Iraq. Has the Sadrist Movement Rallied to the Fight against Confessionalism?

Interview with Dhia Al-Asadi · Having won the recent parliamentary election, Moqtada Al-Sadr and his Sadrist Movement are seeking to reshape the political scene in Iraq: less corruption, less religion and more civic involvement. A dynamics inspired and described here by his chief of staff, Dhia Al-Asadi.

Dhia Al-Asadi, 9 juin 2018.
© Sebastian Cartelier

My taxi driver, Mohannad, points to the long scar on his right arm, and the large hollow in his right calf. Like thousands of Iraqis, he bears the traces of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Nearly a year after ISIS was defeated at Mosul, Iraq is determined to move on. In last May’s parliamentary election, the 55% abstention notwithstanding, the electorate gave first place to a mixed coalition (Saairun) led by a religious dignitary, Moqtada al-Sadr, who stands for reforms and anti-corruption. Knowing where we are headed, my driver exclaims: “I’m all for Moqtada and the Sadrists!”

Guarded by soldiers in arms, the Sadrit headquarters are located in central Baghdad on a back street in the Arasat district. Dhiaa Al-Asadi wears a fitted business suit. A native of Basra, he joined the movement in 1992.

After getting a degree in linguistics, he wrote secretly to Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, a prominent figure among the opposition to Saddam Hussein. The young man wanted to know exactly what the ayatollah’s political and intellectual orientations were. All his fellow students belonged to the Baath Party, so he joined the Sadrist movement on the quiet. After its leader was assassinated in 1999, he spent six months in jail. In 2005, he set up the movement’s first Political Bureau in Basra. In 2012, he headed the Shia coalition, Al-Ahrar, in the parliamentary election and at the same time was made head of the movement’s political bureau. Today, Dhiaa Al-Asadi is a highly respected spokesperson for its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. He is seen as the latter’s loyal adviser and is said to be behind the cleric’s political and civic evolution over the past few years.

Quentin Müller. – Why has your leader, Moqtada Al-Sadr become increasingly involved in politics?

Dhia Al-Asadi. — Moqtada’s involvement in Iraqi politics was a gradual process. In 2003, after the American invasion, he refused to take part in the procedures set up by the occupants. For him, the American presence was indeed an occupation. Later, when Iraq had its own government, and because many of his followers had been pushed and were in desperate need of leadership, he felt he had to commit himself to peaceful unarmed resistance and take part in the political process. 2010 was a turning point. We decided to join the Nuri Al-Maliki government and since then his commitment has never ceased to grow. With the end of the occupation, we hoped to bring about anti-corruption reforms and set up a new political system.

Q. M.Wasn’t there a risk that such extensive political commitment would disappoint many of your followers?

D. A. — No, because his father’s name is so well-known. All the members of the Sadr family were social activists as well as religious leaders. So when in 2015 he organized street demonstrations against corruption, he saw it as a way to represent his fellow citizens and Iraq as a whole. This would never have been possible from within the political apparatus, only outside of it, with the people, for a collective conscientiousness raising. It was necessary to bring pressure to bear on the government. At no time was Moqtada Al-Sadr worried about his reputation. He felt it was important to demonstrate, to get involved. Not only does he adhere to the Sadrist school but also to Shiism. Let me remind you that one of his forebears was the imam Husayn who defended the faith at the Battle of Karbala (660 AD). A Shia imam never sits at home telling his followers what to do. Thus Moqtada took his cue from his predecessors and sought to prove he was a leader who deserved his following.

Q. M. How did this affect his popularity in Iraq?

D. A.— It grew stronger, and not only among his followers. The younger generation has been drawn in as well. There was a time when his critics claimed that Moqtada Al-Sadr’s admirers had already sworn loyalty to his father. But these young people weren’t even born when his father, Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr was alive. Moreover, our popularity is not confined to the Shia movement but has spread to a few Sunni communities. In this last election, Saairun ran some Christian and Kurdish candidates. Which means his popularity is growing, unlike that of other leaders. And which is why liberal and communist politicians, who have always been seen in Iraq as anti-Islamist, have also joined forces with us. Moqtada wants to see Iraq run by its citizens.

