- Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq’s Sadrist movement, paid a visit to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s home in Iran for the Ashura ceremonies as part of his attempts to maneuver between Washington and Iraq’s complex and problematic relationship with Iran.
- Over the past year, and especially in the wake of recent attacks on Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) military targets in Iraq that were attributed to Israel, al-Sadr has sharply criticized Iran’s expansionist regional policy and its support for the Iraqi Shiite militias allied with Iran.
- Since the election of Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to his second term of office in 2010, al-Sadr has tried to lead a policy of distancing Iraq from Iran and bringing it closer to the Arab world. Al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017 and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caused a severe breach of relations with Iran.
- Al-Sadr’s visit to Tehran was perceived as unusual and has even created differences of opinion among the Shiite communities in Iraq.
- It is possible that during his visit to Iran al-Sadr is signaling that at the present time, when Iraq is facing many dangers threatening its security, he is the central personality of the Shiite community in Iraq.
- Tensions grow over the continued operation of various Shiite militias and primarily al-Hashd al-Shaabi within Iraq, which is much to al-Sadr’s distaste as he foresees that this Iranian policy will eventually lead to a conflict with Israel on Iraqi territory and will sow destruction and disaster.
After a long period of separation and a crisis in relations, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq’s Sadrist movement, paid a visit to Iran for the Ashura ceremonies as part of his attempts to maneuver between Washington and Iraq’s complex and problematic relationship with Iran. At the same time, back home in Iraq, there are growing disputes among elements of the Shiite community, some of which have been stirred up by Tehran.
During the ceremonies, al-Sadr was seen sitting next to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was also flanked by IRGC and Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and the head of the judicial authority Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi (one of the candidates to replace the Supreme Leader). In addition to al-Sadr, other Shiite senior officials have also visited Iran, including Falih Alfayyadh, commander of the Iranian-affiliated al-Hashd al-Shaabi militia; his deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; and Qais Khazali, leader of the Shiite militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (which is one of the forces of Hashd al-Shaabi), whose troops were attacked in one of the most recent strikes attributed to Israel.
Soleimani: The Attack on Saudi Arabia – the Houthis Follow in the Footsteps of Imam Hussein
Over the past year, and especially in the wake of recent attacks on al-Hashd al-Shaabi military targets in Iraq that were attributed to Israel, al-Sadr has sharply criticized Iran’s expansionist regional policy and its support for the Iraqi Shiite militias allied with Iran. He called for their return from Syria to Iraq because the Iraqi people are paying the price with their own blood for these wars that Iran has been waging through them, including within Iraqi territory. In this regard, al-Sadr also emphasized the importance of the need for these Iraqi militias to operate under the single command of the Iraqi army and the supervision of the government.
These remarks follow reports on the strengthening of the operations of the Iranian Quds Force in Iraq through the cooperation between the commander of the force, Qasem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, second-in-command of al-Hashd al-Shaabi. The al-Hashd al-Shaabi militia has recently been operating independently, outside the framework of the Iraqi security forces, including establishing a military air wing. Other Shiite militias, which worked against the Islamic State (ISIS) and were faithful to Iran, remained in Iraqi territory and the Kurdish territories in the north and refused to be subjected to the central government.1
Due to reports that the massive attack on oil installations in Saudi Arabia (September 14, 2019) came from Iraq or Iran, Iraq may pay the price for Iran’s battles in the region. In the spirit of the Shiite Ashura holy day, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, was quick to praise the strike on the Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais, which seriously harmed Saudi oil exports and world supply: “Today, Ansarullah in Yemen (the Houthis) are continuing the path of Imam Husayn.” The end of Soleimani’s Tweet of praise for Ansarullah’s attack includes pictures of mosques in Jerusalem.2
Because of the growing independence of the Shiite militias, al-Sadr left for Iran on September 5, 2019, after criticizing the announcement of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, vice-commander of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, that the militia was forming its own air force.3 Al-Sadr posted on his Twitter account “see you later my land.” He also alluded to the announcement about the establishment of this air force: “This is the end of the government in Iraq….This is the passage of a state of law and order to a state of rebellion….If the government does not take a firm stand (by dismantling the air force), I will repudiate it.”
During the escalation of tension between Iran and the United States and Israel over the past few months, al-Sadr has been working on a regional and international level to distance Iraq from this dispute while expressing concern that a war between all sides will lead to “catastrophic consequences for Iraq.”
Al-Sadr’s criticism of Iranian involvement in Iraq’s internal affairs is not new. Since the election of Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to his second term of office in 2010, al-Sadr has tried to lead a policy of distancing Iraq from Iran and bringing it closer to the Arab world. Al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017 and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – at the height of increased tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the nuclear deal and Iran’s involvement in Yemen – caused a severe breach of relations with Iran. At the same time, al-Sadr was warmly embraced by the Arab world and given support for his independent positions in the shadow cast by Iran over Iraq.
