In order to understand the recent and sudden alliance that was established by Iran and the Iraqi cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, we must first investigate the origins and the nature of the relationship, and how the recent popular protests altered the approach between Sadr and Iran.
Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of one of Iraq’s most prominent Shia clerics, Mohamed al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999. Muqtada returned to Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003, to become one of the most influential figures to benefit from the power vacuum caused by the toppling of Hussein’s decades-old Ba’athist regime.
Sadr’s first prominent appearance began in 2003 as a leader of the paramilitary Mahdi Army which denounced and challenged the US military occupation in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Basra and the Shia holy city of Najaf. These events fed into the nationalist label he always pushed for. Iran took advantage of the Shia and anti-US ally whom it also hosted during his exile following his father’s assassination and supported with weapons and funds.
However, Sadr’s popularity and networks gradually started failing, when the Mahdi Army got heavily involved in Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006-08. The militia was accused by many international NGOs and human rights agencies of leading targeted assassinations against Sunni Iraqis which led to their displacement from many areas in Baghdad and other provinces.
It is believed that his targeting of Sunnis was a reactionary sprout following the bombing of Al-Askari Mosque, a prominent Shia tomb in Samarra. Sadr’s alliance with Iran later on turned into a rivalry as various break ups from his own organization were separately empowered by Iran. A noticeable example is Asa’eb ahlul Haq, led by prominent pro-Iran Iraqi militia leader and politician Qais al-Khazali. Many Sadrists claim that this breakup was a result of Sadr’s lost patience with Iranian interference and its continuing prioritizing of its own interests over those of Iraq.
As Sadr allied and rivaled with various Iraqi governmental and parliamentary leaders such as Prime Ministers Nouri al-Malki (2008-14) and Haider al-Abadi (2014-18), and many more, he ensured that he was portrayed as a reformer, cross-sectarian, and anti-Iran.
The Iraqi protests
The Iraqi protests or the October Revolution kicked off in October in 2019 against the poor living standards, high rates of unemployment, corruption, sectarianism, and many other failures of the post-2003 Iraqi political regime. Sadr was very hesitant to join the protests for several reasons. For the first time, the Sadrist movement failed to take a leading role in the protests, and protesters made it very clear that they will reject any attempts by any religious or political figure belonging to the ethnic-sectarian political class to take advantage of the protest movement in order to guarantee themselves a presence in any transitionary period.