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February 6, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8543

After Turning On Anti-Government Protestors, Muqtada Al-Sadr Loses His Credibility As Leader Of A Populist Movement

February 6, 2020
Iran, Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 8543

On February 5, 2020, Iraqi security sources said that at least nine people had been killed and dozens wounded in clashes in Iraq's southern city of Najaf, when supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr stormed a camp of anti-government protestors. The security sources added that supporters of Al-Sadr, known as Blue Caps because of the headgear they wear, dispersed protesters in response to a tweet from Al-Sadr asking them to help Iraqi security authorities restore "day to day life" by clearing roads blocked by sit-ins and ensuring that businesses and schools could reopen.[1] The instructions from Al-Sadr came a few days after his open endorsement of Iraqi prime minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, whom the protesters had rejected.

The prominent Qom, Iran-based cleric's recent moves could signal a new turn in his political career; he has shifted from routine nationalist rhetoric to showing allegiance to Iran, possibly to strengthen his grip on the evolving formation of Iraq's new government and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). However, this may have backfired, and there are indications that his credibility among Iraqis, including among his supporters, is declining.

Over the past few weeks, Al-Sadr has tweeted contradicting positions regarding the anti-government protests, first supporting them and then renouncing support for them after they refused to accept his preferred candidate for prime minister, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, because they consider him the choice of Iran's puppets in Iraq. His statements, which evolved from calls to the Blue Caps to protect them to accusations that they are agents of foreign powers and instructions to his supporters to violently attack and disperse the protests have raised suspicions among many Iraqis, including some of his supporters, that he might be under house arrest by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).


Protesters in Baghdad holding banner demanding Al-Sadr to make a public appearance (Source: Erem News)

Al-Sadr last appeared in public on October 29, 2019, when he drove through the city of Najaf to show support for the protesters.[2] On January 12, his office released a series of photos of his meeting in Qom with PMU commanders to arrive at a unified position regarding their new roles following the deaths of IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and PMU deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.[3] His reliance on Twitter and the absence of any public appearance, even in televised interviews, has further fueled the abovementioned speculations.


A graphic about Al-Sadr's hateful tweets circulating among Iraqis on social media (Source: Twitter.com)

On February 4, some of Al-Sadr's followers requested that his office show evidence that he is still alive. The request enumerated several signs that are exacerbating concerns that his tweets are authored by Iranians. It stated: "We demand that the office prove to us that our leader is still alive. There are many signals in his last tweets that raise our suspicions. There is a lack of consistency, and individual tweets even contradict themselves. We want his office to arrange a live broadcast of the leader, showing date and time, in which he confirms the authenticity of the tweets."[4]

 
Al-Sadr's supporters' request to his office for a public appearance (Source: Erem News)

On January 26, Is'ad Al-Naseri, Al-Sadr's representative in the city of Nasiriyah, Iraq, announced that he is suspending his membership in the Sadrist movement and that he will  be joining the ranks of the protesters because he disagrees with Al-Sadr's orders to stop supporting the latter. The move highlights the rifts in Al-Sadr's own base.

The January 3, 2020 killing of Qods Force commander Soleimani and PMU deputy commander Al-Muhandis marked the beginning of a shift in Al-Sadr's attitude towards the protests and his apparent alignment with the Iranian position, when he called for a one-million-man march to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But his instructions to his Blue Caps to attack and disperse protests in Baghdad and Najaf appears to signal the beginning of the end of his status as the leader of a populist movement.

Al-Sadr's support for Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as prime minister has tarnished his image as a reformist, not only because Allawi is thought to be chosen by Iran loyalists, but also because, according to Iraqi media, Al-Sadr has nephews who are married to Allawi's daughters.

Once rarely criticized by Iraqi media, Al-Sadr is now being depicted as a traitor by media figures who once endorsed and defended him, and many Iraqi observers doubt whether he will be able to rebuild his reputation. In the meantime, social media users in Iraq have organized an online campaign,[5] "Report Muqtada," asking Twitter to suspend Al-Sadr, calling his tweets "hateful," and saying that they incite violence against peaceful protesters. The campaign also urged social media users to reports accounts affiliated with Al-Sadr, such as the Twitter account of his media assistant Salih Mohammad Al-Iraqi (@salh_m_aliraqi), which has been reportedly now been suspended by Twitter.

In a recent development, 70 Shi'ite tribes from Dhi Qar province, Iraq issued a statement warning that Al-Sadr was "a  reason for the shedding of the blood of the protesters and the dragging of the country into a civil war for personal gain. If you do not [heed this warning], you and your tribes will be responsible for the killing of our sons."[6]


Cartoon trending on Twitter about Al-Sadr's tweets (Source: Twitter.com)

 

[1] Twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1223896218784477184, February 2, 2020.

[2] Aawsat.com, October 29, 2019.

[4] Eremnews.com, February 5, 2020.

[5] Twitter.com/axy3d/status/1225193060105170946, February 4, 2020.

[6] Rrudaw.net, February 5, 2020.

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