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The recent case of the desecrated Quran in Sweden has put sovereign leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement back in the spotlight, demonstrating that it still has considerable mobilizing power in the face of pro-Iranian factions. In a country weakened by Teheran’s maneuvers, we look back at the dynamics shaping the fracturing of the country’s largest community, the Shia, into two political camps.

On July 21, 2023, supporters of the influential religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets of Baghdad in response to his call. The reason behind their demonstration was the desecration of a copy of the Quran by an Iraqi refugee in Stockholm the day before.

Beyond the incident of the desecrated Quran, this demonstration by al-Sadr’s followers holds another significance. It showcases al-Sadr’s constant and strong mobilization capacity despite his withdrawal from Iraqi politics.

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold up his portrait and that of his late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, along with copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, and Iraqi national flags during a rally denouncing the burning of the Koran in Sweden, in the eastern suburb of Sadr City, Baghdad, on July 21, 2023. (Photo Murtaja LATEEF / AFP)


On October 13, 2022, Iraqi deputies elected Abdel Latif Rachid as the President of the Republic after several months of political deadlock and three postponed elections. On the same day, Rachid appointed Mohamed Chia al-Soudani as the new Prime Minister to form a government.

The newly formed government cemented the control of political factions associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the famous paramilitary units supported by Iran. These factions had benefited from the resignation of the deputies linked to Moqtada al-Sadr, who presented himself as the figurehead of the sovereigntist movement.

Iraqi Confessionalism

The difficulties in reaching a consensus on power sharing in the government can be attributed to the complexity of the political system established in Iraq in 2005, following Saddam Hussein’s downfall. The system is based on a confessional distribution similar to the Lebanese model. Consequently, the presidency is held by a Kurd, the Prime Minister is a Shiite, and the Parliament’s speaker is a Sunni. This requires forming complex alliances and a constant consensus to establish a government, just like in Lebanon.

The most crucial of these positions is that of the Prime Minister, as it holds the majority of executive power. Therefore, the issues surrounding the Prime Minister’s nomination often lead to strong polarization within the Shiite community, which is the largest in the country.

President of the Republic of Iraq Abdud Latif Rashid (Left), Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Soudani (Center) and Speaker of the Council of Representatives (Parliament) Mohamed al-Halbousi (Right), in office since October 2022. (Photo AFP / Wikimedia Commons / Presidential Press and Information Office’s of Azerbaijan / Tasnim)

To understand this polarization and the role played by Tehran, one must delve into the history of Iraq’s Shiite communities since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Marginalized Communities

Shiite communities in Iraq have been constantly marginalized until 2003. During the Ottoman Empire, they were considered at best as potential proxies of the then-Shiite rival, the Persian Empire, or at worst as apostates by the Sunni ruling power. Nevertheless, despite their marginalization, they remained politically active. The constitutionalist movement within the Ottoman Empire was locally marked by the activism of Shiite personalities, influenced by ideas from Iran that characterized the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.

This political activism gained momentum under British rule. The British relied on a Sunni elite to govern the region, which led to Shiite religious leaders taking the lead in the anti-colonial struggle. In response, the British used a heavy-handed approach that significantly weakened the local clergy. As a result, secular and socialist ideals took precedence over religious leadership.

The Rise of Political Shiism

The late 1960s witnessed a resurgence of political Shiism in Kerbala and Najaf. Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr played a central role in this movement. He was not only Moqtada’s father but also the cousin of Imam Moussa Sadr, the founder of the Amal Movement in Lebanon.

Undated picture of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father (Photo – / Wikimedia Commons)

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 revived hopes among Iraqi Shiite circles. Some religious leaders like al-Sadr openly challenged Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, the Iran-Iraq war dashed these hopes and led to a significant increase in repression against the Shiite populations, who were seen as a potential fifth column by the regime.

This repression continued after Iraq’s defeat in 1991, when Shiite uprisings were brutally crushed causing the death of 100,000 to 300,000 people. In 1999, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated by the Baathist regime after a second revolt.

After 2003: The Rise of Two Political Currents

In 2003, the Shiites came to power following the US invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s ouster. A new Iraqi constitution was approved by referendum in 2005. The resulting confessional regime established the dominance of these previously oppressed communities in Iraq for the first time.

This newfound prevalence was made possible primarily due to the dual support of the U.S. occupiers and, most importantly, Iran. The Islamic Republic saw the 2003 invasion as an opportunity to eliminate one of its worst adversaries while advancing its own interests in Iraq amid the ensuing chaos.

For Iran, the objective was twofold: to extend its influence over the Iraqi Shiite communities and the country, placing its proxies in power, similar to Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. This would enable it to establish territorial continuity with Syria and Lebanon. This famous “Shiite arc” would give Iran indirect access to the Mediterranean. But it also aimed to weaken Iraq’s power base for the long term, and thus avoid another devastating war. The fracturing of power between multiple militias made its job easier.

Simultaneously, another political current emerged after 2003, favoring Iraqi sovereignty. It was centered around the charismatic and impetuous figure of Moqtada al-Sadr. Rapidly becoming the leading Shiite political force, the Sadrist movement began engaging in armed confrontations with other factions within the community.

They even targeted Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics worldwide, accusing him of being overly close to Tehran. While al-Sadr presented an alternative to Iran’s vision, his movement remained heavily focused on his father’s legacy, occasionally adopting populist and even radical stances, especially on religious matters.

