Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sadr Withdraws Support for Iraq's Popular Protest Movement

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace 

Key Takeaway: Nationalist and populist Shi’a cleric and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr withdrew cover for Iraq’s popular protest movement on January 24, setting conditions for a subsequent security crackdown against the protesters by Iraqi government and Iranian proxy militia forces. Sadr’s betrayal of Iraq’s popular protest movement has the potential to sever the relationship between Iraq’s Shi’a population and its political and religious establishments. The threat to U.S. forces in Iraq increases as Sadr erodes his nationalist foundations in favor of a closer relationship with Iran’s proxy militia network and political agenda.


Mass anti-government protests have occupied city centers across Southern Iraq since October. Protesters’ core objectives include a unified and sovereign Iraq free from corrupt elites, sectarian divides, and foreign interference by all actors, including Iran and, to a lesser extent, the United States. The protests faced violent crackdowns by unspecified government security forces and by Iranian proxy militia groups in their early months. Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) Adel Abdul Mehdi resigned on November 29 following a particularly brutal crackdown. The immediate demands of the protest movement are for new elections and for an independent new PM to replace Mehdi, who has remained in power in a caretaker capacity pending the nomination of a new premier.

Militia groups led by the notoriously mercurial Moqtada al-Sadr became self-appointed security guards for the protesters in late October. Sadr’s militia supporters fought against likely Iranian proxy militias to defend protesters in the al-Sinak massacre which killed 25 people and injured 130 in Baghdad on December 6.[1] Sadr ordered the withdrawal of that protection in December 2019 but continued to offer rhetorical support for protesters’ demands.[2] He had never called on his supporters to join the protest movement. However, Sadr made previous repeated statements in support of protesters’ demands, particularly their economic and anti-corruption agenda items.[3] His supporters were considered the best organized and best-supplied participants in the protest movement.[4]

Sadr perceived the U.S. strike that killed senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and de facto Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis to be a direct violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Sadr, in response, began to mobilize his militias and called for “international resistance groups” to form in order to oppose the continued U.S. presence in Iraq. Sadr then met with senior Iranian proxy militia officials in Qom, Iran to discuss their shared interests in ousting U.S. forces.[5] Iranian proxy groups began referring to themselves as an “Iraqi resistance front.”[6] Sadr notably did not respond to Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty, such as the missile strike against Iraqi and American soldiers stationed at Iraq’s Ain al-Assad Airbase on January 8.[7]

Sadr organized an anti-U.S. march in Baghdad alongside his usual rivals, Iran’s proxy militia network, on January 24, 2020. An estimated 250,000 demonstrators participated in the march. Participants in Iraq’s popular protests objected, elsewhere in Baghdad, to Sadr’s latest attempts to co-opt their months-long movement. They chanted “no, no Moqtada, no, no Hadi, my country remains free.”[8] These chants referred to Sadr and to Hadi al-Ameri, a co-organizer of Sadr’s anti-U.S. march and key Iranian proxy figure who leads the Badr Organization and the second largest parliamentary bloc. Sadr appeared to be personally offended by these chants.

Sadr withdrew political cover from Iraq’s popular protests following the march. Sadr posted a statement to Twitter late on the night of January 24 in which he said that he would no longer “interfere in the issue [of Iraq’s popular protests], either negatively or positively…I am expressing my disappointment and my regret toward all those who doubted me among the Tahrir Square protesters. I thought they were supporters of me and of Iraq.” He also accused protesters of being “foreign paid tools.”[9] This statement reverses Sadr’s previous support for the popular protest movement.[10] Some Sadrists among the protesters began to withdraw from sit-in sites. Security forces began their crackdown against the protesters in the early morning hours the following day.[11]

