Who Is The Antichrist? (Revelation 13)

The Return of Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Operator

By Jon Lee Anderson

The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has never held elected office but has established himself as a key power broker in Iraq. Credit Photograph by Alaa al-Marjani / REUTERS

Beyond the gruesome military showdown with ISIS, politics in Iraq, such as it exists, revolves around a small cabal of former insurgents. All of them were political players long before the U.S. invasion of 2003, and they variously endured imprisonment, torture, exile, assassination attempts, and all-out warfare for their opposition to Saddam Hussein, and then survived to compete for the spoils of power. Some gained control of vast resources through their authority over lucrative government ministries. Some command their own militias as well as portions of the country’s security forces. The original list of players included the Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Mustafa Barzani, the secular Shiite politicians Iyad Allawi and the late Ahmad Chalabi, the Shiite Islamists Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki, and the late clerical Shiite brothers Muhammad Bakr and Abdulaziz al-Hakim. One of the most intriguing additions to this group is the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an arriviste of forty-two who has never held elected office but who now commands thousands and has established himself as a key power broker in the country.

A chunky, black-garbed, bearded man with a perpetually baleful countenance, “Moqtada,” as his followers call him, is a remarkable character. The son of a revered cleric who was murdered on Saddam’s orders, in 1999, Sadr forced his way into the political scene, when he was still in his twenties, with a calculated act of violence. On April 10, 2003, three weeks into the U.S. invasion, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a moderate Shiite cleric, whom the Americans had brought into the holy city of Najaf, crucial to the country’s majority Shiites, in the hopes that he would somehow help manage the city’s influential religious community, was stabbed to death. The word went out quickly that the assassination, which occurred in broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses, had been carried out by one of Sadr’s lieutenants, on his orders. The murder coincided with the appearance, on the streets of Najaf and Baghdad, of an armed rabble who called Sadr their leader and themselves his Mahdi Army. Within days, they had taken over the vast Shiite slum of Saddam City, which was renamed Sadr City.

As the blundering American occupation got under way, in the spring and summer of 2003, Sadr built up his power base. Then, in April 2004, coinciding with the Sunni rebellion that began in Fallujah, Sadr’s Mahdi Army rose up and attacked coalition soldiers in Najaf, Baghdad, and across southern and central Iraq and inside Baghdad, as well. The uprising had been sparked by the American arrest of one of Sadr’s aides, who was accused of Khoei’s assassination. As coalition troops and Sadr’s followers clashed, the Americans said that Sadr himself was wanted for the murder, and sent a large number of troops to surround Najaf. Sadr threatened to launch a full-fledged jihad if they entered the city. A standoff ensued. In the face of spreading violence, the Americans eventually backed off.

Coalition forces fought the Mahdi Army several more times, always without resolution. Sadr’s soldiers were heavily implicated in the brutal sectarian violence of 2006 to 2008, but he has since renamed his army the Saraya al-Salam — the Peace Brigades — and now controls a big bloc in parliament as well as his own political party. When two of his government ministers were accused of corruption, he ordered them to resign from their offices and to present themselves to the Iraqi courts. He is Shiite but has taken pains to show himself to be non-sectarian, embracing the Sunni-led “Arab Spring” demonstrations of several years ago, and more recently forming a committee, made up of secular Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish intellectuals, to come up with a “national plan” for Iraq.

Sadr knows how to choose his moments, and earlier this year he was back in the news, after a long and unexplained hiatus. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s failure to go through with promised reforms, including an overhaul of the government and new approach to tackling rampant official corruption, had been the focus of growing public discontent for some time when, in late February, Sadr resurfaced to demand action, and a hundred thousand of his followers joined him in one of Iraq’s biggest public demonstrations ever.

Sadr gave the government forty-five days to come clean, and as the clock ticked down thousands of Sadrists, a boisterous crew made up mainly of Shiites, camped noisily outside the Green Zone. Sadr threatened to storm the enclave with his followers if their demands were not met, but, in the end, he and the government agreed on a Solomonic denouement: Sadr alone stormed the Green Zone, allowed in by guards, who greeted him affectionately. Last Thursday, the Abadi government came up with an eleventh-hour planned government proposal, and the crisis ended. Sadr and his retinue departed, crowing victory, in a long convoy of S.U.V.s, which headed back to his stronghold in Najaf. Iraq’s parliament must vote on the proposal before next week. Depending on the outcome, Sadr, clearly, will keep his own counsel or hit the streets again.

Abadi, who acquiesced to Sadr’s latest show of force, is a more inclusive figure than his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who was hated by Sunnis and forced out in 2014, after the ISIS takeover of most of Sunni Iraq. How long Abadi survives, however, remains to be seen. At the least, he knows he will have to contend with Sadr in order to retain stability on Iraq’s streets, and power for himself. In the rumbustious mosh pit of Iraqi politics, knowing how to survive is everything. At the rate he is going, Moqtada al-Sadr could well end up as the last man standing.

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