I’ve fought against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militias in Iraq. I’ve ducked from rockets from his Mahdi Army and lost friends to improvised explosive devices from his Promised Day Brigade. But the Muqtada al-Sadr of 2018, whose Sairun coalition won the most seats in this recent Iraq parliamentary election, is not the Muqtada al-Sadr of 2004. The man who once directed his Mahdi militias to fight U.S. forces in Najaf and Baghdad has changed for the better.
While Sadr may have acted counter to U.S. interests in the past, he is now more aligned with Western attempts to reign in Iranian influence and Sunni extremism. Sadr has, in his view, always been a pragmatist. But his pragmatic approach went from trying to change the situation in Iraq through physical violence (2003 to 2008) to understanding the power of politics and civic actions (2011 to 2018). Today, Sadr understands the need for coalition support to help bolster Iraq’s security forces, thereby preventing another collapse that allows an extremist group like the Islamic State to emerge.
I understand their fears because I once shared the same concerns. However, having been in Iraq for multiple combat tours and during last month’s parliamentary election, I now have a much more positive view of the country than I ever would have imagined. The Sadr I witnessed leading his Sairun alliance in the 2018 election, while not pro-American, was both pro-Iraqi and anti-Iranian. This is a huge shift from 2004.
This is the first Iraqi election since the defeat of the Islamic State and the fifth since Saddam Hussein was deposed. I was in Iraq for the 2010 parliamentary elections. I remember being in a U.S. cavalry squadron operations center in Baghdad as reports of improvised explosive devices, rockets, shootings, and Iraqi casualties at polling places came pouring in. One could feel the reverberations of an IED echoing through the walls of Forward Operating Base Falcon at the southern end of Baghdad in 2010. This year there has been nothing of the sort: No explosions, no incoming rockets, no car bombs.
The Iraqi security forces, along with their coalition partners from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and over 80 other nations have provided solid security for the population. While there were minimal incidents in other areas of Iraq, Baghdad was quiet on Election Day. Unlike in 2010, when two Shiite-led political blocs dominated the share of votes, 2018 split the spoils across Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish lines. In such an atmosphere, Sadrists, who received roughly 30 to 40 seats in previous elections, were poised to make a much stronger showing. As the election results came in, it became clear his list would win a plurality of the 329 seats in the Council of Representatives. That’s when the angst, bordering on panic, began in Washington, London, and in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Iraq War veterans who only knew the Sadr who’d tried to kill them during past deployments in Iraq.
After all, Sadr doesn’t like the United States. He never has and most likely never will. Sadr and his militias fought numerous battles against U.S. forces whom he viewed as occupiers. Even the government of Iraq launched Operation Charge of the Knights against Sadr and his militias in Basra in 2008 with massive help from coalition forces, an operation that prompted Sadr to flee to Iran. Following the 2008 cease-fire, Sadr shifted the Mahdi Army’s focus away from military operations to the provision of social services, establishing a nonmilitary wing called the Mumahidoon and reassigning most of the Mahdi Army’s members to it. Attacks against the Iraqi military and citizens were halted, although a small number of Mahdi militia members were assigned to the Promised Day Brigade and continued their attacks on U.S. forces until the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011.
The Sadr who returned to Iraq in 2011 from his exile in Iran was different. He disbanded the Mahdi Army, ordered his militias not to attack U.S. forces, and, in 2014, instructed them instead to defend Iraq against the Islamic State. The rise of the Islamic State coupled with the fall of Mosul resulted in an odd coalition: Iraqi Shiite militias, Iranian-backed forces, Iraqi counterterrorism forces, and U.S.-led coalition forces all fought against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Sadr’s forces, unlike other Shiite militias, cooperated with Iraqi government forces in that fight. More important, after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in December 2017 that the Islamic State had been defeated in Iraq, Sadr ordered his militias to disband and continued to follow the instructions of the Iraqi government.
Sadr has always been an Iraqi nationalist, placing his country before all others, including the United States and, more importantly, Iran.
Now, with the Islamic State almost vanquished in Iraq, sectarianism and corruption are the two biggest challenges facing the country. Sadr knows what sectarianism can do to Iraq; he was a major participant in it and his militias were directly responsible for numerous atrocities against fellow Iraqis. The bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites from 2006 to 2008 killed thousands and tore at the very fabric of Iraqi society. Entire neighborhoods were ethnically cleansed and mutilated bodies were pulled from the Tigris River every day. It was sectarianism combined with corruption under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that provided the opening for the Islamic State to emerge in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar.