Where the power lies

In the months that followed, the Sadrists surprised some observers by forgoing top ministerial positions. Instead they targeted one job in particular that would prove decisive in their future hold on the levers of power: secretary-general of the prime minister’s office, a role that oversees appointments to state bodies.

"Parties supported by Iran didn't appear to understand the value of that post, and were focusing on minister jobs, so they agreed to the deal. It ended up being the most important post the Sadrists have taken," said a lawmaker who was allied with Sadr at the time. A Sadrist official recounted that a personal connection tipped the balance: the Sadrists' candidate was from the same southern city as then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. "Sometimes these ties can affect decisions," he said.

Hamid al-Ghizzi, a Sadrist bureaucrat, took the post and set about ordering the removal of almost all government officials who had been appointed on an acting basis. In a May 2019 directive, Ghizzi said acting post holders were to be replaced by permanent appointees. These new appointments would require the approval of parliament – where Sadrists now had the upper hand. The directive targeted jobs at the level of deputy minister, senior ministry officials and heads of independent state bodies. These roles are involved in awarding contracts, budget spending and ministry appointments.

While Sadr's political rivals focused on the commanding heights, the Sadrists recognised that "sometimes real power lies at the bottom," said a senior government official. "The Sadrists focus on institutions with money and access to resources."

Cleric Hazem al-Aaraji (centre), a senior aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, meets with people in Basra, Iraq 25 May 2021 (photo: Mohammed Aty/Reuters)
Working the "deep state": 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 – positions that have brought the Sadrists financial clout

Rubaie, Sadr's political representative, noted that governments are swept away at the ballot box but the state "is permanent and all positions other than the minister are part of the state. A minister comes and goes, but the deputy will stay." 

Ghizzi declined an interview request. His office said the secretary-general’s role is the administration of state institutions and political appointments are outside its remit.

Into the void

Still, some posts were out of the Sadrists’ reach. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi refused the Sadrists’ pick for central bank governor and several other roles under pressure from Iran-backed groups to resist Sadrist appointees, according to a former minister and a lawmaker involved in the talks. "They wanted to control the state oil marketer, central bank, interior ministry senior positions and various government banks. Abdul Mahdi resisted," the former minister said. Abdul Mahdi didn’t comment.

But the last obstacles would vanish within months.

In late 2019, protests erupted against Abdul Mahdi’s Iran-backed government. Demonstrators slammed corruption and foreign influence, with particular venom reserved for Iran. Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias cracked down on the unarmed protesters.

Sadr took to Twitter calling for the government’s resignation. His supporters joined the protests. "Having the Sadrist Movement on our side was extremely important. It’s a powerful force and it gave us moral and material support," 31-year-old pro-democracy protester Mustafa Qassim said.

Abdul Mahdi’s government announced it would resign in November 2019.

Weeks later a drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump killed Iran’s top Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport. The loss of the two men further fractured and divided the pro-Iran bloc.

Into the void stepped Sadr. He used the scattering of his rivals and a weak interim prime minister, Kadhimi, to accelerate the Sadrists' takeover, according to a dozen current and former government ministers and Western diplomats.

Kadhimi, who remains in office, has denied that the Sadrist Movement is calling the shots. "The only thing Sadr asked of me and the Sadrist Movement was: take care of Iraq," he said in a televised interview in May. He didn't elaborate. Kadhimi’s office didn't respond to questions from Reuters.

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