The Antichrist’s Men (Revelation 13:18)

Mini-Hizballahs, Revolutionary Guard Knock-Offs, and the Future of Iran’s Militant Proxies in Iraq

As the war against the Islamic State enters the final stretch, with less than a quarter of Mosul left to liberate, the Iraqi government must decide whether to allow a residual U.S. military support mission to stay on in Iraq. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias have already weighed in on the matter. In early May 2017, Jafar al-Hosseini, a spokesman and senior commander of the Kata’ib Hizballah militia, told Iranian state media: “If [the] Americans fail to leave Iraq [following the defeat of Islamic State] they will be in the crosshairs of the Iraqi Islamic resistance.” Statements such as these, delivered confidently with little fear of government reproach, raise the question: Who is really in charge in Iraq?

The future of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and their constituent militias is one of the most consequential policy challenges facing the Iraqi government and its coalition partners, such as the United States. Raised by a religious fatwa and a political executive order, the PMF played a crucial role in stemming the advance of Islamic State in June 2014, eventually incorporating both Shiite and non-Shiite fighters. But the PMF consist of diverse elements. These include Iranian-backed Shiite militias, “shrine PMF” (whose leaders were selected by the quietist Shiite clergy in Najaf), and Sunni PMF. The latter two groups are assets for Iraq that will hopefully be incorporated into Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Service and police forces. The Tehran-backed PMF, however, are a different matter and their future is a source of acute concern for Washington.

U.S. policymakers are particularly focused on the role that Tehran-backed PMF may play in Iranian efforts to remake parts of the region in its own image. One possibility is the Lebanese Hizballah model — entailing their transformation into political movements with military and social welfare wings, outside of state control but tolerated by the government. With the PMF formally incorporated as a temporary component of the Iraqi Security Forces there is also the possibility that the PMF could become a parallel official military institution akin to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran, to counterbalance U.S. and coalition-trained units in the Iraqi Security Forces.

What is the current and future relevance of these models to the Tehran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq? Our research indicates that some PMF elements with ties to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hizballah or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, face an uncertain path and may continue their evolution towards the Hizballah model. Though presently at odds with Iran, the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr is, in many ways, probably the closest Iraqi equivalent to Hizballah. At the same time, the creation of an IRGC-like parallel military that answers to the country’s leadership is not very likely — at least at this time — in part because the Iran-backed Badr Organization is already determinedly converting elements of the Iraqi Security Forces into a parallel force not entirely under the control of the Iraqi prime minister. All of these eventualities present acute threats to shared U.S., Iraqi, and coalition interests and should be constrained through information operations, security force assistance, security sector reform, and political-economic assistance efforts, described in detail below.

The Hizballah Model

Iran helped create Lebanese Hizballah in the early 1980s and has been trying to apply the Hizballah model in Iraq through its support for groups like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq for more than a decade. It has likewise been trying to apply this model in Syria since 2011, through its support for the pro-regime National Defense Forces and various Shiite Hizballah-type militias. Iraqi and U.S. decision-makers need to understand how this model is being applied in Iraq, in order to appreciate its implications and to better counter it there, and elsewhere.

The Lebanese Hizballah party, with its own parallel social-welfare and paramilitary institutions, is Iran’s most successful effort to export its Islamic Revolution. It plays a central role in efforts to aid the region’s “oppressed” Shiites, and to confront Israeli and American interests in the region and beyond. To this end, Hizballah fighters and advisors play a central role in Iran’s “Shiite Foreign Legion,” consisting of sectarian militias from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The Hizballah model refers to the techniques used by that group to garner influence and gain power in Lebanon. First, it used the credibility conferred by armed “resistance” and social welfare activities to establish itself as the dominant actor in the Shiite community and to garner support among non-Shiite constituencies at home and abroad. Second, it used this popular support to gain a foothold in the political system through elections to ensure that the party’s interests could not be harmed by the state. And third, it used its access to and influence over critical ministries and state agencies to protect and advance the party’s interests, and those of its Iranian patron, while preserving the paramilitary and social welfare organizations that undergird its parallel shadow state.

The slogan of resistance was fashioned into a quasi-religious doctrine of armed struggle by the Lebanese Hizballah in the 1980s. It holds special resonance for Shiites, recalling the death of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 CE. The successes of Shiite “resistance” in Lebanon (2000 and 2006) and Iraq (2011) has convinced its adherents that it offers a formula for defeating their enemies. To implement its doctrine of resistance against Israel, Hizballah created a quasi-conventional military force whose capabilities overshadow those of the Lebanese military. Hizballah’s successes against Israel (amplified by relentless propaganda) gave Lebanon’s previously downtrodden Shiites a sense of pride and empowerment. However, its resort to arms against its Lebanese rivals in 2005 and 2008 and its involvement in Syria in support of the Assad regime since 2011 have tarnished the appeal of its “resistance” brand in Lebanon and the region.

From its inception, Hizballah developed social welfare institutions to provide financial, educational, medical, and other services to Lebanon’s long neglected Shiite population, as well as needy members of other communities. These “good works” have been subsidized by some $100-$200 million in annual aid from Iran. Hizballah’s social welfare activities have been extremely important in building a base of support among Lebanon’s Shiites, and have become even more important in recent years. They have cushioned the impact of Hizballah’s 2006 war with Israel, with over 1,000 Lebanese killed, thousands of houses destroyed, and billions of dollars in damage to the country’s infrastructure, and its post-2011 intervention in Syria, with more than 1,700 Hizballah fighters reportedly killed and up to 7,000 wounded. However, intensified U.S. sanctions on Hizballah and the costs of intervention in Syria have forced Hizballah to pare back the provision of social-welfare benefits in recent years, causing grumbling in the party’s ranks.

Hizballah has also developed into a successful political party. The transition from military resistance movement to political party is of particular interest as Shiite-led militias seek to enter the political arena in Iraq. In Lebanon, Hizballah initially sought to strengthen the Shiite community by working as a social movement outside of the framework of the Lebanese state. Its goals and its stance toward politics evolved, however; Hizballah members ran for parliament in 1992, municipal councils in 1996, and joined the government as cabinet ministers in 2005. Meanwhile, Hizballah has abandoned (at least for now) its goal of establishing an Islamic State in Lebanon and has sought to work within the system to advance its interests by ensuring a blocking vote in the cabinet to veto government actions counter to its interests, or those of Iran. And in recent years, it has tried to build a cross-confessional coalition in Lebanon (the so-called March 8 Alliance) to further enhance its political influence. Hizballah’s participation in the Lebanese government and its ties to the military and elements in the security services has enabled it to use the resources of the Lebanese state for its own benefit by providing patronage to its supporters, and obtaining vital political and military intelligence it might not otherwise have had access to. And some non-Shiite Lebanese factions are increasingly coming to see Hizballah as a bulwark against Sunni jihadist groups operating at home and in Syria — and thus an asset to Lebanon.

An Iraqi Hizballah?

Several Iraqi Shiite militias and paramilitary organizations with long-standing ties to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization, see Lebanese Hizballah as a model and view its experience as a possible template for their own efforts to expand influence and political power. This is clearly evident in the political vocabulary, iconography, and modus operandi of these groups. Like Hizballah, the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias trade off the “resistance brand” — their armed struggles against Saddam, the United States, and most recently Islamic State and Syrian Sunni rebel groups. But for many, that is often where the similarities to Lebanese Hizballah end. Movements like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (plus their spin-offs) do not yet operate social welfare networks and it will take at least a few years to develop them. The Iraqi Islamo-nationalist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr is the only Shiite militia that operates a relatively active social welfare arm, though not even the Sadrists can compare with the extensive network operated by Hizballah in Lebanon.

The multiplicity of Iraqi Shiite militias is one reason that Hizballah-style primacy probably cannot be reproduced in Iraq. In Lebanon, there was only one Hizballah from the earliest stage of its development. In Iraq, there are many Shiite groups that aspire to this role, and their leaders are often bitter rivals. This is due in part to the ideological and personality-driven fragmentation of the Shiite community, as well as Iran’s policy of splitting off extreme elements from more established mainstream Shiite groups to create proxies, further fracturing the community. Thus, when the Badr Organization joined the political process during the U.S. occupation and became an overt organization, Iran splintered off radical figures from it, such as Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, to form Kata’ib Hizballah. Likewise, Iran formed Asa’ib hl al-Haq from radical figures from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, such as Qais al-Khazali and Ismail al-Lami (a.k.a. Abu Dira — the notorious “Shiite Zarqawi”).

