Muqtada al-Sadr is from the notable Sadr family hailing from Jabal Amel, Lebanon, before he settled in Najaf. His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, stood against Saddam. He is married to the daughter of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, both of whom are revered for their anxiety for the poor. His uncle, Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, is styled with the honorific title “Sayyid”, that places him as a descendant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad uwbp.

Sadr was spared when America placed sanctions on Iraqi militia leaders with ties to Iran in 2019. His political party, Sairoun, controls Iraq’s Ministry of Health. Last year, contractors renovated Baghdad’s Ibn al Khatib hospital but gave no thought to installing smoke detectors and sprinklers. On April 24th 2021, oxygen tanks for COVID-19 patients exploded. The inferno engulfed 82 innocents. Sadr’s reputation was singed.  His rivals accuse him of siphoning funding from the repairs.

Sairoun is the largest party in the parliament, and so Sadr protects Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi from a vote of no confidence that may find its origins in Iran where Sadr attended school in Qom. American officials during the Trump presidency tried to engage the Sadrists through Iraq’s ambassador in London, who is Sadr’s brother-in-law. President Biden must decide if Sadr is the “Chariot” of the Major Arcana of the Tarot ahead of October elections. It may be a mistake according to Sheik Assad al-Nassiri, a cleric now in hiding. Ghaith al Tamimi, a cleric defrocked by Sadr for disobedience, thinks it a strategic blunder.

Sadr’s evolution and elevation to a pillar of the establishment is a Grimm tale far from strange. Having led demonstrations against corruption, he is now the target of them.  Not only has his relationship with the piety and the public changed as he propagates his power in carefully chosen planters, but so too have his interests. Sadr’s episcopal motto mirrors India’s Netaji Bose’s axiom – “The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend”. Sadr sees Iran’s influence in Iraq as a threat to his own lusts for power and has reaffirmed the need for American forces to stand in Iraq.

He denounced rocket attacks by Iranian militias on America’s embassy in Baghdad and an airfield in the north used by American forces. He has offered his own militia, the Peace Companies, to guard western embassies, and he advocates for stronger ties among Iraq, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He called on Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. He and the US both backed Daewoo, the South Korean firm that made a bid for a multi-billion-dollar contract to develop the port of Faw, beating the Chinese firm supported by Sadr’s rival Shia militia leader. But Sadr rejects any direct talks with America.

After the toppling of Saddam in 2003, Sadr described Saddam as a small serpent and America as a bigger schemer. His militia attacked American troops and killed hundreds of them. Today, across Iraq, neighbouring Iran yields influence through provincial militia. As America withdraws its forces from Iraq, Iran poses the largest challenge to Iraq’s independence. Iran is Sadr’s new serpent. Sadr is a conflicted soul. He spent many years in Iran’s holiest city, Qom, studying Islam and seeking armed protection from rivals in Iraq. In his pantheon, serpents become saints.

Now his teachers and his alma mater in Iran haunt his lustful dreams for political power. A creature of liminality, a shape shifter living only in the twilight, he sees Iran as a useful ally at times. Like Macbeth, who wants to be elected king to replace Duncan, but must seize upon the fleeing of Malcolm and Duncan as a golden opportunity to dispose of both of them, and especially Malcolm, as having priority over him in the line of succession, Sadr’s phantoms change with every dream. When protests erupted in Iraq against corruption and the influence of Iran in Iraq, Sadr was at the forefront – at least at first.

When the protesters pushed him away he ordered his militia to sadistically quash the uprisings. In a smouldering Najaf in bonfires in 2004, Sadr’s paramilitaries were holed up in Najaf’s Imam Ali Mosque. Sadr had challenged the collegiate leadership of the Najaf clergy led by Al-Sistani. US howitzers launched munitions and apache gunships bombarded Sadr’s military targets. The Americans halted 300 meters away from the rebel-held shrine. From Basra, Al-Sistani called upon Iraqis from all provinces to march on Najaf and stand between the Mosque and the military. The shrine still stands. Al-Sistani’s involvement in politics was not inevitable. It was not something he sought; rather, he submitted to the requirements of the times. Al-Sistani was under house arrest for years under Saddam.

In Ur, Iraq — Pope Francis met with Ali Al-Sistani during the COVID-19 pandemic. On a stone stage overlooking ruins said to be the birthplace of Abraham, Pope Francis made a sweeping appeal for religious coexistence, while also testing the limits of his own influence. In June 2014, Al-Sistani issued a fatwa — strictly limited to the principle of self-defence — against “Islamic State” (IS). Al-Sistani was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, and again in 2014.