If he means it this time, Moqtada al-Sadr’s retirement from politics will leave a substantial hole in Iraq’s political landscape, and close the circle on a career that first demonstrated both the rise of the Shiite Muslim majority and lethal sectarianism in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The 40-year-old cleric has announced his retirement before, and the opacity surrounding the rationale for Sunday’s announcement that he was disbanding his political party, posted on his website, leaves open the possibility that he may not be done after all.
Waiting anxiously to know is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term in elections set for April. Sadr’s support was essential to Maliki securing office in 2010, and the cleric’s loyal, motivated and generally impoverished Shiite following stands to play a crucial role in any political calculus, especially given the polarized sectarian politics that has returned parts of Iraq to open warfare. Much of Anbar province, to the West of Baghdad, is now controlled by Sunni militants associated with al-Qaeda, whose return flows both from the rabidly sectarian nature of the civil war in adjacent Syria, and from resentment among Iraqi Sunnis at Maliki’s rule, widely seen as favoring Shiites.
In the short term, Sadr’s announcement appeared to boost Maliki’s fortunes, largely because no other major Shiite figure looms as large as a rival. But the closest thing to a rationale given in the hand-written posting — “To protect my family’s reputation” — fed speculation that Sadr might be making the announcement to dissociate his movement from some unnamed, unapproved actions taken in its name, and could be reversed after the point was made. The New York Times reported that hundreds of followers had gathered outside Sadr’s office in Najaf, chanting demands for his return. On Sadr’s official website, the latest entry before the post announcing his withdrawal from politics was a post chronicling his visit to an elections office to renew the cleric’s voter registration.
To Americans watching developments in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Sadr seemed to erupt out of nowhere on April 4, 2004, the day his “Madhi Army” militia took control of cities across the center and south of a country suddenly in the grip of a full-blown insurgency. Until then, resistance to the American-led occupation had been limited to the country’s Sunni minority, and dismissed as “remnants” and “holdovers” of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.
Sadr’s people were not that. His father, a grand ayatullah, was widely assumed to have been killed by Saddam’s henchmen after refusing to rein in his sermons in the vast slum of eastern Baghdad that now bears his name, Sadr City. Moqatda, the fourth-born son, inherited the father’s mantle and following. He seemed too young and not entirely prepared for the responsibility of leading such a large section of Iraqi society but still, he presided — often at a remove — over an impressive populist organization run by others, and combining social services, military resistance, and political power.
The 40 seats held by his al-Ahrar bloc is the largest Shiite party in Iraq’s 325-member parliament; it also controls seven ministries, all of which Sadr has ordered abandoned. The order functions both as a statement of high-minded principle and, for the lawmakers and ministers being asked to step down, as a loyalty test. If that’s what it is, Zaineb al-Tai apparently passed, telling the Times: “I resigned from Parliament as a response to our leader’s call, and will not participate in the coming election.” But it will likely be days, at the least, before Sadr’s real intent can be divined.