BAGHDAD: Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr may have declared his “definitive retirement” from politics this week, but the violence that erupted after his announcement points to murkier intentions, analysts believe.

“Sadr is looking to become the most powerful political player in Iraq,” Renad Mansour of British think tank Chatham House said.

“That is his agenda, and part of achieving that requires destabilising not just the political system as such, but particularly the Shia house and building it back up with him at the centre of it.” Since the aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been governed under a sectarian power-sharing system.

Sadr, whose father was one of Iraq’s most respected clerics, has gradually grown into a key political player in this landscape, bolstered by a Shia support base that he often mobilises to press his demands.

Since elections last October, disagreements between Sadr and a rival Iran-backed Shia force known as the Coordination Framework have left Iraq without a new government, prime minister or president.

Tensions escalated sharply on Monday when Sadr loyalists stormed the government palace inside the Green Zone after he announced he was quitting politics.

But Sadr’s supporters then left the Green Zone on Tuesday afternoon when he appealed for them to withdraw within the hour — a demonstration of the cult-like following that earned him his kingmaker status.

At least 30 Sadr supporters had been shot dead and nearly 600 wounded in nearly 24 hours of fighting between rival Shia factions.

“It’s not the first time he has sent protesters in and then asked them to withdraw,” Mansour said. “His goal, his ultimate aim, is to become the main Shia political force in Iraq.”

Sadr’s bloc won 73 seats in the October elections, making it the largest faction in the 329-seat parliament.

The cleric has since tried a series of unsuccessful manoeuvres to “secure his dominance within the political system and exclude his rivals”, said assistant professor Fanar Haddad of the University of Copenhagen.

Sadr failed to form a new government of his choosing despite attempts to forge an alliance with Sunni and Kurdish political camps.

In June, he ordered his 73 lawmakers to quit in a bid to destabilise the legislature, but that led instead to the Coordination Framework becoming the largest bloc in parliament.

The Coordination Framework’s nomination of ex-cabinet minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister further angered Sadr who refused to be sidelined in forming a government.

Sadr’s supporters stormed parliament on July 30, demanding fresh elections, and staged a sit-in outside the legislature for weeks.

But the Coordination Framework, which wants a new head of government appointed before any new polls, has not budged. This latest episode in Baghdad’s Green Zone was another tactical failure, Haddad said.

“The Coordination Framework have offered no conciliatory remarks, or concessions, or anything of the sort” after Sadr told his supporters to withdraw, Haddad said.

“This further pushes everyone down the zero-sum path of conflicting positions… the possibility for reconciliation seems to get slimmer, not wider.”

Sadr is notorious for walking back on pledges to retire from politics — a step he has made several times over the years. His latest retirement announcement on Monday followed a series of tactical challenges to his political rise, including from within his own support base, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century International think tank.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2022

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