Supporters of radical Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr protested in Iraq on March 4. Like much of the region, Iraq has seen protests recently. Al-Sadr’s attempt to mobilize his supporters, however, could well play into the broader U.S.-Saudi and Iranian struggle in thePersian Gulf region.
Thousands of supporters of radical Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadri protested in the city of Al Amarah in Maysin province, about 390 kilometers (210 miles) south of Baghdad on March 4. Iraq has witnessed smatterings of protests over the past several weeks nationwide, with most rallying against government corruption and the country’s lack of basic services. Though al-Sadr’s supporters have protested on the same issues, these demonstrations are potentially politically weightier. In instructions to his followers issued March 3, al-Sadr stressed a reorientation of the political protests. He called for a condemnation of the United States for seeking a “fresh occupation in the region” through deposing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Al-Sadr said, “We are no longer deceived by rudeU.S. tricks. For we have been opposed, and we remain opposed to any interference by theUnited States, the evil country.”
Anti-U.S. rhetoric from al-Sadr is certainly not out of character. And these calls for protests against U.S. intervention have little to do with Libya, which is just a convenient issue to latch on to. Instead, al-Sadr’s attempt to mobilize his supporters comes at a critical time — and could well play into the broader U.S.-Saudi and Iranian struggle in the Persian Gulfregion.
In carrying on his father’s legacy, al-Sadr has long tried to distinguish himself as the most nationalist and independent among Iraq’s Shiite establishment most capable of resisting foreign (including Iranian) meddling. In spite of al-Sadr’s need to maintain that street credibility, there is little question that over the past several years he has been brought under the Iranian umbrella. Al-Sadr’s well-timed return to Iraq in early January from Iran, where he had spent years receiving guidance from his Iranian handlers and trying to shore up his religious credentials, was a deliberate message to Washington that Tehran was reinserting its main destabilizing tool in Iraq as U.S. forces continued their withdrawal. That tool did not necessarily need to be activated right away but could be used by Tehran to stir up tensions and grab U.S. attention whenever the need arose.
Based on al-Sadr’s most recent moves, it appears that time is now. The sustained tensions in Bahrain and unrest in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait look to be part of a broader destabilization campaign by the Iranians in the Persian Gulf. This campaign has been timed to exploit the unrest in North Africa as a useful cover and to catch the Sunni Arab states at their most vulnerable now that U.S. forces are withdrawing from Iraq.
Deploying al-Sadr is one of many ways Iran can project power against the United Statesamid the current regional chaos. Still, so far it is a measured move. The Sadrites have a significant constituency in Iraq among low-income Shia. But they are not the dominant Shiite group in Iraq and probably are not capable of sweeping the current government out of power on their own. Al-Sadr also lacks the political and religious credentials of rival Shiite leaders like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ammar al-Hakim or top clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf.
When al-Sadr steps out of the Shiite consensus, as he is doing now in protesting the al-Maliki government with a heavy dose of anti-U.S. spin, he is looking to shore up his political credentials and distance himself from an increasingly unpopular government. Al-Sadr’s decisions are not being made independently, however. Iran is fine with him pursuing his personal political agenda so long as his moves serve the Iranian strategic interest of elevating U.S. and Sunni vulnerabilities in the Persian Gulf region at a most critical time.