Iraqi Shiite Leaders Adapt to Changing Times

Article Summary
Direct communication with citizens seems to be the name of the game for Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim, Shiite leaders looking to compete with Prime Minister Maliki. Mouchreq Abbas analyzes the involvement of each man in Iraqi political life, and how they have moderated their rhetoric and reformulated their positions.

Since the power struggle that took place between Iraqi political parties in 2003, one cannot really speak of radical changes in the way these parties interact. However, the past two years have seen remarkable changes in how young religious leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim work.

Changing conditions in Iraq, as well as the the major political developments that took place for the Shiites with the rise of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, forced Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim to reformulate their political approaches. They had to devise new ways of communicating with their constituents, which included addressing peoples’ day-to-day issues and promoting concepts such as the “civil state,” “peaceful power transfers,” “national reconciliation,” “upholding the Constitution,” “demanding basic services” and warning against the formation of “a new dictatorship.”

But the biggest development in the role of the religious figures lies in the ambiguous connection between the ancient “Najaf” philosophy, which dictates distance between the “turban” and politics, and the philosophy of “Qom,” which integrates politics and religion through Velayat-e-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists).

At the level of modern Shiite politics, Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim have several things in common. Both are descendants of two major religious families whose impact has been engraved in national memory. Both also belong to a young generation that is able to adapt and learn quickly, and is more likely to adopt change.

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In the 2010 elections, the current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won second place with 89 seats, the “Iraqi List” won the majority of seats, and the other Shiite forces led by Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim trends won 70 seats. This was a turning point in the consolidation of the balance of power’s tilt towards the Shiites. This shift created two challenges to Iraqi political life:

The first challenge was the basic fact that Maliki represented a Shiite Iraqi political figure independent of the religious establishment. This issue becomes important from a social and psychological point of view if we take into consideration the historical relationship between religious and political symbols in the Iraqi Shiite subconscious. Maliki, who had been championing a civil Iraqi state, rose to power thanks to his personal success during the period of sectarian infighting. His fight against militias not affiliated with the state had nothing to do with his affiliation to the Islamic Da’wa party.

Secondly, Maliki's rise to power coincided with his strikes against Al-Sadr's militant supporters in Shiite cities. He simultaneously undertook attempts to undermine Al-Hakim's political support in these cities.

Al-Hakim, who assumed the command of the Islamic Supreme Council after the death of his father Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, faced major challenges during the 2010 elections. The Council, which won 10 parliamentary seats in the 2010 elections, was forced to reformulate its priorities and change its political discourse to better reflect the new phase of Iraqi politics.

Meanwhile, Al-Sadr, whose party won 40 parliamentary seats, was able to gain an awareness of the situation. Following a preliminary study of the election results, he decided that he would lead a resistance movement. This move aimed to address the Shiites supporting Maliki, who he knew would adopt different stances following the withdrawal of US troops. He realized that the conditions that helped him win his current share of parliamentary seats would not necessarily be available in the next phase.

Al-Sadr and the Strategy of the Polls

In an important statement addressed to his more militant followers, Al-Sadr said: "You only know the language of weapons and killing. You are the enemies of the family of Al-Sadr. I ask God to rid me of this group that only thinks about war and weapons. When asked to advocate issues related to education, culture and peace, they abandon us. It is as if we, the Al-Sadr family, are seen only as armed men… This group has tarnished our reputation and made others see us different from what we we really are."

This stern rhetoric summarizes Al-Sadr's new political approach, which has been evolving and maturing over the past two years. It also reflects the strong resistance that exists against transforming Al-Sadr’s movement from an armed organization accused of taking part in the civil war to an effective political organization able to adapt with the concept of a "civil state."