As a result, no single Hizballah-like group has been able to establish itself as the dominant element in the Shiite community. Thus far most of the Iran-backed militia leaders have found it difficult to transition from militia commander to political candidate. This could change in the 2017 provincial elections and 2018 national elections, although the smaller militias will likely be hard pressed to win many seats in an electoral system that favors large parties.

The smaller factions elevated by the PMF phenomenon such as Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also face competition from larger and better-established Shiite militias, who broke onto the political scene well before the rise of the PMF in 2014. The key example is Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers, who won 34 seats in the 328-seat parliamentary elections in May 2014 and have been important players, and often kingmakers, at the national and provincial council level. Indeed, if anyone presently fills Hizballah’s position in Iraq, it is arguably Moqtada’s movement rather than any Iranian-backed group. Relying on resistance motifs and a basic social welfare network, Moqtada’s movement adopts an in-and-out approach to government. Oscillating between boycotting politics and providing ministers to the cabinet, Moqtada today launches major protest campaigns against the government in an effort to sway its policies from without.

Though Iranian-backed groups may try again to co-opt parts of Moqtada’s movement, his networks have proven to be resilient in the past and are likely to remain so. Iran nurtured Qais Khazali’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq from 2006 in order to carve off portions of Moqtada’s support base and draw them into an organization that was explicitly modelled on the Lebanese Hizballah. However, it evolved only in the military realm and failed to create an extensive social welfare network or attain a major political role (garnering only one seat in the last parliamentary election). Smaller PMF elements like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are unlikely to merge with each other or surrender their identities to Moqtada’s movement or Badr, and they face an uphill struggle to attract political constituencies away from established parties. This reduces the likelihood that these Hizballah clones will grow to play a dominant role in Iraqi politics.

The Revolutionary Guard and Basij Models

The IRGC differs fundamentally from Lebanese Hizballah because it sits at the center of Iran’s power structure, not apart from state, and answers directly to the Supreme Leader — the Commander in Chief of the country’s armed forces. Whereas Lebanese Hizballah can divert resources from the state, the IRGC is a major part of the state, operating significant economic ventures and military forces. Under the IRGC model, the state pays for the sustainment and growth of the militant guardians that ensure the very survival of the regime.

The IRGC was founded in 1979 during the early days of the Islamic Revolution, as a revolutionary military organization to counterbalance the regular Iranian military (Artesh) — whose commitment to the revolution was suspect due to its ties to the Shah’s regime and to the U.S. and British militaries. In the course of the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC evolved into a military force with ground, air, naval, surface-to-surface missile components, and most recently a cyber arm, although its ethos has remained unconventional. The role of the IRGC is to defend the revolution and its achievements, protect against “soft warfare” (attempts to foment a “color revolution” in Iran), to export the revolution, and it has come to overshadow the regular army in both the country’s external and internal affairs. The IRGC (or its Basij militia auxiliary) played a role in quashing domestic unrest in 1994, 1999, and 2009 and threatened a coup against president Mohammad Khatami in 1999 unless he reigned in student unrest. It has also been involved in conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In Iran this trend has swollen the Revolutionary Guard’s influence to the point where it is almost semi-autonomous and state-like in many areas of exclusive delegated authority such as operations in Iran’s near-abroad.

The Basij was founded in 1980 and is a volunteer paramilitary organization that is subordinate to the IRGC and deployed throughout the country. It was intended to be a “20 million man army” to counter foreign military intervention (the actual number is believed to be four to five million). The primary mission of the Basij is social control (achieved through ideological indoctrination and a pervasive presence on university campuses, in factories and offices, and on the street), internal security, and waging a “peoples’ war” against invaders. Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Basij and IRGC were trained to conduct guerilla warfare against an invading force in accordance with a new, decentralized defensive concept — the regime’s so-called “mosaic” doctrine.

An Iraqi Revolutionary Guard or Basij?

Since 2013, the Iraqi state began to lean on Iranian-backed Shiite militias as a crutch due to the declining effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces and the expanding security threats posed by the Islamic State. The fatwa and executive orders that formalized the PMF were quickly seized upon by the existing Iran-backed Shiite militias and their allied politicians — including the ousted prime minister Nouri al-Maliki — to “empire build” a new security institution that might provide a permanent source of legitimacy, weapons and salaries for its constituent militias. Nearly three years into the PMF’s existence, the development of a PMF ministry with a line item in each budget is exactly the outcome that some PMF advocates seek, not least the PMF Commission’s operational commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

If this were to occur, the PMFs could play the role of the IRGC, with standing forces paralleling the missions of the regular security forces, or the PMF could play a Basij-like role as an auxiliary or reserve force with an ideological mission. (Indeed, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has already spoken about creating a hashd “in every field,” including a student and a university hashd, to infuse civil society with AAH’s Islamist worldview and to combat the Western “cultural invasion”—much like the Basij does in Iran.) A permanent PMF ministry might be viewed as a counter to the influence of military units that have been trained by the United States and its partners. The creation of a new parallel security force would roughly conform to historical patterns of praetorianism in the design of Arab militaries, whereby a “Republican Guard” unit tied to the ruling clique by family and tribal connections is deployed in and around the capital city. In this case, the model would not be an indigenous template, but that of Iran’s “Revolutionary Guard” — and the result would be a sectarian military organization with a religious-ideological orientation, that is tied to a foreign power. Another likely mission for a standing PMF would be to maintain a presence along parts of the Kurdistan-Iraq frontline, particularly in mixed areas where tensions are high between Shiite Turkmen and the Kurds. Following the IRGC/Basij model, the PMFs could likewise be used to inculcate in Iraqi society the culture of jihad, resistance, and martyrdom as well as the anti-Americanism that are the hallmarks of the IRGC and Basij, and the ideology of the Islamic Republic. An Iranian-dominated PMF ministry would likely try to present itself as an authentically Islamic military organization that serves “Iraqi” interests, even as its members express fealty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i or his successor, as opposed to the Iraqi military, which will be tarred as an instrument of Western influence based on an un-Islamic ethos and foreign institutional ties.

Both the February 2016 executive order establishing the PMF as a formal part of the Iraqi Security Forces and the November 2016 law were interpreted by many Iraqis as moves in the direction of a permanent institutionalized PMF that could become an IRGC/Basij equivalent. But the duration of the PMF’s existence was not described in either the order or the law, nor was permanent funding assured for the PMF. Instead, these documents emphasized that the PMF is under the prime minister’s command and under the military code of justice. The PMF law clarified that they were not being formalized at ministry-level, as the Counter-Terrorism Service were. According to many observers, the Shiite religious establishment headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani seems to be cautiously preparing to issue a new fatwa that would negate the religious decree that underpins the PMF, at which point the government would announce its plans for the re-employment and demobilization of many PMF volunteers.

Restrictions on the resourcing of the PMF is a key issue, and a clear differentiator (at least at present) from the well-funded IRGC/Basij, hinting at the intention of the political and religious establishment to maintain the institutional impermanence of the PMF until they can be dissolved or merged into other entities. At present, the PMF Commission of the Prime Minister’s Office is funded by an annual decision by the prime minister and to a lesser extent the parliament to include a PMF allocation in the Iraqi budget. In the 2017 budget the PMF Commission of the Prime Minister’s Office received funding for 122,000 PMF members, which included recurrent spending of 1.39 trillion Iraqi dinars ($1.18 billion). This includes 1.27 trillion dinars ($1.08 billion) for salaries and 120 billion dinars ($102 million) for other operating expenses. Our enquiries with Iraqi government officials in Baghdad provide further granularity that is not in the Arabic-language main budget but which is described in non-public budget annexes. The PMF also received an allocation of 518 billion dinars ($441 million) for capital expenditure (procurement), which was raised from a 3 percent deduction from state employee salaries, of which 60 percent is used for PMF procurement of “essential supplies” such as food, water and ammunition.