  • Sadr’s withdrawal clears the way for government and militia forces to attempt to end the popular protest movement. The protesters, without Sadr’s support, are facing political and militia factions that have every incentive to end their movement as quickly as possible. Iran perceives Iraq’s popular protests to be an existential threat to stability inside of Iran. The Iraqi government and Iran’s proxy militia forces in Iraq, meanwhile, perceive the protests to be a direct threat to their influence and political power.
  • The security crackdown targeting the protest movement has already begun. Security forces and unspecified militias began attacking and burning protest encampments in Baghdad and in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah within hours of Sadr’s announcement.[12]
  • Iraq’s protesters have demonstrated their resiliency before and could survive this betrayal. Iraq’s popular protest movement has faced down snipers, a concerted kidnapping and torture campaign, counter-demonstrations, and nearly four months of cyclical, brutal crackdowns. The Sadrists, often disenfranchised Shi’a Iraqis from poor urban and rural areas, made up only one important demographic in the protest movement. Its original base was made up of educated students, unemployed university graduates, and professional trade unions. It has shown remarkable resiliency before and could do so again. Popular anti-government protests such as those in Syria, which began in 2011 and continue today, exemplify the potential durability of these sentiments even in the face of brutal retaliation by state security forces.[13]
  • Sadr’s abrupt about-face puts his populist identity at risk. Sadr’s public statements indicate that he rejected the popular protest movement, at least in part, because he was hurt that it was not supporting him. A statement from his office decried “those who have offended the symbol of the nation, Sayed Moqtada al-Sadr.”[14] The Sadrist movement is historically subject to splinters. Assad al-Naseri, a prominent former imam of the Kufa mosque who was close to Sadr’s father, already rejected Sadr’s betrayal of the protests. Naseri publically removed his turban in a symbolic gesture of his prioritization of the popular protest movement over his religious affiliation to Sadr.[15] Anecdotal evidence of protesters denouncing Sadr’s betrayal indicates that members of his base may reconsider their allegiance.[16]
  • This reversal, however temporary, puts Sadr another step closer to Iran’s proposed “Iraqi resistance front” and damages his nationalist brand. Iran does not need Sadr’s militia support to advance its agenda, although even his temporary participation would render any of those military courses of action much more dangerous to the United States. It is unclear whether Sadr would be willing to escalate to kinetic assaults on U.S. forces. However, given Sadr’s recent statements, his remobilization of the anti-U.S. Jaysh al-Mahdi militia, and his history of attacks on American assets, ISW will be watching for indicators of a potential Sadrist escalation, whether unilaterally or in concert with Iran’s proxy militia network.[17] These indicators could include meetings between Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam militia leaders and senior Iranian proxy officials from within the PMF.
  • A temporary Sadr-proxy alliance could break Iraq’s legislative deadlock in favor of a PM candidate in line with Iran’s agenda, thereby denying Sadr a reformist platform. As the authors wrote in a January 23 Warning Intelligence Update, Sadr’s support for and participation in Iran’s Iraqi parliamentary objectives is invaluable. Sadr demonstrated his willingness to work with Iran’s political proxies on January 5 when they cooperated to pass a non-binding resolution to expel U.S. forces from Iraq over the objections of every non-Shi’a MP.[18] A new prime minister is required to make good on that parliamentary resolution. Sadr may, therefore, be incentivized to break the deadlock that has kept Iraq’s resigned PM in office in a caretaker capacity since November 29, 2019. Sadr could work with Iran’s proxy political blocs to do so. Sadr’s participation means that the military and political pressure on Iraqi politicians to oust U.S. forces, which sharply increased following the U.S. strike on January 3, will likely continue to intensify.

Sadr’s political identity rested on three pillars: his populism, his nationalism, and his reformist agenda. He built his brand around the concept of being an outsider. He happily railed against the corrupt and ineffective Iraqi state. The onus was on Sadr to achieve the reform for which he advocated after his Toward Reform bloc won the most seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Sadr appeared unable to cope with that fundamentally different reality, or with the new expectations placed on him by the Shi’a electorate.

Sadr’s hot-tempered and likely ill-conceived rejection of the protest movement erodes all three of his foundational principles. He betrays his populism by turning on the protesters. He undermines his nationalism by aligning himself more closely with Iran’s proxies. And if he fails to nominate a popular, independent prime minister, as is his ostensible duty as the head of the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament, Sadr may finally sever his connection to his base: the Shi’a street.

This is a watershed moment in the slow-motion fragmentation of Iraq’s budding Shi’a coalition. The simple majority elected in 2018 represented a potential parliamentary opportunity to enact governance reforms and address popular grievances. However, the alliance that appointed the Mehdi government fractured, thereby undermining its popular mandate. Sadr was one of the few remaining links between Iraq’s traditional political power brokers and his typically impoverished, disenfranchised Shi’a base.

This moment also exposes the fault lines between the majority-Shi’a Iraqi people and the Shi’a religious establishment. Iraq’s highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has remained popular and continues to support the protesters’ demands, yet Sistani has proven ineffective at coordinating a government response.[19] Meanwhile, Sadr, who gained hereditary influence through the religious importance of his martyred family, has betrayed the people.

