Iraqi political leader and Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has spent the last weeks trying to form a governing coalition after his broad Saairun alliance won a plurality of 54 parliamentary seats. Al-Sadr is a man who has had many enemies in his life ranging from Saddam Hussein to the United States and Britain and more recently to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose resignation al-Sadr has publicly supported, thus breaking rank with virtually every major Shi’a leader in his own country, Lebanon, Syria and of course Iran.
A possible new enemy for al-Sadr is Hadi Al-Amiri, the anti-Daesh war hero who speaks fluent Farsi and was seen as the go-to candidate for the pan-Shi’a Islamic Resistance. In the election Al-Amiri’s Fatah alliance came second with 47 seats, within parliamentary striking distance of al-Sadr’s faction which included not only his loyal religious followers but also radical elements including the deeply controversial and hisotircally anti-Arabist Iraqi Communist Party.
When it comes to the parliamentary arithmetic required to reach the 165 seat threshold required to form a parliamentary majority, there are only two real possibilities. The first would be a kind of uncomfortable marriage of convenience between al-Sadr and Al-Amiri with the addition of other parties which had respectable numerical results. This would then be employed in the formation of a proverbial ‘all parties’/national government. The second option would be for al-Sadr to coalesce with all other major and minor parties in order to form a coalition that keeps Al-Amiri’s pro-Resistance bloc out of power at any cost.
The latter scenario would see al-Sadr combining is 54 seats with the 42 seats won by the Victory Alliance of the current moderate Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi which would then combine with Vice President Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law grouping (25 seats) in addition to former Iraqi Prime Minister and current co-Vice President Ayad Allawi’s secular/Sunni Al-Wataniya grouping (21 seats). While such a grouping would still be short of a majority, al-Sadr could then invite members of various minority parties including Kurdish groups into a coalition that would shut Al-Amiri out from power. Al-Sadr’s recent courting of Kurdish and Sunni groups indicates that he is actively exploring the option of a wider anti-Resistance coalition, while his public discussions with Saudi officials would also indicate a push against Iran friendly factions. al-Sadr has already called for the exit of Iranian troops from the country in a move which many in Tehran see as treacherous.
Even if al-Sadr is forced to form a coalition with Al-Amiri, the over all trajectory of Iraqi politics is clear. The Resistance is slowly losing its grip over the country in spite of being a key element in Baghdad’s victory over Daesh and other Takfiri groups. There is no doubt that al-Sadr is a conniving opportunist in terms of his personality and his political career but unlike before, this time it would appear that al-Sadr has found himself a window of opportunity that many thought had been permanently closed.
Like everyone else, al-Sadr is fully aware that the US is struggling with the law of unintended consequences which saw Iran gain substantial influence in Iraq due entirely to the fact that the US military toppled the anti-Iranian Saddam Hussein in 2003, thus restoring the status of many pro-Iranian Iraqis in one of the few Shi’a majority countries in the Arab world.
Unlike Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is a reliable partner for Iran, al-Sadr has proved himself a reliable partner of no one and has rapidly fallen out of favour in Tehran, not least because other Iraqi politicians including and especially Al-Amiri have proven their loyalty to Iran and the wider Islamic Resistance of which Iran is the largest member.
Because of this, rather than try to ingratiate himself to Iran, al-Sadr has taken the opposite method and has opted to become a “Shi’a Saddam” in more ways than one. While it may seem odd for a man whose father Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr was killed by Saddam in 1999 to adopt many of the political characteristics of the former Iraqi President, in highly significant ways, Muqtada al-Sadr is embracing a neo-Saddam approach to triangulating power. The following are political characteristics that Muqtada al-Sadr share with Saddam Hussein:
1. An antipathy towards Iran complete with engaging in theories about the dangers of Iranian dominance in the Arab world.
2. An unapologetic opposition to the Assad family in Syria.
3. A willingness to work with the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf on a case-by-case basis (e.g. Saddam being cheered on by the Gulfis during his 1980s war on Iran).
4. A touch and go relationship with the United States and its traditional regional allies (one must recall that prior to 1990 Saddam was a partner with the US and USSR).
5. A desire to re-invent an Iraqi nationalist identity that is necessarily anti-Iranian.
6. A seemingly odd mix of Islamic politics and secularism (think Saddam’s post-1990 religious revival campaign).
There are of course some differences between al-Sadr and Saddam beyond the clear ‘Shi’a/Sunni’ personal identity. While Saddam actively punished Kurds for treachery during the war with Iran, al-Sadr is courting Kurdish parties in order to try to build his new coalition. In this sense part of al-Sadr is not too dissimilar from Kurdish parties in the region who find themselves in temporarily alliances with anyone they think can advance their narrow interests.
But the biggest difference is that while Saddam was a man with singular visions and a proven ability to unite the country, albeit through the use of force, al-Sadr is instead a kind of political and social chameleon who in trying to re-cast himself as an Iraqi nationalist is alienating many in the process. While Saddam too was a master at alienating potential allies, Saddam at least was able to attain and maintain power, something which thus far has alluded al-Sadr.
In this sense, the strong electoral showing of al-Sadr’s coalition demonstrates that there is an appetite in Iraq for a neo-Saddam figure. The only problem is that due to his many flaws and contradictions, flaws and contradictions which vastly outstrip those of Saddam, al-Sadr is not likely the person to fulfil this mandate