Total spending on the PMF in 2017, excluding any undeclared support from Iran, is 1.91 trillion dinars ($1.63 billion). This compares to 30.19 trillion dinars ($25.83 billion) of non-PMF security costs in the 2017 budget, including 8.8 trillion dinars ($7.51 billion) for the Ministry of Defense, 10.8 trillion dinars ($9.21 billion) for the Ministry of Interior and 0.8 trillion dinars ($683 million) for the Counter-Terrorism Service, plus over a billion dollars of military aid provided by foreign security assistance partners to non-PMF elements. By way of comparison, the $1.63 billion that Baghdad plans to spend on the PMF in its 2017 budget is about 22 percent of the $7.4 billion that Tehran plans to spend on the IRGC in Iran’s 2017-2018 budget. The PMF receives 6 percent of Iraq’s security-related spending, despite providing 28 percent of the country’s frontline armed strength.

Thus, in terms of per capita resourcing, the PMF still lag far behind all the other security agencies in a manner that suggests their growth into a permanent institution is being deliberately curtailed in favor of traditional security organizations. Of course, this allocation could change after the 2018 elections if a new Iraqi prime minister increased PMF funding — potentially a third-term Nouri al-Maliki or another member of Maliki’s Iran-leaning faction. The power of an IRGC/Basij-equivalent would then be tied to its ability to out-grow and intimidate the Iraqi Security Forces, which would in turn be determined by the willingness and ability of the Iraqi government and the international community to fund, protect and support the Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Service, and possibly also Ministry of Interior forces.

The Badr Organization: The IRGC’s main project in Iraq?

Even if a new security ministry is not created in Iraq, one of the most well-established Iranian-backed Shiite militias — the Badr Organization — is arguably partway towards carving out an IRGC clone within the existing security forces. Badr conducted covert paramilitary operations in Iraq during the 1980s and 1990s under orders from the IRGC Qods Force, but the movement and its Iranian sponsors decided to join the U.S.-led democratic transition in Iraq after 2003. Badr maintained its operational ties to the IRGC Qods Force throughout its period of ostensible cooperation with the United States. Members of the Badr Organization now lead the Ministry of Interior, Iraq’s largest ministry, which, as noted above, has a budget larger than the IRGC. Badr has also developed informal dominance of the Ministry of Defense security forces within a large swathe of Iraqi territory in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. The Badr Organization enjoys fast-growing influence, with 22 of 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament, plus growing representation on the nine provincial councils in central and southern Iraq.

One of the reasons for Badr’s success is that the movement began its hollowing out of the Iraqi Security Forces in 2003, eleven years prior to the formation of the PMF. Between 2003 and 2005, sixteen thousand Shiite militiamen were incorporated into the nascent ISF. These so-called dimaj (direct appointment) personnel lacked any formal professional education as soldiers or policemen. Badr provided the lion’s share of these recruits, largely Iraqi Shiites who lived in exile in Iran throughout the 1980s and 1990s and who fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq War. Many have either dual Iraqi-Iranian citizenship or were born in Iran and only received their Iraqi citizenship post-2003. The Badr recruits were often assigned to Iraqi Army intelligence, Ministry of Interior special weapons and tactics teams, and the ministry’s National Information and Investigations Agency — Iraq’s FBI-equivalent. Because, prior to 2003, Badr personnel were trained and controlled by the IRGC Qods Force during their stay in Iran, their integration into the Iraqi Security Forces since then has produced an acute counterintelligence challenge. In addition to filling out key Iraqi Security Forces portfolios, Badr also eliminated hundreds of potential rivals within the security forces, notably Saddam-era intelligence personnel, and exacted revenge on Saddam-era pilots who flew bombing missions during the Iran-Iraq War.

Today, Badr leads the Ministry of Interior, which allows it to support or undermine provincial police chiefs across the country. The ministry also commands the 37,000-strong Federal Police, a five-division motorized infantry force, and the Emergency Response Division, a divisional-sized special weapons and tactics group akin to the Counter-Terrorism Service. Since 2005, Badr has also controlled the leadership and manning of the Iraqi Army 5th division in Diyala, and is interested in folding its dozen or so PMF brigades into a new Badr-controlled Iraqi Army or Federal Police division. Taken together, these represent the largest concentration of ground forces in the country, outnumbering the functional parts of the federally-controlled Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service.

Modelling the Future of Iraqi Shiite Militias

In Iraq, the development of a new institution based on the IRGC is perhaps the least likely evolution of the PMF, primarily because Iran and its proxies are not fully in charge of the diverse and fractious Iraqi state. For this reason, it may be effectively resisted. Nor is there the opportunity for a unitary Iraqi Hizballah to emerge from the PMF factions at the moment. In any case, the niche is already partly filled by Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which is recommending demobilization of the PMF into a veterans’ affairs department. Badr’s quiet hollowing-out of large portions of the Iraqi Security Forces represent a different model to either the “Hizballah-ization” of Iraq or the overt development of a new IRGC knock-off there. In many ways, Badr’s model is more problematic than either the Hizballah or IRGC models, and may serve Iran’s interests equally well.

Arguably, as long as Badr continues to consolidate security powers and to follow IRGC’s instructions, Iran has no immediate need to develop a new Hizballah, or a new IRGC or Basij inside Iraq. The case of Lebanese Hizballah may point to some future complexities of the Badr-Iran relationship. Hizballah has significant latitude to pursue its own interests in Lebanon, but remains tethered to Tehran when it comes to the pursuit of regional interests. Thus, the devastating 2006 war with Israel was the outcome of a kidnapping attempt by Hizballah that was undertaken without Iran’s blessing, to advance Hizballah’s domestic agenda. The war cost Tehran its massive investment in Hizballah’s rocket force, which was part of Iran’s strategic deterrent, as well as billions of dollars for reconstruction in Lebanon. Since then, Tehran has exerted much greater control over Hizballah’s military activities to prevent such a recurrence.

Iran may pragmatically allow Badr a great deal of latitude to pursue its own approach in normal times, but will expect it to act in accordance with Iranian interests when the latter’s vital interests are at stake. The key issue for the United States is whether Badr might one day play a role in attacking U.S. personnel or evicting U.S. troops from Iraq. Badr includes many deeply anti-American elements, not least the current Minister of Interior Qassem al-Araji, who spent 26 months in U.S. military custody and has been accused of supporting deadly attacks on U.S. personnel. Yet, Badr has also profited greatly by working alongside the United States since 2003. At the time of this writing, the Badr-led Emergency Response Division and Federal Police units in the Mosul battle have worked hand-in-glove with U.S. air power, for instance in the recapture of Mosul airport. Qassem al-Araji has even stressed the need for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. If directed by Tehran, could Badr be relied upon to risk its role in government, or its control over the Ministry of Interior, to answer Iran’s call to undertake attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq? Or might Tehran use radical Badr members to form another splinter group to continue to fight — as it did in the past with Badr members Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis?

This is why smaller groups like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, as well as any new breakaway groups that Tehran forms, will continue to serve a very useful purpose for Iran and the IRGC, being easier to influence and deploy in Iraq and in regional struggles such as Syria or Bahrain. In the last three years Kata’ib Hizballah has fired rockets into Saudi Arabia, trained and armed Bahraini Shiite militants, and kidnapped Qatari citizens to build Tehran’s leverage over Doha. Most recently, Harakat al-Nujaba, a splinter of Kata’ib Hizballah, announced the formation of a unit to liberate the Golan Heights from Israeli control. Considering Badr’s prominent role in government and the political ambitions of Hadi al-Ameri, it is hard to imagine Badr making the same threat outside conditions of an armed clash between Iran/Hizballah and Israel. Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are likely to welcome their ongoing independence from state security organs. The challenge for these groups will be maintaining armed forces and training camps inside Iraq if there is a formal demobilization of the PMF. To do so, they may need to resume a semi-covert mode of operation, move elements into Iran and Syria, and distance their political and military wings.

U.S. Policy Issues and Options

There is already an embryonic IRGC-like structure forming in Iraq, though it faces strong countervailing pressures from the Iraqi body politic and the Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service. It is also likely that an array of Iranian-backed Hizballah-wannabe militias will persist in Iraq and will not be neatly consolidated into one entity. Like the Lebanese original, these smaller Iraqi Hizballah clones will be used to attack Iran’s enemies such as Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and possibly to pressure Iraqi political, military or religious leaders who push back too hard against Tehran’s priorities. Many of these mini-Hizballahs will be partially enmeshed within the security forces and their part-time involvement in foreign wars with Sunni neighbors will be politically difficult for Iraq’s Shiite prime ministers to prevent.

