On a Wednesday evening in Karbala, a city south of Baghdad, a large group of young men gathered under a bridge only a few hundred metres from my hotel. It was early April 2016, just weeks before symbolic Green Zone protests escalated Iraqi street politics to unprecedented levels. I was witnessing the sort of protest action that had been taking place in cities across the country for nearly twelve months as Iraqis demanded political reform to end the ethno-sectarian quota system and root out corruption.
A couple of the young men had loudspeakers and several carried banners and Iraqi flags. They sang. They chanted. They clapped their hands. A small group of very enthusiastic lads even danced. I was reminded of videos I’d been glued to during the Arab Spring protests five years ago. The police closed off the street, diverted traffic, and watched the event unfold without interfering. After an hour or so, the crowd reduced in size, the road was re-opened, and the police departed.
The scene was very different in Kufa on Friday morning. Having just visited the Great Mosque of Kufa, I sat in the shade at the nearby shrine, watching Iraqis do what they do at the mosque on Fridays. When prayers ended, thousands of people, many of them families, began a slow procession out of the mosque, past the shrine, and toward the city where they would stage a protest in the square. Some sang as they walked.
There must have been hundreds of Iraqi flags. Dotted amongst them where white flags featuring the green insignia of the Sarāyā al-Salām (Peace Companies), the Sadrist militia that current defends holy sites and contributes to the fighting against the Islamic State terrorist group. The flags were on sale at a Sadrist merchandise stand outside the mosque, just opposite the Sadrist bookshop.
These two protest events represent two different faces of Iraqi street politics. Recently, observers have taken to describing Iraqi activists and protest participants as belonging to either “civic” or “Sadrist” movements. The first refers to civil society groups with a secular outlook and a vision of a new form of government free of the ethno-sectarian quotas in place since 2003. The second refers to Iraqis who, to varying degrees, identify with the religious leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, or the social and political movement he leads, which was built largely by his father during the 1990s.
These two trends form an uneasy alliance because of a common interest in political change in Iraq. There’s tension between the secular orientation of the civic trend and the Islamist outlook of the Sadrists. Important internal discussions are currently taking place in the context of this tension.
Naturally, there are more strident views, too, such as analysts who criticise the Sadrists for “hijacking” the civic protest movement for political gain and international media that refer to the Sadrists as a “Shi’a mob”. In turn, the Sadrists present themselves as the only movement able to mobilise Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands to pressure the government for reform. Some Sadrists criticise civic participants who are unwilling to work with them and suggest that civic activists distrust Sadrists because they’ve been influenced by anti-Sadrist propaganda.
Seeking to understand these and other actors in Iraqi politics and civil society – their motivations, relationships, and goals – is a fascinating and increasingly important task.