Iraq’s Sadr moving away from politics to avoid accountability over crises, experts say

General elections are planned for October but could be delayed until April next year

A tuk-tuk drives past a large poster of Iraq’s populist Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, in Sadr City, east of the capital Baghdad, on Thursday. AFP
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The withdrawal of populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr from the country’s political process is no “surprise”, experts told The National.

Iraq has been beset by a wave of public-service disasters, the most recent of which include a hospital fire that killed 92 people and a national power cut in the blazing summer heat.

“This is not the first time and, to many, not a surprise that Moqtada Al Sadr is coming out and claiming to leave the political process,” said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“He’s done this in the past and even before elections, and it’s part of his vision of being above politics, to some extent.”

Mr Al Sadr said last week that he would boycott Iraq’s upcoming elections to distance himself from the government.

The cleric is known to be one of Iraq’s most influential religious figures, heading a political bloc in Parliament that was the biggest winner of the 2018 elections.

Sairoon has significant influence and gained 54 seats in Parliament, the most won by any party or bloc in the 329-member legislature.

In the past, Mr Sadr has withdrawn from frontline politics without dismantling his powerful movement.

He now appears to want to distance himself from publicly recognised political appointments among his Sadrist followers and remould himself as someone above the fray of day-to-day political turmoil.

Iraq’s ongoing, multi-sector collapse of public services came to a head earlier this month when the national grid suffered a catastrophic failure. Electricity production plunged from 20 gigawatts – already 10 gigawatts below peak demand – to eight gigawatts.

But since 2019, armed groups linked to political parties backed by Iran have resisted a national protest movement, killing at least 500 people.

“This is a time where people are angry at the government, and so this is what he does,” Mr Mansour told The National.

“He will view himself in a more paternal way.”

Even if Mr Al Sadr does not run in October’s elections, candidates loyal to him could stand, allowing him to retain his influence.

The cleric’s main rivals are Iran-backed groups, which have blamed his party over state failings.

Mr Al Sadr has millions of followers and, like his Iran-backed rivals, a militia.

In his statement, he 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 could be running away from accountability, for fear of underperforming and being embarrassed in the elections, Nicholas Krohley, author of a book on the Sadr movement, The Death of the Mehdi Army, and an adviser to the Iraqi Security Forces, told The National.

“His people have been key in the Ministry of Health for ages. How can the fires and the overall Covid-19 fiasco not blow back on him?” Dr Krohley said.

“Another view would be that he sees a major no-vote from the people at large, and wants to position himself as an outsider once again, apart from the system,” he said.

Dr Krohley said that despite his statement to withdraw, his actions in the past have been “unpredictable and erratic”.

Updated: July 19, 2021, 3:08 PM