Sadr may have done irreconcilable damage to his credibility. Sadr needs to prove to his traditional base that he remains the catalyst for nationalist-populist reform. Other actors in Iraq face their own divisions. Iraq’s Sunnis are still splintered by internal fracturing and the de-Ba’athification processes of the last twenty years. Iraq’s Kurds have their own internal conflicts. If Iraq’s Shi’a political coalition cannot repair itself and its relationship to its base, then the strongest, most unified actor left in Iraq may be the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

[1] Samya Kullab. “Iraqi Officials Raise Toll to 25 Killed in Baghdad Bloodshed.” Associated Press, December 7, 2019.
[2] [“The owner of the ‘blue hats’ hand over responsibility in Tahrir Square to the security forces,”] al-Sumaria, December 20, 2019. https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA/329097/%D8%A3%D8%B5%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D9%8A%D8%B3%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B7%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A4%D9%88%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B3%D8%A7.
[3] Alissa J Rubin. “Iraq Police Crack Down on Protests as Influential Cleric Withdraws Support.” The New York Times, January 25, 2020.
[4] Alissa J. Rubin. “'Our Patience Is Over': Why Iraqis Are Protesting.” The New York Times, November 20, 2019.
[5] Katherine Lawlor with Brandon Wallace. “Warning Intelligence Update: Iran Increases Pressure on U.S. Forces in Iraq.” Institute for the Study of War, January 23, 2020.
[6] al-Sadr, Moqtada. Twitter, January 3, 2020. al-Khazali, Qais, Twitter, January 14, 2020. Harakat al-Nujaba, Twitter, January 14, 2020.
[7] “Iran 'Concludes' Attacks, Foreign Minister Says.” The New York Times, January 7, 2020. Stories&pgtype=Homepage#link-705d4ad7.
[8] Munqith M. Dagher. Twitter, January 24, 2020.
[9] Moqtada al-Sadr. Twitter, January 24, 2020.
Samya Kullab. “4 Dead, Tents Ablaze after Iraq Cleric Pulls Protest Support.” Associated Press, January 25, 2020.
[10] Katherine Lawlor with Brandon Wallace. “Anti-U.S. Protests in Baghdad: Interim Summary.” Institute for the Study of War, January 24, 2020. Alissa J. Rubin and Falih Hassan, “Protesters Mass in Baghdad, Demanding U.S. Leave Iraq,” New York Times, January 24, 2020.
[11] Maya Gebeily. Twitter, January 25, 2020.
[12] Maher Nazih. “Iraqi Security Forces Raid Protest Camps after Sadr Supporters Withdraw.” Reuters, January 25, 2020. Samya Kullab. “4 Dead, Tents Ablaze after Iraq Cleric Pulls Protest Support.” Associated Press, January 25, 2020. “Iraq Security Forces Clear Streets Stoking Protester Fears.” France 24, January 25, 2020.
[13] Lina Sinjab. “Syria Conflict: from Peaceful Protest to Civil War.” BBC, March 15, 2013. Suleiman Al-Khalidi. “New Assad Statue Triggers Protest in Cradle of Syrian Revolt.” Reuters, March 10, 2019.
[14] “Iraq Populist Cleric Calls for Anti-U.S. Demonstrations on Sunday.” Reuters, January 26, 2020.
[15] [“’Take off his turban for the love in Iraq…’ a prominent leader defects in the Sadrist Trend.. What is the story?” ] al-Jazeera, January 27, 2020. https://www.aljazeera(.)net/news/politics/2020/1/27/%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B4%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B2-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1%D9%8A
[16] Mustafa Salim. Twitter, January 26, 2020. Katherine Lawlor, Brandon Wallace, and Jason Zhou. “Iraq Situation Report: January 4 - 6, 2020.” Institute for the Study of War, January 10, 2020.
[17] Brandon Wallace, Katherine Lawlor, and Jason Zhou. “Iraq Situation Report: December 27, 2019 - January 3, 2020.” Institute for the Study of War, January 6, 2020.
[18] Katherine Lawlor. “Iraq's Parliament Votes to End U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq.” Institute for the Study of War, January 5, 2020.
[19] Ali Mamouri. “As Iraq Bloodshed Spreads, Sistani Calls for Early Elections.” Al Monitor, November 29, 2019.