Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq Al-Sadr: Mobilizing the Iraqi Shia Base – By Mike Airosus

In the existing literature on the Sadrist Movement in Iraq, there has been little analysis of one of its key actors, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Although he never directly controlled the Mahdi Army, Sadiq al-Sadr, founded the Sadrist Movement, directly challenged the Saddam Hussein regime, providing the legitimacy and inspiration for the movement even after his death. Using a framework developed by Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, and Itamara V. Lochard in their publication Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority, this article profiles Sadiq al-Sadr and identifies the key characteristics that made him successful. It also identifies the factors that led to his assassination in 1999 and, later, to factional problems within the Sadrist Movement.


In the existing literature on the Sadrist Movement there has been little analysis of one of its key actors, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Most of the attention and scholarship on the Sadrist Movement is about the outspoken, defiant Muqtada al-Sadr, whose fiery sermons and Mahdi Army militia sharply opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq. Although he never directly controlled the Jaish al-Mahdi, Sadiq al-Sadr founded the Sadrist Movement, directly challenged the Saddam Hussein regime, and provided the legitimacy and inspiration for the movement even after his death. He represented an early incarnation of a more vocal and militant leadership of the Iraqi Shia. His assassination in 1999 sparked a violent uprising – the Shia or “Sadr Intifada.” This violence, and the subsequent formation of the Mahdi Army, underscored the path to militancy that Sadiq al-Sadr established. Within the Sadrist Movement, Sadiq al-Sadr was able to unite rural Shia from southern Iraq with the urban Shia communities in Iraq’s major cities. In the process, he accomplished the task of reconciling the tribal customs of the rural Shia with traditional Islamic values[1], and helped unite historically distant groups.

Muqtada al-Sadr was merely an opportunistic, self-declared heir to his father’s movement. He benefited from the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime and his release from house arrest, and used the backdrop of the U.S. occupation in Iraq as motivation for his followers. Muqtada al-Sadr inherited the carefully and skillfully crafted network of followers from his father, yet he lacked many of the important leadership characteristics of the elder Sadr.[2] Despite living under the ruthless Saddam Hussein regime, Sadiq al-Sadr manipulated the government and created political space, allowing him to consolidate power and build his movement.[3] At the same time, he challenged Iran for religious authority over the Iraqi Shia population.

This article profiles Sadiq al-Sadr, identifying the key characteristics that made him successful. It will also explore the elements of his leadership that led to his assassination in 1999, and the factional problems under the leadership of his son Muqtada. This comprehensive profile of Sadiq al-Sadr will shed light on the forces and tactics used to mobilize Shia factions in Iraq, and serve to build a better understanding of the origins and the motivations of the Mahdi Army.

In order to profile Sadiq al-Sadr, this article will use the leadership framework developed by Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, and Itamara V. Lochard in their publication: Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority.[4] The framework asks nine key questions regarding the leadership of an armed group, which fall under three main categories:

  1. Context: The leader’s origin, worldview, and motivations;
  2. Rise to Power: The leader’s source of legitimacy, recruitment strategy, and personal attributes; and
  3. Leadership Skills and Organizational Efficacy: The leader’s practical skills, limitations, and differences from other leaders.[5]


Social, Economic, and Political Origins

“The name al-Sadr is one of the most well known names in Iraq. It is a name synonymous with success, revival, and death.”[6]

Sadiq al-Sadr was born on March 23, 1943, into the prominent al-Sadr clerical family.[7] The al-Sadrs are one of the most famous religious families in the Middle East, and are a part of the clerical aristocracy.[8] The family has lineage that traces back to the Prophet Mohammed through the seventh imam, Musa al-Khazim.[9] For several generations, the al-Sadrs were involved in community affairs, serving as activists, religious leaders, and political figures. Several family members had key roles in the history of modern Iraq, including Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a cousin of Sadiq, who helped found the Islamic Dawa Shia political party in the 1960s, and Sayyid Mohammed al-Sadr, who had a key role in the 1920 uprising against British rule, and served as president of the senate and prime minister.[10]