In February 2019, Asharq al-Awsat (a pro-Saudi Arabian newspaper published in London) reported that Muqtada al-Sadr visited Beirut, where he spent five hours with the secretary-general of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, in the presence of Qasem Soleimani, to discuss the position of the interior minister of the government of Iraq. The report was later denied by Iraqi Member of Parliament Sabah El-Aqili, who claimed that it “was intended to harm political personalities and damage the political process.”
Rebuke of the Commander of Quds Force – Don’t Follow Ideological and Political Illusions
In light of al-Sadr’s aggressive stance against Iran and his recurring calls upon Tehran to respect the sovereignty of Iraq and its citizens and to remove the al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias from Syria, his visit to Tehran was perceived as unusual and has even created differences of opinion among the Shiite communities in Iraq. Some of them have welcomed this visit as honoring the memory of Imam Husayn ibn Ali and being part of a “good neighbors” policy and a solution to Iraq’s disputes with its neighbors. Others, including former Sadrist Ghaith al-Tamimi, who is well-known for his public criticism of Iran, expressed sorrow for Sadr’s recent appearance with Soleimani: “Even though you don’t feel comfortable, as it appears, your value and your fate have depreciated among the Iraqis.” In response to Soleimani’s Tweet,4 which included the picture with Sadr, Ghaith jibed, “Honored General (Soleimani): Iraq will remain greater than what you desire, even if this encounter (the meeting with al-Sadr) was attended by everyone who was in the current government. Iraq is a hard nut to crack. You need to come to terms with the truth and build bridges of unity with the Iraqi state and not commit an error by following the ideological and political illusions that brought down your predecessors.”
Al-Sadr – the Agenda of a Sovereignty Iraq
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Muqtada al-Sadr has been considered as one of the most prominent and influential Shiite religious and political figures in Iraq. Al-Sadr enjoys broad support among the Shiite middle classes in Iraq. Al-Sadr (aged 46) was born in Najaf, Iraq, and he comes from a respected family from the Shiite community in Iraq.5 His family also has roots in Jabel Amal in Lebanon, from where the family arrived in Iraq, where it experienced many hardships under the cruel regime of Saddam Hussein, who worked ceaselessly to suppress their influence.
Muqtada al-Sadr established the Al-Mahdi army, which was involved in clashes with Western coalition forces in Iraq. In 2007, al-Sadr left Iraq for Iran, where he was exiled until January 2011. In spite of his education and prolonged stay in Iran, he is considered to be a prominent opponent of Iranian influence in the region, in general, and in Iraq and Syria, in particular. In January 2012, Al-Sadr called upon Iran to be the “friend’ rather than the “conqueror” of Iraq – after Soleimani defined Iraq and southern Lebanon as areas under Iranian influence. In a message of congratulations sent to Hassan Rouhani in 2014 on his election as president of Iran, al-Sadr called upon the Iranian regime to show openness toward regional policy and to abandon the factional and political policy that has brought evil and destruction to Iran and the entire region.
On July 30, 2017, in a step that caused opposition with Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr responded to an official invitation and visited Saudi Arabia. There, he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In May 2018, al-Sadr expressed his firm opposition to Iranian or U.S. intervention in the establishment of the new Iraqi government. He stated: “With regard to Iran…this is a country that looks after its interests and we hope that it will not be involved in Iraq’s internal issues.” When floods hit Iran and Iraq in April 2019, al-Sadr criticized the Popular Mobilization (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) Forces, the pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, for assisting flood victims in Iran. “Our obligation is to help our Iraqi brothers,” he declared.
Al-Sadr’s Manifesto: Keep Iraq Out of the Game
In the wake of growing tension between the United States and Israel with Iran, al-Sadr published a special declaration (in April 2019) that was his personal statement of belief regarding Iraq’s relationship with Iran and Iran’s negative involvement in regional issues. In the announcement, which forecast the air attacks on Iraq several months later, al-Sadr stated:
All I care about is Iraq’s security and the welfare of its citizens. Therefore, I am currently concerned that due to tension between Iran and the liberal union (Trump and Netanyahu6)…(and) I am not coming to choose between support for our neighbor Iran or support for the liberal union….I don’t want Iraq to be involved in ideological or political support for either side due to my increasing concern every day over the involvement of both sides in Iraqi internal affairs. At the moment, I am interested in guaranteeing Iraq’s independence and sovereignty and the non-intervention of either side in its internal affairs…. At the same time, I am interested in maintaining good relations with our neighbor Iran because I want Iraq not to become the departure point for attacks or that Iraq’s policy should be used as a reason to attack it or its inhabitants….The situation requires that all of the forces in Iraq…including al-Hashd al-Shaabi, should keep their distance from this dispute because Iraq can no longer endure the results of suffering and the price of such involvement.7
On May 19, 2019, a rocket was fired into Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone,” the location of Iraq’s government and American facilities.
