May 15, 2018

Moqtada al-Sadr: Ex-militia leader emerges as Iraq's kingmaker

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate the results of the parliamentary election at the Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The political coalition of Moqtada al-Sadr — a firebrand nationalist Shiite cleric — has surprisingly emerged as the presumptive winner of Iraq’s first national parliamentary election since the country declared victory over ISIS.

Why it matters: Sadr has long been a staunch critic of the U.S., so a victory for his alliance means Iraq's next government is likely to be hostile to the U.S. And while Sadr is not formally a candidate for prime minister, he has vast political influence over his followers.

What’s happening now:

  • With more than 91% of the vote counted, Sadr’s alliance is leading an Iranian-backed coalition tied to a paramilitary group, with U.S.-backed incumbent prime minister Haider al-Abadi in third, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Sadr's spokesman says he is seeking to form a government with allies who agree with his platform of "ending the practice of awarding ministries on sectarian quotas, fighting corruption and allowing independent technocrats to manage key government agencies," per the NY Times.

What to know about Sadr:

  • Sadr led violent uprisings, through his militia known then as the Mahdi Army, against U.S. troops following the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion. He was a fierce opponent of the American occupation.
  • In 2004, an Iraqi judge issued a warrant for murder against Sadr after his supporters carried out riots in some parts of the country, leaving eight U.S. troops and dozens of Iraqis dead.
  • Sadr's Shiite militia was blamed for the mass killings of Sunni civilians during the height of Iraq’s civil war. Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, writes that "The Mahdi Army played a central role in fueling Iraq's devastating sectarian conflict."

Political reinvention:

  • Sadr returned to Iraq in 2011 after three years of self-imposed exile in Iran, and positioned himself as a nationalist. He aligned himself with civil society groups and their calls for better governance and equitable distribution of resources.
  • Sadr has bolstered his regional support and image, Al Jazeera reports, citing his rare visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last year. He now speaks out against Iranian influence, per the FT.
  • His coalition ran a pro-reform, anti-corruption, anti-establishment campaign. He also says he supports a more secular government run by “technocrats” rather than career politicians.

Go deeper

Coronavirus spreads to more countries, and U.S. ups its case count

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The novel coronavirus continues to spread to more nations, and the U.S. reports a doubling of its confirmed cases to 34 — while noting those are mostly due to repatriated citizens, emphasizing there's no "community spread" yet in the U.S. Meanwhile, Italy reported its first virus-related death on Friday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 2,359 people and infected more than 77,000 others, mostly in mainland China. New countries to announce infections recently include Israel, Lebanon and Iran.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 5 hours ago - Health

Wells Fargo agrees to pay $3 billion to settle consumer abuse charges

Clients use an ATM at a Wells Fargo Bank in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo: Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Wells Fargo agreed to a pay a combined $3 billion to the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday for opening millions of fake customer accounts between 2002 and 2016, the SEC said in a press release.

The big picture: The fine "is among the largest corporate penalties reached during the Trump administration," the Washington Post reports.