When Iraq's anti-government protests began last year, it was
supporters of renowned Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who added heft.
They came in the thousands, manning front lines during clashes with riot police and providing security for the demonstrators as they settled in for the long haul.
Now, it might be Sadr who extinguishes their fight.
A flurry of statements from the cleric in recent months has fractured the movement, prompting accusations of betrayal. He has pulled his supporters away from protest camps and then sent those followers back to battle those who remained.
Threats made by his militiamen have sent political activists into hiding. Sadr’s followers have attacked his critics with knives.
“They’re insulting Sadr, and we can’t allow it,” cried one of his supporters, Saeed Alaa al-Yassiri, on a recent day in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square as his group pushed other demonstrators back with sticks and knives. “They’re serving American agendas now. This square needs to be cleaned.”
Sadr is a storied figure in Iraq, with a history of agitation against U.S. troops and fierce loyalty from tens of thousands of pious and working class acolytes.
But he is also something of a shape-shifter; in the years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the cleric has positioned himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who can unify the country. His reliance on Iranian support has also waxed and waned, depending at times, it has seemed, on the optics for his political base.
But Iraq’s youth movement has emerged as a challenge to his long-standing image as a man who can command the country’s streets. As the largest spontaneous uprising in the country’s history, the protest movement has already felled one government and rejected a prime minister-designate that Sadr had backed. The candidate, Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi, stepped aside Sunday.
More than 500 demonstrators have been killed by Iraq’s security forces and Iran-backed militias since October, human rights and security officials say. The violence has turned what started as anti-corruption protests into a revolt against the entire political system, with growing anger and mockery directed at Iran’s leading role — and now at the cleric himself.
“In this sense, it is the nature of Iraq’s protest politics that has changed, not Sadr himself,” said Ben Robin-D’Cruz, a researcher on Iraqi politics at the University of Edinburgh.
Sadr’s followers joined the protests from day one. Young men from Sadr City — a poor and sprawling district of Baghdad named for his father, a slain ayatollah, where he has long enjoyed popular support — turned up spontaneously and repeatedly clashed with Iraq’s riot police.
The protesters say they are fed up with the endemic corruption and lack of political freedoms that grew out of a political system forged in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. Despite initial support for their demands, Sadr called for a separate march with the support of Iran-backed militias in late January and then tweeted — apparently from Iran — that he would “try not to interfere in the [protests], either negatively or positively.”
He ordered his supporters to leave Iraq’s protest camps days later, and then he sent them marching back, this time in opposition to the young crowds they once camped alongside.
“It’s not the riot police attacking us anymore, it’s them,” said Walid Fadhil, 27, watching warily on a recent day as the violence unfolded.
Dozens of people have been killed or wounded in the latest clashes.
“It’s changed everything,” said Reem, a 28-year-old protester in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, waving her hand toward the tents that have emptied out in recent weeks.