On August 22, 2022, Kadhim al-Haeri announced his resignation from the position of marja due to old age and illness. This announcement was unexpected and unprecedented for a marja, and it caused a political earthquake in Iraq, with the rug pulled out from under the feet of the Sadrist Movement, particularly its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. The latter derived religious legitimacy from Haeri, and his resignation cast a shadow of doubt over Sadr’s religious credentials and leadership qualities. In fact, Haeri in his resignation letter questioned Sadr’s ability to lead given his lack of qualifications to perform ijtihad and undermined him further as well as the holy Shiite city of Najaf by directing the Iraqi people to emulate the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
There is no doubt that Haeri’s resignation caught Sadr off-guard, with little time to prepare for such a bombshell. Sadr reacted like he has in the past when political complexities emerge, he announced his withdrawal from political life on August 29, 2022, causing massive confusion and chaos on the Iraqi street. Considering these two unexpected events, a series of questions emerge regarding the implications of the resignation/withdrawal and the potential scenarios that might play out in the future. Answering such questions are critical to determining what the Iraqi political landscape will be like in the short-term, which will have ramifications, whether positive or negative, for regional countries.
Firstly, as mentioned, Sadr lost his religious cover, as Haeri not only provided him with religious edicts but also designated him as a Hojjat al-Islam, a title given to Shiite clerics who have not yet reached the level of performing ijtihad. With his religious mantle stripped, Sadr faces difficulty in his quest to lead the Shiite community in Iraq which values leaders with religious legitimacy and credentials. A possibility for Sadr maybe to seek an alternative religious cover from Najaf, but this comes with its own risks for him. Najaf has historically been at odds with Sadr over his political positions, but at the same time, knowing his maverick nature, it has attempted to keep cordial relations with him. Hence, Najaf is unlikely to bend to all of Sadr’s demands or conditions. In fact, it will want to seek some concessions and flexibility from Sadr in return for religious legitimacy. But at the same time, Sadr is his own man, and would not want to be held hostage to Najaf and the dictates of the religious authorities there, so any marriage of convenience between the two may end in a disastrous divorce. Secondly, Sadr’s quick response to withdraw from political life in the aftermath of Haeri’s resignation and the ensuing eruption of violence in the Green Zone and elsewhere between the Sadrists and other Shiite armed factions indicated the cards he holds – either to de-escalate or escalate tensions. This was proven by his supporters quickly withdrawing from the Green Zone within 60 minutes in response to Sadr’s directive. This rapid withdrawal reflected the clout of Sadr, and how he can direct the Iraqi street via a single tweet. Sadr by withdrawing but still poking his nose into political matters, indicates to his foes that he will not go silently, and his demands need to be taken seriously or else he could trigger another crisis at the click of his fingers. Thirdly, internal problems may have emerged in the Sadrist Movement as Sadr has been without religious backing. This may lead to a leadership challenge, and Haeri in his resignation letter mentioned that Sadr’s leadership was based merely on charitable acts and kindness, hence opening the door for competitors for the top position. Sadr was quick to slam this door shut by emphasizing that the Sadr family’s leadership was granted directly by God. Fourthly, Haeri’s resignation and Sadr’s withdrawal revealed the fragility in the Shiite community, with opposing Shiite factions quick to point the gun at the other. This intra-Shiite conflict is not in the interest of either Iran or Najaf, thus both were quick to intervene to stop the bloodshed. It is reported that Sadr received a phone call from the Secretary-General of Iran-backed Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, and Najaf sent a communique to him immediately to withdraw his supporters and restore calm to the Iraqi street.
Having discussed some of the key implications stemming from the two events, it is important to put them into context and outline some potential scenarios that may play out against this backdrop.
Firstly, Haeri’s resignation, may see a significant number of Sadrists emulating Khamenei, which would not only kill off Sadr, but also significantly undermine the religious leadership of Najaf. This would swing the pendulum in favour of Khamenei and Qom, with the door wide open for the Sadrists to embrace Iran’s revolutionary ideology, and Iraq shifting back completely into Tehran’s arms after the emergence of a Sadrist-led nationalistic trend based on achieving independence and sovereignty for the country. This scenario is unlikely given the rise of anti-Iranian sentiments among the Iraqi people, especially among the youth who hate Iran’s interference and meddling in Iraqi affairs. In addition, Najaf will be fully aware of the dangers of this scenario and will respond by reaffirming its position as the spiritual leadership of Iraqi Shiites. Secondly, neither faction wants to be blamed for spilling Shiite blood and destroying the Shiite house. Despite this, they are unlikely to broker a deal or show some level of flexibility because of their stubborn nature and adherence to their terms and conditions. This impasse is likely to frustrate Iran, as it has attempted to unite the Shiite poles and reach a deal. Its failure to do so is indicative of its waning influence over Shiite alliances and militias after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force. Thirdly, a scenario which is not in the interest of any side, domestic or regional, is the outbreak of protracted violence between Shiite factions. Iraq is important for Iran, Najaf and regional countries, so they will be careful to avoid this scenario at all costs as it has grave economic, social, and political ramifications. For Iran, intra-Shiite violence is to be avoided not because it is interested in human life given its vast bloodshed in the region, but because it believes that such violence will weaken the Shiite house and propel Sunnis to rule Iraq once again. This is a worst-case scenario for Iran, and the quick intervention of Nasrallah is indicative of how Iran wanted to nip this intra-Shiite violence in the bud quickly.
To conclude, Iraq is at a dangerous juncture, with opposing and warring Shiite poles unwilling to compromise to end the current impasse. Sadr could shuffle the cards once again by ordering his supporters to the streets to unleash further chaos in the hope this might compel the Coordination Framework (CF) to compromise and show some flexibility when it comes to the Sadrists’ demands. Sadr is aware that Iran would restrain the CF’s militias and other Shiite militias from a full-blown conflict with the Sadrists out of fear of exacerbating intra-Shiite disputes and completely losing grip over the Iraqi landscape. Sadr’s hiatus from political life is likely to be short-lived, even if prolonged, he will continue to monitor and influence political developments in Iraq in a direction serving his interests. The political picture is quite bleak now for Iraq, and it is a wait and see game to see which side reshuffles the cards again or bends first to pressures, domestic or external, to release the political tensions and end the impasse.