While most of the world's attention is fixed on northern Iraq, where the battle for Mosul entered its second day, an important political bargain is taking shape in the southern city of Najaf. On Tuesday, a meeting between Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and several prominent Shiite military leaders yielded unusual statements of unity. The meeting demonstrated a concerted effort to pull together Iraq's fractious Shiite community into a more cohesive bloc ahead of the country's 2017 municipal elections. And though each participant undoubtedly had his own ulterior motive for supporting that cause, the meeting's promise of greater stability in Iraq — however hollow — was a welcome development for the beleaguered country.
Al-Sadr has long been a divisive figure in Iraq, having come to international fame, or infamy, in his violent fight against American and British forces in his country. Since 2011, however, he has been more interested in political voice than in military power, relying on his clerical training to cultivate a more respected image. Al-Sadr has spent the past year alternately championing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's efforts at reform and protesting their sluggish pace. As a political organizer, al-Sadr's sway reaches well beyond the Shiite community, rallying Sunni and Kurdish protesters to join his massive demonstrations. Combating foreign occupation is another of al-Sadr's favored causes, and, like reform, it resonates with Iraqis, especially in light of the Mosul offensive and the foreign military influences it entails. Pushing against foreign influence in Iraq — particularly non-Shiite influence — is just one of many issues on which al-Sadr and the other leaders present at Tuesday's meeting see eye to eye.
Although al-Sadr is reluctant to cast his lot with any one political movement, the upcoming municipal vote could be enough to bring him closer to his Shiite rivals. To make gains in the elections, especially among skeptical Iraqi voters tired of the same old corruption, political blocs will have to demonstrate a greater degree of unity. Tuesday's landmark meeting was a step in that direction. After the meeting, al-Sadr held a press conference outside his home during which he and the other attendees affirmed their respect for one another and their commitment to their country's best interest. Al-Sadr announced that he had reached an agreement with the leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces standing alongside him on Iraq's future "after the Islamic State." Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Iran-backed Badr organization, said a common understanding with al-Sadr was at "its highest level." Even Qais al-Khazali, commander of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, put his turbulent history with al-Sadr — a former ally with whom he had not met in seven years — behind him, hailing al-Sadr as a patriot. Such effusive comments indicate the strong political pragmatism of these individualistic leaders and hint at a grander plan.
Despite his stance on foreign influence, al-Sadr's history of accepting military aid from Iran, where he did his clerical studies, reveals not only his loyalties but also his willingness to have a patron when it suits him. He is a powerful ally, and one Iran would like to have fully on its side as the balance of power in northern Iraq shifts in the Islamic State's wake. At his command, thousands of Iraqis gathered Tuesday morning in front of the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad to protest Turkey's participation in the Mosul operation. If Iran can further increase its influence in Iraq through its inroads with the country's Shiite groups, it will have significantly more power in Baghdad than Turkey does, regardless of Ankara's desire to preserve its influence in northern Iraq. After their meeting, the leaders in attendance answered questions about Turkey's role in Mosul, decrying foreign occupation of any sort, even as they claimed that they would abide by Baghdad's leadership on the matter. That these influential figures presented a united front is cause for concern among external powers wary of Iran's influence in Iraq, such as the United States and Turkey.
Still, Iraq's Shiite leaders face an uphill battle to maintain their unity. Deep-seated enmity lingers between the community's rival factions, not least of all between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — an ally of many of the leaders present at the meeting — and al-Sadr. Just a week ago, al-Sadr criticized al-Maliki and called for demonstrations against his attempt to reclaim Iraq's vice presidency by manipulating the courts. To al-Sadr, the former prime minister embodies corruption — even though the Shiite cleric himself is angling for more influential ministerial posts for his bloc. Their differences could undermine future efforts to coalesce the Shiite community into a more streamlined voting bloc. For now, however, the Shiite community needs al-Sadr's popular appeal and pro-reform message to make headway in the municipal elections. Furthermore, knowing full well that Baghdad's political machinery requires a strong coalition to operate, al-Sadr likely feels the need to assimilate more fully into the Shiite fold. Even so, he will try to maintain the relative independence that helps fuel his popular appeal.
As the battle for Mosul unfolds, the need for stability in Iraq's central government is taking on renewed importance. Once Iraqi forces and their fellow coalition members have ousted the Islamic State from the city's leadership, Mosul will go back to being under Baghdad's administration. And though everyone seems to be working together in the initial stages of the operation, Iraq's history suggests that this cooperation will not go on indefinitely.