By Iraq Team and Ahmed Ali
Tensions have increased between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sadrists. As the Sadrist Trend experiences restructuring in the wake of Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to withdraw from politics, Maliki has identified it as his main Iraqi Shi’a electoral opponent and scathingly criticized its leader. Sadrists have mobilized against Prime Minister Maliki by holding mass protesting and showcasing their grassroots power. Moving ahead, Maliki faces a difficult calculation in whether to escalate militarily against the Sadrists, weighing the rapidly approaching elections and the country’s security environment.
The Sadrist Trend has been active in the run-up to national elections in April. On February 15, its leader Moqtada al-Sadr abruptly announced his decision to withdraw from politics. Sadr has done so before, but eventually reversed his decision after displays of loyalty and allegiance by his supporters. This recent decision appears to have been similar, and Sadr is still effectively involved in the political affairs of his movement. However, the timing of the decision sets this instance apart. Firstly, it coincides with the approach of the national elections at a critical juncture for Sadr to mobilize his base. The decision therefore seems to be intended to rally the Sadrists. Secondly, this decision was issued after the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) passed a law that grants retirement privileges to its members and other senior officials. The public was very critical of the law and perceived it as granting benefits to politicians at the expense of the public good. The full list of who voted for the law is not confirmed but reports indicated that Sadrist CoR members had voted in favor of the law. The presence of these reports is harmful to Sadrist public posture which is based on delivering services to the public. Thus, Sadr’s decision was intended to show to the public that he was dissatisfied with Sadrist CoR members. In effect, the decision is Sadr’s method of maintaining the Sadrist populist image. Thirdly, as the elections approach, this was Sadr’s method of enforcing discipline within his movement and subsequent restructuring of the Sadrist Trend has taken place. The changes included creating a “Board of Trustees” and the removal of CoR member Baha al-Araji as the head of the Sadrist Ahrar parliamentary bloc. The new Board of Trustees is empowered to administer the political affairs of the group.
As these developments are taking place, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has strongly critiqued the Sadrists in general and Sadr himself in particular. On March 8, Maliki criticized the political acumen of Sadr, stating that Sadr is not familiar with politics and is unaware of “the rules of the political process.” Maliki’s statement came in response to a question about Sadr’s recent criticism of Maliki in which he described the Prime Minister as a “dictator.” On March 10, the “Board of Trustees” released a statement criticizing Maliki and calling for protest in response to his statements.
For Maliki, this was likely a calculated move to take advantage of Sadr’s decision to show him as an incapable political leader. Furthermore, the Sadrists, through their alliances in the aftermath of the provincial elections, have shown a strategy intended to compete for Maliki’s position in the national elections. Maliki realizes the Sadrist threat and is focused on weakening it. The Sadrists have clearly identified this as a vital contest going into the elections and have mobilized themselves to counter it.
Sadrists Mobilize Against Maliki
Between March 10-12, hundreds of Sadr supporters took to the streets of Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Basra, Kirkuk, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Babil, Wasit, and Diyala. The demonstrators carried anti-PM Maliki banners, tore down a number of Maliki posters, and chanted anti-Maliki slogans describing him as a “dictator” and comparing him to Saddam Hussein. The demonstrations were attended by Sadrist government officials and members of the Council of Representatives. The appearance of these Sadrist officials at the protest was important as a display of their loyalty to him after his decision to withdraw from politics.
Importantly, pictures of the demonstrations posted by Sadrist social media accounts showed members of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Federal Police in their military attire taking part in the demonstrations. These photos are evidence that Sadrists are still part of the security forces and they posted online to demonstrate that the movement has broader support.
March 10, Members of the Iraqi Army and Federal Police express their support to Sadr during the demonstrations.
Politically, supporters of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) also took out to streets in Basra, demonstrating against PM Maliki and in support of Sadr. ISCI leader Hakim al-Mayahi stated that his group stands with the Sadrist Trend. He also commented that recent statements by Maliki criticizing Sadr negatively affect Iraqi Shi’a unity in Iraq. The Sadrist-ISCI solidarity is a continuation of their cooperation against Maliki in the aftermath of the provincial elections.