In a Tweet from May 2019, Al-Sadr reiterated that if Iraq is not united, the war between the United States and Iran “will herald the end of Iraq….Serious action is required to keep Iraq out of this cruel war, which destroy everything.” Al-Sadr also organized large demonstrations in Baghdad against any Iraqi involvement in this war, and he even called upon Turkey to stop its bombing raids inside Iraqi territory.
In his message, al-Sadr detailed a range of measures to prevent Iraqi involvement in the dispute and a solution to regional conflicts:
A solution for disputes in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain would be the return of Iraqi militias, and primarily al-Hashd al-Shaabi, from Syria to Iraq immediately. Their presence in Syria is a guarantee for Iraq’s involvement in the conflict. In this regard, he added, “In the event that Israel and the United States continue to harm Iraq’s security and its people, the Iraqi government should react as it can and defend itself against American-Zionist occupation of Iraq’s territory in order to maintain its honor and the honor of its citizens.” Al-Sadr also recommended the closure of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in case Iraq would get caught up in the conflict in order to prevent it being harmed by it.” He called for the signing of a bilateral agreement with Iran that would respect the sovereignty of both sides or a three-way agreement with Saudi Arabia that would prepare the atmosphere for bringing about peace, even partially.” The message also contains a recommendation to send delegations to organize an Islamic conference to Saudi Arabia (which is interested in growing closer to Iraq and to resolve its conflict with Iran), to the European Union (which would work with the United States and Israel to keep Iraq out of the equation), and also to the Vatican and to the (Islamic theologian) Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar in Cairo.
Iraq Pays in Blood for Iranian Recklessness
Al-Sadr has reiterated his call for the withdrawal of Iraqi Shiite militias from Syria several times, primarily with reference to Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, because “Iraq pays with the blood of its people.”8 His declaration comes after charges that the attacks on Iraq were attributed to Israel seeking to destroy ammunition and missile depots belonging to militias that support Iran. Al-Sadr believed that Israel was not behind the strikes on Iraq because it “is aware of our possible response, which would cause an earthquake.” At the same time, the Iraqi government must investigate the attacks on al-Hashd al-Shaabi without Iranian or Syrian intervention.9 If it indeed becomes apparent that the attacks on the oil installations in Saudi Arabia were carried out by Shiite militias or Iranian sources, which have stepped up their operations in Iraq, Iraq may get caught up in the eye of the storm of a possible reaction to the strikes and the Iranian activities going on within its territory.
Muqtada al-Sadr – On the Way toward New Shiite Leadership in Iraq?
It appears that al-Sadr’s visit to Iran occurred because Iran has gotten caught up in regional conflicts caused by attacks attributed to Israel on Iraq and the increase in independent operations of al-Hashd al-Shaabi and other Shiite militias connected with Iran on Iraqi soil. The development comes amid the total inaction of the Iraqi government and its military structures. Al-Sadr has been warning against this dangerous development, particularly in recent times, in his statements to the public and on social media networks.
For now, al-Sadr has not spoken about the background of the surprise visit to Iran. According to reports from sources in his office, he is trying to convince the Iranian regime to replace Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was elected following the blunt intervention of Iran, with a stronger personality. Al-Sadr feels that Abdul-Mahdi cannot successfully deal with the negative fall-out from the continuing independent operations of the Shiite militia on Iraqi soil, the crisis between Iran and the United States, and the possible “disastrous” ramifications on Iraq and its citizens.
At home, it is possible that the visit is also intended to reinforce his position in terms of Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the “National Wisdom Movement.” The al-Sadr and al-Hakim families have a long history of rivalry over the leadership of the Shiite community in Iraq from the religious, political, and military points of view. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, they even led various militias, some of which were supported by Iran. After the attacks on ammunition stores inside Iraq, Ammar al-Hakim stated that the skies above the country were not a stage for attacks from the outside, but they were also not a storage place for any kind of weapon that does not originate from Iraq (meaning Iranian weapons). Al-Hakkim expressed concern that al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which is a part of the Iraqi security establishment, would operate outside the law. He added that there are those who are attempting to turn Iraq into a battlefield (meaning Iran) and into a place where conflict is waged by proxy and into an unstable location. “Iraq will not allow this. A lot of Iraqi blood has been spilled in these absurd wars.”10 Al-Hakim also organized several demonstrations against Abdul-Mahdi’s government.
A Challenge to Iraq’s Shiite Leaders?