Sadiq al-Sadr’s family lineage, religious education, upbringing, and early experiences guided him toward a leadership and activist role within the Shia religious clergy. He was the only son of his father, Sayyid Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and grew up with his grandfather, Ayatollah Mohammed Reza al-Yassin.[11] From an early age, Sadiq al-Sadr was indoctrinated with Shia religious and political thought. As a child, Sadiq was surrounded by high-ranking religious clergy and grew up in the neighborhood of the magnificent Khadamiyah Shrine, where millions of Shia from Iraq and beyond came for pilgrimage. He began his religious education in 1954 at the age of 11,[12] and went on to enroll in Faqih College in 1960, where he studied under Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who was living in exile in Najaf.[13] He also witnessed the disenfranchisement and repression of the Shia population under the Ba’athist rule in the 1960s and 1970s and, subsequently, under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This contributed to his understanding of the plight of the Shia in Iraq and his deep-seated populist ideology.

Worldview and Political-Social Perspective

While completing his religious education in Najaf, Sadiq al-Sadr was greatly influenced by the teachings and anti-Ba’athist politics of his cousin Baqir al-Sadr. As in many Shia clerical circles at the time, Baqir’s political thought included strong leftist and Marxist ideological influences.[14] He supported the 1979 Iranian revolution, which reinforced his desire for the empowerment of the Iraqi Shia. Based on the influence of Ayatollah Khomeini, Sadiq al-Sadr saw the importance and value of establishing an Islamic state under Shari’ah law. He believed in the importance of traditional Islamic values and instructed his followers to obey traditional Islamic practices, including diligent prayer five times per day; the veiling of women; strict prohibition of alcohol; and the use of religious courts.[15]

Sadiq al-Sadr was not content with the Quietist Shia perspective[16] of many of his mentors and peers. He believed that religious leaders should take a more active role in the political and social lives of their followers. This break from the traditional Shia clergy set Sadiq al-Sadr apart from many of his contemporaries, and contributed to the rift between himself and the Shia religious leadership based in Iran.


Sadiq al-Sadr’s motivation to lead the repressed Shia of Iraq was rooted in his lived experience, and the brutal treatment of his family and colleagues under the Ba’athist regime. The Ba’ath party imprisoned him briefly in 1972 and again in 1974 in Najaf. He was tortured, and also witnessed the execution of several of his colleagues.[17] While imprisoned, he protested the brutal treatment and torture of prisoners, provoking his transfer to a more severe prison facility, where he faced more extreme methods of torture.[18]

After being released from prison in 1975, Sadiq al-Sadr pursued a life of isolation. He devoted himself to prayer to such a degree that his peers grew concerned about his health.[19] It was during this time that two of Sadiq al-Sadr’s cousins—the prominent Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and his sister Amina Sadr Bint al-Huda, a Shia political activist—were executed in prison by the Saddam regime in 1980.[20] It is widely believed that the security forces tortured Baqir—and raped Amina—before their execution.[21] The brutality of their murders, and the martyrdom status Baqir al-Sadr acquired, were strong motivations for Sadiq al-Sadr to take over the leadership of his family and carry on the Shia political activism of his cousin.

Sadiq al-Sadr also drew motivation from his own philosophical and sociopolitical perspectives. He witnessed firsthand the social and economic repression of the Shia communities in Iraq over several decades of Ba’athist rule. These foundational grievances likely motivated Sadiq to move away from the quietist Shia tradition and encourage his followers to take a more militant, outspoken stance.

Rise To Power


Following the death of Grand Ayatollah Al-Khoei and his two immediate successors in 1992, there was a leadership crisis within the Shia clerical ranks.[22] Saddam Hussein helped resolve the uncertainty by releasing Sadiq al-Sadr from prison and elevating his status in Iraq. This represented an attempt by the Saddam regime to co-opt Sadiq al-Sadr in order to regain the support of the Shia population that it had alienated. This was part of Saddam’s larger “Faith Campaign”, an attempt to reap political benefits from the popularity of Islamic revivalism. As part of this campaign, Saddam ordered the construction of dozens of new mosques, increased restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and had the text “God is Great” inscribed on the Iraqi national flag.[23] Sadiq al-Sadr was granted the leadership of Iraq’s seminaries and religious schools in Iraq. Most importantly, he was allowed to appoint prayer leaders and reinstitute Friday prayer sermons. His primary objectives were to revive the faith of the Shia population, address the immediate problems in their everyday lives, and to undermine the propaganda of the Saddam regime.[24]

