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Iraq's firebrand Shiite cleric presents his political successor

Muqtada al-Sadr has appointed his nephew to oversee all the political activities of the Sadrist movement, while he turns his attention entirely to its religious aspects.

BAGHDAD, Iraq — In a meeting with the ministers of defense and interior in Muqtada al-Sadr's Najaf office May 3, Sadr's nephew Ahmed al-Sadr stood directly behind his uncle in what was taken as the younger Sadr's introduction as the second-highest authority of the Sadrist movement after Muqtada al-Sadr himself.

A few weeks ago, Ahmed al-Sadr appeared on the Iraqi scene as the head of the Sadrist movement's reform committee, introducing its political agendas and plans for the post-Islamic State period. The Sadrist movement presented its strategies at the end of April to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, President Fuad Masum, parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and former President Jalal Talabani.

The Sadrist movement has long been closely associated with the civil movement, having forged an alliance at the start of the demonstrations calling for reform that broke out in 2015.

Ahmed al-Sadr is the son of Muqtada al-Sadr's brother Mustafa al-Sadr. Ahmed al-Sadr was born in Najaf in 1986 but did not receive a religious education in traditional Shiite schools. Instead he was guided and supported by his uncle, who sent him to Lebanon to major in political science at Beirut University, where he completed a master’s degree.

Ahmed al-Sadr returned to Iraq and made public appearances a few days after Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement that he had received death threats March 24 from what he called the “trinity parties,” people involved with the US occupation, terrorism and corruption. He subsequently had to delegate powers to his aides.

As a result, Ahmed al-Sadr was appointed to head the recently formed committee to administer the Sadrist initiatives for political reform and the post-liberation period. He began with meeting with several Iraqi leaders.

Muqtada al-Sadr seems to be looking for loyal leaders close to the Sadrist movement, in light of the movement's tense relations with the Shiite National Alliance, particularly the State of Law Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Muqtada al-Sadr had previously called upon Abadi to start a political reform process and led popular demonstrations demanding change and efforts to fight corruption.

Several Sadrist leaders have been implicated in major corruption cases and local elections are scheduled for September. Thus, Muqtada al-Sadr had to rely on those close to him during this critical phase, and no one is better suited than Ahmed al-Sadr, groomed to take up this mission.

Leading the political committees means that Ahmed al-Sadr’s mission will be political and not religious. This separation will allow the movement’s political body to later become a political party under Iraqi law, which prohibits the formation of political parties on a religious or sectarian basis. Muqtada al-Sadr himself would become the movement’s guide or mentor, as he believes in the separation of religion and politics. 

Following his April 18 meeting with Masum, Ahmed al-Sadr said, “Muqtada al-Sadr’s initiatives are aimed at strengthening the state and the rule of law and applying it to help improve citizens’ lives, freedom and security.”

Ahmed al-Sadr also said he met with Abadi on April 21 to discuss electoral matters. Ahmed al-Sadr said, “The terms of the two [Sadrist] projects the importance of holding elections under a new professional and unbiased electoral commission and a fair electoral law that would meet the aspirations of citizens for true representation of the Iraqi people.”

Sadrist movement senior Ibrahim al-Jabiri told Al-Monitor, “Muqtada al-Sadr has put forward several political projects, including a proposal for initial solutions to the country’s situation in post-IS period, in addition to the reform project, including a change in the electoral law and the Independent High Electoral Commission. These projects and initiatives will be presented to the different political parties for consideration, refinement and implementation, to serve the country and correct the course of the political process."

Jaafar al-Mousawi, head of the Sadrist movement's political committee, denied reports of the formation of a cross-sectarian electoral bloc between the Kurds and the movement after a Sadrist delegation headed by Ahmed al-Sadr visited the Kurdistan Region.

“The delegation representing Muqtada al-Sadr, led by Ahmed al-Sadr, had one specific mission, which was to discuss the projects of Muqtada al-Sadr after the liberation of Mosul, in addition to reform in the electoral commissions,” Mousawi said in an April 23 statement to al-Ghad Press.

“We heard from the committee that Kurdish parties welcomed Sadr’s initiatives regarding reform and the post-liberation period of Mosul,” Mousawi added.

Sadr's “Initial Solutions,” introduced Feb. 21, aim to provide support for the areas liberated from IS, including reconstruction projects, the return of the displaced and “eliminating foreign forces from the country while integrating the Popular Mobilization Units in the security forces.”

Sadr’s electoral reform project, launched Jan. 10, outlines mechanisms for selecting the members of the Independent High Electoral Commission and reform Iraq's electoral law.

It appears that Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement are standing before a historic opportunity to use a civil political approach to shake off the criticism and resentment of political Islam, which has struggled in an attempt to rule the country since 2003.

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