It is possible that during his visit to Iran and his well-photographed meetings with Khamenei, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Salami, and Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, that al-Sadr is signaling that at the present time, when Iraq is facing many dangers threatening its security, he is the central personality of the Shiite community in Iraq. As such, he is the ideal candidate to inherit or at least challenge the authority of the senior Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Sistani, a major religious figure for the Shiite community in Iraq today. In the past, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, father of Muqtada al-Sadr, criticized Sistani’s silence, referring to him as “the silent Marji Taqlid (source of religious legal authority),” and the passivity he displayed toward anything connected to political matters. It is possible that the younger al-Sadr is signaling that he intends to lead the Shiite community in a more dynamic manner, with more intervention from members of the religious establishment in political life. This is directly opposed to the approach of Sistani, who has until now distanced the religious establishment from deep and direct involvement in politics.
The issue of the source and place for religious authority has become more pressing since the fall of Saddam Hussein, alongside strained relations between Iraq and Iran. This issue has arisen behind the scenes of religious seminars in Najaf and Karbala, Iraq, which are becoming more successful (in terms of students and revenues) at the expense of seminars in the holy city of Qom in Iran. Many pilgrims (to the mosque of Imam Ali) come to Najaf and Karbala (including from Iran) due to the comparative calm and stability in Iraq, creating a source of considerable income to Shiite clerics in the area. This is in contrast to the deterioration in Iran’s economic situation as a result of severe sanctions, making it difficult for the religious establishment in Iran to support clerics, pilgrims, and students due to diminished sources of income and government support. Some religious figures even accuse the Iranian government of corruption.
Furthermore, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Sistani resides in Najaf. (Sistani is even more senior than Khamenei and sees himself as the leader of the Shiites.) Sistani has called for a separation between mosque and state, a policy that troubles Tehran, which supports an activist approach toward promoting the Shiite creed and vision with regard to the coming of the Mahdi (the Messiah) and the continued rule by a religious figure (a system of governance known as Velayat-e faqih).
The Iranian regime is bothered by Sistani’s influence, which has spread beyond his home in Najaf as far as the seminaries in Qom (where his son-in-law serves as his representative) and it may influence the clerics there. This may, from the perspective of the regime, affect its stability. Furthermore, many Iran religious figures (including Ali Khomeini, a grandson of the originator of the Iranian Revolution) moved to Najaf in Iraq about a year ago, where the atmosphere of learning is healthier and less pressurizing for the students. The president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, visited Najaf in March 2019, where he met with Sistani and other authority figures, including Said Mohammed al-Hakim, Bashir al-Najafi, and Ishaq al-Fiadh, in the hope that maybe they will help him in his conflict with the conservatives in Iran, and with the support of the leader and the foreign minister, he welcomed the establishment of civilian society in Iran.
In the past, the Iranian regime worked against moderate religious figures who supported the separation of mosque and state, such as Ayatollah Montazeri, who was supposed to replace Khomeini but was pushed to the sidelines and served, until his death, as a kind of mentor for the reformist camp. Today, the regime has promoted conservative personalities such as Ebrahim Raisi, Chief Justice of Iran, who supports a clerical government. Raisi, who lost in the 2017 elections to Rouhani, is known as one of the “possible and preferred candidates” to replace Khamenei as supreme leader.
It is possible that this issue, which bothers the Iranian regime immensely, arose during al-Sadr’s visit to Iran. Al-Sadr has not challenged the leadership of Sistani (88). However, his interpretation of separating religion and state is less rigid than that of the senior cleric. While this issue is not in the headlines in Iraq and Iran, it has a decisive influence upon the Shiite leadership around the world in general and on the future of Iran in particular. In light of this, the Leader of Iran and his office continue to interfere with the Shiite leadership in Iraq for these motives, and they are trying to bring al-Sadr closer. At the same time, tensions grow over the continued operation of various Shiite militias and primarily al-Hashd al-Shaabi within Iraq, which is much to al-Sadr’s distaste as he foresees that this Iranian policy will eventually lead to a conflict with Israel on Iraqi territory and will sow destruction and disaster. Al-Sadr will try to convince Iran to put a stop to these activities, but it is very doubtful whether he will succeed. The question that needs to be asked is whether al-Sadr will succeed and at what price.
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5 His father Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr was assassinated along with his two brothers in 1999 on the orders of Saddam Hussein. He is the son-in-law of the senior Ayatollah Al-Said Baqir Al-Sadr and cousin of Mousa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya.
6 Al-Sadr denounced (on May 14, 2018) the U.S. announcement of the transfer of its embassy (“the evil building”) to Jerusalem and asserted in a Tweet (in March 2019) following U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that “the Golan Heights is Arab territory.”