Tensions have run high before the elections, and the political infrastructure of Maliki’s Dawa party has come under physical attack. On March 10, reports indicated that demonstrators attacked the office of Maliki’s Dawa Party in Najaf. Officials from both the Dawa Party and the Sadrist Trend quickly denied the reports, attributing the acts to individuals who were not part of the demonstrations. Moreover, a Sadrist delegation visited the office and apologized. These actions were likely taken likely to control the crowds and prevent acts of violence especially before the elections. On March 11, Sadr’s Office released a statement in appreciation of the demonstration thanking the demonstrators and highlighting that their stance was “enough.” This statement was also likely intended to contain any fallout from the demonstrations. The statement also tracks with Sadr’s stated position that Sadrists should not resort to violence. On March 12, unconfirmed reports indicated that armed confrontations took place between members of Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) and members of the Iraqi Army as members of JAM attacked offices of the Dawa Party in Sadr City. While the reports were unconfirmed and rejected by Sadrist-leaning social media, they still serve as way to discredit the movement for using violence.
Nevertheless, demonstrations continued and more attacks were reported on Dawa offices. On March 11, two “sound bombs” were detonated in the headquarters of a pro-PM Maliki party in Maysan, the State of Social Justice Bloc, with reports indicating that the office was set on fire. In Basra, Iraqi Security Forces, including troops from the Quick Response Forces, were reportedly deployed around the offices of the Dawa Party and blocked the road leading to the headquarters of PM Maliki’s State of Law Alliance in the city. Meanwhile, an unknown gunman attacked an office of the Dawa Party with a grenade in the area of Hashmiyah, southern Babil with no reported causalities. The attack was clearly meant to be a means of intimidation and sending a message instead of causing casualties.
Sadr supporters holding a banner comparing PM Maliki to Sadddam Hussein
Sadrist “Day of the Oppressed” Demonstration as a Show of Force
The Sadrist camp has not shied away from mass mobilization to demonstrate their power. Although scheduled in advance of the tensions described above, the group used its annual “Day of the Oppressed” demonstration to mobilize its supporters en masse. Even though Sadr described the demonstration as a day for all to stand against oppression, the vast majority of the rally attendees were Sadrists and the event is an annual Sadrist show of force.
On March 15 and three days after the anti-Maliki demonstrations, Sadrists gathered in the southern city of Nasriyah in Dhi Qar province. The occurrence of the “Day of the Oppressed” march might explain why the anti-Maliki demonstrations did not last longer since organizers and participants started to head toward Nasriyah on March 14. Logistical preparations were reported as early as February 15. While logistics of the rally were organized by Sadr offices in various provinces, to include providing transportation to participants from other provinces, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) imposed a vehicular curfew in order to provide security for the participants after receiving information that they may be targeted. It is notable that the ISF provided security to the march given the recent tensions between Maliki and the Sadrists, but it is also indicative of de-escalation steps by Maliki who may have chosen, for now, to avoid a major crisis with the Sadrists before the elections.
The rally was attended by thousands of Sadrist supporters. The rally was also attended by the leader of the Mendaeen [a religious group in Iraq] in Dhi Qar, Samer Handhal. The inclusion of Handhal is meant to portray a nationalist and inclusive nature of the event instead of appearing to be an exclusively Shi’a event.
Notably, Sadrist-leaning social media outlets posted a picture of Abu Deraa, or Ismail Hafidh al-Lami, a former leader in the Mahdi Army who is known as the “Shi’a Zarqawi” due to a history of brutality resembling that of the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Abu Deraa had previously split from the Sadrist Trend and eventually ran his own group that was based in Sadr City and operated death squads in Baghdad that kidnapped and killed thousands of civilians between 2004 and 2006, before moving to Iran to escape capture by U.S. Forces. However, Abu Deraa remained engaged in directing his own group in Sadr city until at least 2012.