The thorniest issue is how Washington should treat Badr and its ambitious leader Hadi al-Ameri. The PMF phenomenon has empowered Badr, a movement that cannot be ignored or sidelined because it is a major and growing power in the parliament, the provincial councils, and the security forces. The United States has worked with Badr on and off during the past 14 years — but there is a persistent concern that in doing so, Washington is merely building up a future adversary that could displace more moderate leaders who are more amenable to working with the United States.

This is a discouraging picture, but far from the hopeless image of an Iraq “lost” to Iranian domination. The Iran-backed PMF factions do not have to be a political-military game-changer in Iraq as long as Iraqi factions and international partners continue to resist the creation of a new, permanent, well-funded security institution that operates independently of the Iraqi chain of command. While the United States is no longer an occupying power in Iraq and must conduct all efforts “by, with and through” its sovereign Iraqi partners, U.S. actions will nevertheless be among the most important factors influencing Iran’s ability to transform the PMF into an instrument of influence. The more Washington steps back in Iraq, the more Tehran will step forward; a repeat of the rapid coalition drawdown and disengagement after 2011 will likely embolden Tehran and better position it to expand its influence there.

To avert such an outcome, the United States should lock in the international coalition’s commitment to continue training the Iraqi Security Forces, deal with the heightened threat of ISIL terrorism after the latter’s military defeat, help secure Iraq’s borders, and maintain Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve as a broad multinational coalition even after the war against ISIL. Washington should also approve a new three-year Iraq Train and Equip Fund II package for the Iraqi Security Forces to cover 2017-2020, supplanting the current package covering 2014-2017. Building on this overarching policy framework, U.S. and coalition policy-makers should focus on three achievable objectives vis-à-vis the PMF.

Deny Iran-backed PMF Budgetary and Institutional Advantages

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani may issue a new fatwa after the liberation of Mosul that relieves Iraqis of their duty to take up arms, but in the lead–up to Iraqi elections it may be difficult for the Shiite-led government to fully disband the PMF Commission of the Prime Minister’s Office. In the likely event that a PMF agency of some kind does survive the war against ISIL, the priority of Iraq’s partners should be to minimize its negative potential. The PMF should be treated with respect and supported by the international community only if certain reasonable conditions are met. Controversial terrorist actors like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis should be eased out. The cross-sectarian character of the PMF should be further developed to make it a more inclusive organization that reflects Iraqi society. The PMF should not be a parallel military, duplicating the role of existing agencies like the Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service. Instead, the PMF should fill existing gaps, serving as wartime reserve forces, as border security and critical infrastructure security forces, or as rural “neighborhood watch” forces that are not permitted to operate within cities. Over time, professionalization through coalition military training could loosen PMF ties to the Iranian-backed militias, with American vetting requirements ( as required by the Leahy Law) acting as a means of complicating the involvement of bad actors in the PMF.

Washington and Baghdad must also work to prevent Badr or another actor from carving out a factional army within the existing security forces. The best way to do so is by generously resourcing the most reliable and effective elements of the security forces such as the army and Counter-Terrorism Service. Of note, the PMF budget in 2017 is more than double the Counter-Terrorism Service budget ($1.63 billion for PMF versus $683 million for the Counter-Terrorism Service). This needs to be reversed. The Counter-Terrorism Service needs major international security assistance, as does a subset of Iraqi Army divisions — commensurate to the substantial role they played in defeating ISIL — to provide the government with the forces it needs to pursue ISIL into the desert hinterlands, borders and covert hideaways. The leadership of the Ministry of Interior should be rotated after elections between Iraq’s leading factions to ensure that this critical ministry does not become the fiefdom of the Badr Organization, no matter how reasonable or cooperative they may seem at any given moment.

Resist the Blurring of the Iraqi PMF “Liberation” Brand with the Hizballah/Iran “Resistance” Brand

In reflecting on the conduct of the war against ISIL, the United States needs to recognize the PMF phenomenon as a heroic chapter in Iraq’s history. Although the principal forces that liberated most of Iraq’s cities were the Iraqi Army, the Counter-Terrorism Service, and the Federal Police, the positive contributions of the PMF should be honored. To this end, the United States might make a powerful gesture on this issue, possibly including a monument and scholarships and medical support for select PMF veterans drawn from all ethno-sectarian backgrounds.

But there also needs to be a clear differentiation between Iraqi heroes who stood up to ISIL versus armed non-state actors who used the war against Islamic State to engage in criminal activities and build political franchises. The international community should help expose the crimes of those bad actors who are trying to hide behind the mantle of the PMF “resistance brand,” which is a disservice to the genuine heroes of the popular mobilization. The U.S., British, Australian, and Italian militaries hold ample evidence of the misdeeds of groups like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq against Iraqi civilians and security force members, as does the Iraqi government. These movements and their spin-offs still have not answered for years of gangsterism, intra-Shiite bloodletting, and sectarian cleansing of non-Shiites. Likewise, governments in the region should be encouraged to release evidence that movements like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are active in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria at Iran’s behest, and in clear contravention of the Iraqi constitution and the Iraqi military chain of command. In March 2017, Prime Minister Abadi noted at the U.S. Institute for Peace that Iraq wanted to stay out of the region’s sectarian Cold War. If Iraq wants peace with its Sunni neighbors and their help with its reconstruction, these interventions by Iraqi sub-state actors working on behalf of Iranian interests need to be exposed, investigated and stopped. The United States should name Iraqi individuals involved in cross-border activities as special-designated terrorists, to make it more difficult for such individuals to travel, attain high office in Iraq’s government, or benefit from U.S. and international aid to the Iraqi Security Forces (including the PMF).

Moreover, Washington should avoid self-inflicted wounds such as the careless rollout of the travel ban on Iraqis in February 2017. These kinds of mistakes are easy to make, but are exceedingly difficult to fix, and often have consequences that are regional in scope and geopolitical in scale. As a result, the U.S. is always playing catch-up against the propaganda efforts of Iranian-backed PMF elements.

The United States and its allies should also undermine the resistance brand by remaining firmly committed to resolving the Syrian civil war and pursuing ISIL inside Syria, so as not to cede ground there to the Iran-backed PMF, and provide them with a pretext for additional foreign interventions. Likewise, America’s Gulf Arab allies should be strongly encouraged to pursue political processes with Shiite oppositionists in states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as with the Houthis in Yemen, for these wars feed the resistance brand of the Iran-backed PMF elements. Against this backdrop, the United States and its partners should encourage the Iraqi government to establish and enforce legal limits on external activities by PMF-associated militias that have not been authorized by the Prime Minister, in his capacity as commander in chief. This would add force to Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s fatwa prohibiting the PMF from operating outside the framework of the Iraqi government and outside of Iraq.

Deny Iran-Backed PMF Social Welfare Advantages and a Sectarian Political Climate.

An underperforming government and a fractured society are fertile ground for Iranian-backed PMF elements seeking Hizballah- or IRGC/Basij-like attributes. For instance, since the end of the U.S. military presence in 2011, the development of social welfare institutions has not been a U.S. national security priority in Iraq, but that should change. Otherwise, Iran-backed groups will fill the social service vacuum for their own political benefit. U.S. and coalition assistance should focus on capacity-building at both the national (ministerial) and provincial levels. U.S. policy should continue to support key projects with tangible impact on Iraq’s public services such as the electricity, water and health sectors, to demonstrate that non-PMF political parties can deliver services. The United States should also strengthen its outreach into Shiite Iraq, particularly via its Basra consulate, which is located in Iraq’s poorest but most economically vital oil-rich southern province.

Likewise, the United States should work to deny Iranian-backed militias a propitious political and ethnosectarian climate in which to develop political wings by supporting moderate Iraqi political actors such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. And it should foster cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic politicking, to produce cross-cutting electoral alliances that would undermine the appeal of sectarian Shiite groups like Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Badr. Meanwhile, the United States should do what it can to splinter Iranian-backed militant groups, by constructively engaging some Iranian-backed elements of Badr whilst continuing to treat Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as terrorist actors and designating elements of Badr as such. Through this process and the general strengthening of the Iraqi government, the United States may incentivize the breakup or withering of sectarian militias and political movements.

