What are Moqtada al-Sadr’s ambitions in Iraq?

After thousands of protesters, most of whom are loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, once again stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad, Michael Weiss reports: Thirteen years of lawlessness, sectarian bloodletting and terrorism following a deeply unpopular military occupation have conspired with successive waves of Iraqi leaders who are increasingly seen as little more than factotums of interfering outside powers, namely the United States or Iran. U.S. policy has been single-mindedly wedded to backing individual actors, be it al-Abadi or the man he replaced, Nouri al-Maliki. The second, who was greeted at the White House by President Obama as a partner in making Iraq “sovereign, secure, and self-reliant,” governed with authoritarian excess, manipulated an election in 2010, and then proceeded to alienate Sunnis by means of legal persecution on trumped-up “terrorism” charges or acts of state violence. The first, while a seeming improvement on his predecessor, is simply too weak and ineffectual to deliver on his promised reforms. That al-Abadi’s office has now been raided twice by an angry mob has underscored that stark reality more persuasively than any State Department talking point.

But is al-Sadr looking to make Iraq great again, or is he just a cynical machiavellian looking to exploit failed statehood for his own outsize political ambitions? “I don’t think he gives a damn about reforms,” a U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. “Sadrists are as corrupt as hell, too. The popular anger is for reform across the country and beyond this movement. The Sadrists will follow what Moqtada says. If he says: ‘We need a dictator who’s very corrupt. They will say, ‘Allahu Akhbar, we need a dictator who is corrupt.’”

Khedery, however, welcomes the protests as a natural corrective on top-down political sclerosis. “I’m very pleased by these events because I believe Iraq needs regime change to end the systemic sectarianism and the endemic corruption that’s baked into the DNA of the post-2003 order. Not the foolish, ill-informed, hubristic foreign-backed regime change of 2003, but regime change from within, which will, one way or another, install leaders of the country that represent the Iraqi people. If they fail in meeting expectations, they’ll likely face the same untimely demise as their predecessors. Revolution is a time-honored tradition in Baghdad.” Most of today’s Iraqi elites, Khedery added, lack the qualifications to “run anything much bigger than a household.” They’re also inveterate crooks presiding over a national economy that can no longer compensate for runaway graft with unusually high global oil prices.

In this context, al-Sadr has positioned himself as one of the few true Iraqi nationalists with enough authentic grassroots support to take on a Western superpower and an interfering regional theocracy. [Continue reading…]

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