Some Al-Sadr supporters see the US withdrawal from Iraq as the reason behind this transformation, as the call to take up arms against an invading force no longer carries the same legitimacy. Others attribute this transformation to Al-Sadr’s maturation after several years of religious studies in the [Iranian] city of Qom. Other reasons may include Al-Sadr's increased awareness of the pitfalls of Islamic governance, such as that of Iran, which he gained through daily life there. Al-Sadr advised the Iraqi government not to keep itself from participating in the international sanctions against Iran at the expense of Iraqi interests. He also severely scolded some of his supporters for their demands to take up arms against the Gulf states.

The most significant change lies in the structure of Al-Sadr's discourse — where he adopted the so-called “strategy of the polls" — and on the polls themselves, pointing to the role they play as a religious tradition. He asked his followers to abide by fatwas issued by religious figures — who are considered principal sources of reference. Al-Sadr built upon this tradition by using it as a tool to effectively reduce the gaps between his followers, the street and the media outlets since he left Iraq six years ago. His responses to the "polls" became daily material for the media, and a way of measuring new trends.

Al-Sadr’s keenness to communicate with his supporters on a "spontaneous" level is interesting. The polls he sends out to his supporters are not subject to any kind of audit or review before they are published, even when it comes to making grammatical corrections. He once answered one of his supporters by saying: “Your words do not make any sense, they are nonsense." This spontaneity appears to be "deliberate," and is at the core of the relationship between Al-Sadr and his supporters. It seeks to engrain the basic principles of his organization, which calls itself a Shiite movement born in Iraq to raise the slogan of supporting the downtrodden and the marginalized.

Beyond this, Al-Sadr used the platform of spontaneous polling to urge his followers to follow a certain set of political directions. He called for the boycott of "Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq [the League of Righteousness]" and accused it of involvement in the killing of Iraqis. He also claimed that it had harmed his party during the 2006-2007 sectarian war. He also criminalized the so-called "Abu Deri," whose name is linked to the atrocities which took place during that war, and succeeded to a large extent in "rationalizing" the "Al-Mahdi Army" militia affiliated with him, turning it into a "cultural organization."

He also radically changed his own political party [the Sadrist movement] by restructuring it and shutting down many of its bureaus. He supported the movement’s political leadership in the face of the former militia leaders by inviting competent figures and university professors to join the movement. When the Sadrist movement took part in the 2010 elections, most of its members were new.

In sum, Al-Sadr's shift in strategy is based on abandoning violence, greater political dialog and increased expression on all political issues. Al-Sadr has warned of the return of dictatorship to Iraq. He supports the Constitution, considers federalism a popular choice, condemns those who have killed or attacked "emos," refuses to distinguish between females and males in universities, and allows his supporters to work at the US Embassy. He also condemns government control over private entities. Finally, Al-Sadr has implied that the Sadrist movement desires to take over the premiership in the coming stages, as he has already urged his political bloc to head service ministries rather than political or military ones.

Al-Sadr has also been strict with the MPs from his bloc accused of corruption or misconduct. He calls for launching polls on issues such as the selection of candidates for the Sadrist movement, and called for “a national code of honor” that goes beyond the differences of the past and prevents sectarian infighting. He has also disowned any member of his movement who commits acts of violence in Syria, or participates in any way in the crisis there.

Al-Hakim and the Strategy of Interaction

Those who have been observing Al-Hakim should be able to clearly see how his youthful spirit and different tactics have contributed to an unprecedented sense of liveliness in the work of the “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.” Al-Hakim was able to create a working balance within the Council due to the lethargy  of the organization's veteran “hawks.”

Al-Hakim inherited a party structure which had been governed by an opposition mentality, far away from the modern foundations of public communication with the street. He explains this lack of communication by saying, “It is natural for Iraqi political leaders to commit mistakes, since they were part of the opposition for long periods of time, and were not able to take part of the government in the past.”

Al-Hakim is also the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. This party has not been a significant player on the Iraqi political scene since Hadi al-Amiri and his “Badr Organization” defected from it.

