How Al-Sadr's retirement from political life reflects on Iraq's political spectrum
The retirement of Moqtada Al-Sadr from political life shook up Iraq's political spectrum, but his call on followers to end their protest raised hope of de-escalation between Sadrists and the Coordination Framework.
Following Iraq's powerful cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr's announcement of quitting political life on August 29, his supporters stormed the presidential palace in the Green Zone, which later turned into clashes that rocked Baghdad for two days, killing 30 people and injuring over 700 others, according to Iraqi medical sources on August 30.
Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, an Iraqi-Canadian and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Lancaster University and Project SEPAD - an acronym for "Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianization" - said that Moqtada Al-Sadr's resignation from political life is "performative."
"It was his way of trying to wash his hands of responsibility for what would take place next," Al-Hassani told Al Mayadeen English in an interview. "His supporters would not raise arms in battle without his consent or orders."
The clashes that rocked Baghdad stopped by noon on August 30 after Sadr delivered a speech at a press conference during which he apologized for the violence and told his supporters to leave the Green Zone.
“The party is disciplined and obedient, and I wash my hands of those who do not withdraw from parliament building within 60 minutes,” Sadr said in a televised speech broadcast by several news outlets including Al Mayadeen.
Asked if Al-Sadr's clashes-ending call was late, Al-Hassani said "of course it was late, but it was also calculated and intended to arrive late, to show his counterparts what he and his followers are capable of."
Al-Sadr also in his speech thanked "the security forces that took a neutral stance with all parties,” and added that the Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMF) that has integrated with the Iraqi security forces has nothing to do with what is happening.
Sadr's decision to quit political life came after he reached a political deadlock with his rivals, a decision that propelled his supporters to storm the presidential palace in the Green Zone, leading the army to swiftly order a curfew on August 29.
Asked why Sadr didn't call on his followers to leave the Green Zone before his resignation to avoid violence, Al-Hassani said "because his goal was for them [Sadrists] to storm parliament, as they did weeks ago, to storm the High Judicial Council, which they did last week, to storm the Republican Palace, as they did today [August 30]."
"It is a pattern, and it is not new. His followers have stormed parliament several times before," Al-Hassani told Al Mayadeen English.
Sadr supporters stormed parliament in late July to prevent the Coordination Framework from forming a new cabinet after the Sadrist bloc resigned en masse from Parliament in June.
"They enjoy a level of impunity no one else does. The government doesn't dare to challenge them, as [caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa] Al-Kadhimi is a Sadrist ally, as he has shown several times over the past two years," she explained.
According to France 24, "Sadr says he simply wants a new election. The Coordination Framework says it wants a government to be formed first -- and then for elections to be held, under conditions."
Repercussions of resignation
The clashes between groups in Baghdad's Green Zone and elsewhere prompted Iran to close its air and land borders with Iraq on August 29 before it reopened them following Sadr's speech. The UAE also suspended flights to and from Baghdad over security reasons.
"Sadr uses his resignation frequently as leverage over his counterparts to posture and remind them that they cannot function politically without him," Al-Hassani told Al Mayadeen English. "He has a large followership, and he has an unpredictable nature which puts his counterparts at a disadvantage."
"If they cannot predict his next move, they cannot act accordingly. This time, however, his counterparts predicted that he would act impulsively, especially in response to Al-Haeri's resignation, which came at a curious time. He also seems to have lost some leverage after stating in his press conference that 'both the killer and the killed will go to hell', thereby angering some of his own followers. This may just be the inevitable moment when Al-Sadr shot himself in the foot," said Al-Hassani.
"Mind you, he is just as guilty as all other parties of corruption and violence. Reform should begin from within his party," explained Al-Hassani.
However, following Sadr's speech, his supporters started to leave the Green Zone area immediately in response to his call, and the nationwide curfew which went into effect on August 29 has been lifted by the government, raising hopes that there might be an end to the violence.
"He [Al-Sadr] continues to be their leader, and his press conference today and ensuing withdrawal of Sadrists from the Green Zone is a prime example of that," Al-Hassani said. "There is no Sadrist movement without Al-Sadr."
Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) welcomed Al-Sadr’s call for protesters to end protests in the Green Zone.
Al-Kadhimi also hailed Al-Sadr as a patriot for calling to end the bloodshed and said in a tweet this call placed a “moral duty” on all Iraqis to engage in dialogue.
'Reason for this crisis'
Following Sadrists withdrawal from the Green Zone, the Coordination Framework called on its supporters to end their protests and leave Baghdad's Green Zone.
"Return to your homes safely and be fully prepared to answer the nation's call," the Framework said in a message to supporters who started an "indefinite sit-in" on August 12 in the Green Zone demanding a new government to be formed as quickly as possible.
"The Coordination Framework has the options of forming a government, removing the Sadrist movement from all its positions, and not allowing it to interfere in any of the state’s files," said Ghalib Aldaamy, Professor of Media at Ahlul-Bayt University.
The Sadrists started an open-ended protest first inside and then outside parliament to prevent the Framework from forming a government and demanding dissolving parliament and holding fresh elections.
"I do not think that the framework is with the dissolution of parliament at all, and the reason for this crisis is the unwillingness of the Framework to dissolve the parliament," Aldaamy told Al Mayadeen English.
Iraq's President Barham Salih said later on August 30, that "holding new, early elections according to a national understanding represents a way out of the stifling crisis instead of political squabbling or clashing and fighting each other."
'A pressure card'
"I don't think that Al-Sadr is serious about withdrawing from political life, as he took such a decision more than once and has always returned to politics under the pretext of defending," Iraqi journalist Ahmed Adel told Al Mayadeen English. "This withdrawal is nothing but a pressure card."
Adel said the policy of the Sadrist movement is "a unipolar policy, that it is related to the person of Al-Sadr, and no one can take his place in managing the political work of the Sadrist movement."
Adel pointed out that during the negotiation process of the electoral alliances, Sadr changed committees more than once, but in the end, he is the one who comes up with the political decision through a tweet or word away from these committees.
The journalist believes that "the first one responsible for the clashes is the [caretaker] Prime Minister as he allowed these groups to enter the Green Zone and he was aware of all kinds of weapons they entered."
"Those responsible for protecting the Green Zone are the special squad that is protecting the government buildings, so these clashes were between the Saraya Al-Salam militias and the official government forces, and today [August 31] a funeral was held for the sons of the Iraqi army [killed] in Baghdad," said Adel.
It is not clear if Sadr will backtrack his decision of quitting political life, as Reuters reported: "he has often returned to political activity after similar announcements although the current deadlock in Iraq appears harder to resolve than previous periods of dysfunction."
Dr. Ghalib Aldaamy, professor of Media at Ahlul-Bayt University in Iraq, said the "political process in Iraq is one that is not governed by regulations, standards, or foundations; it relies on improvisational rules."
"It is difficult to say that the Sadrist movement has retired from political life," Aldaamy told Al Mayadeen English.
"Sadr withdrew in the sense that he will not interfere with the trends of his followers in the demonstrations, and this was confirmed August 30 when he delivered a clear statement calling for the movement to be withdrawn from the demonstrations permanently," Aldaamy said.
"As long as Mr. Muqtada Al-Sadr is alive, the Sadrist movement will remain politically active.
"I think that Al-Sadr will deputize one of the people in managing the most important files, but he will remain interfering in critical circumstances that need him to send a message to the Sadrist movement," added Aldaamy.
Al-Hassani, the Postdoctoral Research Associate at Lancaster University, told Al Mayadeen English that "he [Sadr,] is the boy who cried wolf, as he has resigned at least 6 times in the past, and 2 times over the past year."
"His resignation won't last long, and in the meantime, they will continue to mobilize, just like last summer. He resigned in August 2021, yet his party continued to mobilize voters for the October elections and developed a mobile app for their registration...and when he 'returned' to politics, everything was ready to win the election," Al-Hassani noted.
"Iraqis expect his return, but we're not sure when exactly."