Legitimacy and Moral Authority

Sadiq al-Sadr drew his legitimacy and moral authority from his family heritage and connections, his religious education and credentials, and his understanding of the plight of the Shia communities. Before the death of his cousin Baqir, Sadiq had positioned himself to carry forward the al-Sadr legacy. He married the daughter of his paternal uncle, and encouraged three of his sons to marry Baqir’s daughters.[25] In doing so, he effectively used Baqir’s martyrdom and his family’s reputation as key early sources of legitimacy. The al-Sadrs also had a history of defiance against repressive regimes. In addition, he was well respected for having endured the brutality of the Ba’athist regime through the 1970s and 1980s, and having served time in prison.

Sadiq al-Sadr held outstanding religious credentials, and was admired for his deep piety and commitment to Islamic values.[26] He received certificates of independent legal reasoning (ijazat al-ijtihad) in 1977,[27] becoming a mujtahid—an Islamic scholar—at the young age of 34. These credentials gave him the authority to both interpret Shari’ah law, and to deliver religious judgments on political and social questions.[28] While not as prolific a writer as his cousin Baqir, he authored several important religious publications—including Islam and the International Covenant on Human Rights and What is Jurisprudence?—[29] and a controversial book “Tribal Jurisprudence.”[30] In addition, he served on the editorial board of the influential Al-Awa publication.[31]

Furthermore, Sadiq al-Sadr had a reputation for being in touch with the average Iraqi Shia. During his time studying Sufism, his teacher was an ordinary wage earner from Najaf. It was unprecedented for someone of his clerical stature and family background to study under someone from the working class.[32] Unlike many Shia clerics in exile in Iran, Sadiq remained in Iraq and witnessed the repressive policies of the Ba’athist regime against the Shia population. Many of his followers viewed this as a source of legitimacy, as he endured and suffered alongside his followers.

Thus, Sadiq al-Sadr’s esteemed family history, along with his religious credentials and scholarship, gave him the religious legitimacy and the authority to lead and unite many Shia communities in Iraq. His personal attributes, leadership skills, and strategic thinking played an important role in his emergence as a political and social leader of the Sadrist Movement. It was not his moral authority as a religious leader alone that propelled his popularity in the 1990s.

Recruitment Strategies and Base of Support

Sadiq al-Sadr was able to build and recruit a large base of support in the 1990s, which included both a committed group of representatives, students, and low-level clerics. He accomplished this through strategies that were both innovative, as well as breaking with the traditions of the Shia religious establishment.

In order to build a network and leadership structure, Sadiq al-Sadr skillfully used his authority over the hawza, the religious seminaries and schools, that had been given to him by the Saddam regime. His control over the seminaries meant that he could select which students were admitted, as well as which religious books and materials were published in Najaf.[33] In addition, he was allowed to appoint prayer leaders in hundreds of towns and cities across Iraq, thereby enabling him to build a network of activist mosques throughout the country.[34]

Sadiq al-Sadr’s most impressive recruitment strategy was the integration of many poor rural tribal leaders into his movement, with his recruitment style described as “missionary activism.”[35] He sent his representatives into the southern marshlands that were notoriously hard to control, and were often at odds with the Shia clerical establishment in Najaf.[36] He co-opted these tribes into his movement by giving authority to tribal leaders,[37] thereby expanding his leadership structure outside the traditional religious centers in Najaf and Baghdad. Moreover, the government allowed him to issue residency visas for religious students coming from outside of Iraq,[38] further diversifying his support base.

By integrating these tribal leaders, Sadiq al-Sadr was able to reconcile differences between tribal customs and the Shia clerical establishment, transforming previously narrow tribal loyalties into broader Shia unity. He recognized, promoted, and celebrated tribal identities and practices rather than ignoring or condemning them.[39] In his religious publication Tribal Jurisprudence, Sadiq al-Sadr gave tribal leaders the authority to administer Shari’ah law.[40] He also used the authority the regime had given him to appoint judges.[41] His writings on tribal customs were also partially responsible for his selection by the Saddam regime to lead the hawza.[42]