Towards the Future

There is still time to offset the gains that Iran’s proxies have made in the last three years. The Iraqi state almost lost its monopoly over the use of force during the Iraqi Army’s collapse of 2014. The victories in Tikrit, Ramadi and Mosul, amongst other battles, have created a window of opportunity to rebuild the Iraqi Army and Counter-Terrorism Service as a bulwark against the return of ISIL, and against Iranian-backed militias currently embedded within the PMF. Iraq is too populous, resource-rich and centrally positioned to be surrendered to Iran’s domination. Placing Iraq — the world’s fourth largest energy producer – under the effective control of Iran — the third largest producer — would be an unprecedentedly destabilizing event. This very predicament — preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon that controlled most of the region’s oil — is what drew the U.S.-led coalition to use force against Saddam’s regime when he invaded Kuwait. And Iraq — thanks to its location — is the geopolitical lynchpin of efforts to prevent the emergence of a Shiite crescent controlled by Iran in the heart of the Arab Middle East. This prospect should alone give pause and should encourage all major nations to support Iraq’s government in reducing the risks posed by Iranian-backed militias.

Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Michael Eisenstadt is Kahn Fellow and Director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Moderation of the Antichrist

The moderation of Muqtada al-Sadr

James Snell

Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a speech to his supporters, Najaf, April 2015 [AFP]

Date of publication: 9 May, 2017

Comment: Paradoxically, the threat of IS has created a new politics, putting nationalism before sectarianism. James Snell asks if a more moderate Sadr could provide the stability Iraq has lacked?

The name Muqtada al-Sadr used to inspire fear. His brand of Shia sectarianism contributed greatly to the turmoil following the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003. His militia, the Mahdi Army, fought against the United States and the forces of the reconstituted Iraqi state. It also engaged in street violence and intimidation.

For the American authorities, Sadr was a rabble-rouser and a barrier to peace, a hostile religious figure whose influence was significant and malign.

But times change, and now Sadr is cutting a more conciliatory figure. He may even be an essential participant in mainstream politics; undergoing a process of moderation himself.

Notably, his militia, now revived and renamed Saraya al-Salam, is participating in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). This conflict has put many disparate factions and forces within Iraq on the same side, for IS has given them a common enemy. This anti-IS campaign has the potential to become a war of Iraqi national unification.

Sadr’s place in all this could be difficult to pin down. But recent developments suggest that he is undergoing something approaching a process of moderation.

Gareth Browne, a journalist currently covering the Mosul campaign, wrote an important piece in February this year suggesting the same.

I contacted Browne to ask whether more recent events confirm his thesis. He said that there is a sense that “some Sunni leaders recognise [Sadr] isn’t going anywhere, and are willing to consider his olive branch”. Browne added that “there is talk of launching a cross-sectarian party in time for next year”, though this is “just talk at the moment”.

Sadr’s sympathies are nationalist, meaning that he rejects much regional Shia chauvinism, which is associated with Iran, and takes a more specifically Iraqi tack. He is therefore a strong critic of Nouri al-Maliki, formerly Iraq’s prime minister, who is seen by many as Iran’s man in Baghdad.

As ever, the fate of more than one nation is involved. Iranian intervention in Syria, which nakedly promotes regional sectarian interests, complicates matters. And opinions are frequently divided along sectional interest rather than secular political lines.

An important part of Sadr’s apparent moderation is his stance on Syria. Recently, Sadr called upon Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, to resign. This was, tweeted Middle East analyst Nibras Kazimi, a “first for organised Shiism”.

Sadr went against the grain among Shia figures, and against the idea of a rigid sectarian division in the Middle East in general, and the Levant in particular.

This speaks to Sadr’s independence from Iran. Iranian forces support the Assad regime to the hilt, to the extent that it has effectively become an Iranian proxy, operating alongside numerous Iranian-backed organisations, such as Lebanese Hizballah and other Shia militias.

Asked whether Sadr represented a significant check on Iranian power within Iraq, Kazimi replied that “his presence, along with Sistani’s, already acts as a check on Iran’s influence within Iraq”. This remains, therefore, “a static situation”.

Then I inquired more about Sadr’s repositioning.

“I do think that part of this is a sincere reorientation of his thinking”, he said.

[Sadr] didn’t need the aggravation of mid-2012 when he joined the bid to unseat Maliki, even after reaching a detente with the latter for the 2010 elections. The reasons Sadr laid out for joining the anti-Maliki camp were very progressive if measured against what the larger Shia “establishment” was willing to say about the “oppression” of Sunnis.

“Sadr could have easily competed with Maliki for the Shia chauvinist constituency, given that he had a track record of beating up on Sunnis, or even to use that to cement his alliance with Maliki. Rather, Sadr chose to go the other way.”

This points to a sincere reorientation of Sadr’s politics.

Other analysts are less optimistic. Some think Sadr is simply jockeying for internal political power, repositioning himself as a reasonable figure and an honest broker in a bid to make himself indispensible.

There is some evidence to suggest this. And it cannot be forgotten that he is a man who led a sectarian insurgency against the new post-Saddam Iraq. His violent past cannot be swiftly forgotten.

At the same time, however, the conflict with IS has changed the state of play. Baghdad came close to capture. Many Iraqis have been killed, either in the face of IS’ rapid advance, or in course of the slow, grinding campaign which has retaken so much of the country from the caliphate.

These things tend to focus minds.

So too has the looming prospect of Iranian interference in Iraqi politics. Iran-supporting militias have, by dint of their numbers and the relative weakness of the Iraqi state’s armed forces, taken a large role in the anti-IS campaign.

For Iraqi figures such as Sadr, this could have seemed distinctly alarming. He is, as Browne says, a “staunch nationalist”. His politics is Iraqi before it is Shia. He has no atavistic loyalty to Iran.

Sadr’s militias represent a nationalist, Iraqi alternative to forces organised from the outside. None of them operate in Syria, unlike many Iranian-backed forces, which happily range across the border between the two countries.

His ambition is to diminish Iranian influence in Iraqi politics, and in doing so he may become an important moderating figure. Sadr could use his high profile and significant support to do something very important.

Even if he’s doing much of this for selfish reasons, Sadr’s purported change of heart is still for the good. Iraqi needs moderates, just as its politics needs to moderate. Sadr can counter Iranian influence while also promoting non-sectarian politics.

The Iraqi state has not been truly stable in many years. Paradoxically, the threat of IS has created a new political reality, one in which moderation may win the day, and with it, the sort of stability few thought possible. Sadr could be an essential influence on this new politics. His moderation is an important and positive step. It can only be welcomed.

James Snell is a writer and blogger whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect, CapX, NOW News, Middle East Eye, History Today and Left Foot Forward – among others.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

The Antichrist Claims Mosul

Iraqi forces gain foothold in Mosul after new push

06.05.2017 Madeline Patrick

In his statement, Haider Al-Abadi emphasized that there are no foreign combat troops on Iraqi soil and that any American troops who stay on once Daesh militants are defeated will be advisers working to train Iraq’s security forces to maintain “full readiness” for any “future security challenges”.

“[The source said] that these were people that were fleeing the clashes, the fighting [that is] going on between Iraqi security forces and ISIL in that neighbourhood of western Mosul, and that they had taken refuge in a “school house” in that area”, Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoon, reporting from Erbil in northern Iraq, said.

It would represent a major symbolic setback for the group whose unprecedented experiment in jihadist statehood was heralded by the conquest of Mosul in June 2014.

Colonel Dorrian told Rudaw recently that their estimates show that there are fewer than 1,000 ISIS militants left in Mosul, down from at least some 6,000 militants when the Iraqis launched the Mosul offensive last October.

The US and its allies have been providing aerial support to the Iraqi forces backed by Shia paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

A US -led worldwide coalition is providing key air and ground support to the offensive on Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq, which started in October. “There are defences in place”, he said.

The Mosul neighborhoods under ISIS control are still home to hundreds of thousands of people. Gen. Joseph Martin, commander of ground forces for the US -led coalition.

The Bush administration negotiated the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq, but the Obama administration failed to reach an agreement with the Iraqis to provide United States forces with protections to stay beyond that date.

Since then, a highly publicized surge in civilian casualties, likely the result of increasing US airstrikes coupled with ISIS’s broadened use of human shields, has slowed the Iraqi momentum.

Members of the Iraqi Army clash with Daesh at a frontline in north west of Mosul, Iraq, May 5, 2017.

Iraqi army soldiers took over Mosul’s airport, providing them a gateway to the western part of the city.

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has long criticised the presence of USA troops in Iraq, even going so far as to describe them as a potential targetfor his supporters.

“I am looking at trying to strike right in front of him as well as deep, even into Old Mosul“.

Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces have made territorial gains on the outskirts of Mosul, located some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.

The Antichrist’s Men (Revelation 13:18)

Iraq’s firebrand Shiite cleric presents his political successor
Posted May 4, 2017

Author: Omar Sattar

BAGHDAD, Iraq — In a meeting with the ministers of defense and interior in Muqtada al-Sadr’s Najaf office May 3, Sadr’s nephew Ahmed al-Sadr stood directly behind his uncle in what was taken as the younger Sadr’s introduction as the second-highest authority of the Sadrist movement after Muqtada al-Sadr himself.

A few weeks ago, Ahmed al-Sadr appeared on the Iraqi scene as the head of the Sadrist movement’s reform committee, introducing its political agendas and plans for the post-Islamic State period. The Sadrist movement presented its strategies at the end of April to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, President Fuad Masum, parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and former President Jalal Talabani.

The Sadrist movement has long been closely associated with the civil movement, having forged an alliance at the start of the demonstrations calling for reform that broke out in 2015.

Ahmed al-Sadr is the son of Muqtada al-Sadr’s brother Mustafa al-Sadr. Ahmed al-Sadr was born in Najaf in 1986 but did not receive a religious education in traditional Shiite schools. Instead he was guided and supported by his uncle, who sent him to Lebanon to major in political science at Beirut University, where he completed a master’s degree.

Ahmed al-Sadr returned to Iraq and made public appearances a few days after Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement that he had received death threats March 24 from what he called the “trinity parties,” people involved with the US occupation, terrorism and corruption. He subsequently had to delegate powers to his aides.

As a result, Ahmed al-Sadr was appointed to head the recently formed committee to administer the Sadrist initiatives for political reform and the post-liberation period. He began with meeting with several Iraqi leaders.

Muqtada al-Sadr seems to be looking for loyal leaders close to the Sadrist movement, in light of the movement’s tense relations with the Shiite National Alliance, particularly the State of Law Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Muqtada al-Sadr had previously called upon Abadi to start a political reform process and led popular demonstrations demanding change and efforts to fight corruption.

Several Sadrist leaders have been implicated in major corruption cases and local elections are scheduled for September. Thus, Muqtada al-Sadr had to rely on those close to him during this critical phase, and no one is better suited than Ahmed al-Sadr, groomed to take up this mission.

Leading the political committees means that Ahmed al-Sadr’s mission will be political and not religious. This separation will allow the movement’s political body to later become a political party under Iraqi law, which prohibits the formation of political parties on a religious or sectarian basis. Muqtada al-Sadr himself would become the movement’s guide or mentor, as he believes in the separation of religion and politics.

Following his April 18 meeting with Masum, Ahmed al-Sadr said, “Muqtada al-Sadr’s initiatives are aimed at strengthening the state and the rule of law and applying it to help improve citizens’ lives, freedom and security.”

Ahmed al-Sadr also said he met with Abadi on April 21 to discuss electoral matters. Ahmed al-Sadr said, “The terms of the two [Sadrist] projects the importance of holding elections under a new professional and unbiased electoral commission and a fair electoral law that would meet the aspirations of citizens for true representation of the Iraqi people.”

Sadrist movement senior Ibrahim al-Jabiri told Al-Monitor, “Muqtada al-Sadr has put forward several political projects, including a proposal for initial solutions to the country’s situation in post-IS period, in addition to the reform project, including a change in the electoral law and the Independent High Electoral Commission. These projects and initiatives will be presented to the different political parties for consideration, refinement and implementation, to serve the country and correct the course of the political process.”

Jaafar al-Mousawi, head of the Sadrist movement’s political committee, denied reports of the formation of a cross-sectarian electoral bloc between the Kurds and the movement after a Sadrist delegation headed by Ahmed al-Sadr visited the Kurdistan Region.

“The delegation representing Muqtada al-Sadr, led by Ahmed al-Sadr, had one specific mission, which was to discuss the projects of Muqtada al-Sadr after the liberation of Mosul, in addition to reform in the electoral commissions,” Mousawi said in an April 23 statement to al-Ghad Press.

“We heard from the committee that Kurdish parties welcomed Sadr’s initiatives regarding reform and the post-liberation period of Mosul,” Mousawi added.

Sadr’s “Initial Solutions,” introduced Feb. 21, aim to provide support for the areas liberated from IS, including reconstruction projects, the return of the displaced and “eliminating foreign forces from the country while integrating the Popular Mobilization Units in the security forces.”

Sadr’s electoral reform project, launched Jan. 10, outlines mechanisms for selecting the members of the Independent High Electoral Commission and reform Iraq’s electoral law.

It appears that Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement are standing before a historic opportunity to use a civil political approach to shake off the criticism and resentment of political Islam, which has struggled in an attempt to rule the country since 2003.

Read More:

The Fire of the Antichrist (Revelation 13)

The young men storming the entrance to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone as part of an antigovernment demonstration in February were waving Iraqi flags as a sign of their commitment to country. But there was no question their loyalty was at least as strong to Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who called for the protests against a leadership he considers illegitimate and irredeemably corrupt.

While Iraqi forces push further into the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, a fight over the future of Iraq is brewing in Baghdad. As has been the case since Saddam Hussein was toppled, the mercurial cleric from a revered Shiite family is playing a leading role.

At least five protesters and a policeman were killed when the Feb. 11 protest turned violent. Mr. Sadr, who commands his followers to wave only the Iraqi flag as a sign of nationalism, had called for peaceful protests, though his history as a militia leader may have undermined that request. And in Iraq, where religious and political leaders command paramilitary forces, armed confrontation is always a possibility.

“Whatever he says we do – if he says ‘live’ we live, if he says ‘die’, we die,” said Haider Kamal, a laborer from Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Shuala, at a protest called by Sadr last summer. “All my family and all my neighborhood follows Sayyid Moqtada. He is a resistance leader.”

Over the past two decades, Sadr transformed from a young man little known outside religious circles to a militia leader who posed a major threat to US forces. Now, he is reemerging in Iraqi political life as a nationalist political figure agitating against corruption and in favor of government reform.

He is challenging Shiite political elites and, in fact, the entire Iraqi political system. He has reached beyond Sunni-Shiite divides, testing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Shiite, and threatening to boycott upcoming elections in the absence of reforms to Iraq’s electoral commission, which Sadr accuses of being under the sway of rival Shiite political parties he says are corrupt. On many Fridays he brings thousands into the streets in protest.

In the process, the still relatively young cleric, the son and the son-in-law of two Shiite clerics revered for their concern for the poor, has increasingly made an effort to portray himself as an Iraqi patriot. Now, he is poised to consolidate his position not only as an influential political kingmaker but as someone who can mobilize potentially millions of followers from Baghdad to the southern coastal city of Basra.

In April, he even broke with other Iraqi Shiite leaders in calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Iran, to step down to save the country from more bloodshed.

“He really is someone who has provided a social and political outlet for the impoverished, particularly for those southerners who have never had a chance to have their say in middle-class and upper-class politics, which defines much of what goes on in Baghdad,” says Ahab Bdaiwi, a specialist in Islamic history at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Known by the honorific al-Sayyid, connoting a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, he only rarely appears in public and normally only in his home base in the holy city of Najaf.  A rare appearance at an entrance to the Green Zone a year ago was the first time that many of his most devout followers had seen him in person. Some wept with emotion as he spoke.

Weeks later, in a move to reshape the country’s political system by pushing Mr. Abadi to appoint a cabinet of technocrats, he ordered supporters to storm the Iraqi parliament.

With Iraq’s Sunni leadership deeply fragmented and accused by many of selling out to wealthy Gulf Arab states, Sadr’s demand for an Iraqi government that benefits Iraqis has found fertile ground among some Sunnis. It’s a major shift from the leading role played a decade ago by his militia, whose death squads fueled the flames of Iraq’s civil war.

How it began

The fall of Saddam Hussein freed Sadr to organize millions of his family’s followers, creating an armed wing as well as a political and public service organization, and in 2004, Sadr mobilized his Mahdi Army militia to drive out US occupation forces.

Young fighters armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades fought American soldiers in the streets of Baghdad and cities across the south, including the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

In the Iraqi capital, the militia took over neighborhoods, running death squads and expelling Sunnis and Christians. In a security vacuum, some Sunnis turned to Al Qaeda to protect them, igniting Iraq’s civil war.

