Reuters special report: U.S. enemy and friend of Iran?Muqtada al-Sadr, the most powerful man in Iraq
On a tense February night, thousands of militiamen loyal to Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets of Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities, parading in gun-laden pick-up trucks while state security forces stood by.
It was the biggest show of force by the populist cleric since the mid-2000s, when his followers battled the U.S. occupation and inflicted thousands of American casualties.
Two days later, Sadr made a rare appearance in front of news cameras from his base in the Shia holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. He said his Peace Brigades deployed because of a terrorist threat against Shia holy sites. Iraq was not secure without his paramilitaries, he added. "The security forces are in a state of collapse."
For Sadr's opponents and allies alike, the cleric’s message was clear: after years on the fringes, Sadr is back. On the streets and in the corridors of power.
Over the past two years, Sadr's political organisation, the Sadrist Movement, has quietly come to dominate the apparatus of the Iraqi state. Its members have taken senior jobs within the interior, defence and communications ministries. They have had their picks appointed to state oil, electricity and transport bodies, to state-owned banks and even to Iraq’s central bank, according to more than a dozen government officials and lawmakers.
These new positions have brought the Sadrists financial power. Ministries where Sadrists or their allies have recently taken senior posts account for between a third and a half of Iraq's $90 billion draft budget for 2021, according to a Reuters analysis. Iraq’s government didn’t comment.
The Sadrists are poised to be the biggest winners in a general election set for October. This growing influence could pose problems for the United States and Iran, both of whom Sadr accuses of meddling in Iraq. He has called for the departure of America’s remaining 2,500 troops and he has told Tehran he will "not leave Iraq in its grip".
Yet some Western diplomats say privately they would rather deal with an Iraq dominated by Sadr than by his Iran-backed Shia rivals. Sadr is a more nationalist Shia figure.
Since the defeat of the Sunni extremist Islamic State in 2017, the United States and the Iran-backed militias that fought the group have turned their guns on one another with rocket attacks and drone strikes. With his Shia rivals distracted, Sadr quietly set to work in politics.
"We found Sadr one of the principal brakes on expansion of Iranian and very sectarian Shia political influence in Iraq after the 2018 elections," said Doug Silliman, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and President of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Reuters interviewed more than two dozen people with direct knowledge of Sadr's activities – including his allies and opponents – and reviewed legal documents to chart how his supporters have taken command of key positions in ministries and state bodies that control wealth and patronage networks – what Iraqis call the "deep state".
Senior government officials and Shia politicians say the Sadrists have learned some of their political tactics from Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed and populist Shia group with which the Sadrist Movement maintains close contact. These methods include ways to avoid splitting the Sadrist vote and so to maximise electoral gains.
Nassar al-Rubaie, a top political representative of Sadr, summed up the Sadrists' revival. "Today, we have Sadrists in positions in every state institution," he said. "This is a blessing from God!"
Cleric Hazem al-Aaraji, a close aide of Sadr, told Reuters the Sadrist Movement is stronger than at any point since 2003. Sadr, he said, is "the most powerful man in Iraq."
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has previously denied that the Sadrist Movement controls senior posts in his administration and insists he is in charge. His government didn’t respond to detailed questions for this article.
A U.S. official declined to comment on internal Iraqi affairs. Iranian officials didn’t respond.