Examining a Shiite Leader's Strength in Baghdad

3 MINS READMay 7, 2016 | 13:01 GMT

Satellite imagery of protests in Baghdad lends insight into the considerable influence of a prominent figure in Iraqi politics: Muqtada al-Sadr. Over the past few months, the charismatic Shiite leader has called for demonstrations in the Iraqi capital against corruption in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government, which has been paralyzed by infighting among the country's Shiite factions. Given the protests' sizable turnout, it is clear that al-Sadr can bring significant pressure to bear on governing officials — enough that Baghdad's foreign backers are growing wary of his intentions.

The satellite images below show Baghdad in the early afternoon of April 26, just after protests reached their peak. Obtained from Stratfor's partner, AllSource Analysis, the photographs capture the movement of large crowds from Tahrir Square toward the Green Zone, where many international embassies and Iraq's most important government buildings are housed. Based on their density, the crowds likely consisted of between 56,000 and 71,000 protesters. The fairly substantial number indicates al-Sadr's continued popularity among Iraqis.

Al-Sadr called for the demonstrations as part of his broader effort to pressure Iraqi politicians to form a technocratic government. Cobbled together along sectarian lines, the current clientelist system, in place since 2004, is particularly vulnerable to corruption and co-optation by external actors. Iraqi citizens across the political and religious spectrums are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what they consider inept governance, especially as Iraq sinks deeper into its economic and security crises. This discontent, coupled with his command of a 20,000-strong militia, has enabled al-Sadr to organize and influence popular opinion among poorer Shiite communities for years.

When the photographs were taken, some 33,000 to 41,000 protesters had apparently already reached the Green Zone's concrete perimeter. Thousands more walked along Yafa Street and over Al Jumariyah Bridge en route from Tahrir Square. As the April 26 demonstrations unfolded, the Green Zone's tightly guarded and heavily patrolled barriers kept protesters at bay away from the walls' breachable sections. Meanwhile, in the parliament building inside the perimeter, al-Abadi introduced a new list of Cabinet nominees to Iraqi lawmakers. (His first round of technocratic candidates only further divided the already fragmented parliament.)

The Green Zone's barriers, designed to protect the fortified area against terrorist attacks — and not against throngs of people determined to get inside — did not hold for long. On April 30, only four days after the satellite images were taken, a smaller group of al-Sadr supporters broke through the security perimeter and climbed the concrete walls in an attempt to gain access to the parliament building. The incursion was the first of its kind in the Green Zone's history.

What matters most about al-Sadr's enduring command over the loyalty of thousands of Iraqis is the bargaining power it grants him. But his sway over the tides of popular opinion makes him both an asset and a threat to foreign actors interested in maintaining their footholds in Iraq. Al-Sadr has long been wary of Iran's clout in Baghdad, though his opposition to the United States' presence there is even greater. As the prime minister struggles to unite the country's competing Shiite factions, Baghdad's external backers will do everything they can to protect their influence in the Iraqi capital.

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