Q. M.That was another big risk. Weren’t you afraid of offending the most pious component of your Shia electorate?

D. A.— Yes, that was a gamble and there were people who thought he would lose the religious base among his supporters, but Moqtada has always wanted to place the nation’s interests first and that is our main objective.

Q. M.Did you yourself advise him to make that move?

D. A.— There are several of us working with him, but for me it was important. We had to turn towards the civil movement and adopt new ideas. Ever since I joined him in 1992, I’ve been convinced Iraq’s problems can be solved by a movement like this. I’ve always thought we should give up the confessional rhetoric and adopt a nationalist one. The problem is that the European media saw him as a violent opponent of foreign presence in Iraq and have demonized him. Stereotypes were propagated and the fact that he was one of the country’s few nationalist leaders was completely overlooked.

Q. M.Why did he distance himself from Iraqi Shia politicians?

D. A.— Moqtada left the Shia coalition because he didn’t trust Al-Maliki. And above all he wanted to change our relations with our neighbors. We fought the US intervention in Iraq, but that didn’t mean we had to put up with the presence of Iranians, Turks or Arabians on our soil. It is positive to have good relations with one’s neighbors, but that doesn’t mean those countries should interfere in our affairs.

Q. M.Have you carried out surveys among your followers to make sure your new positions won’t cause a split in the Sadrist movement?

D. A.— Our movement involves three different levels. There is Moqtada, the leader, there is an “elite”—though I wouldn’t call us that, rather we are intermediaries, civic advisers, like myself; and then there are the grass-root followers, who trust him implicitly. There was no need to take a survey or negotiate with them, because whatever he decides, they will go along with it. Sometimes we advisers will get together with him and negotiate, pointing out different possible directions we could take, but the final choice is his. Before making a decision, Moqtar Al-Sadr consults with those who are closest to him, in Iraq and abroad.

Q. M.But still, isn’t it a trifle odd to have made an alliance with communists and liberals, often viewed in Iraq as “atheists”?

D. A.— In 2015, we took to the streets alongside representatives of the very few other parties involved in the anti-corruption demonstrations, and we realized we had a common goal, a peaceful one: reforming the political system. And so Moqtada Al-Sadr broached the question: why not join our efforts and form a single coalition? Some thought such a coalition couldn’t last because of our ideological differences. Sometimes contradictions do arise, but our goal was not to discuss what divides us but rather our common objectives.

Q. M.You have also advocated the end of confessional parties. . .

D. A.— Yes, that’s part of our reform project. We want ministries to be run by technocrats. Today, ministers belong to political parties and therefore parliament cannot take them to court, indict them or oversee their work because they put pressure on the Premier and can create dissension within the government itself. Consequently, the ministers are not working in the interest of the nation and are protected by their respective parties. This is why Moqtar Al-Sadr wants to do away with confessional politics.

For this last election he wanted to put together a mixed alliance of people from different religious and social backgrounds around the same national platform. In our minds when this alliance sits in parliament it will not legislate in the interests of this or that community and will not appoint community members to reinforce their influence but will select people qualified to help the country as a whole. And the results of this election are in our favor: Saairun was elected, despite the massive abstention.

Q. M.Why did the bulk of the Shia community not take part in the election?

D. A.— Many Shiites had always thought it was their religious duty to vote for their community. They’d been deceived, because the religious parties had told them that unless they voted for them, the Sunnis would take over the country and bring in another dictator like Saddam Hussein. And the Sunnis were told the same thing. And then what? In the end, both communities were disappointed by these parties and their leaders who proved incapable of serving the interests of the country instead of their own. Voting must stop being a religious duty and become a national duty. That’s why many disappointed people refused to vote for the representatives of their community. Moqtada Al-Sadr knew those politicians would not be re-elected because they had failed. The mood in Iraq now favors a change in the political landscape. Unfortunately those politicians have no intention of stepping down or retiring.

