Eli Sugarman and Omar Al-Nidawi write: Iraq’s nascent democracy faces a new dilemma: whether or not to embrace the political comeback of a former militia leader. Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric, has launched a public relations campaign, rebranding himself as a voice of sectarian harmony. Should Iraqis welcome Sadr with open arms, or be wary of his new persona?
Sadr first made a name for himself as an erratic demagogue who stoked sectarian fighting and helped bring Iraq’s young democracy to its knees. From 2003 to 2008, Sadr’s Mahdi Army took up arms against successive Iraqi governments and committed widespread atrocities against the country’s Sunni minority, in addition to targeting U.S. installations and personnel until American forces left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Then, last spring, he abruptly changed course, and he has spent the past year reforming his image and serving as a voice of moderation in Iraq. Sadr now openly decries violence, advocates the peaceful resolution of Iraq’s political disputes, and prays with religious leaders from other faiths and sects.
On the one hand, Sadr’s new tune could reflect his genuine maturation and a newfound desire to play a positive role in Iraq’s dysfunctional political system; on the other hand, it could be just a new tactic to expand his influence and power. Either way, the more Sadr can convince Iraqis — disenfranchised Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis alike — that he is a reliable and moderate partner, the more power he will accrue at the expense of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds face a tough choice, because working with Sadr could lead to two very different outcomes. Joining him to challenge Maliki could perhaps promote a more inclusive political process, but it could also re-empower the rule of sectarian militias. The key for Iraqis is to vet the new Sadr carefully and insist that he backs his sweetened rhetoric with concrete actions. [Continue reading…]