The Iraq Report: Sadr makes a gamble for power

The Iraq Report: Moqtada al-Sadr makes a gamble for power as protesters killed
8 min read
04 December, 2020
The powerful cleric's political ambitions have been branded a cynical ploy by youth protesters who have been demonstrating against corruption, a dire economic situation, and state-backed violence.
Many Iraqis remain unconvinced by Sadr's statements. [Getty]

Controversial Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has announced that his party will put forth a candidate to run for Iraq's top job for the first time at the upcoming elections in June, reversing a previous pledge to not enter politics directly. 

His announcement came as he called on his supporters to reinvigorate "anti-corruption" protests targeting senior Iraqi politicians. 

However, this has been seen as a cynical ploy to undermine his rivals while appearing as a "man of the people", as Sadr's supporters have in the past weeks clashed with and killed anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating since October 2019.

Meanwhile, as rival Shia factions gear up for elections, Iraq's Sunnis face continued disenfranchisement and discrimination as authorities close refugee camps for the internally displaced. 

The IDP camps have been in existence since the country's war against Islamic State (IS) militants that started in 2014, yet rights groups are now warning about a grim future as children are forced to live amongst corpses and rubble, further radicalising an already fractured society.

Sadr's supporters kill anti-government demonstrators

Radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has declared his bloc's intentions to clinch a majority in next June's polls, allowing them to nominate their own candidate for prime minister who will be beholden to Sadr. 

A man of continuously shifting positions, Sadr had previously pledged that his bloc, the Sairoun coalition, would remain in parliament as a check against "corruption" by senior ministers and prime ministers, according to the Sadrists.

Moqtada al-Sadr has declared his bloc's intentions to clinch a majority in next June's polls, allowing them to nominate their own candidate for prime minister

However, in a tweet in November, Sadr announced that his party will heavily contest the elections and predicts they will be able to seize a majority of the popular vote, allowing them to be the first party in Iraq's history since the US-led invasion of 2003 to appoint their own prime minister. 

This will eschew the standard horse trading and compromising between the main blocs to determine the country's top jobs that goes on after every election held since former dictator Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled by the United States and its allies.

To that end, Sadr has summoned thousands of his supporters to descend on the streets of major Iraqi cities to call for an end to corruption.

Many Iraqis, however, remain unconvinced by Sadr's statements. The powerful cleric's political ambitions have been branded a cynical ploy by largely Shia youth protesters who have been demonstrating against corruption, a dire economic situation, and unchecked state-backed violence.

Read more: 'They are still trying to silence us': One
year on, Iraq's youth rise again

One of the figures of the post-2003 order who has been criticised by youth activists is Sadr himself after he repeatedly authorised the use of deadly violence against demonstrators.

Thousands flooded Iraq's southern hotspot of Nasiriyah on Monday as a resident died from wounds sustained in clashes last week between anti-government protesters and Sadr's supporters.

Ridha al-Rikaby was hit in the head by a bullet last Friday when Sadr's followers armed with guns and knives descended on the young demonstrators who have been in Nasiriyah's Habboubi Square since 2019, medics told AFP. He died on Monday, bringing the toll from the day of violence to eight dead and several dozen wounded.

After November's clashes, authorities imposed a lockdown to try to stop further rallies in the southern city, sacked the provincial police chief and launched an investigation into the events. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi dispatched National Security Advisor Qasem al-Araji and other senior officials to Nasiriyah on Monday for talks with protesters that have not borne any fruit. 

"Once again, peaceful protesters are dying under the government's nose, and the security forces can't hold the killers accountable," one of those taking part told AFP

Qasim, whose real name cannot be revealed for security reasons, told The New Arab: "Sadr thinks he can use the blood of innocent civilians to win the elections. He says he's anti-corruption, then kills the youth who refuse to allow him to appear to be the leader of the protest movement." 

Shia clerics such as Sadr enjoy immense power in Iraq. They not only operate their own political parties but usually have illegal militias at their beck and call

"This is not only cynical, it is psychotic," Qasim added. Nasiriyah was a major hub for the protest movement that erupted in October 2019 against a government seen by demonstrators as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighbouring Iran. More than 650 people died across Iraq in protest-related violence during those rallies but there has been no accountability for their deaths.

The Iraqi government will likely be powerless to impose any sanctions or restrictions on Sadr or his supporters, let alone indict any of them for killing unarmed and peaceful protesters.

The Sairoun bloc enjoys a majority in parliament, and Kadhimi's premiership was heavily reliant on their support. If they withdraw that support, the prime minister's already tenuous grip on power would face a significant challenge. 

