Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr to boycott general election

US adversary and militia leader exerts considerable influence over Iraq's political and social realm

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, greets Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during a mourning ceremony commemorating Ashoura, the death anniversary of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Shiite Muslims around the world are observing Ashoura, one of the most sacred religious holy days for their sect, which commemorates the death of Hussein, at the Battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq in the 7th century. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
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Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr said on Thursday that he will not take part in the general election scheduled for October.

Mr Al Sadr has considerable influence over the government and political structures in Iraq. His alliance, Sairoon, won 54 seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections, the most won by any party or bloc in the 329-member legislature.

"To preserve what is left of the country and to save the country ... I inform you that I will not take part in this election," Mr Al Sadr said in a televised speech.

He said the ministers he supports would stand down from the government.

"This is due to a dysfunctional political system and international conspiracy against Iraq," Mr Al Sadr said.

Mr Al Sadr is known to be a long-time adversary of the US who also opposes Iranian influence in the country.

He portrays himself as a nationalist fighting for the benefit of his country. He led the Mahdi army against foreign intervention, specifically the presence of US troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was disbanded in 2008.

He now leads Saraya Al Salam (Peace Companies) militia, which is part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of state-recognised militias.

In recent years he has voiced concerns about Tehran’s growing influence over Iraqi politics.

Watch out before Iraq's fate becomes like that of Syria, Afghanistan or other states that have fallen victim to internal, regional and international policies
Moqtada Al Sadr

In his speech, Mr Sadr said Iraq was being subjected to a "satanic regional scheme to humiliate the country and to bring it to its knees".

"Watch out before Iraq's fate becomes like that of Syria, Afghanistan or other states that have fallen victim to internal, regional and international policies," he said.

The populist cleric has a large following among the Iraqi public and has a history of making bombastic statements to galvanise support.

Most of his followers come from the eastern Baghdad slums and share the same grievances as many Iraqis over a lack of job opportunities, poor health care and education.

Mr Al Sadr also wields the power, through his family’s religious legacy which is based on nationalist ideologies and Islamic foundations, to encourage thousands of his followers to take to the streets.

Iraq's elections are scheduled to take place on October 10, responding to a key demand of protests since late 2019 for an early ballot under a new electoral system.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad and the southern provinces to vent their anger over corruption and the government's inability to provide them with security and stability.

Demonstrators are calling for an end to endemic corruption by a political class that many believe squandered Iraq's resources, including oil reserves, through greed and mismanagement.

Updated: July 16, 2021, 10:35 AM