In mid-2012, prominent Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Al Sadr visited Damascus where he was decorated with the Order of the Syrian Republic, in “gratitude” for his friendship. The Syrians never imagined that this cleric-turned politician — a long-time admirer of Hassan Nasrallah and protege of Iran — would turn against them, coming out with a surprising statement on April 8, calling on President Bashar Al Assad to step down, urged the Syrian president to “take a historic, heroic decision… before it is too late.”
Since emerging as a powerful heavyweight in the nationwide uprising against the United States after the 2003 invasion, Al Sadr has been a pivotal player in Iraqi politics. Starting off as a slow and very uncharismatic speaker whose only political credential was his family name, Moqtada Al Sadr evolved quickly on a personal and professional level, developing eloquent speaking skills, a powerful militia, a network of charity organisations that included hospitals and schools, and an influential bloc in the Iraqi parliament.
His Mahdi Army, which reigns in the ghettos of Baghdad, was modelled after Hezbollah. The mullahs of Iran always had high hopes in him, seeing that he would make a perfect proxy for the Islamic republic in the Arab world when and if Hezbollah parted the scene in Lebanon.
Tehran’s lingering fear
In Tehran, there is an ever-present fear that at one point in time, Hezbollah will no longer be able to carry out the duties for which it was originally formed back in 1982.
They include empowering Shiites in the Arab world and exporting revolutionary Khomeinism. This would happen if Hezbollah ever got dragged into a new civil war in Lebanon or if it were crushed in a war with Israel, or if it were ever abandoned by Syria, which remains the lifeline for Hezbollah arms coming from Iran.
When the Syrians and Israelis went into indirect peace talks, via Turkish mediation, back in 2008, Iran started investing heavily in the Mahdi Army, labelling it as a Plan B.
They were afraid that at one point, if Syria got what it wanted on the Golan, it would part ways with Hezbollah. As far as they are concerned, a Syrian regime that has signed peace with Israel was equal to a Syrian regime that had fallen — two things that they were determined, should never happen.
The conditions in which Hezbollah was founded in the early 1980s very much applied to Iraq after 2003. The state was completely absent, the army had broken down along sectarian lines, lawlessness prevailed, and arms were everywhere, waiting to be picked up by poverty-stricken Arab Shiites on Iran’s payroll.
Before his assassination in Damascus in February 2008, prominent Hezbollah chief Imad Mughnieh was reportedly working on a revamp of the Mahdi Army. Back then, the activities of Al Sadr’s militia were “frozen” while Iran handled the purging of it of rowdy elements and transforming it into a unified, well-trained, and properly indoctrinated fighting force. Al Sadr was transported to Qom to continue his religious training, earmarked for scholarly promotion from ‘seyed’ to ‘ayatollah’, which if obtained, would have given him theological authority to issue fatwas and lead Iraqi Shiites from above, rather than from below.
Al Sadr never continued his studies in Iran, returning home to help set up the Popular Mobilisation Units, some of which were sent to Syria to fight alongside Hezbollah after the outbreak of the present war in 2011. His army was then remobilised to fight Daesh, taking on the name ‘Saraya Al Salam’ in 2014.
Playing ‘good cop/bad cop’?
What then triggered Al Sadr’s sudden U-turn? Syria’s state-run media has refrained from criticising the firebrand cleric, who was often hailed as a “friend” and whose news often made it to the front page of Syrian dailies. Was it a ploy by the Iranians, playing “good cop/bad cop” in Shiite circles of Iraq? Or was it part of Al Sadr’s ongoing campaign to bring down the cabinet of Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi through massive protests in the streets of Baghdad accusing it of corruption and of selling out to the Americans. Within the powerful Iraqi Shiite community, many fear and distrust the 43-year old cleric, who emerged out of nowhere to challenge long-established political families like the Hakims and their political machine, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. Often his militias roamed the streets of Iraq, striking at traditional Sunni enemies but also, taking gabs at the Hakim’s Badr Organisation, an Iran-funded militia that fought alongside the Iranian Army during its eight-year war with Saddam Hussain.
Is Al Sadr repositioning himself as an ‘independent Shiite’, distancing himself from the Iranians, expecting a confrontation between the Islamic republic and the Trump White House? Others have done it before, like Subhi Al Tufaili, the first secretary-general of Hezbollah, who now stands as a fiery critic both of Iran and Nasrallah.
Al Sadr cannot go that far — at least for now — fearing systematic character slaughter, isolation within the global Shiite community and perhaps political or even physical elimination at home. Instead he may have decided to send off signals, seeing how other players in the region would respond.
So far nobody has come knocking on his door, except for a delegation from Hezbollah, seeking an explanation for his deviance and wanting to know how he can be accommodated to keep the “Shiite family” united. He has played this game before, striking at former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, an all-time Iran favourite, after having helped bring him to power in 2006.
When naming his price, Al Sadr outlined a long list of cabinet seats, pockets of influence, and quotas in the Iraqi parliament. Iran nodded back then, and he backed out, putting his full weight behind Al Maliki until the latter’s ouster in 2014. He might be hoping to do the same again in 2017 — using Syria this time, to attract the attention of Tehran — yet perhaps, with a whole new set of demands on Iraq’s domestic scene.
Sami Moubayed is a senior fellow at St Andrews University in Scotland and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015).