Sadr’s surprise, a last minute withdrawal from politics

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr surprised us when he announced that he was quitting politics and warned that his followers should refrain from getting engaged in politics too. Does his decision imply a secret agreement whereby one of the remaining candidates has a better chance of winning Iraq’s upcoming elections? Perhaps it is part of a deal in which Nouri al-Maliki wins because he does not have to stand against Sadr? Or, is Sadr angry at his movement’s representatives in parliament who obey him when he is present and disobey him in parliament? Or, is the decision a political tactic preceding the elections?

We simply don’t know. But what is certain is that by quitting politics, he has ruined observers’ analyses and their forecast for the elections. Sadr’s many followers will not hesitate to vote during the elections which are to be held in a few weeks. Now that he has quit politics, the question is: who will the millions of these followers vote for? These supporters count for a lot because they are capable of shifting the outcome of the elections.

A brave character

Sadr is an interesting and brave character. He is the only Shiite leader who continued to fight the Americans for seven years. He also thwarted Nouri al-Maliki’s plans and defied him. He is the only Shiite leader to speak of reconciliation with the Sunnis and announced that he stood against the hostile targeting of revered Sunni symbols. He was thus subjected to Shiite extremist threats and slander campaigns and was mocked by Sunni extremists.

Sadr is an interesting and brave character. He is the only Shiite leader who continued to fight the Americans for seven years

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

With his withdrawal happening at a dangerous time for Iraq, he has placed the political arena and everyone in it in a chaotic situation as questions pile up as to the reason and timing of his departure.

What could have been

Sadr could have withdrawn from politics after the elections. He could have personally withdrawn and assigned someone he trusts to lead his movement as complete withdrawal will only enhance Maliki’s chances of winning the premiership again. Maliki would thus have the chance to rule Iraq for 12 consecutive years, strengthening his dictatorship. Many Iraqis say they sacrificed a lot to get rid of such dictatorships, such as that of Saddam Hussein’s.

Toppling Maliki in these elections is not solely aimed at eliminating Maliki from the political scene, but at consolidation a system of political participation, accountability and institutions’ independence. All this was shattered in eight years due to Maliki’s semi-absolute authority. He has more authority than Saddam Hussein more money than any Iraqi cabinet since the establishment of the republic six decades ago.

Sadr’s decision would have been good if it sought to neutralize institutions and if it was part of a move to keep all religious references away from politics. However, his decision was a unilateral one that left the political area open to wolves and foxes.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 17, 2014.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

 

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