Through his understanding of the needs, sympathies, and grievances of the impoverished Shia population in Iraq, Sadiq al-Sadr was able to attract a loyal group of followers. He artfully constructed a narrative that combined traditional Islamic values, Iraqi nationalism, and populism in order to win the loyalty of both the poor urban and rural Shia communities. This mixture of Islamic revivalism, nationalism, and populism especially appealed to the angry, disenfranchised, and terrorized young Shia men following the brutal crackdown of the 1991 uprising.[43]

It was the populist element of this narrative that helped Sadiq al-Sadr attract such a large number of followers. He believed that the traditional Shia religious leadership had lost touch with the daily lives and concerns of their followers, and claimed that Ayatollahs al-Sistani and al-Khoei lived in aristocratic isolation from ordinary Iraqis.[44] Sadiq al-Sadr built a reputation for being in touch with the daily lives of Iraqis and was known for being open, welcoming, and eager to hear about living conditions within the communities.[45] He dedicated himself to an ascetic lifestyle, and did not use his high-ranking clerical status to live in luxury or privilege. In a notable example, one of his followers pointed out how he was the only Ayatollah in Najaf who knew the price of tomatoes.[46] Sadiq al-Sadr largely won the support of the poor Shia communities because he called on the clergy to take a leading role against social injustice.[47]

Sadiq al-Sadr rose to power as more than a religious leader; he became the leader of a socio-political movement with a networked, community-based structure.[48] The Sadrist Movement benefitted from having a distinct territory in which to recruit and establish a network of social services: a Shia neighborhood known today as Sadr City, named for Sadiq himself. Originally called Medinat al-Thawra, or “Revolution City,” and later renamed Saddam City, this nine square-mile neighborhood in the northeast corner of Baghdad was the home of the Sadrist Movement. It was built in the 1960s to house the influx of rural southern Shia immigrants entering Baghdad. The conditions within Revolution City were conducive to Sadiq’s movement and recruitment strategy, as the neighborhood was largely isolated—geographically, economically, and culturally—from the rest of Baghdad, further reinforcing the tribal identities of its inhabitants.[49] Sadiq al-Sadr was able to use the neighborhood’s relative isolation and its terrible economic conditions to effectively spread his populist narrative. He and his representatives expanded upon the social service programs that his cousin Baqir al-Sadr had developed in the 1970s by creating religious courts, providing medical services, and delivering food to needy households in Revolution City.[50] Sadiq al-Sadr built a vast network among the peasantry, urban middle classes and merchants, and tribal leaders.[51]

Personal Attributes

Sadiq al-Sadr had important personal attributes that helped propel him to power. Most critically, Sadiq al-Sadr was a thinker and a strategist. From an early age, he was known for his intellect.[52] He was an outstanding student of Islam and exceled in his other studies, including history. He was highly intelligent, innovative, and cunning enough to convince the Saddam regime that it could trust him to carry out the government’s wishes.[53] During the late 1970s and 1980s, he did not overtly oppose the Ba’athist regime, as he had isolated himself after Baqir’s execution in 1980.[54] Despite his family’s long history of defiance against the Ba’athist regime, he was able to amass a following while under the close scrutiny of the government.

During his rise to power, Sadiq al-Sadr avoided commenting on political questions, instead focusing on the immediate economic concerns of the impoverished Shia communities in Iraq.[55] It was only after 1997 that he became more defiant and combative with the regime. In the last years of his life, he showed audacity and bravery, directly challenging the regime in his Friday sermons. It was at this time that his followers gave him the nickname “The White Lion,” or al layth al-abyadh, in honor of his long white beard and his brave defiance of the Saddam regime.[56]

Sadiq al-Sadr’s religious credentials demonstrated his level of commitment and piety, and served as key sources of his moral authority and legitimacy. At the time of his death, many of his followers considered him to be a living saint.[57] He went to great lengths to establish himself as a martyr even before his death. He wore a white shroud in the weeks leading up to his assassination, a symbol of martyrdom.[58] He also published a CD, a biography of his life and history, along with his most recent religious interpretations and rulings, in an effort to “set the record straight” and clarify his positions before he died.[59] Sadiq’s steadfast commitment to the Sadrist Movement inspired confidence in his followers, and he was seen as a defender of the interests of the poor Shia community.

