In the Arena

Populism in Iraq

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The excellent Anthony Shadid reports today that the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr made significant gains in the recent Iraqi elections. If true, this really complicates matters. Sadr, the son of a noted cleric, is a mysterious, radical figure whose militia, the Mahdi Army, was among the most powerful during the civil war…until it was defeated by US and Iraqi forces in Basra, and Sadr ordered it to stand down. He has spent the past several years in Iran, studying in Qom (his goal, apparently, is to replace Ayatullah Sistani as the leading Iraqi religious figure–although most students of Shi’ite Islam doubt he’d ever acquire the academic and spiritual chops to fill that role).

But Sadr’s presence in Iran should not be seen as an indication that he is an Iranian tool. Qom, increasingly, is a religious entity unto itself–at odds with the military regime that runs Iran; it is an intellectually roiling hotbed of quietists, clerical radicals and followers of other, distinct strands of Shi’ite practice. Sadr has always stood as an Iraqi nationalist–vehemently opposed to the U.S. occupation and military presence, but no pushover for the Iranians either (even though he was happy to receive Iranian aid in the war against the US).

Sadr’s primary constituency has always been the urban poor. Their powerful showing in this election sets up a classic dilemma: An alliance can be formed to govern Iraq that doesn’t include the Sadrists…but can Iraq truly be governed if the Sadrists are not included?