Sadr ultimately disbanded his militia in 2008, but still considers the United States and Britain occupying authorities and has declared that American troops deployed to fight ISIS will be legitimate targets.

Unlike Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely engages in politics, Sadr has nourished the following he inherited with political activism, nationalism, and promises of social justice that resonate particularly with the poor.

“Sayid Muqtada stands for justice … he supports us,” said a protester, Um Yas, at a demonstration last summer over Bahrain’s detention of a Shiite cleric. A pin shaped like a map of Iraq superimposed with Sadr’s face held her headscarf.

Although Iraq’s Shiite underclass form Sadr’s traditional base, he has made an effort in recent years to reach out to Iraqi Sunnis and religious minorities as well as the international community – except for the United States and Britain.

The overwhelmingly Shiite protest near the Bahraini embassy last June included two young Sunni men who wore tight jeans and T-shirts, carefully gelled hair, and black sneakers with gold-colored accents.

“I decided to follow him when I saw his statements and protests,” says Saif Ali, a cleaner from Ghazaliya neighborhood who is Sunni. “There is a big difference between him and the Sunni leaders. I also follow some of them, but Sayid Muqtada is different.”

Asked how he reconciles Sadr’s call for inclusion with his militia’s attacks on Sunni Iraqis a few years ago, Ali says both Sadr and Iraq have changed.

“That was true in sectarian times, but now Muqtada Sadr teaches us how to avoid sectarianism,” he says.

Sadr City

In Baghdad, most of Sadr’s support comes from the dusty streets of Sadr City, a two million-strong neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. Almost all the residents are Shiites who for generations have been the underclass.

He has strong opposition credentials: When Moqtada Sadr’s father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was assassinated in Najaf in 1999, his followers in Sadr City rioted in a rare and dangerous show against Saddam Hussein.

The latest Sadr has taken up the family mantle of speaking for the poor and dispossessed but his support taps into a much deeper vein of religious belief that transcends politics and the trials of day-to-day life in Iraq.

Muqtada’s popularity has much to do with his family name,” says Bdaiwi. “His father was revered because of his revival of messianic sentiment in Iraq.”

Iraq is the modern-day successor to ancient empires that included the cities of Ur and Babylon. Shiite Islam traces its roots to the south of Iraq where Imam Ali, believed by Shiites to be the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad, and his son Hussein were killed in the 7th century.

“Since the advent of Islam, the idea of redemption and suffering Messiah-like figures are all associated with the southern regions of Iraq, but in the 20th century that messianic sentiment died down,” says Bdaiwi. He says the elder Sadr articulated and “rebranded” messianic beliefs in language that ordinary Iraqis could understand.

In Sadr City, the crowded outdoor markets are a frequent target of bombings claimed by ISIS, which like Al Qaeda, views Shiites as unbelievers.

In the Hamidiyah district, the poorest part of the generally poor Sadr City, children dart between makeshift houses illegally built on vacant property. A tangle of electricity wires run from private generators for those who can pay. Sewage runs in the streets. There are no police.

Near a corner store, a group of boys play games on the sidewalk. Ali Sadr says his parents took him out of school in the fifth grade because they could not buy uniforms.

“Nothing here works,” says his friend Saif Mahmoud, who dropped out in the third grade. “Every time it rains our houses get flooded.”

For all of Sadr’s emphasis on social justice and economic equality, there is little in Sadr City to show that residents have reaped tangible benefits from the movement’s activism.

Before he announced he was withdrawing from active politics two years ago, Sadr decreed that members of parliament in his movement live in the neighborhoods they represented – a radical thought in a country where many politicians flee to the relative safety and luxury of the green zone.

Most of his followers blame the lack of development in their neighborhoods on corrupt government officials and Sadr’s political opponents.

Misleading image

Sadr is still little understood by the West, described as a mercurial firebrand and belittled for his lack of religious credentials.

Before 2003 he was portrayed as lacking intellectual prowess – a young man more interested in playing video games than his religious studies. Patrick Cockburn, the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the struggle for Iraq,’’ suggests after the assassination of his father, the image was deliberately fostered by his followers to persuade Saddam he wasn’t a threat.

By 2009 Sadr had moved to Qum, the center of religious scholarship in Iran, to continue his religious studies.

In 2013, Mr. Cockburn met him in a rare one-on-one interview with a Western journalist.

“He was highly intelligent and I thought fairly open,” Cockburn recalls. “He was very quick to take a point and very quick to argue and quite convincing. He was friendly, and I thought very much engaged with what was going on in a realistic way.”

The Sadr movement has undergone a political evolution. UK-educated men in suits have replaced some of the starkly sectarian political operatives who were on the front lines of Sadr movement. Sadr has replaced his Mahdi Army with a paramilitary group he calls the Peace Brigades, whose role in the fight against ISIS has largely been guarding Shiite shrines.

While Sadr’s militia was supported by Iran and he still spends time there, his relationship with Iranian leaders is said to be strained. Sadr has increasingly made an effort to portray himself as an Iraqi patriot. Most of the movement’s discourse now is about nationalism and inclusiveness.

“I think there are lots of hidden and open regrets about what happened to the Mahdi army and its involvement in the sectarian killings in the height of 2006 and 2007,” Cockburn says. “It was explained away subsequently by saying they were those who were not obeying orders … but certainly there is a very strong desire to show that things are genuinely different.”

And some of his followers have undergone a political evolution as well.

Yousef Mukthadh, who graduated from law school two years ago and is still looking for a job, has been a Sadr follower since he can remember, but says it is no longer out of blind loyalty.

“I was young when I first started following the movement – It didn’t know what it meant,” he says. “But as I became older my way of thinking changed.”

Mukthadh, one of the several thousand young Iraqis who made it to Europe and then returned, describes Sadr as a revolutionary and says he welcomes the new openness of the movement.

“Before they were radicals. Now they have taken off their religious clothing and they have become open-minded,” he says. “Sayid Muqtada has changed according to the situation. When the Americans were there he was focused on fighting the Americans and when the Americans left, he changed his thinking as well.”

Antichrist Influences Iraqi Election

Kawa Muhammed, head of Gorran’s faction in the Iraqi parliament, and Shekh Sabah Saadi, the Sadr delegation spokesperson in Sulaimani. Photo: Rudaw TV
Kawa Muhammed, head of Gorran’s faction in the Iraqi parliament, and Shekh Sabah Saadi, the Sadr delegation spokesperson in Sulaimani. Photo: Rudaw TV

SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region — A Sadr delegation headed by Muqtada al-Sadr’s nephew, Ahmed Sadr, visited Gorran party’s main headquarters in the city of Sulaimani, where the visiting group stressed its desire to correct the political process in Iraq, while Gorran indicated it was not willing to allow its votes “to be sold.”

Muqtada al-Sadr has two clear projects which are about post Mosul liberation and reforms in the elections,” said Shekh Sabah Saadi, the Sadr delegation spokesperson at a joint press conference after the meeting.

“They are intended to correct the establishments and are for the sake of the political process which is based on a false principle. We should rectify this, ourselves. We don’t have any other projects outside these.”

Gorran didn’t announce any commitment to align itself with Sadr. Kawa Muhammed, head of Gorran’s faction in the Iraqi parliament, stood with Saadi after the meeting for the press conference.

“The Kurdistani Nation will never allow its voice, its vote and its will to be sold for posts, position and power in Baghdad,” Gorran wrote in a tweet.

The Sadr delegation was received by a high Gorran delegation. 

The Sadr movement is an opposition in the Iraqi government, and is in disagreement with Shiites especially Nouri al-Maliki and the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Hence, they are seeking new alliances — an opportunity in the Kurdistan Region.

The Sadr delegation earlier this week had met with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan’s Islamic Union in Erbil. They are due to meet with the Islamic Group of Kurdistan later.

“Our project is for a strong Iraq. We need the support of the political parties of the Kurdistan Region for its implementation,” Sabah Saadi said in a joint press conference with PUK on Monday.

Sadr has long been calling for changes to the election law and the electoral commission whose president is from the KDP. Supporters of Sadr have, on his call, marched in the streets of Baghdad many times demanding such government reforms.

Sadr’s party believes the change is in the interests of the Iraqi people.

The next provincial elections are due to be held in September. Given the ongoing displacement and fight against ISIS, some Iraqi politicians have said they may not take place until 2018.

