist Movement — weird bedfellows with the Iraqi Communist Party — pulling in more than 1.3 million votes and gaining 54 seats in a 329-member parliament, Sadr is arguably back in the catbird seat. A seat currently framed by Sadr’s very specific brand of refusenik-ism that stands in stark contrast to the sectarian violence he had driven after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“Refusing both American entreaties along with accommodations with Iran is a standard position, even if it’s being repackaged as a kind of Iraqi ‘independence,’” says Mike Pregent, senior fellow and Middle East analyst at the Hudson Institute. A notion not overly lost on a citizenry of about 39 million, who since the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) have seen both America and Iran not succeed in doing for Iraq what Iraqis want done for Iraq. Most specifically, making Iraq great again.

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Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr attends the demonstration against the Western bombings of Syria, which he called for, on April 15, 2018, in Najaf. U.S., French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical arms development and storage facilities, but the buildings were mostly empty and the Western trio swiftly reverted to its diplomatic efforts.

Source HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty

By? By showing Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, that while the feeling on the street is significantly against the corruption that seems part of the daily deal in Iraq, maybe more significantly these parliamentary elections send a signal to curtailing extended U.S. influence in the country. “Every time the Americans interfere, they mess up,” the Iraqi-American president of the Washington-based Future Foundation, Entifadh Qanbar, told the New York Post. “The best service Washington could provide to Iraq is to weaken Iran.”

Sadr is like the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas when he thinks he’s going to get made and gets whacked instead. … [Iranian General Qassem] Suleimani had him picked up, driven out into the desert …

Mike Pregent, Senior Fellow and Middle East Analyst, Hudson Institute

Which is the second part of Sadr’s alliance’s rejection of status quo politics. With Iranian allies in Iraq’s Shia militias flying under the flag of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Sadr sent a message by shoving them into a second place electoral posting. That message? Similar to the nationalist and populist clarion cries of other nations, Sadr’s message is Iraq’s destiny should be driven by Iraqis. Not the United States, no matter how well intentioned. And not Tehran.

A bold stance on its face, but like other bold stances, possibly missing a significant and vital element: truth.

“It’s bullshit,” says Michael Doran, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, in a phone call from his office in D.C. “Sadr has been bought and paid for.” By? “None other than Iran.” A contention seconded by Pregent.

“Sadr is like the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas when he thinks he’s going to get made and gets whacked instead,” says Pregent, a former intelligence officer with extensive experience in Iraq. ”At one point he called out [Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem] Soleimani. Soleimani had him picked up, driven out into the desert and made to get out of the car. He was maybe out there for hours before someone picked him up, but the point had been made.”

Which was?

“You could get paid for working with us or you could get paid for not working with us,” Pregent says. “One way was clearly healthier than the other.” An interesting take in the midst of a mixed-media lovefest that sometimes lards on the narrative that Iran stands to lose out in a future led by Sadr’s alliance. An alliance framed around Iraq’s independence. With not too many mentions of how that independence gets funded.

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A large image of Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, on the outskirts of Sadr City in Baghdad, back on December 7, 2011.

Source Michael Kamber/The New York Times/Redux

But with a brand built on hatred of the U.S., Sadr will take money from Tehran before even thinking of taking it from the U.S., though he’s gotten achingly close by taking money from the Saudis. A situation in total that’s caused swaths of Iraqi citizenry to question both whether Sadr’s reform agenda is any kind of real and whether his desire to be friends with everybody but not anybody’s tool is just a way to say, “I’m open … for business.”

Thanassis Cambanis, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, put a finer point on it in an NPR interview when he suggested that Sadr’s significance might be more symbolic than real. “[He] played the war against ISIS very shrewdly,” Cambanis said. “But will he give up the cash?”

Pregent doesn’t think so, and in the first Shia political coalition that doesn’t require buy-in, he doesn’t see much hope. “Sadr is a pushover and looking for a settlement,” Pregent concludes. “He will get something for this.” The dispossessed of Iraq may hope that they will too.

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