In mid-July, powerful Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he will not take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for October. He also said that he would not support any of the rival competing parties, distancing himself from current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. This was big news, coming from a rebel turned politician, then-kingmaker, who currently holds the largest bloc in Parliament, 54 out of 329 seats.

Many are trying to make sense of Sadr’s decision, given the fact that he was among the first to call for these elections, even requesting that they be held with international monitors under auspices of the United Nations. Last November, he even proposed that a member of his team assume the premiership once the elections are over, sounding almost certain that the Sadrists would win a majority vote. More recently, one of his MPs – Hakim al-Zameli – gave a television interview saying: “If the premiership goes to any party other than the Sadrists movement, it means that the elections are rigged.”

Strategic Distancing from Prime Minister Kadhimi

In explaining his decision, Sadr said that he was withdrawing in order to preserve “what is left of the nation . . . to save the nation that has been burnt by corruption.” That seemed like an indirect jab against Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief whom Sadr had helped bring to power last year. Although Kadhimi is not personally responsible for Iraq’s nest of chronic problems – such as corruption, black outs, and militia rule – he is shouldering responsibility for them all.

Iraq is suffering from electricity cuts that are biting hard during the exceptionally hot summer, topped with a near collapse in its healthcare system, stripped to the bare bones by Covid-19. Earlier this month a fire broke out at a Covid-19 hospital in al-Nasriya, southeast of Baghdad, killing 92 people. It was the second such disaster triggered by government mismanagement in months, coming after an April fire at a Baghdad hospital that killed over 80 people. Unemployment is high, wages are being paid late throughout the civil service, and corruption is paramount at every state juncture.

Furthermore, young Iraqis have been demanding accountability for the 600 civilians who were shot dead by the security services during the October 2019 Revolution. Kadhimi has promised justice but has repeatedly failed to hold members of the security forces accountable, given their affiliation with the same Shiite parties that brought him to power in May 2020.

An additional problem is the unofficial arms in the hands of Iraqi militias, most prominent of which are the Iran-backed Kata’eb Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Sadr’s men were the backbone of the PMU at the time of its founding in 2014, created to fight the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS). He lobbied on their behalf, urged his followers to join their ranks, and took credit for their victories.

Prime Minister Kadhimi has tried to clip the Popular Mobilization Units’ wings, along with those of Kata’eb Hezbollah.

Since coming to power in mid-2020, Prime Minister Kadhimi has tried to clip the PMU’s wings, along with those of Kata’eb Hezbollah, saying that the two sister organizations have become way too powerful and morphed into a mini-army, stronger and far more influential than the Iraqi Army. Last year he ordered the arrest of 14 of their members, only to release them under pressure from the Shiite community. Two months ago, he arrested a top commander of Kata’eb Hezbollah, accused of ordering strikes at US forces in Iraq.

Sadr now has a problem working with Kadhimi, who is coming across as a fierce opponent of militia rule, and by extension, of the Iranian regime that has armed and equipped the militias since 2003. It’s politically unwise for Muqtada al-Sadr to be seen in the same boat as Kadhimi ahead of the elections or during the electoral campaign, especially if Iran is considering Kadhimi’s ouster next fall. Behind closed doors, people are saying that the mullahs (religious leaders) of Iran are furious with Kadhimi for trying to strike at the militias, believing that he hopes this would score him points with the United States. They consider him both ungrateful and treacherous, to say the least.

[Iraqi PM Kadhimi’s Uphill Battle Against Iranian Militias]

Previous Withdrawals in 2008-2014

But this is not the first time that Sadr has announced his retreat from politics, and probably won’t be his last. After making world headlines for leading an insurgency against the Americans in 2004, he briefly retired in 2008, without giving an explanation. At the time, Sadr was young, only 34. It was the Iranians who asked him to disappear, wanting to polish his religious credentials and purge his followers, then known as the Mehdi Army, from rowdy elements that gave Sadr, and Iran, a bad name.

