Once again Muqtada Al-Sadr is proving to be the real game changer on the Iraqi political scene. His announcement that he is withdrawing from politics amid the chaos in Iraq, is once again giving him a position of power over the current situation.
The tension is expected to continue in Baghdad and the southern parts of the country, which could lead to clashes between demonstrators and security forces, or even clashes amongst rival armed militias.
The announcement of early elections by President Barham Salih could ease the rising social tensions, but whether this is enough is yet to be seen, since the issues may now be more than elections as the political rivalry and regional influence will not abate. This could mean an end to the fragile political situation that Iraq had balanced; now there is a conflict within the Shiite bloc itself, which could lead to more fragmentation, competition, and clashes.
Sadr’s withdrawal from the political scene is consistent with the tactics the Shiite leader has been using since 2013, but it is even more effective as he separated himself from official policy and positioned himself as a leader of the people, apart from the political class that many Iraqi people see as corrupt, inefficient, and the source of all problems.
While he may be in a strong position, he is also facing a critical challenge as he aims to remain tied to the popular Shiite movement.
The resignation of the religious leader Ayatollah Al-Haeri is a move that Iran could be using to counter Sadr’s influence amongst the Shiite community. Haeri appealed to his followers to religiously follow Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Any fragmentation of Sadr’s wide network of organized supporters will weaken him politically, particularly if enough follow Haeri’s request.
The coming weeks are critical for Sadr; he needs to consolidate his position and leverage his withdrawal from politics and the chaos it has created by preparing for a new phase that could reduce the influence of the traditional faces that dominated the political scene in Iraq for so long.
Dr. Amer Al Sabaileh