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Opinion: Sadr’s Surprise | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf. (AP Photo/ Alaa al-Marjani)

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr surprised us when he announced he was quitting politics, urging his followers to also refrain from getting too engaged here. Does his decision imply a secret agreement whereby one of the remaining candidates has a better chance of winning Iraq’s upcoming elections? Perhaps it is part of a deal in which Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki wins because he does not have to stand against Sadr. Perhaps Sadr is angry at his movement’s representatives in parliament, or perhaps it is a tactical decision in the run-up to the elections.

We simply don’t know. But what is certain is that by quitting politics, he has disrupted the calculations and forecasts of observers. Sadr’s many followers will not hesitate to vote in the upcoming elections due to be held in a few weeks. Now that he has quit politics, the question is: Who will his millions of followers vote for? These people are capable of shifting the outcome of the elections.

Sadr is a controversial, brave character. He is the only Shi’ite leader who continued to fight the Americans for seven years. He has also defied Nuri Al-Maliki and thwarted his plans at times. He is also the only Shi’ite leader to speak of reconciliation with the Sunnis, and announced that he stood against attacks on revered Sunni symbols. He was thus subjected to Shi’ite extremist threats and slander campaigns and was mocked by Sunni extremists.

With his withdrawal happening at this dangerous time for Iraq, he has placed the political arena and everyone in it in a chaotic situation as questions mount as to the reasons for and timing of his departure.

Sadr could have withdrawn from politics after the elections. He could have personally withdrawn and then assigned someone he trusts to lead his movement. His complete withdrawal now only enhances Maliki’s chances of winning the premiership again. Maliki now has the chance to rule Iraq for 12 consecutive years, strengthening his dictatorship. Many Iraqis would say they sacrificed much to get rid of such dictatorships.

Toppling Maliki in these elections is not solely aimed at eliminating him from the political scene, but also at consolidating a system of political participation, accountability and institutional independence. All this was shattered in eight years due to Maliki’s centralizing power into his own hands. In some ways he has more authority now than Saddam Hussein ever did, and more money than any Iraqi cabinet since the establishment of the Republic six decades ago.

Sadr’s decision would have been more prudent if it had come during a time of independent institutions and the separation of religion and politics in Iraq. As it happens, this unilateral move has left the political arena in the country prey to a host of vicious predators.