But despite his age, Sadr had already taken major steps in Iraqi politics, after securing his credentials as a warlord. Sadr appealed to the urban poor of the Shiite community, the residents of a ghetto named Sadr City (after his father). This area was packed with angry young men with no money, no jobs, and vengeance in their hearts. He offered them protection from state persecution in exchange for absolute loyalty to him as a cult figure. He hired them as part of his infamous death squads, striking at Iraqi Sunnis previously affiliated to the Saddam regime, or Shiites who challenged the rule and supremacy of the Sadr family.

His father Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr led a Shiite rebellion against Saddam Hussein, before he was killed in 1999. Similarly, his father-in-law Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, the spiritual founder of the all-Shiite Dawa Party, was executed by Saddam in 1980. But the two murders in his family did not prevent him from committing crimes of his own, as he is believed to be behind the 2003 murder of top Shiite cleric Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei in the city of Najaf.

Muqtada al-Sadr Iraq

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, greets Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during a ceremony commemorating Ashoura, in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 10, 2019. Sadr was received honorifically by Khamenei, despite previous tensions with Iranian leadership. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Before his first withdrawal in 2008, Sadr supported the parliamentary elections of January and December 2005, while helping prop up Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister in May of that year. He then single-handedly brought Nuri al-Malki to power, who ruled Iraq with an iron first until the rise of ISIS in 2014. Under his premiership, Sadr was given important portfolios like the Ministry of Education, enabling him to control the brains of young Iraqis. When Saddam Hussein was captured, Malki gave Sadr the honors of sending his militiamen to accompany him to the gallows, where they were seen on camera wearing black masks and chanting his first name: “Muqtada . . . Muqtada.”

By Shiite religious standards and even with his growing influence, Sadr was still only a mujtahid (trained student of learning), and thus too junior to issue religious verdicts or to rise to the title of ayatollah. Accordingly, the Iranians took him to the religious city of Qom where he was trained in Islamic history and jurisprudence, while Iranian clerics sharpened his political skills and acumen. During this time, he had to disappear from the public eye, only to re-appear older, wiser, and far more refined, both politically and religiously. Iran wanted to widen his powerbase to include Shiite intellectuals, members of the middle class, and working professionals.

Once this crash course was achieved, Muqtada al-Sadr returned to the limelight, only to announce a second withdrawal in February 2014. This time he was walking away to protest militia rule, corruption, and misuse of public office by Malki and his cronies (whom he had helped parachute into office in 2015). That episode ended with the appearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a Mosul mosque later that summer, declaring the birth of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, which brought Sadr out of retirement and back into the battlefield.

[The Islamic State Remains a Threat in Syria and Iraq]

Sadr’s Political Future

It appears that neither his first withdrawal or his second from politics were definitive, nor were they sincere. Depending on how the October elections play out (if they eventually take place and are not postponed), Sadr will decide on how he wants to proceed, whether to remain afar or return to the political theater. Either way, he can still formally stay out of the race but support candidates who take their orders from him. And although historically close to the Iranians, he is neither a creation of Iran, nor was he ever on Iranian payroll. In other words, the candidates he holds influence over don’t necessarily have to be Iran-backed parliamentarians or militiamen-turned politicians.

It is the Iranians who rely on Sadr for influence in Iraq, and not the other way around.

On the contrary, it is the Iranians who rely on him for influence in Iraq, and not the other way around. And in recent years, Sadr has proven rather unreliable for Tehran, at least on two occasions. The first was in April 2017, when Sadr broke ranks with Iran, calling on their ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to step down. Three months later, he turned his back on Tehran, again, and accepted an invitation to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. This was at the height of Iranian-Saudi tensions, a time when Iranian allies were polarizing the region and threatening to strike deep into Saudi Arabia.

Sadr eventually retracted both positions, first by paying a high-profile visit to Iran in September 2019, where he was received honorifically by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Sadr kissed his hand and sat at his knees, portraying himself as an obedient servant and disciple. Whereas on Syria, he sent a letter to President Assad in May, congratulating him on his re-election as President, letting bygones be bygones.

Those two examples are reminders that nothing sticks to Muqtada al-Sadr—no defeat, no victory, no allies, and no position. He is a masterful opportunist. What seems like policy against him now might quickly get reversed, without proper explanation, while allies of today might become foes in the future. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened with all the prime ministers Sadr has worked with since 2003, starting with Ibrahim al-Jaafary, all the way to Mustapha al-Kadhimi.