Iraqi Shiite powerbroker gambles with Sunni embrace

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Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during a media conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Arfan al-Hayali and Iraq's Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji (not pictured) in Najaf, Iraq  May 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani

In 2008, when Iran tried briefly to mold Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the image of Hezbollah party and paramilitary leader Hasan Nasrallah, the conditions in Iraq were similar in many ways to those in Lebanon in 1982.

Both countries were occupied by foreign forces and arms were flowing freely in all directions. And there were plenty of Iraqi Shiites willing to carry them in the wake of the overthrow of former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and the forging of a new political order.

Iran forced al-Sadr to freeze his powerful Mehdi Army’s activities and oversaw its revamp from Tehran, purging the militia of untrustworthy fighters and thugs who were giving the outfit a bad name.

Al-Sadr, then aged 35, fell from public view after being sent to the Iranian city of Qum in 2007, where he hoped to advance his religious credentials and elevate within the Shiite hierarchy to become an Islamic law authority, or mujtahids, like Hezbollah leader Nasrallah.

took lessons in public speaking to improve his articulation, pace and emphasis—all oratory gifts for which Nasrallah is famous. Leveraging his family’s good name, al-Sadr started to operate charities and schools, while peddling himself as a ‘pan-Iraqi’ leader rather than a mere former commander of a Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army.

An Iraqi woman cheers. Photo: Mehdi Enrahimi/TIMA via Reuters

An Iraqi woman waves the national flag at a sporting event. Photo: Mehdi Enrahimi/TIMA via Reuters

At the time, Iranian leaders were worried about the future of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the prospect of getting locked into another debilitating proxy war against Israel.

Syria was then negotiating peace with Israel via Turkish mediation, and any Syrian walk-out on the so-called “Axis of Resistance” – linking Teheran, Damascus and Hezbollah in an anti-Western, anti-Israel bond – would have been a doomsday scenario for the Iran-backed group.

To Iran’s mind, a Syrian regime at peace with Israel was equal to a regime fallen, especially given that all the arms it sent to Hezbollah through southern Lebanon transited through Syria.

But something went wrong and Tehran’s plan to elevate al-Sadr was aborted, infuriating the former fiery militia leader, after Syrian peace talks collapsed and Hezbollah was again secure.

Adding insult to injury, Iran stopped sending him money in mid-2011 due to the escalating war in Syria, opting instead to finance Hezbollah fighters who had entered the Syrian battlefield.

Hezbollah fighters plant Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border on July 25, 2017.  Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

Hezbollah fighters plant Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border on July 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

Al-Sadr grumbled privately but did not carp publicly, choosing instead to play along quietly with then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki.

Relations between the two Shiite heavyweights dated back to 2006, when al-Sadr helped to legitimize al-Maliki’s rule by selling him in the ghettos of Baghdad, where he was largely unknown after spending two decades in exile in Syria and Iran.

In exchange for that grassroots support, al-Malki protected Sadr’s militiamen from prosecution and arrest, even though many of them were known outlaws wanted either by the Iraqi Justice or the occupying United States Army.

During the al-Malki years (2006-2014), al-Sadr commanded 30 seats in parliament and four portfolios in government, including health, commerce, and education. The relationship went well until al-Malki bid to clip al-Sadr’s wings, estimating that the rebel-cum-politician had become too powerful.

Al-Sadr snapped at the perceived treachery, telling a reporter from La Republica in January 2007: “Between myself and Abu Israa (al-Malki) there has never been much feeling. I never trusted him.”

Backstabbing allies and patrons, of course, was not new for al-Sadr. Last March, he staged a massive demonstration in Baghdad’s Green Zone, objecting against the policies of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, a fellow Shiite who he had endorsed as a replacement to al-Malki in the summer of 2014.

Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq August 4, 2017. REUTERS/. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq August 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Saad

Last April, al-Sadr called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, although his men were at the time fighting alongside his regime in Syria. Al-Sadr himself was a frequent guest of the Syrian palace and a recipient of the Syrian Order of Merit of the Excellence Class for his support for the regime since 2011.

Now, al-Sadr seems to be going one step further in his political power plays—and the move doesn’t immediately appear to be coordinated with Iran. On July 30, al-Sadr landed in the port city of Jeddah, where he met Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Al-Sadr pledged to boost his personal ties with the oil-rich kingdom—whose rulers are notoriously at daggers drawn with Tehran—supposedly to secure Saudi funding to rebuild parts of war-torn, Shiite-majority southern Iraq where he has political influence. Some reports put the grant offered to al-Sadr at a meager US$10 million.

Last weekend, in a similar move, Sadr was flown by charter flight from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi for talks with its Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed. By cozying up to traditional Sunni states and elites in the Gulf, he is no doubt raising eyebrows in Baghdad, Beirut and Tehran.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan meets with Iraqi Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 13, 2017. Picture taken August 13, 2017. Emirates News Agency WAM/Handout via REUTERS

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan meets with Iraqi Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 13, 2017. Photo: Emirates News Agency Wam via REUTERS

Al-Sadr likely hopes to secure Saudi funds to support his parliamentary bloc at the forthcoming Iraqi elections due in April 2018. At the same time, he risks losing support within his own Shiite constituency in Baghdad, including within the community of diehard loyalists who hold the Saudis in disdain.

History has a way of repeating itself. That is precisely what happened with Iran-educated and formerly backed Subhi Tufayli, the co-founder of Hezbollah who served as its secretary-general from 1982-1984. Since then he has fallen out with both Hezbollah and Iran, seemingly unimpressed with their handling of regional affairs, but greatly damaging his power base within Lebanon and beyond.

Tufayli never imagined that Iran would outlive its long war with Iraq and nearly four decades of US sanctions. In as much as he wishes, his chances of a political comeback are laughably low. That will likely also be the case for Sadr if he parts ways with the same Iranian masters who backed and created him when he first stormed on the scene in 2003.

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