Leadership Skills and Organizational Efficacy

Personal Skills

Sadiq al-Sadr demonstrated his excellent organizational effectiveness by delegating responsibilities and building a network of representatives. He surrounded himself with competent and respected individuals and reached a broad cross-section of the Shia population, something that had been historically difficult to accomplish in Iraq. He undertook the sizable organizational task of creating a vast, yet reliable, network of activist mosques, preachers, students, and community service providers.

Sadiq al-Sadr was also a sound strategist, managing his unique relationship with the government to his advantage. Sadiq was able to convince the Iraqi regime that he could be trusted to unite the Shia without undermining the government. From his release from prison in 1992 until 1996, Sadiq al-Sadr cooperated with the regime, avoiding politics and focusing more on religious and social topics.[60] He established somewhat of a truce with the regime in order to gain breathing room, but was careful not to undermine his legitimacy among the Shia.[61] For instance, he once turned down an offer from the government to provide him bodyguards, as he did not want to be associated with the regime any more than he already was rumored to be.[62]

Sadiq also took innovative measures to protect against government surveillance. He instructed professors at the seminaries to ask their students to unwrap and rewrap their turbans. The students who had difficulty with this task would be suspected as government spies, as they were not familiar enough with the practice of wrapping turbans to quickly complete the task.[63]

Sadiq al-Sadr also had excellent communications skills, using colloquial language to show that he was connected to average Iraqis.[64] He was able to balance the pressure of the regime with effective and inspirational messaging. His Friday prayer sermons excited followers and indirectly criticized the regime through the use of ambiguous language. For instance, Sadiq famously led followers in his mosque in Kufa by chanting “Yes, yes to Islam; yes, yes to the faith; no, no to injustice; no, no to Israel; no, no to America; no, no to the Devil.”[65] This kind of chant did not include any support for Saddam or the Iraqi government, but did not directly condemn it or speak out against it. It was a cooptation of a popular government propaganda slogan: “Yes, yes to Saddam Hussein.”[66] By speaking out against the West, Sadiq was also often able to remain in good favor with the government. He repeatedly blamed the U.S. and Israel for the harsh conditions and suffering caused by the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. This pleased Saddam Hussein, who shared this hatred of the West, and actively encouraged the nationalist sentiment of this message.[67]

Sadiq recognized the importance of media and diverse means of communication. In addition to his Friday prayer sermons and religious publications, Sadiq al-Sadr had experience with various other forms of communication. Earlier in his life he had served on the editorial board of the influential Al-Awa publication,[68] a monthly Islamic journal meant to provide an alternative to state sponsored secular publications.[69] In 1996, the government allowed the Sadrists to publish the al-Huda magazine, edited by Sadiq’s son, Muqtada. This permission was remarkable given the regime’s tight control of the media.[70] Again, Sadiq effectively balanced his communications strategy with his relationship with the government to his movement’s advantage.

Political and Other Differences Among Leaders

Sadiq al-Sadr distinguished himself from other potential leaders of the Shia base. He posed a three-part challenge: To the Iraqi regime, to the Shia quietists within Iraq, and to the Iranian claim to pan-Shia leadership.[71]

Upon his release from prison in 1992, Sadiq al-Sadr competed for religious authority with other prominent ayatollahs, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an adherent of the traditional quietist camp in the Iraqi Shia clergy. Quietism was the popular tradition among the Shia clergy in Iraq, and was practiced by al-Sistani and Sadiq Al-Sadr’s predecessor Ayatollah al-Khoei.[72] Quietism was viewed partially as a survival technique under Ba’ath party rule, as Shia clerics who were outspoken were often imprisoned, tortured, or killed.[73] Sadiq al-Sadr carried out an intensive anti-quietist campaign.[74] He criticized the quietists for abandoning their followers and for remaining silent after Baqir al-Sadr’s execution.[75] He used harsh, combative language, accusing the clerical leadership of being weak, fearful, and cowardly.[76] Sadiq’s institution of Friday prayer sermons broke with Shia tradition in Iraq, as these were seen as a way of recognizing the Iraqi regime, rather than discrediting it through silence. Sadiq called for a radical redefinition of his duties, as the position of Ayatollah moved towards a more vocal and militant role. He believed that, “rather than being a learned scholar in an ivory tower, he ought to actively defend the cause of the oppressed and get directly involved in social and political matters.”[77] This also reinforced his populist narrative and connection with the daily lives of Iraqis.