Antichrist’s Men Try To Influence Election

President Masoud Barzani meets with Muqtada al-Sadr delegation in Erbil. Photo: KRP
President Masoud Barzani meets with Muqtada al-Sadr delegation in Erbil. Photo: KRP


ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A senior Shiite delegation visiting Erbil on Saturday on behalf of leading cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reportedly presented two projects to the president of the Kurdistan Region in a bid to resolve the existing crisis in the country, including reaching an agreement for elections and approaching national reconciliation in the country after the ISIS war.

The delegation headed by Ahmad Sadr, the cleric’s nephew, has put forward two projects suggested by Sadr related to holding elections across the country after the current Independent High Electoral Commission is replaced by a new one, as demanded by Sadr as part of government reforms, and a new law is in place which could satisfy Iraqis as a whole.
Sadr has long been calling for changes to the election law and the electoral commission whose president is from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Supporters of Sadr have, on his call, marched in the streets of Baghdad many times demanding such government reforms.

Sadr’s party believes the change is in the interests of the Iraqi people demanding the commission be free from political interference.

The next provincial elections are due to be held in September.

The second suggestion presented to the Kurdistan president highlights the need to approach reconciliation among the country’s diverse peoples after the military operation to evict ISIS is over and the group is driven out of the country.

Sadr has also suggested setting up an international account to reconstruct the war-ravaged areas in Iraq and fund the returns of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

In a separate statement issued by Barzani’s office after their meeting, it said they discussed the political environment of Iraq, on-the-ground developments against ISIS, and increased cooperation between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga as they have achieved outstanding triumphs against the terrorist group.

Sadr’s Movement has 34 seats in the Iraqi parliament. It is a member of the Shiite National Alliance that also includes Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Dawa Party.

Barzani, the KDP, and the Sadr Movement are staunchly opposed to former PM Nouri al-Maliki making a return to Iraqi politics and governance.

Maliki’s government tried hard to crush the Sadr movement through military operations in 2008, when violence spread to some parts of Iraq, resulting in the imprisonment of some Sadr followers.

The Antichrist’s Men Meet With Kurds

Muqtada al-Sadr (far left) is received in Erbil by a Fuad Hussein (center-right), the chief of staff to the Kurdish presidency. Photo: Rudaw
Muqtada al-Sadr (far left) is received in Erbil by a Fuad Hussein (center-right), the chief of staff to the Kurdish presidency. Photo: Rudaw


ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — A senior delegation on behalf of the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited the Kurdish capital of Erbil on Saturday morning. The delegation will meet the Kurdish president and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to engage in dialogue to help resolve crises in Iraq.
The delegation is headed by Ahmad Sadr, the cleric’s nephew. He told Rudaw that they have visited Kurdistan to open talks with Kurdish officials aimed at ending ongoing crises in Iraq.

The delegation was received by Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdish presidency, at Erbil International Airport. They are scheduled to meet President Masoud Barzani on Saturday, and then with members of Barzani’s KDP.

“We have come to Kurdistan to engage in discussion with our brothers to resolve the current crises in Iraq,” Ahmad Sadr told Rudaw after he arrived to the capital.

His delegation is to meet with other Kurdish parties, including the PUK whose stronghold is in Sulaimani, southeast of Erbil.

The delegation’s agenda hasn’t been announced; however, the Kurdish referendum for independence is expected to show up in the talks as the main Kurdish parties have already declared that they intend to hold the referendum in 2017.

Sadr’s Movement has 34 seats in the Iraqi parliament. It is a member of the Shiite National Alliance that also includes Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Dawa Party. 

Barzani, the KDP and the Sadr Movement are staunchly against any chance that may give Iraq’s former PM Nouri al-Maliki a prominent return to Iraqi politics and governance.

Maliki’s government tried hard to crush the Sadr movement through military operations in 2008, when violence spread to some parts of Iraq, resulting in the imprisonment of some Sadr followers. 

Maliki also cut the Kurdistan Region’s share of the Iraqi budget in 2014 when the Kurdish government decided to export oil independently of Baghdad. The Kurdish Region has since suffered from a financial crisis.

The head of the National Alliance, Ammar al-Hakim, seen as a moderate voice among the Iraqi Shiite leaders, announced recently that he is going to resign, calling on its members to choose another leader.

Maliki has since indicated that he is ready to run for the top leadership of the Alliance, a move al-Sadr has said he is strongly against.

Maliki is also the head of the Dawa Party.

Antichrist Again One of Time’s Most Influential People

Once again, Time magazine’s top 100 influential people list shortchange the religious world

Each year, Time magazine comes out with its “100 Most Influential People” list, which is often clueless about the world of religion.

Well, it’s deja vu all over again. This year’s selection did not fail to disappoint.

There were no icons of the religious left, such the Rev. James Martin nor, on the opposite pole, people like the Rev. Russell Moore, who took a lot of heat – and nearly lost his job – for criticizing evangelical Trump supporters.

There was no Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the ISIS leader whose butchery and short-lived Islamic caliphate is still creating international havoc. (He made the short list for Time’s 2015 person of the year, so go figure).

There was no sign of the Rev. Tim Keller, the Presbyterian pastor who, against many odds, started a Reformed congregation in highly secular Manhattan 28 years ago and grew it into a 5,000-member congregation. No less than the New York magazine has called Keller the city’s “most successful Christian evangelist.” It was only recently that he became more widely known after Princeton Theological Seminary announced he’d won its annual Kuyper Prize, then reneged on giving him the award after an outcry from theological liberals.

The only religious leader cited was Pope Francis, in an essay written by Cardinal Blaise Cupich:

Before being elected Pope, Francis gave a speech to his fellow Cardinals warning against becoming a “self-referential” church, rather than one that goes out of itself to the margins of society to be with those who suffer. That is where God is working in the world and where he calls us to be. This has rung especially true this year, as Francis has spoken out on the need to welcome refugees amid a global crisis.

Yes, there was Chance the Rapper, the Christian hiphop artist, also made the list.

Chance upends expectations about what artists, ­especially hip-hop artists, can do. He streams his albums instead of selling them. He makes music from an unapologetically inspiring and Christian perspective—music that transcends age, race and gender. He gives back to his Chicago community. And he does it all as an independent artist, without the support of a label.

Outside of U.S. borders, I will say the list did include Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a Hindu nationalist who has made life hell for religious minorities in his country. As the article notes:

…this Hindu nationalist used Twitter to bypass traditional media and speak directly to masses feeling left or pushed behind by globalization, and he promised to make India great again by rooting out self-serving elites. Nearly three years later, his vision of India’s economic, geopolitical and cultural supremacy is far from being realized, and his extended family of Hindu nationalists have taken to scapegoating secular and liberal intellectuals as well as poor Muslims.

He’s also selectively targeted Christians.

There’s a lot about who made that list I disagree with (Margaret Atwood? Really?) And Colin Kaepernick? Seriously? And they left out a lot of good people besides those in the religious world. Why couldn’t Time have chosen some of the spiritual giants from, say, China? How about Zhang Kai, the human rights lawyer, who was jailed the day before he was to have met Rabbi David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom? And then he was tortured for the next six months.

Or Yu Jie, a Chinese Chistian writer and dissident who was also tortured before he fled to the United States? Come to think of it, did the late and famed Harry Wu, who endured 19 years in China’s prisons, then spent the rest of his life exposing his country’s human rights abuses, ever make the list?

There are amazing human rights activists from all religions in Pakistan to Persia who could be on that list.

There are other religious personalities around the world. One is Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the erratic foe of American forces in the Middle East and who has long been a divisive figure. Yet he’s got huge sway in Iraq. Or Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who works hand-in-glove with Putin – except when he doesn’t (there’s news on both sides of that equation).

There are probably more and better names worthy of being on this list and I am shooting in the dark by naming just a few. But I see no effort by Time to go out and find the star players among the billions of Earth’s residents who profess a religion.

There were some creative picks on this year’s list. Next time, I hope Time skips some of the obvious and puts some time into choosing who are heroes of Earth’s many faiths.

The Influence of the Antichrist

Al Sadr dances to a new beat on Syria

Prominent cleric’s call for Al Assad to step down could be ploy to obtain more leverage on the Iraqi political scene

By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News
Published: 18:44 April 16, 2017

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.

“Is Al Sadr repositioning himself as an ‘independent Shiite’… expecting a confrontation between the Islamic republic and the Trump White House?”

-Sami Moubayed

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).