Fighters from Hashd al-Shaabi, former paramilitaries integrated into Iraqi forces, carry national flags and a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, their country’s highest Shiite cleric, as they take part in a parade marking the 9th anniversary of their founding, in the al-Hadar region, northern Iraq, on June 22, 2023. (Photo Zaid AL-OBEIDI / AFP)
Iranian Influence Takes Root

During the U.S. occupation, Iranian influence took root in the southern part of Iraq, primarily due to the efforts of Qasem Soleimani. Since 1997, Soleimani had been leading the al-Quds Force, which is responsible for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external operations. Supporting Iraqi militias with the help of local Shiite minorities was part of Iran’s regional influence strategy, just like in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.

Soleimani’s strategy revolved around a core of armed groups created in the 1970s, including the Badr Brigades and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. These groups saw some of their members ascend to prominent positions within the Iraqi security forces. Simultaneously, they continued to control important territories in southern Iraq, contributing to the nationwide chaos.

It was after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops that Iran’s grip on Iraq tightened even further. Shiite pro-Iranian militias were gradually integrated into the Iraqi security apparatus. Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki orchestrated this political maneuver to weaken his political opponents, especially the Sadrists, while drawing closer to Tehran.

When ISIS threatened Baghdad in 2014, Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa calling for jihad against the terrorist group. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites joined the ranks of the militias, which were quickly reorganized and became the famous Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hachd al-Chaabi). The majority of these militias maintained ties to Iran. From that point on, Tehran had a paramilitary force under its command on Iraqi soil. Their action against ISIS temporarily boosted Iranian influence over Iraqi Shiites, but it didn’t guarantee a long-term control.

Hachd al-Shaabi-affiliated militiamen parading on a battle tank, during the liberation of Daech-held Fallujah by the Iraqi army assisted by them, in 2016. (Photo – / Wikimedia Commons)
Rejection of the Elites and Iranian Influence

In October 2019, an unprecedented wave of protests erupted in Iraq, involving all communities. Although each community initially targeted its own elites, they all expressed a widespread frustration with the entire system.

The main demands included an end to the confessional system, corruption, and clientelism. A more equitable distribution of wealth, especially regarding oil revenues, was also sought. Notably, the protesters held religious dignitaries accountable, including al-Sistani, and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Implicitly, the protesters criticized foreign influences, especially Iran, holding it responsible for the problems facing Iraqis. Moqtada al-Sadr attempted to co-opt the movement by calling for early elections. However, his efforts failed, as the protesters influenced by religious traditions, also targeted his supporters. Consequently, he eventually aligned with other clerics’ rhetoric.

A demonstrator waving an Iraqi flag in Baghdad, during the October 2019 revolution. (Photo – / Wikimedia Commons)

The protests led to the resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister perceived as pro-Iran. The cost was high: over 600 deaths and 25,000 injuries. The Shiite militias including the Popular Mobilization Forces sought to protect the existing regime by using live ammunition against the demonstrators. Nevertheless, the Sadrist militias also joined in the repression.

Despite the crackdown, the demonstrations persisted even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on Iraqi politics was evident during the October 2022 elections, as there was a general disillusionment with the democratic process. The result was a record abstention and the emergence of a potential third political bloc.

The Sadrists’ Coup de Maître

The fall of the Mahdi government led to early elections in 2021. The coalition led by the Sadrists emerged victorious in the polls, while the pro-Iranian movements suffered setbacks. However, voter turnout remained low, around 60% for the whole country.

Composition of the Iraqi parliament after early parliamentary elections on October 10, the final results of which were published on November 30 – AFP / AFP

Nevertheless, the Sadrists’ victory was short-lived. Sadrists were unable to form a government by relying solely on their majority seats in parliament as it fell short of securing the required quorum. The Iraqi state’s structure requires compromises by all political factions, similar to the Lebanese system. Although the majority of Shiite populations currently lean towards sovereigntist tendencies, Iran’s influence over the political structures hinders significant changes.

The Sadrists’ inability to form a government led to a political crisis. This culminated in the resignation of their parliamentary bloc in July 2022, followed by a demand for the Parliament’s dissolution. When the demand went unheeded, Moqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from Iraqi politics the following month.

Iran: The Master of Iraqi Politics?

Consequently, al-Sadr supporters stormed government quarters, clashing with security forces and the PMF. The situation eventually calmed down when al-Sadr called for his supporters to return home. Since then, the Shiite leader has remained out of the political arena.

The withdrawal of al-Sadr and his supporters opened the path for pro-Iranian factions. On October 13, a Prime Minister reputed to be close to Iran was appointed, indicating that Tehran has successfully reasserted its control over Iraq through the institutions.

The latest episode underscores Iran’s entrenched influence within Iraq’s Shiite communities. Despite a declining popularity among the population in recent years, Iran’s control remains intact. Various groups and influential personalities still allow Iran to exert control over a part of Iraq’s affairs. Through these proxies, the Islamic Republic has achieved its goal of firmly weakening its Iraqi neighbor.

However, developments related to the 2019-2021 protests highlight a new trend. A sovereigntist movement is gaining momentum among Shiite populations distancing itself from religious ties and embracing a nationalist and non-confessional ideal, in stark contrast to the Sadrists’ ideology.