In addition to splitting with the quietist clergy in Iraq, Sadiq al-Sadr challenged Iranian leadership and attempted to undermine their influence on the Shia in Iraq. At the time, many Iraqis still looked to Iranian clergy as a source of pan-Shia leadership, especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Sadrist Movement sought to purge the Shia religious leadership in Iraq from Iranian and other external influences.[78] Sadiq al-Sadr sought to create an Iraqi theocracy that tolerated tribal norms and was independent from the Iranian clergy.[79] This was welcomed by the Iraqi regime, as it took power and influence away from its bitter rival in Iran.

Sadiq al-Sadr also framed Shia clerics born outside of Iraq, or those exiled to Iran, as less legitimate. This included al-Sistani, who was born in Iran and maintained ties to the Iranian clerical establishment. He also criticized members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) political party, and the prominent Hakim family, for fleeing to Iran.[80] He claimed that they had not endured the decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule and were disconnected from the real interests of the people of Iraq. This strategy of discrediting and delegitimizing “outsiders” was also used by Muqtada al-Sadr as a cornerstone of his claim to leadership of the Sadrist Movement after Sadiq’s death.

Leadership Limitations and Ineffectiveness

Sadiq al-Sadr walked a delicate line between his relationship with the Iraqi regime and the political legitimacy he held with his followers. He was limited in the degree to which he could directly challenge Saddam Hussein’s regime, as evidenced by his eventual assassination in 1999. For seven years, he was able to align some of his interests with those of the Iraqi regime by consolidating his religious authority, framing his narrative against the West, and creating a unified nationalist voice against Iranian influence. The deal he stuck with the government in 1992, however, was destined to fail. As Sadiq grew more influential, his true opinions against the regime came to the surface through the populist, militant narrative he had cultivated.

A major turning point occurred in 1997 when Sadiq al-Sadr issued a fatwa for Iraqis to attend public Friday prayers in Baghdad.[81] This was seen as an attempt by Sadiq al-Sadr to distance himself from Saddam, as the government disapproved of large public demonstrations and gatherings in the city.[82] It also helped Sadiq further establish an independent base of power,[83] as he was able to directly and dramatically communicate with his followers. At the end of 1998, as the tension between Sadiq and the regime grew, Iraqi official Rokan Ghafour al-Tikriti approached Sadiq, ordering him to stop holding Friday prayer sermons. After receiving the order, Sadiq shoved al-Tikriti in the chest with his cane and said: “Tell your master I will not stop prayers as long as I am alive.”[84] This physical act of defiance against his primary connection to the Iraqi regime was a symbolic act that was celebrated and memorialized by Sadiq’s followers.[85] On February 12, 1999, as one of his final acts, Sadiq al-Sadr called for the release of more than one hundred Islamic scholars who had been imprisoned since the 1991 Shia uprising.[86] [87] Also, for the first time since 1991, there were signs of armed resistance by Shia militants, such as violent uprisings in Nassariya in February 1999, when government offices were attacked with rockets.[88] Shortly thereafter, Sadiq was assassinated while returning home from his mosque in Kufa.[89]

Sadiq al-Sadr’s movement towards a more militant, defiant tone may have been born out of necessity, in order to assert his political legitimacy over his followers. The narrative Sadiq al-Sadr cultivated in the 1990s ultimately fed off of defiance of the Saddam regime. The initial emphasis on economic problems and the provision of services was not enough. The populist narrative of the impoverished and disenfranchised Iraqi Shia inevitably placed blame on the Saddam regime. Therefore, as Sadiq expanded his power base over the course of the 1990s, he continuously had to rebalance his obedience to the regime and to the demands of the disenfranchised Shia population that he united and represented.

Sadiq al-Sadr also did not clearly and coherently groom a successor to his movement, prompting competing leadership claims after his death. This dispute led to many of the fragmentation problems that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army experienced during the U.S. occupation. Before his death, following religious traditions in Shia Islam, Sadiq al-Sadr recommended emulation of the prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Kadhim al-Ha’iri.[90] This sent an inconsistent message—and contradicted Sadiq’s nationalist narrative—as al-Ha’iri was in exile in Iran.[91] Moreover, the two most likely successors to his movement, his sons Mustafa and Mu’ammal, were killed with him in 1999.

