February 2021: thousands of militiamen loyal to Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr take to the streets of Baghdad and cities in southern Iraq. It’s their biggest show of force since the mid-2000s, when Sadr’s followers battled the U.S. occupation.
Now, the Sadrists are also preparing for a political show of force – one that could make them the biggest winner in October’s election.
Sadr himself quit politics in 2014, fearing his reputation would be hurt by association with a corrupt ruling class. But Sadrist politician Hakem Zamili says even the top job in government is now within reach for his movement.
"The Sadrist movement started with 15 seats (in Parliament), then it got 30 seats, now it has 44 seats. Signs of popularity of the Sadrist movement started to rise, because it is close to the people, to the citizen."
"The Sadrist movement is not claiming elections, or hasn’t before, because previously, we were far from aiming for the Prime Minister’s position. Now, if the candidate is not from the Sadrist movement itself, it will be a candidate supported by the Sadrist movement."
This growing influence could pose problems for the United States and Iran. Sadr accuses both of meddling in Iraq. According to more than a dozen government officials and lawmakers who spoke to Reuters, the Sadrists already hold senior jobs within the interior, defense and communications ministries. They also have key appointments in state oil, electricity and transport bodies and state-owned banks.
On the streets, Sadr’s appeal goes way beyond bastions like Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City. His movement is there to help all Iraqis, says close aide Hazem Al-Aaraji.
"We do not discriminate between a Sadrist and a non-Sadrist. We help any person who needs assistance. Depending on our capabilities, we give more, or less. For instance, during the month of Ramadan, we had a campaign for the families of martyrs, of injured people or families in need, we brought them aid parcels. We do not support one category at the expense of another category. We also helped Christians, Sabaean-Mandaeans."
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has previously denied that the Sadrist Movement controls posts in his administration, and he insists he is in charge. But neither his government, nor U.S., nor Iranian officials wanted to respond to this report.
After decades of bloodshed and political deadlock, more and more Iraqis like Mustafa Al-Dhahabi are willing to give the Sadrists a chance.
"They hope they will win the post of Prime Minister and we hope that too, because we have tried them all, the parties, the independents, they did not do anything. So, they are the only ones left. We will try them it is okay. There is nothing else left, we’ll try them out. And we hope they will achieve the ambitions of the oppressed people."