As Abu Deraa’s future role with the Sadrists crystalizes, his potential full return to the Sadrist fold will boost Sadr’s credential as a defender of the Iraqi Shi’a and in particular as he competes with the Iraqi Shi’a militia of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). AAH has been messaging that it is protecting the Iraqi Shi’a in face of attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Both groups are currently competing for the same constituency of voters from the Sadrist trend. Abu Deraa’s full return will be crucial in mobilizing the Mahdi Army before elections. For undecided Sadrist voters, Abu Deraa’s return and future role will represent a message from Sadr that he takes the defense of the Iraqi Shi’a against attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham seriously and that is why he has recruited Abu Deraa. Moving forward, it will be important to watch the role Abu Deraa plays and whether he will be operationalized by Sadr.
Abu Deraa reportedly participating in the “Day of the Oppressed” demonstration
Sadr returned from Iran to Iraq the day before the rally, although he did not appear at the march and instead a speech was delivered on his behalf. Despite not participating in the march, Sadr’s return from Iran indicates to his followers that he is still involved in political affairs for his movement. The statement portrayed Sadr as a national non-sectarian figure by calling for unity between Shi’a and Sunnis and all other Iraqis “especially our Christian brothers who have been, and are still oppressed.” Sadr called for people to widely participate in the upcoming elections in order to “seize the new political stage” and to protect the country from the “thieves and sectarians” who wage wars before the elections to stay in power. These themes touch on the pervasive corruption that currently exists in Iraq and that has become a major campaign theme for anti-Maliki political groups. Last year, Sadr addressed the demonstrators through a large screen in the rally that took place in Kut, Wasit. In 2012, the demonstration took place in Basra and like this year, a speech was read on Sadr’s behalf.
The Sadrists demonstrated their pre-elections grassroots power by organizing protests against Maliki along with the “Day of the Oppressed” march. Within days, thousands of Moqtada al-Sadr supporters demonstrated in various areas of Iraq. These marches serve the dual purposes of demonstrating loyalty to Sadr and showcasing their electoral and grassroots power before the elections. For now, the march appears to have achieved both objectives.
The Maliki-Sadrist tensions will continue for the foreseeable future. The tensions will include rising wars of words and possible arrests of Sadrist figures. At this point, the tension has included disqualification of Sadrist candidates from the upcoming national elections on April 30, 2014 and critique by Maliki that Sadrists were major perpetrators of violence during Iraq’s civil war. With these statements, Maliki wants to negatively portray the Sadrists and remind the public that he is the “law and order” man who targeted the Sadrist Mahdi Army in 2008. This rhetoric against the Sadrists plays a role in his electoral strategy, as Maliki has been dealing with an increasingly deteriorating security situation.
As a counterpoint, Sadrists have highlighted Maliki’s consolidation of power and his governance style as reasons for not allowing him a third term. If Maliki decides to move against the Sadrists, he will likely tolerate the mobilization of AAH against them particularly in Baghdad. Furthermore, anti-Sadrist mobilization of AAH by Maliki will partially countervail the Sadrist street presence. Even with AAH mobilization, it will be difficult to rival Sadrist street power, but Maliki will want to utilize all instruments available to him in order to weaken the Sadrists. The Sadrists, for their part, may choose to avoid a military confrontation with Maliki before the elections in order not to divert their resources from the elections and the political space.
Political weakening of the Sadrists is a priority for Maliki and that process can be carried out through disqualification of Sadrist candidates from elections and using access to state resources to out-campaign them. Reports indicate that Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Baghdad to mediate tensions between the Sadrists, Maliki, and other Iraqi Shi’a factions. This development, coupled with Sadr’s trip to Iran, indicates that temporary de-escalation may take place. Additionally, a potential Maliki decision to move militarily against the Sadrists will be constrained by the Iraqi Security Forces’ ongoing military operations in Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah ad-Din and also possibly restrained by the Iranian government’s mediatory efforts. However, limited skirmishes or at least high-profile arrests of Sadrist military commanders could become part of Maliki’s calculation to bolster his credentials as an anti-militia figure. At any rate, if Maliki decides to confront the Sadrists military at this moment, it will be a risky step given the approach of the elections and the ISF’s imperative mission to contain the resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.