While Muqtada al-Sadr was attempting to revive the Sadrist Movement, there were early divisions and defections by some of Sadiq al-Sadr’s top representatives. Mohammad al-Yaqubi, one of Sadiq al-Sadr’s closest companions, was in sharp disagreement with Muqtada over organizational discipline and the distribution of decision-making in the movement.[92] In 2003, al-Yaqubi broke away from the Sadrists and founded the Fadhila Party (Islamic Virtue Party)[93] with a base of support in Basra.[94] Sadiq al-Sadr’s lack of clear direction and plan for succession caused the Sadrist Movement to lose major contingents and created difficulties for Muqtada al-Sadr in reviving the movement in 2003.

Another limiting factor to Sadiq’s leadership strategy was that his message and narrative primarily appealed to the lower class Shia. Much of the upper and middle class educated Shia viewed the Sadrists as a source of instability and as a possible threat to their interests,[95]-prompting many to follow al-Sistani and other prominent clerics in Iran. Sadiq had to differentiate and distance himself from other Shia religious authorities in order to stand out. In doing so, he had to create rivals and break from other prominent members of the clergy such as al-Sistani and al-Hakim. The fragmentation of the Shia population continued to pose a problem for Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which faced strong competition from the Badr Brigade militia and the SCIRI political party during the period of U.S. occupation in Iraq. Shia fragmentation remains a problem for the Iraqi government today, as the Iraq government has faced difficultly consolidating power and uniting Shia factions within the government.

Sadiq al-Sadr’s acrimonious relationship with the Iranian clerical leadership posed problems for this son’s movement. Muqtada al-Sadr fled to exile himself in 2007, after major losses by the Mahdi Army, thus undermining a major component of Sadiq al-Sadr’s narrative—the discrediting of Iraqi Shia clerics for having been born or spent time in exile in Iran. Furthermore, while the Mahdi Army was suspected of receiving funding and support from Iran, the Iranian government exploited the popular support of the Mahdi Army to provide cover and create sub-groups and spin-off movements under Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia. This included groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and other smaller factions within the Mahdi Army called “Special Groups” by Coalition forces. Iran chose to take a more active role and more directly fund these groups and rival militias, rather than build up Muqtada al-Sadr as a singular leader. Therefore, many of the factional and fragmentation issues experienced by the Mahdi Army were likely related to Iran’s deep-seated and long-standing distrust of the Sadrists.


This analysis of Sadiq al-Sadr’s context, rise to power, and leadership qualities helps explain the success and limitations of the Sadrist Movement. Sadiq al-Sadr effectively combined a nationalist, populist, and religious narrative in order build a network of loyal representatives and passionate followers. The success of the Sadrist Movement in mobilizing the Iraqi Shia base was rooted in the populist narrative of its founder. Sadiq al-Sadr skillfully used his religious background and family history as sources of legitimacy and moral authority to lead this population, while he simultaneously managed a delicate relationship with the Saddam Hussein regime. Most importantly, Sadiq al-Sadr’s innovative strategy to incorporate and co-opt tribal leaders into his movement distinguished himself from other Shia religious leaders.

The revival of the Sadrist Movement in 2003 by Muqtada al-Sadr underscores the success Sadiq al-Sadr achieved. Sadiq al-Sadr created an effective power base among the poor Iraqi Shia population. No one since Sadiq al-Sadr has been able to effectively control and lead this population in Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr failed to do so, as evidenced by the fragmentation and ineffective control of the Mahdi Army.[96] Nouri al-Maliki even tried to stake some claim as the successor of Sadiq al-Sadr’s movement, stressing the important role of tribes in politics and society.[97] Maliki, despite creating a sectarian patronage network within Iraq security institutions, also failed to effectively mobilize Sadiq al-Sadr’s followers. This failure became clear when the Iraqi army lay down their weapons and uniforms upon the ISIS attack on Mosul in June 2014.

