The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr

I first heard of the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr soon after American forces occupied Baghdad in 2003. His men were implicated in the stabbing murder of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, who was a custodian of a Shia holy mosque in Najaf. Soon after, Sadr’s men launched attacks on the US forces as well, and the occupation authorities issued a “kill or capture” warrant for Sadr that was not enforced or pursued with conviction.

To me, Sadr represented what was wrong with the ‘new’ Iraq. Though his father was murdered by Saddam Hussain, Sadr and his supporters never waged a war against the regime, unlike other opponents like the Kurds or, in the case of the Shia, the Badr organisation which had a few hundred armed men in the PUK-controlled territories of Kurdistan. Sadr was late to the party and picked a fight with the wrong guy.

In the mid-2000s, Sadr’s popularity in the anti-war circles and in some western media skyrocketed on the account that he was an ‘Iraqi’ nationalist and that he was fighting against the US occupation. He was no terrorist, but a “firebrand” Shia cleric with a just cause to resist the occupation. No mention of Sadr’s suspected responsibility in the murder of a clerical rival in Sheikh Khoi.

Last month, Sadrist bloc’s election victory surprised every punter and brought the man himself back in the national and international spotlight. A lot has changed in 15 years. Sadr entered into an alliance with communists and, while the Badr organisation derivatives romped into Kirkuk, Sadr sounded a more conciliatory tone towards the Kurds. He also turned his back on his long-term sponsor, the Iranian regime.

Journalist Seth J. Frantzman reintroduces Muqtada al-Sadr to those who have not heard of or might have forgotten about him. I was surprised to learn that US officials were favourable towards him in secret communique, despite the kill or capture warrant. It is worth the time if you have an interest in the Iraqi and regional politics.