A family tradition
Sadr's greatest strength is his popular appeal. It sets him apart from other Iraqi leaders.
His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, led dissent among Iraq’s oppressed Shia majority against Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and was killed by the regime in 1999. Muqtada al-Sadr, 47, draws on his father's martyred status and his own reputation as a cleric who never fled Iraq. Other prominent figures in post-Saddam governments returned from exile in Iran and the West after the U.S.-led invasion.
In 2003, Sadr and his Mehdi Army, a thousands-strong militia formed as a volunteer force against American invaders, defied the U.S. occupation.
Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City district is a Sadrist bastion of three million people. Among them is Jaafar Mohammed, a 37-year-old fighter. He told Reuters he fought against the Americans in the early 2000s. "I sold my daughter's gold earrings so I could afford a gun." He later participated, unarmed, in protests that toppled an Iran-backed government in 2019.
Sadr's appeal extends far beyond Sadr City.
In a mosque in the southern city of Basra, graduates in search of work waited in March to speak to Sadr's religious aide Aaraji. The cleric explained to Reuters that he helps graduates find jobs by talking to politicians, to people in the Sadrist Movement or even to Sadr.
Two of the graduates told Reuters they tried for years through connections with other political parties to get jobs in the energy sector. "The Sadrist Movement were the only people who helped," said 25-year-old Shihab al-Din Nouri. "I got a steady job through them three months ago working in the Basra Oil Company. I'll vote for them in the next election."
A key meeting
Starting in the mid-2000s, Sadr generally stood apart from Iraqi governments that were supported by either America or Iran.
In 2007 he pulled his Sadrist Movement out of the government over its refusal to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. In 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki led a crackdown on Sadr’s Mehdi Army that killed several hundred fighters. And in 2014, Sadr announced he was quitting politics. Aides say he feared his reputation would be hurt by association with a ruling class that is perceived by almost all Iraqis to be corrupt.
To be sure, the Sadrist Movement continued to hold key posts in some ministries, notably the health ministry, and it continued to field candidates in elections. But it ceased to be a major force in the government of Iraq.
Sadr's attitude began to change in the summer of 2018 at a meeting with several of his most senior political representatives at his home in Najaf, according to two senior Sadrist officials familiar with the episode. The Sadrists had just won their strongest ever election result and controlled the biggest parliamentary bloc. Sadr listened to those who wanted to take top state administrative posts. "They lobbied Sayyed Muqtada for his blessing" to install Sadrists in top jobs, said one of the officials.
Sadr gave cautious assent. "If you're able to correct the mistakes made by previous governments and save the country from chaos, then proceed," the official quoted him as saying. "If you fail it will be on your heads." Sadr declined to be interviewed for this article.