Who is Moqtada Al Sadr, the Shiite cleric set to win Iraq's parliamentary elections?

Opposed to US and Iranian influence in Iraq, all eyes are on Al Sadr, whose coalition has the most seats in parliament

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In Iraq, a coalition of parties run by Moqtada Al Sadr, known as the Sadrist bloc, is primed to play the role of kingmaker, having organised a massive base of supporters to secure more than 70 seats in the 329-member Council of Representatives.

As in the last national elections in 2018, Mr Al Sadr appears to have benefited from a very low turnout, Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said.

Is Al Sadr opposed to the US?

Mr Al Sadr's background and policies place him as a favourite among those who prioritise Iraq's sovereignty and independence from Iranian intervention and US involvement in the country.

After Saddam's fall in 2003, following the US-led invasion, Mr Al Sadr said on CBS' 60 minutes: "The little serpent has left and the great serpent has come," in reference to the US.

The Sadrist movement created by his father and father in law – both men killed by the Saddam regime – distinguished itself from other Shiite religious movements by focusing on helping the poorest Iraqis, rather than spending time passing judgement on clerical matters.

This won them many devoted supporters during the rule of Saddam Hussein before 2003, when Iraq's economy collapsed under international sanctions.

But there were few Sadrist celebrations after Saddam fell. As fervent Islamists they saw the US and its western allies as attempting to transform Iraqi society in a way that contradicted their unique doctrine of socialism and religious piety.

Millions of Iraqis, mainly poor Shiite farmers from southern Iraq and internally displaced Shiites who fled to slums during chaotic uprisings against Saddam in the 1990s, fervently followed Mr Al Sadr's orders to resist what he called occupation.

In return, his movement supported their impoverished families, while Sadr loyalists attacked the US and other international forces, including the British Army.

The movement eventually forced the British Army to retreat from the oil-rich city of Basra, in 2007.

This was a step too far for his arch rival, then prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who ordered the Iraqi army to retake the city. Mr Al Sadr then fled to Iran for several years, before returning to Iraq promising to play the role of a political leader, rather than a warlord.

Growing political power soon followed.

Is Al Sadr sectarian?

During the US-led occupation, Mr Al Sadr's militia, the Jaish Al Mahdi, put up fierce resistance against foreign forces and were widely accused of the mass kidnapping and murder of thousands of civilians, mostly Sunnis accused of ties to the Baath party.

Many victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while Shiites who spoke out against his militia were also threatened or killed.

The most notorious episode during this time was the Jaish Al Mahdi's takeover of the Ministry of Health in 2006. Staff were purged from their positions, in favour of Sadr's supporters, who lacked qualifications. Iraq's health services rapidly declined and, worst of all, Jaish Al Mahdi supporters were accused of killing Sunnis and other rivals in hospital wards.

The bloodshed was bought mostly under control in 2007, when US forces arrested Deputy Health Minister Hakim Zamili, who was said to be behind most of the violence.

But Mr Zamili remains in government as a key supporter of Mr Al Sadr, and Mr Al Sadr's supporters are still said to dominate the health ministry and many positions in key government services.

Will Al Sadr start a war?

Aware of the growing controversy surrounding his movement, Mr Al Sadr tried in later years to portray himself as non-sectarian and supporting official government forces, rather than the plethora of militias in Iraq.

But he has never fully cut links with paramilitary groups. It is unlikely, however, that Mr Al Sadr will start a new conflict. He said US forces should be removed from Iraq by political agreement and, only if they refuse to leave, armed force could be an option.

Mr Al Sadr has also forged links with various Sunni leaders since the sectarian violence that rocked the country between 2005 and 2009.

On Monday, he renewed his welcome to all embassies in Iraq so long as they steer clear of Iraq's internal affairs and political processes.

In his speech, Mr Al Sadr also made a stab at Iran-backed self-styled "resistance" militias.

“Even if those who claim resistance or such, it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias and kidnapping,” he said in the televised address.

Hamdi Malik, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr Al Sadr's speech emphasised the "Iraqiness" of his bloc.

"He called his bloc the biggest one and described it as 'an Iraqi bloc, neither eastern nor western', in reference to Iran and the United States," Dr Malik said.

Mr Al Sadr's party claimed victory in the national elections and his supporters celebrated on the streets of Baghdad on Monday evening, despite the ongoing ballot count.

“Today is the victory day of the people against the occupation, normalisation, militias, poverty, and slavery," Mr Al Sadr said, apparently referring to the normalisation of ties with Israel.

One of Mr Al Sadr's other controversial political stances is his position towards Syria, calling for President Bashar Al Assad to step down in 2017, despite other Shiite groups' backing for Mr Assad.

Updated: October 12, 2021, 12:49 PM