Analyzing the nuanced narrative of the Sadrist Movement, along with the origins and nature of its founder provides a clearer understanding of how Sadiq al-Sadr managed to captivate, motivate, and control this particular portion of the Iraqi population. This question of how to consolidate Shia factions within Iraq will be important to address for any future governance and leadership strategies in Iraq.

Mike Airosus is a second-year MALD student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with concentrations in International Security Studies and Conflict Resolution. He has previously worked for the United Nations Foundation and Global Zero in Washington, D.C. During the summer of 2014, he completed an internship with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Cairo, UNODC’s regional office for the MENA region. He has previously interned at the U.S. Department of State, The Middle East Institute, Management Systems International, and with the former ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He holds a B.A. with majors in international relations and economics from Lehigh University.

[1] Cochrane, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[2] “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge.”
[3] Cockburn, “Muqtada.”
[4] Shultz, Farah, and Lochard, Armed Groups, 48.
[5] From PowerPoint Presentation presented by Professor Richard H. Shultz in seminar on Internal Conflict and War: Armed Groups, Irregular Warfare, and 21st Century Security Challenges.
[6] Hollinger, Muqtada Al-Sadr, 1.
[7] Cole, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” 551.
[8] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’.”
[9] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 28–29.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 28.
[12] Ibid., 81.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Cole, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” 551.
[15] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr” and “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge – International Crisis Group.”
[16] Quietists believe that a non-Islamic government is illegitimate and should not be acknowledged. Thus, quietists withdraw from politics entirely.
[17] Cole, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” 552.
[18] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 82.
[19] Ibid., 83.
[20] Ibid., 28.
[21] Ibid.
[22] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[23] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 89.
[24] Ibid., 79.
[25] Ibid., 83.
[26] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’.”
[27] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 81.
[28] Cole, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” 552.
[29] Abedin, “The Sadrists Take Out an Option on Iraq’s Future.”
[30] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[31] Abedin, “The Sadrists Take Out an Option on Iraq’s Future.”
[32] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 82.
[33] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 79.
[34] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[35] Abedin, “Iraq’s Sadrists Follow Hezbollah’s Path.”
[36] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[37] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’.”
[38] Cockburn, “Muqtada.”
[39] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[40] Ibid.
[41] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’.”
[42] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[43] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 79.
[44] Ibid., 91.
[45] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[46] Ibid.
[47] Welsh, “Sadr City: Support from the Poor – Archive – Al Jazeera English.”
[48] Fuller, Islamist Politics in Iraq after Saddam Hussein.
[49] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[50] Fuller, Islamist Politics in Iraq after Saddam Hussein.
[51] Haugh, The Sadr II Movement.
[52] Cole, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” 552.
[53] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 79.
[54] Ibid.
[55] Ibid., 102.
[56] Ibid., 80.
[57] Ibid., 102.
[58] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[59] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’.”
[60] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 88.
[61] Ibid.
[62] Ibid.
[63] Ibid., 95.
[64] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’,” 102.
[65] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 79.
[66] Ibid., 80.
[67] Raphaeli, “Understanding Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[68] Abedin, “The Sadrists Take Out an Option on Iraq’s Future.”
[69] Ibid.
[70] Cockburn, “Muqtada,” 93.
[71] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[72] Ibid.
[73] Ibid.
[74] Ibid.
[75] Ibid.
[76] Ibid.
[77] Ibid., 3.
[78] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[79] Ibid.
[80] Thurber, “Militias as Sociopolitical Movements.”
[81] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[82] Raphaeli, “Understanding Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[83] Ibid.
[84] Ibid.
[85] There is a YouTube video of a reenactment of this incident, memorializing Sadiq al-Sadr’s bravery and defiance. See: There are similar memorial reenactment videos, including one of Sadiq al-Sadr’s assassination. See:
[86] Abedin, “The Sadrist Movement.”
[87] Cochrane, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[88] Cockburn, “Saddam’s Agents ‘Murdered Cleric’,” 104.
[89] Ibid.
[90] “Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr.”
[91] Cochrane, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[92] Abedin, “Iraq’s Sadrists Follow Hezbollah’s Path.”
[93] Cochrane, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[94] “The Militia Politics of Basra.”
[95] “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge – International Crisis Group.”
[96] Cochrane, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement.”
[97] Ibid.


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