Al-Hakim’s path to the presidency of the “Supreme Council” was not easy, as his competition included key political and religious “stars.” These important figures already had prominent roles and influence within the council, and could count on the support of their mobilized followers. However, young Al-Hakim’s strength was that he was not personally responsible for the loss of the recent elections — this loss could better be attributed to the party’s previous policies. The loss of the elections provided an excuse to make radical changes in the mechanisms of the “Supreme Council” and its relationship with the public.

Al-Hakim’s strategy for approaching his supporters was based on his continuous presence at the heart of events in Iraq. He organized dozens of social and cultural forums, as well as sponsoring initiatives such as mass weddings, supporting civil, youth and women institutions and opening up to civil society organizations. The youthfulness of Al-Hakim is reflected in his political speech as well. He completely avoids referring to the “federalism of the center and the south [of Iraq].” Instead, he focuses on other concepts such as a “consensus governance of Iraq” and calls for turning the page on the past.

Al-Hakim urges his supporters to expose corruption and the government’s shortcomings. In one of his speeches, he rejected what he called the “policy of harassing the other,” an implicit reference to the situation of Iraqi Sunnis. He also met with artists, athletes, and scientists, using different levels of discourse depending on the occasion. At the national Iraqi political level, he has been keen to make use of talking points such as “round tables,” "settling problems” and “yes to transparency and no to gloating.”

Among all the clerics and politicians, Al-Hakim is one of the frequent users of social media networks like Facebook to express his carefully and powerfully expressed views. On one occasion he said, “The ballot box is a tool through which Iraq can either maintain the people in charge of the current mistakes, or replace them with those who are capable of managing their affairs.” He also posted, “We hope that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs develops a project to grant loans to the youth,” “our project is to build a successful modern state that would serve the homeland and the citizen,” “terrorism seeks to fish in the troubled waters of politics, so politicians, try to clear your waters,” and “behavioral phenomena can only be addressed through communication, intellectual ability, culture and advice.”


The political changes in Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim’s methodology and their youthful spirits and ambitions are still not enough for them to engage in direct political competition. They both adhere to the “kingmaker” role, refraining from including their names in the electoral lists or exercising direct political action.

However, the confusing and complex political situation in Iraq no longer allows for a separation between the party leader and direct political practice, whether it is just a political action or a parliamentary one.

Apart from political representation and practicing the role of a religious figure, Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim are trying to restore the 2003 equation that was created for governing Iraq, since priorities have changed in the recent reign of Maliki.

The formula that brought Maliki to power stipulated that: “First, the ruler must represent the Shiites of Iraq, and second the Americans and the Iranians should agree with each other on the ruler and he should be accepted at the regional level and represent the minimum level of internal consensus.” However, the formula that came before Maliki which is being advocated by Al-Sadr and Al-Hakim stipulates that “first, the ruler should represent the Shiites of Iraq, and second he should be able to gain an internal consensus and acceptable limits of regional and international consensus.”

Between these two equations lies the crisis of Iraq. At the moment, Maliki still represents the Iraqi Shiites — and has possibly increased his presence among them — and he continues to gain US and Iranian support. However, there are fluctuations in regional positions toward his rule, due to significant variations in his domestic support. Maliki is fully aware of his credence with respect to other groups, such as the Sunnis and the Kurds. That is why he suggested revitalizing the democratically accepted concept of “majority rule.” However, the proposed majority in Iraq — according to the other political parties — is still a “sectarian majority.”

In reference to his meeting in Iran with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Al-Sadr noted that the goal of the meeting was to prevent Iraq from sliding into a new dictatorship. Meanwhile, Al-Hakim continues to advocate the “round table” concept, arguing that Iraq cannot be ruled unless there is a consensus among its different political components.

On the other hand, Maliki has developed a variety of strong positions over the past six years, especially among the Shiites. They are trying to avoid open and dangerous conflict between the Shiite religious schools, particularly with any conflict over the succession of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani.

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Found in: shiite politics, shiite, sectarnianism, pluralism, nouri al-maliki, national consensus, muqtada al-sadr, communication, civil state, ammar al-hakim
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