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What the resignation of popular Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr means in the Middle East


Violence in Baghdad has now killed at least two dozen people and injured hundreds in the last two days. Supporters of the popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, some of them armed, clashed with Iraqi security forces, which include members of Iran-backed militias. The fighting comes as a result of a deadlock in forming a government some 10 months after parliamentary elections. There's a split between Sadr and Iran-backed groups. Sadr has now told his supporters to end their protests and to leave government areas that they have occupied. To understand more about the situation, we have reached Sarhang Hamasaeed, the Middle East Program's director for the United States Institute of Peace. Welcome.

SARHANG HAMASAEED: Thank you - good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. So can you just first help us understand better who Muqtada al-Sadr is? Like, he is one of Iraq's most powerful leaders. What else can you tell us about him?

HAMASAEED: Muqtada al-Sadr comes from a religious family. His father and his uncle have been known as to be religious credentials. In recent years, he has been able to brand himself as a Iraqi leader who is against foreign interference, including Iranian interference, who stands for justice, for Iraqi nationalism. And Iraqi civil society leaders have allied with him in different elections. And the jury is still out how much do you believe this rebranding.

CHANG: Well, I understand that his bloc was the biggest winner in Iraqi elections last fall. But then this summer, all of his allies in parliament quit in protest. What happened there?

HAMASAEED: He formed an alliance with the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and a major force of the Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. That gave him enough votes in parliament to be able to form a government and appoint a prime minister. The Iranians and their allies in Iraq have managed to form what was known as the obstructing third in the parliament - so about 120, 130 votes that prevented al-Sadr from forming the government. The deadlock in the political process and in the electoral process led to, as you rightfully mentioned, Sadr to decide that he would actually ask all the MPs who are representing him in parliament to quit. And they did so in June. And that meant to this date, it is a huge point of surprise why did he give up this much parliamentary power in the system.

CHANG: Still, can you explain how this current power struggle in Iraq, how this current political situation could affect U.S. interests?

HAMASAEED: Yes. So the U.S. has several interests in Iraq. Obviously, from a national security standpoint, a stable, democratic Iraq serves in the way where Iraq does not become a place for terrorism. Second, Iraq is a major oil producer. So for the stability of the global economy and for U.S. allies, this is an important factor. And third, for regional stability, Iraq is an important country where the - Iraq and the countries of the region are unhappy with the expansion that Iran had in the region. So there are several factors that Iraq plays an important role for U.S. interests. But the U.S. leverage to affect those outcomes is far less today than it was some years ago.

CHANG: That was Sarhang Hamasaeed, the United States Institute of Peace's Middle East Program's director. Thank you very much for joining us today.

HAMASAEED: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Taylor Hutchison