For five years, Muqtada al-Sadr's personal insurgent army fought American troops during the Iraq War and commited heinous crimes against Iraq Sunni minorities. Now, a decade later, the Shia cleric's Sairoon Alliance is leading Iraq's parliamentary elections. His populist candidacy upset the U.S. favorite, incumbent Haider al-Abadi, and al-Sadr is set to be the kingmaker in Iraq.
In the years following his two uprisings against American forces, the "radical cleric" (as he was often called in Western media) continued his fight against the Baghdad government and against Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq. He eventually withdrew from public life until 2012, when he made a comeback, rebranding himself as a leader intent on bringing Sunnis and Shia together.
For most of the Iraq War, however, he was intent on blowing Sunnis apart.
With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, al-Sadr also rebranded his Mahdi Army, forming the "Peace Companies," intended to protect Shia believers from the strict form of Sunni Islam and personal violence inflicted upon Iraqis by ISIS. He continued his rebranding to become an anti-poverty, anti-corruption populist who rejects the outside influence of both Iran and the United States.
Al-Sadr's stated purpose for Sairoon was clearing corruption, rejecting the sectarian quotas, and putting skilled thought leaders (aka technocrats) in key ministerial positions.
"The ascendancy of the list sponsored by al-Sadr shows that anti-establishment sentiment and anti-corruption have driven the choice of most voters," said Rend al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "None of the lists had an electoral program that outlined priorities and a plan of action. All used vague terms to lure voters. Many of the lists also used populist and demagogic tactics that played on the emotions of voters."
Some American veterans of the 2003-2011 Iraq War are not happy with his 53-seat win.
Understandably, no one who fought the Mahdi Army or lost a friend in Sadr City wants him to wield legitimate political power in Iraq. But Al-Sadr didn't launch a revolt in Iraq. He didn't put a gun to Haider al-Abadi's head to force him to step down. The cleric's bloc was elected in a legitimate Iraqi election by the people of Iraq, none of whom were punished for not voting for Sairoon. The democracy we fought to establish in Iraq is functioning.
Sometimes the candidate you want to win doesn't win, no matter who they might be running against.
Ask Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Al Gore, Bob Dole, Etc.
The peaceful transfer of power is another hallmark of democracy, and we should credit Prime Minister al-Abadi when he implored the people of Iraq to accept this change.
"I call on Iraqis to respect the results of the elections," he said.
Iraq has bigger things to worry about than the United States' opinion on their domestic politics. This was the first election held since ISIS was pushed out of Iraq — after decimating Iraqi infrastructure. The country also faces rampant unemployment, one of the main triggers of domestic terrorism in the region.
American veterans of the Iraq War should see this as a major victory. In the first post-Saddam election of 2005, with the start of the Mahdi Army's rise to power, did we ever believe we would see the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr with purple ink on his finger?
And yet, here we are.
The biggest issue for the anti-Iran cleric will be integrating Iraq's militia's into its official armed forces and security structure — especially since most of those are backed by Iran. Iran has publicly stated it will not allow al-Sadr's coalition to lead the government. Al-Sadr has made moves to align himself with the king of Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional adversary, to push back against the Islamic Republic.
Al-Sadr's fight for power is far from over. Despite having ties to Iran, the Islamic Republic is no fan of the cleric, who has resisted Iranian influence in Iraq since the days of the Iraq War. And al-Sadr will no longer be able to criticize the government from the sidelines. Instead, it will be on him and his Sairoon bloc to guide Iraq to the future he promised to desperate Iraqi voters.