Four years ago, when Moqtada al-Sadr called for an end to violence against Iraq’s LGBT community, the Shiite cleric-politician had seemed a step ahead of his followers. In reverting to homophobic form this week, speculating that the coronavirus pandemic was the result of same-sex marriage, he is demonstrating how far behind he has fallen.
Like most countries in the Middle East, Iraq is inhospitable to homosexuals. But few places in the country were as hostile as the giant Baghdad slum that bears Sadr’s surname and is his political stronghold: In Sadr City, clerics loyal to him gave viciously anti-gay sermons, and his Mahdi Army routinely hunted down and murdered homosexuals.
So Sadr’s statement in the summer of 2016 surprised and delighted human-rights groups. Here was a former religious fanatic evolving into a secular statesman! Having endured a spell on the sidelines while Iran-backed Shiite parties dominated Baghdad politics, Moqtada had reinvented himself as a centrist — or at least the closest simulacrum imaginable in the highly sectarian theater of Iraqi politics.
Positioning himself equidistant from Iran and the U.S., he played up his credentials as an Iraqi nationalist. The defunct Mahdi Army was revived and recast as Saraya as-Salam, or “Peace Companies” dedicated to fighting the Islamic State.
Since Soleimani, Muhandis and Amiri were among the primary targets of the popular protest movement that erupted in the Iraqi public square last fall, Sadr’s siding with the protesters was only natural. Those who led the October Revolution, as it came to be known, welcomed his help, especially after they came under attack from security forces and militias loyal to Tehran. Sadr’s Peace Companies, in their distinctive blue hats, provided what little protection the protectors could muster against enemies wielding sniper rifles and batons.
Sadr was able to use the anger in the streets as a political weapon against Iran’s puppets in Baghdad. When the protests forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Sadr was able to keep Iran from hand-picking a malleable replacement. As both sides of the Shiite political divide settled down for a long face-off, the Iraqi nationalist seemed to have a slight edge over the Iranian loyalists.
Then, on Jan. 3, came the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. It was a blow for Amiri, who only a few days before had orchestrated a storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. But Sadr was unable to capitalize on his political rival’s vulnerability.
Instead, zigging when he should have zagged, he broke with the October Revolution and cast his lot with Tehran. He ordered his supporters to abandon the movement. His Peace Companies, pausing only to take off their blue hats, began to trash the squares where the protests had been centered.
The reasons for Sadr’s about-face are unclear. Some Iraq-watchers suggest he saw the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis as an opportunity to seize the resulting political space —but reckoned he could only achieve this with Iran’s help. His militia are not in the same fighting league as Tehran’s proxies.
Equally, Sadr may have calculated that he needed to demonstrate his own clout, independent of the protest movement. After Amiri exploited the Soleimani and Muhandis funerals, Sadr called his followers to stage anti-U.S. demonstrations in mid-January.
Whatever his reasons, the break with the protesters will likely prove a mistake. Even before the coronavirus epidemic ended street politics, his appeal had visibly weakened: The anti-U.S. demonstrations never matched the numbers or the energy of the October Revolution.
Without the street’s backing, Sadr’s leverage in parliament is much reduced. He failed to get Mohammed Tawfik Allawi’s candidature for the prime ministership past the veto of the Iran-backed faction. Sadr is now said to be supporting Adnan al-Zurfi, who has also hit the wall with Tehran.
While Iran benefits from having Sadr in its tent — or at least pleading to be allowed in — its political interests in Iraq are already well served; the ragtag Peace Companies are of little use to Tehran. It is unlikely to value Sadr above Amiri — a man so loyal, he fought on Iran’s side in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Nor is the mercurial cleric-politician a candidate to fill the shoes of Muhandis.
In short, having abandoned a large section of his natural constituency and unable to build a new one in Tehran or Baghdad, Sadr is flailing for political relevance. His homophobic statement is a manifestation of this desperation.