Shia clerics such as Sadr enjoy immense power in Iraq. They not only operate their own political parties, but they usually have illegal militias at their beck and call, as well as their supporters actively joining the ranks of the formal security forces.

This arrangement ensures that they can interfere in politics while securing their interests via violence, and then their supporters in key security posts will shield them from prosecution or law enforcement.

Indeed, the Iraqi government has been criticised for training and grooming a US sanctioned Shia militant for a top military post, further cementing the Popular Mobilisation Force's (PMF) grip on power. Hussein Falih Aziz is a member of the Kataib Hezbollah group, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington. 

The Iraq Report: Mass execution sparks sectarian fears and international concern

Shia religious authorities also enjoy massive support from neighbouring Iran, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in constructing new Shia shrines to form a front for collecting endowments.

Under Shia creed, clerics can attract payments from their followers known as the Khums, or the Fifth, a tithe which entitles the highest-ranking clergymen to 20 percent of a follower's annual income.

This has created a caste system amongst the people and the clerics, and created a class of multimillionaire men of the cloth while Iraq is at risk of reaching a 31.7 percent poverty rate this year, according to UNICEF.

Sunnis discriminated against as IDP camps close

The lot of Iraq's Sunni population has taken a further slide as international rights monitors warn that Sunni children are being "forced to live amongst corpses and bombs" as the federal authorities in Baghdad pressed ahead with the closure of refugee camps.

Iraqi children are living in squalor among "corpses, unexploded bombs and rubble", the Save the Children charity said last Friday after the closure of several camps for the internally displaced.

The IDP camp closures come as part of a plan to relocate around a quarter of a million people back to their areas of origin. But many of those areas are ill-prepared to resettle families who fled the extremist Islamic State group, Save the Children said.

The Iraqi government will likely be powerless to impose any sanctions or restrictions on Sadr or his supporters, let alone indict any of them for killing unarmed and peaceful protesters

More than 300 families were recently forced out of the Yahyawa camp in Kirkuk and have since returned to Mosul, Eiyadiah and Tal Afar in the Nineveh governorate in northern Iraq. Almost all of the governorate was captured by IS in mid-2014 and witnessed some of the extremist group's worst atrocities, before it was recaptured by Iraqi forces in 2017 who themselves committed atrocities according the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations.

"This area was the last shelter for ISIS in Nineveh, so most of our houses were destroyed during the conflict. Our children are not safe here," a man identified only as Ali told Save the Children after returning to Mosul. "When we came back here, the area wasn't cleared; there were explosives," the father-of-four explained.

"I brought down a non-exploded bomb from the rooftop of my house. Children were holding bullets but didn't know what they were. My son came to me with a non-exploded grenade in his hand. He said, 'Father, what is this?' People also found a corpse in one of the destroyed houses."

Families like Ali's are now facing a harsh winter with inadequate shelter and little protection against the cold or the Covid-19 pandemic, and Amnesty warned in a report in November that they face further stigmatisation for coming from areas formerly controlled by IS.

Read more: Nowhere to go: Iraq's IDP camp closures
leave thousands destitute

IDPs have been denied documentation essential for employment, education and free movement, according to the report, over their own or their relatives' suspected former allegiances to the self-styled caliphate.

Security forces at civil status directorates routinely harass and intimidate them, the Amnesty report says, leaving camps in which they live the only option for safe shelter, all of which are set to be closed by Mustafa al-Kadhimi's government by March 2021.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty's Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, called on the Iraqi authorities in both Baghdad and the Kurdish-controlled Erbil to address the "continuing collective punishment of IDPs with perceived links to IS" as an integral part of any plan to close camps.

Tarnished with association, those acquitted of affiliation to the group live in fear that Iraq's state and para-state authorities, include the Iran-backed PMF, could re-arrest them or subject them to torture on their return to their homes. 

"In Iraq, nothing is bigger and more dangerous than someone calling you Daeshi [IS member]. One word and you're gone. I used to have hope for a normal life. But now there are red sniper dots on all of us," said one former detainee, released due to a lack of evidence by Iraq's autonomous Kurdish government after three years.

Coupled with the problems facing the Shia youth-led protest movement and the violence Iraqis of all ethno-sectarian backgrounds seem to face from the state and paramilitary forces, the outcome of the June 2021 election is already in doubt.

At the last polls in 2018, a paltry 44.5 percent turnout was recorded. That turnout preceded the 2019 mass demonstrations and this year's coronavirus pandemic and insecurity. With dwindling belief in Iraqi democracy, some may feel that the only alternative is to violently change a system that does not work for the Iraqi people but serves the interests of powerful religious and foreign-backed elites.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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