Iraq Unrest
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Who Is Muqtada Al-Sadr And What Is Happening In Iraq?

Following the announcement by the influential Shi’ite cleric and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr that he would “leave politics”, clashes broke out in Baghdad on Monday. The clashes between Iraqi forces and the protestors left 15 people dead and hundreds injured. Apparently, the fighting trading gun fires, broke out between the supporters of al-Sadr and his Iran-backed opponents. The clashes took place in Baghdad’s Green Zone which houses the parliament, government offices, and international embassies. The authorities have already imposed a state-wide curfew. The unrest comes along months of political unrest over failed attempts to create a government in Iraq.

As Iraq battles to recover from decades of war, internal turmoil, and entrenched corruption, the middle eastern country is devolving into yet another cycle of violence. This was the worst incident of violence in Iraq in years. This violence has led to increasing worries about the possibility of civil war in Iraq. 

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Who is Muqtada Al-Sadr?

The 48-year-old Iraqi political leader Muqtada al-Sadr was born in 1974 to a very devout family of Shia clerics. His father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was the grand ayatollah of Shias. In 1990, after the first gulf war when the US-led allied forces liberated, Kuwait Saddam Hussain lost. However, Hussain survived and continued to stay in power. A big Shiite rebellion followed in Iraq in 1999. It was al-Sadr’s father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr who led this Shiite rebellion against the regime of Saddam Hussain. Although it was never proved, al-Sadr’s father was widely blamed for it. Nonetheless, Muqtada al-Sadr rose to prominence after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government. 

After his father’s assasination in 1999, he had a legacy to carry forward and so he aspired to become a religious cleric. 

However, before he could do that, he raised the “Mahdi Army”, a private militia that became one of the most powerful Shiite militias at one point. In 2008 he also led the “Battle of Basra: against the Iraqi forces. However, he lost that battle and went to Iran to become an ayatollah. After returning from Iran his popularity increased even more. 

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Muqtada Al-Sadr’s past and the US

Seeking political reform, Al-Sadr’s supporters had stormed the Green Zone and broke into the nation’s Parliament building in a similar fashion in 2016.  The US has always claimed to be concerned about Iranian hegemony in the country since Iran’s influence may sour the Shia-Sunni relations. This can lead to the alienation of the Sunni minority in Iraq.  Although al-Sadr appears to be the US’s only choice for the position of power in Iraq at the moment, he was formerly the US’ top adversary following the overthrow of Saddam. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez was quoted by The Guardian in 2004 as saying, “The aim of US soldiers is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr.” Following the US invasion in 2003, the Sadrist and the allied militia (Mahdi army) began a resistance against the invading forces. The militias under al-Sadr go by the name  “peace companies” now.

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Muqtada al-Sadr styles himself as an Iraqi Nationalist Leader

Muqtada al-Sadr is known to speak about the rights of minorities. He believes that all Iraqis are one and there should be no discrimination based on sects or religions. He has spoken for the rights of not just Sunni Muslims but also Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians. In 2021 he even ordered the creation of a special committee to verify information and complaints regarding cases of illegally dispossessing Christians of their properties in various regions of the Muslim country.

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Ongoing Politics

After his supporters took over the parliament in July, al-Sadr issued a post on Twitter . He informed them that their message and demands had reached the concerned people. He urged them to “return safely to your homes.” Then, with the assistance of security personnel, the protesters started to leave the Parliament building. 

“I apologize to the Iraqi people, the only ones affected by the events,” al-Sadr said in a televised speech.

He has even said he will go “on a fast” if peace is not restored. 

In comparison to his political rivals, he has a significant position in Iraq thanks to his ability to mobilize and even control a great number of his supporters. “Sadr has demonstrated that he can mobilize and demobilize with a word,” said Iraqi analyst Fanar Haddad. “He can click his fingers and threaten the entire edifice. Then, he can click his fingers and save the entire edifice.”

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The Contemporary Iraqi Context 

Iraq is one of the five largest oil reserves in the world. That makes it an important country in world politics. Now it has been in political uncertainty for about a year. What political analysts saw as a successful political experiment in the elections of October last year in Iraq has revealed some of the worst outcomes of democratic systems. This happens when elections don’t end up with a conclusive majority winner. The Iraqi parliament has been unable to come together to form a government. 

“This [the violence] was certainly the possible beginning or spark of a Shia-Shia civil war,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi political analyst at the Century Foundation.

“The violence may have subsided for now, but retributions are to be expected. This violence is indicative of the bitter divisions and deadlock in Iraqi politics. It may be ratcheted down for now, but without a proper solution it will appear again in the future,” he added.

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