Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- perhaps best known for leading a Shiite insurgency against Western forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- began a sit-in Sunday inside Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone in protest of the Iraqi government's inability to deliver on long-delayed Cabinet reforms promised by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Although al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia was officially disbanded in 2008, the group -- much like its founder -- never truly went away, but rather repurposed itself to provide social services and security to its Shiite constituency in the suburbs of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The Mahdi Army also morphed into a political force in the years that followed, and in 2014 the Sadrist Al-Ahrar bloc secured 34 seats in the Iraqi parliament.
That same year presented al-Sadr with yet another political opportunity. That summer, the Sunni militant organization known as the Islamic State group spread out across much of northern Iraq, conquering many of the cities and provinces in its path. For al-Sadr and his disciples, the prospect of a revanchist Sunni army marching on Baghdad created an opening for greater influence in national politics. Al-Sadr rebranded the Mahdi Army as the "Peace Companies," and he deployed his armed loyalists to protect Shiite holy sites and communities from ISIS's Sunni insurgents.
While this certainly wouldn't be the first time that the popular cleric has wrapped himself in the Iraqi flag, al-Sadr has gone out of his way in recent weeks to pose first and foremost as an Iraqi federalist.
Late last month, tens of thousands of al-Sadr supporters rallied in Baghdad demanding that the government follow through on reform measures promised last year following a wave of summertime protests. The Sadrists waved Iraqi national flags, and called on the prime minister to make good on his promises to end corruption and improve basic services. Al-Sadr recently moved to Baghdad from the holy city of Najaf to be closer to the political action in the capital, and his armed Peace Companies have worked with the government-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Forces in their campaign against ISIS.
Behind the veneer of nationalism lies an implicit threat, however: reform, or else.
"If al-Abadi's cabinet reshuffle plan stalls or fails to pass in Parliament, he risks open confrontation with al-Sadr," writes Iraq analyst Omar Al-Nidawi. "In the most extreme case, this could mean thousands of al-Sadr's followers storming the Green Zone, but will in any case ... increase in public outrage."
At the heart of al-Sadr's latest move is an effort to maintain access and influence in the Iraqi government. The scion of a prominent clerical dynasty, al-Sadr remains a popular figure among Iraq's Shiite majority, especially among the pious and poor concentrated in the south of the country. But independence from Washington in Baghdad has, consequently, allowed for a greater amount of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. The mobilization forces, or Hashd, have grown into a powerful parallel force to the Iraqi military, and al-Sadr's own militia -- while ostensibly aligned with the Hashd -- has engaged in intermittent clashes with rival members of the umbrella organization whose loyalties, some fear, reside in Tehran rather than Baghdad. These very same Iran-backed militias enjoy increasing political support among certain factions of Iraq's splintered Shiite factions, posing a direct threat to al-Sadr's own Shiite powerbase.
Prime Minister al-Abadi finds himself stuck in the middle of this sectarian tug-o-war. While the premier has been pushing for months now to implement a slate of political reforms, he has repeatedly encountered resistance from entrenched factions that have dominated the politics of post-war Iraq. His proposal to replace Cabinet members with a list of technocrats has met equal resistance by pols seeking to maintain access to a patronage system rife with corruption. (Cabinet posts are typically filled through a sectarian quota system.)
With al-Sadr positioned right at his front door, and many more of the cleric's supporters assembled in protest around the capital, al-Abadi has been forced to pull soldiers away from the Iraqi army's critical campaign to retake Mosul, the country's second largest city and the center of Iraq's Sunni heartland.
It is imperative that the Iraqi government regain control of its own territories and, perhaps more importantly, all of its oil infrastructure. The downturn in the global crude market has put a strain on Iraqi coffers, as has the war against ISIS. A confrontation in Baghdad will only further deplete a Mosul campaign already reportedly suffering from desertions and low morale.
Muqtada al-Sadr has never wasted a good Iraqi crisis, and with al-Abadi reportedly rushing to reshuffle his cabinet for an all-important Saturday vote of approval, the shrewd Shiite cleric appears poised for a successful resurgence, and possibly a big political victory.
The Unquiet Cleric -- The Economist
The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq, Again -- New Arab
Shia-Centric State Building in Iraq -- Carnegie Endowment
The Worst Job in the Middle East -- RealClearWorld