Can a Demagogue Help Save Iraq's Democracy?

Moqtada al-Sadr's militia killed Americans. Can we trust him to save Iraq?

Do you trust this man?

Photographer: Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images

Here is an irony to savor. One of Iraq's most notorious demagogues might now be saving the democratic experiment he nearly extinguished more than a decade ago.

 You may remember his name from the Bush era: Moqtada al-Sadr. He is an Islamic fundamentalist who has used violence for political gain. In 2004, an Iraqi judge issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of orchestrating the stabbing murder of rival cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei. His Mahdi army tried and failed to take control of the city of Najaf that same year. And while he opposes the strict Iranian conception of Islamic law, his followers have attacked shopkeepers who sell alcohol.

Yet today, Sadr's followers are providing the political muscle that Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi will need to enact the reforms necessary to save Iraq from fiscal insolvency. Over the last weekend, Sadr's followers breached the gates of the heavily fortified "green zone" in the center of Baghdad and briefly took over the parliament to support a slate of technocratic ministers Abadi is proposing for his government. Unless Iraq's political bosses feel some popular pressure, Abadi's relatively modest reforms have no chance.

These reforms are aimed at preventing a dire crisis that's been years in the making. Luay al-Khateeb, a fellow at Columbia University and a former unofficial adviser to the Iraqi parliament on economic and energy issues, told me the decline in oil prices should force Iraq to cut government subsidies on energy as well as make-work jobs created when the price of oil was high. (Abadi has not gone this far) Khateeb said there were 2.5 million federal government jobs in 2003 when Saddam Hussein's government fell. Today, he estimates, there are 7 million, most of them unnecessary.

And then there is the massive corruption endemic to Iraq's political system. Over the years, ministers and members of parliament were allotted huge budgets for their personal staffs and other benefits. Even after members retire from public service, in many cases the state continues to pay for their bodyguards and secretaries. This says nothing of the self-dealing that powerful Iraqi politicians and leaders conducted to win government business for friends and associates.

Recently Sadr has positioned himself as an outsider, even though he and his organization benefitted from the corruption in Iraq's political system that he now opposes.

Sadr himself fled to Iran in 2007, but was apparently disappointed by the tepid welcome he received from the Islamic Republic's leadership, and returned to Baghdad four years later. So it's no accident that some of his supporters on Saturday were shouting slogans accusing Iraq's political class of being Iranian puppets.

Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi analyst and commentator, told me that Sadr blamed the leader of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, for fracturing his Mahdi Army and peeling off followers to form a rival militia known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq. When the Iranians and most Shiite politicians accepted the rule of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr was one of the only Shiite leaders to openly criticize him for his violent crack down on non-violent protests by Sunni Arabs.

Even some of Sadr's most potent critics acknowledge that, for the moment, he has lined up on the side of reform. Kanan Makiya, a historian whose latest novel, "The Rope," explores the complicity of Shiite leaders in covering up the murder of al-Khoei, told me that Sadr today "is a populist demagogue who happens to be riding the right wave at the right time." Nonetheless, Makiya is concerned: "I worry that Abadi may become beholden to this very dangerous man."

U.S. officials I spoke to this week told me that they, too, worried about Sadr's resurgent influence. Sadr eventually told his supporters to leave the green zone on Saturday, and Iraqi forces did not fire on the mob. But this was not an orderly protest. The protestors manhandled Iraqi legislators, trashed the parliament building and pulled down blast walls on the green zone's exterior. And yet, it was in the service of saving Iraq's beleaguered government.

It all provides a puzzle for the U.S. Washington is working behind the scenes to secure a multi-billion dollar International Monetary Fund loan and other international financing to keep Abadi's government afloat for the coming months and years, in the hopes that he can begin to implement more substantive reforms. Without more stable governance, there is little chance of initiating a campaign to free Mosul, the nation's second-largest city, from the Islamic State. There are also the very real concerns Kurds now face as their leaders threaten to hold a referendum in the fall to vote on independence.

Iraq's parliament is expected to meet again on May 10 to try to form the new government. The world will be watching closely -- nobody more so than Moqtada al-Sadr.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.