[Published here February 3, 2020]
Baghdad (AFP) – Sporting their signature blue caps, the men marched triumphantly through Baghdad’s protest camp. The die-hard followers of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr were back in Tahrir Square, and they wanted everyone to know it.
Sadr, an enigmatic Shiite cleric who shot to prominence years ago by battling US occupation troops with his notorious Mahdi Army, has built a cult-like following across Iraq and controls the largest parliamentary bloc.
Rarely seen in public, the 45-year-old with the round, turbaned face has fuelled the sense of chaos of months-long anti-government protests with a dizzying and often contradictory series of directives issued via Twitter.
Back in October, he sent thousands of “Sadrists” into the streets to support the unprecedented wave of rallies demanding the ouster of Iraq’s entire political class and slamming their backers in Iran.
In late January, Sadr suddenly told supporters to pack up their tents — but a week later he changed course again, issuing an impassioned call that saw them back in protest camps “to renew the peaceful, reformist revolution”.
On Saturday, Sadr endorsed Iraq’s new prime minister-designate Mohammad Allawi, a figure loathed by the youths in revolt, in a move that has splintered protest squares.
Hardcore Sadrists then ousted protesters from a multi-storey building that had become a symbol of the uprising, tearing down portraits of youths shot dead in rallies and banners listing demonstrators’ demands.
The head-spinning back-and-forth of Sadr’s positions, usually by tweet, has stuck a wedge in his millions-strong base, even his followers say.
– ‘Love and obedience’ –
At the weekend, Sadr’s face could be seen on posters taped to three-wheeled motor-rickshaws and carried in gold-rimmed frames by fervent fans in Tahrir.
“If our lord, our commander Sadr told us to walk into a fire, we’d do it,” said Nabil, a middle-aged supporter.
Nabil said he had torn down his protest tent when Sadr said he would no longer back the anti-regime rallies, but had returned Saturday following the latest directive.
Asked if the contradicting orders confused him, he said no.
Nadia Abbas, a 45-year-old woman from Sadr’s namesake stronghold in east Baghdad, Sadr City, also said she saw “no contradiction between last week and right now”.
“Whatever he says, we do. Big or small,” she told AFP, as a cluster of veiled woman around her nodded in agreement.
Sadr’s younger supporters weren’t so sure.
Many of them had defied the cleric’s orders last month and remained in Tahrir, watching in disbelief as neighbours packed up their tents.
“From the moment I came here, when the revolution started, I’ve seen a lot — people dying, falling in the street and someone picking them up, ambulances, blood,” said Hamza, 26, who follows the Sadrist movement.
“We got used to all those scenes but what hurt me the most was watching those tents be taken away. I felt like I was from one country and they were from another,” he said.
Hussein, 24, struggled to explain the differing orders.
“He’s the commander, but his statement wasn’t a direct order to withdraw,” the blue-eyed demonstrator insisted.
If Sadr issued a clear order to abandon the protests, what would he do?
Hussein paused, then said: “There’s no way I would leave. Anyway, he’d never do that.”
Ali, 29, hails from Sadr City and his older brother died fighting for the cleric’s Mahdi Army in the years after the 2003 US-led invasion.
He had spent the past four months living in a tent in Tahrir, but said he couldn’t blindly follow Sadr’s tweets.
“The Sadrist movement has a huge popular base — eight million people isn’t nothing,” he said. “Their hearts are with the protests, but love and obedience are two different things.”
– ‘Growing schism’ –
The movement was founded by Sadr’s father and was one of the first Shiite religious currents to adopt populist and even revolutionary rhetoric under Saddam’s brutal regime.
It has splintered multiple times, and many of the powerful armed factions in Iraq today trace their roots back to the Sadrist movement, including those that oppose the protests.
“The danger of another schism is always there,” a source within the Sadrist movement told AFP, asking not to be named in order to be able to speak freely.
Asked about the recent divide over Sadr’s shifting positions, the source said: “Ultimately, this is a religious movement, not a democratic one.”
Renad Mansour, a researcher at the London-based Chatham House, said Sadr was struggling to reconcile his populist rhetoric with a growing stake in the state, where he controls parliament’s largest bloc and key ministry posts.
“There’s been a growing schism for a while,” said Mansour. “But winning the (2018 parliamentary) election put him into the elite, and he’s trying to balance too many things.”