Muqtada al-Sadr was the face of Shia resistance to the US occupation after Saddam Hussein was toppled. His Mahdi Army launched deadly attacks against coalition troops, earning the young cleric a fearsome reputation. Later, he turned his ire towards the role of Iran, and the rampant corruption and incompetence of the Iraqi government.
Now the 44-year-old populist may have the chance to shake up the political system he blames for many of his country’s ills and recalibrate what he sees as the nefarious influence of both Washington and Tehran.
With Mr Sadr’s political alliance, Sairoon, expected to gain the most seats in parliament after its surprisingly strong performance in Saturday’s election, he is in pole position to determine the composition of the next government.
“We want a functioning government that is led by people who are principled and are not under the influence of external powers,” Dhiaa al-Asadi, a Sadrist official, told the Financial Times.
Before the vote many Iraqis and analysts predicted the bloc led by Haider Al-Abadi, the prime minister and Washington’s preferred candidate, was on course for victory. But Mr Abadi’s Nasr, or Victory, alliance came in third, preliminary results show.
In contrast to Mr Abadi, who welcomed US troops in the fight against Isis and successfully balanced the interests of Washington and Tehran, Mr Sadr has no official contacts with American or British officials. He has stated that US troops should leave the country.
Sairoon’s strong election performance will also cause consternation in Tehran, which has enjoyed varying degrees of influence over political leaders from Iraq’s Shia majority since Saddam’s ousting, and views Mr Sadr, a former ally, as a maverick. Last year, he made a rare visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran’s big regional rivals.
“He will definitely be a thorn in the side of the establishment,” a western diplomat said. “People hope the establishment will have to change for the better.”
Yet Mr Sadr’s biggest challenge is yet to come: navigating the country’s fragmented political landscape to cobble together a coalition that can tackle Iraq’s myriad social and economic problems. His alliance’s margin of victory is expected to be narrow and will fall far short of a majority in the 329-member parliament, meaning it will depend on deals with rivals to form the next government.
Mr Sadr, the son of a revered Shia cleric killed during Saddam’s rule for defying the regime, is not running for office. His alliance wants to establish a government of technocrats rather than one based on sects or political groups. But the danger is that Sairoon — itself an alliance of Sadrists, secularists and communists — ends up in a coalition made up of competing blocs and their patronage networks.
It is a trend that has characterised Iraq’s nascent democracy since the 2003 US-led invasion and is blamed for promoting a culture of corruption and mismanagement that fuels deep disillusionment among Iraqis. That frustration led to a voter turnout of 44.5 per cent, Iraq’s lowest in the post-Saddam era, a factor that worked in favour of Mr Sadr’s bloc, analysts say.
“It’s true that he has the most seats, but he doesn’t have the negotiating power of someone with a commanding lead. And in Iraq, government formation doesn’t mean the person whose group wins the most seats necessarily gets to determine who becomes prime minister,” said Renad Mansour at Chatham House, a think-tank.
The leaders of the blocs that won the most parliamentary seats in 2010 and 2014 elections, Iyad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki respectively, both failed to secure the premiership.
Mr Mansour said there would be “so much compromise and so much dispersion of power that the Sadrists will risk not being able to bring about real change”.
“The way the electoral system is set up favours this type of power-sharing which fundamentally means a gap between the elite and the citizen, under which the elite share power . . . at the expense of really trying to reform the system,” he added.
Mr Sadr, a self-styled nationalist, has been one of the most vocal critics of the system, with his movement often at the forefront of protests against graft and government ineptitude. Two years ago, demonstrators ransacked the parliament and stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to embassies, political leaders and once the headquarters of the US occupation.
But if Sairoon leads the next government and fails to deliver, analysts warn that Iraqis’ disillusionment and anger risks stoking greater instability.
“If the group that is most adamantly in favour of combating corruption is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it, the frustrations could take a different turn, because people don’t have a champion,” said Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East programme at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “If he can put in technocrats, there is a chance services can improve and ministries are no longer fiefdoms.”