A virulently anti-American Shiite Islamist cleric has thrown Iraq into a political crisis after his followers stormed the parliament, triggering a state of emergency. The cleric has hijacked popular resentment against corruption and sectarianism to attempt what the Institute for the Study of War deems "a de facto coup."
The leader of the protests is a radical Shiite cleric named Moqtada al-Sadr, best known for his militia's targeting of U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein. His forces' sectarian violence brought the county to the brink of a civil war, which was only prevented by the U.S. "surge" in 2007. Sadr responded by moving to Iran and burnishing his religious credentials by studying at a seminary in Qom until 2011. It also helped him deny responsibility for the crimes committed by his militia and its splinter groups.
The institute warns that the instability damages the Iraqi government's ability to operate as well as fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). It could even lead to the collapse of the government. There is a high chance of violence between the “Sadrists” and Iraqi security forces and Iranian-linked militias allied with the Iraqi government.
For the U.S., it is dangerous that a ferociously anti-American cleric can shape events as Sadr has done. Sadr preaches that ISIS is a CIA front, seeking to equate the U.S. with the worst of Iraq's enemies. When the U.S. campaign against ISIS began, Sadr said his forces would attack any U.S. military deployment.
"Like we gave you a taste of the heat of our fire and our might in the past, we will give a taste of the scourge of this decision, which will be the cause of your regrets and regression," he said.
Last May, he threatened to "unfreeze the military wing … so that it may start targeting American interests in Iraq and outside of Iraq when possible." He was infuriated over the U.S. budget allocating money for assisting Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.
Considering these comments, it may not be a coincidence that the Sadrists' storming of parliament came right after Vice President Biden came to Iraq for the first time since 201l and praised the Iraqi-American cooperation in the fight against ISIS. Sadr may have wanted to remind the Iraqi political class, particularly the allies of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, that he's the one who really determines their fate.
The irony is that many of those responding to Sadr's calls are complaining about the sectarianism of which he was a shining example. There is video of demonstrators chanting, "Iran, get out, get out."
Yet, it was but Sadr who brought Iran in. “Many of the protesters are chanting anti-Iranian slogans because we suspect that Iran is covertly promoting sectarianism in Iraq by supporting corrupt politicians," said one demonstrator.
The situation in Iraq is a classic example of Islamists hijacking a popular grievance to gain power — or perhaps it is even a master act of manipulation at the hands of both Sadr and Iran. When he was in Iran addressing his lack of religious credibility, he underwent a political makeover. He remained as anti-American as ever, but he adapted to the times by becoming a "born-again nationalist." He began playing the role of political king-maker as parties competed for his constituency's support and even began criticizing Shiite militias for being too cozy with Iran.
Perhaps Sadr's relationship with the Iranian regime has genuinely weakened because of his political ambitions and because others have won Iran's favor. Or perhaps it's part of a skillful Iranian strategy to have proxies both allied to the Iraqi government and opposed to it.
For the U.S., it shouldn't matter much. Sadr is a Shiite extremist whose hands are covered in American and Iraqi blood. He may be talking about corruption and sectarianism now, but the departure of the U.S. military is among his top demands. And he is far less hostile to Iran than he is to the West.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.