Q. M.Did that mixed coalition bring about a new logic in Iraqi voters’ choices?

D. A.— Yes. In the town of Wasit, in the southern governorate of the same name, a Christian candidate, whose community numbers are fewer than fifty members, was elected with over 5,000 Sadrist votes. Why did our supporters from different religious backgrounds vote for a Christian? Because they understood that his religion had nothing to do with his political capacities and his honesty.

Q. M.Which social class is most prominent among Sadrist supporters?

D. A.— In general they are people who belong to the middle and lower middle classes. In 2005 they came mostly from the poorest neighborhoods, but today I think people from many different sectors of society voted for Saairun.

Q. M.Why has Moqtada Al-Sadr always refused to run for office himself?

D. A.— He believes it is a duty not to take part directly in the political jousts. He prefers to remain an observer, watching over the whole system. As a cleric, his duty consists in laying down red lines, in the interests of all Iraqis. He wants to intervene where the people need him but outside the political arena.

Q. M.And perhaps it’s too soon for him. . .

D. A.— He has often said that a cleric’s place is not in politics. Otherwise—though I am not so sure—when a cleric wants to become involved in politics he should shed his turban and his robe so as to deceive no one.

Q. M.Do you think he will do that one day?

D. A.— He has all the necessary qualities and all the proper tools, but I don’t think he will.

Q. M.What is the role he wants to have in Iraq?

D. A.— It is obvious that he wants to play the role of a father or elder brother, caring for all his sons, not only his Sadrist sons but all Iraqis.

Q. M.Why does he lay such stress on nationalism, maintaining an even-handed dialogue with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates while leaving Iran to one side?

D. A.— Moqtada Al-Sadr is not leaving Iran to one side. We are in contact with Iran, but he believes that country is simply a neighbor, like Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Our relations with all of them should depend only on what they have to offer to Iraq. We must maintain a relationship of equals with the countries on our borders and work together with them, but, on the other hand, we must never let them interfere with our internal affairs. That is why nationalism is essential. To violate that principle is to lose our independence and our sovereignty. We must be powerful enough to protect the national interest.

Our dialogue with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is normal enough. We had to overcome a misunderstanding which dates from 2003. Saudi Arabia feared that a Shia Iraq might become an extension of Iran and its revolution. . . Which is not the case. They imagined that every Shia Iraqi spoke Persian and used tomans as their currency, which is really funny. When they realized our Shiites are Arabs and belong to the same families as the Saudis, their fears were abated. For example, we have tribes from Mosul living in Basra, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Q. M.His visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2017 was criticized. . .

D. A.— Of course, that was a period when the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia were escalating.

Q. M.So your leader’s intention is to restore balance in the dialogue between those two neighboring countries?

D. A.— Absolutely. We used to be in close touch with Turkey, then we turned to the Arab countries and then to Iran (too much!), but Moqtada Al-Sadr wants to find a balance. It’s very hard. The recent Turkish incursion in the North, in the Qandil mountains, is proof of that. . . We sent a very clear message to our Turkish brothers. Moqtada Al-Sadr will always resist forcible infiltration. But it’s very hard for Iraq to take a tough, aggressive decision against Turkey because we have many economic dealings with that country.

Q. M.To get back to the recent election, there is an impending recount. How do you feel about that?

D. A.— I think that for any election involving frauds or violations of the electoral process, there should be appealing procedures to be respected.

In our country, they can go to the federal court. But Parliament has taken a decision without waiting for the verdict of either the commission or the federal court. This is against the law and quite irresponsible.

Q. M.Do you think the recount is a consequence of foreign pressures?

D. A.— I believe there were foreign pressures and influences during and after the election. Those who represent a third of Parliament who strangely enough got together to demand this recount. . . How can they be sure there will be no fraud when the votes are recounted?

Q. M.Are you afraid of that happening?

D. A.— Yes, we have expressed some fears.