USIP’s Elie Abouaoun, based in the Institute’s Baghdad office, discusses the al-Sadr movement – and why it once again stands to be a destabilizing force in Iraq and region.

What is the ideology of the al-Sadr movement (SM) and how it does operate?

Al-Sadr movement is an Iraqi political party headed by Muqtada Al-Sadr, son of the slain widely influential Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr. Muqtada al-Sadr, has been claiming to represent his father’s political and religious legacy. He aggressively promoted an anti-Western agenda as well as an application of a strict Islamic regime in Iraq.

In 2003, al-Sadr established a militia called “al-Mahdi army” (Jaysh Al-Mahdi-JAM) to “liberate Iraq”. He started by calling for a political resistance against the “occupation” that quickly turned into intense military confrontations with the Multi National Forces and other rival Shia parties. In 2003, al-Sadr established religious courts throughout the country and attempted to assume the role of government. In the South and parts of Baghdad, an alarming raise has been registered in attacking/banning anything considered “anti-Islamic,” such as CD/DVD shops, Internet cafes, musical bands, “suspicious” restaurants and hotels, alcohol trades, unveiled women. The trend in radicalizing Iraq’s everyday’s life was not exclusive to the Southern governorates; however the SM was the spearhead in promoting this type of Islamic regime in its areas of control.

The Mahdi Army survived a first setback in the Najaf battle against U.S. forces in June 2004 leading to the creation of several spin-off movements such as the “League of the Righteous,” Al-Fadhila party (The Virtue Party) and other smaller groups that currently share the public base of the Sadrists (as it was shown by the successive elections held since 2005).

Between 2004 and 2008, the Mahdi Army attempted to reassert their control in the predominantly Shia areas, promoting the same political agenda and using a strong anti-Western discourse. This period ended in 2008 when the government managed to uproot the Mahdi Army from Baghdad and the South, as a result of a large military intervention. Al-Sadr movemement nevertheless continued to play an active role in Iraq’s tumultuous politics but without its powerful military wing.

This period is also characterized by the absence of Muqtada al-Sadr himself who decided to complete his religious studies in Iran seeking advanced religious credentials that would allow him to claim back the main religious institutions (Al-Hawza) previously controlled by his father.

Large amounts of money are spent through the movement’s religious and social structures in part to “educate” youngsters on the virtues of the “Islamic regime,”, the “vice” of the West, the conspiracy against Muslims.

Back to top

What is behind the recent surge in the activities of the Sadr movement and how will this impact the situation in Iraq?

Since his return to Iraq in January 2011, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s political discourse has been firm but less aggressive. He focused much more on domestic issues and the performance of the government, granting Prime Minister Maliki a six months grace period to improve the basic services.

The recent discussions about the possibility of Iraq requesting an extension for the U.S. forces, however, triggered a strong reaction from Muqtada al-Sadr – saying that any decision extending the U.S. military presence would be faced by a “political” resistance, against the “occupation” and the entities “associated to it,” such as civilian contractors, journalists, and staffers for international organizations.

Even though Muqtada Al-Sadr is now insisting on “political” resistance only, it is not excluded that the military wing of the movement will directly engage in non-political forms of resistance (as in 2003) mainly because he does not have a full control over all brigades of the Mahdi Army and because he is quite vulnerable to the pressure from Iran.

While the Central and North-Central governorates are witnessing the re-activation of some radical Sunni groups, the developments in the South indicate intense efforts to restructure the Mahdi Army, bring back its notorious military commanders from Iran, and actively disseminate anti-Western feelings at grassroots levels. While it will be more difficult for the movement to win back Karbala and Najaf due to the presence of rival and powerful clerics, the coming weeks will show how much it will be able to acquire a solid popular support in other areas of Southern Iraq.

Technically, all options in Iraq are open. One can envision a general state of destabilization as a worst case scenario or tit for tat operations in Iraq as part of the “exchange of messages” between Iran and the West or other regional powers.

Back to top

How does USIP’s work in Iraq help address the potential for conflict and violence?

USIP is currently focused on promoting reconciliation and moderation, strengthening government institutions and civil society, and helping Iraqi youth acquire a stake in peace and stability through empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in direct interventions in the field.

Many of USIP’s project help address situations of rising tensions such as the one we are now seeing in Iraq. USIP supports many networks working for conflict prevention, peacebuilding and the promotion of rule of law.

Through the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF), USIP enhances inter-communal engagement and reconciliation in Iraq. USIP provides as well micro grants to NIF members to design and deliver community-level conflict projects. This allows a direct outreach to the areas where potential conflicts might arise.

USIP continues its work with the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, an advocacy network of individuals and nongovernmental organizations formed from USIP-sponsored dialogues in 2010.

On another level, USIP is engaging both Muslim women and religious figures encouraging focus on the connection between religion and peace. Because media also retains the possibility of being used for incitement to hatred and violence, USIP is working with a group of Iraqi news directors, media regulators and civil society media monitors to improve the quality of news coverage. USIP is also developing working relationships among local, provincial and national leaders from Kirkuk and helping them to reach consensus on a priority set of issues important to the development of the province through a collaborative problem solving mechanism. USIP’s mission in Iraq is to strengthen local capacities to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts peacefully and promote the achievement of conditions which advance stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. The wide range of interventions described above allows USIP to contribute to conflict prevention and peacebuilding at both the national and local levels in Iraq.

Back to top

Related Publications

Iraq’s al-Sudani Government, One Year Later

Iraq’s al-Sudani Government, One Year Later

Thursday, November 2, 2023

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

Last week marked one year since Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani assumed office. His ascension to the role came after a year of deep political tensions, several alarming but contained episodes of violence, and no annual government budget. A political agreement among the Shia coalition known as the Coordination Framework and major Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties set the stage for the al-Sudani government to form — meanwhile, the biggest winner in the 2021 parliamentary elections, cleric and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr, decided to withdraw from the political process altogether.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Kurdish Official Lists ISIS and Climate Change as Top Threats

Kurdish Official Lists ISIS and Climate Change as Top Threats

Thursday, June 22, 2023

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

More than five years since the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS, a senior Kurdish official says the terrorist group is among the top threats facing the region. Alongside ISIS, Rebar Ahmed, minister of interior in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), listed climate change and the resource scarcities and migration it would trigger as a critical challenge.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & GovernanceEnvironmentViolent Extremism

Disengaging and Reintegrating Violent Extremists in Conflict Zones

Disengaging and Reintegrating Violent Extremists in Conflict Zones

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

By: Andrew Glazzard

Dealing with people who leave violent extremist groups has become one of the most pressing security issues of our time. Drawing on new primary research conducted by the author in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria, and existing research on disengagement and reintegration, this report underscores the challenges of administering rehabilitation programs in conditions of chronic insecurity—and of doing so at a scale sufficient to make a difference to hundreds or even thousands of people in short order.

Type: Peaceworks

Violent Extremism

The Latest @ USIP: A Veteran Reflects on the Evolution of the Iraq War

The Latest @ USIP: A Veteran Reflects on the Evolution of the Iraq War

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

By: Col. Jim Modlin

From battling insurgents to securing provincial elections, USIP military fellow Colonel Jim Modlin saw firsthand how the war in Iraq evolved over the course of his four deployments to the country. Twenty years later, Modlin discusses why he regrets not engaging more with the Iraqi people on a personal level during his first deployment, his experience helping guide a fledgling peace process to prevent sectarian violence in northwestern Iraq, and the lessons that the United States cannot afford to forget from the war.

Type: Blog

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications