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

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - MAY 13: Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate the results of the parliamentary election at the Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq.
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.
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