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  • Benedict Robin-D'Cruz (a1)

This article develops a concept of social brokerage to explain leftist–Sadrist cooperation during Iraq's 2015 protest movement. Conventional understanding holds that Iraq's secular-leftist civil trend and Shiʿi Islamist factions have been mutually isolated, and at times fierce antagonists, in Iraq's post-2003 politics. This view has been challenged by an emergent political alliance between a faction of the civil trend and the Shiʿi Islamist Sadrist movement. By comparing this alliance with the failure of another Shiʿi Islamist group, ʿAsaʾib Ahl al-Haq, to involve itself with and exploit the protest movement, this article isolates the conditions which determined the dynamics of leftist–Islamist interactions. Shifting the focus away from elite politics and structural-instrumental explanations favored by rational choice models, this article reveals a longer backstory of social and ideological interactions between less senior actors that transgressed leftist–Islamist social boundaries. From this context, potential brokers emerged, capable of skilfully mediating leftist–Sadrist interactions.

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Author's note: I would like to thank my supervisor, Thomas Pierret, for his feedback on drafts and invaluable insight, and the IJMES peer reviewers whose input helped to resolve some lingering problems in my research. I would also like to thank all of my Iraqi contacts without whose support and cooperation this article could not have been written, and especially Faris Kamal Nadhmi. The views expressed here are entirely my own.

1 Sadrists themselves sometimes prefer to use the phrase al-khaṭ al-ṣadrī (the Sadrist line), which emphasises the genealogical basis of the movement's religious character, as opposed to the modern, ideological framing of other “trends.”

2 Iraq analyst Kirk H. Sowell wrote that the election results “sent a shockwave through the establishment.” See Kirk H. Sowell, “Understanding Sadr's Victory,” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 May 2018, accessed 1 January 2019.

3 Al-tayyār al-madanī (civil trend) is a term used in Iraqi political discourse denoting a network of individuals, civic groups, journalists, intellectuals, academics, and political parties who have sought to build a unified social movement to advance a secular political vision.

4 Protesters used a variety of terms including: al-ḥaraka al-iḥtijājiyya (the protest movement); al-ḥaraka al-ilāḥiyya (the reform movement); and al-taẓāhurāt al-ilāḥiyya (the reform protests). “Reform protest movement” represents an amalgam of these terms.

5 Muqtada al-Sadr, “Bi-l-Harf al-Wahid: al-Laqaʾ al-Muntazar maʿ al-Sayid Muqtada al-Sadir,” 21 November 2017, accessed 1 January 2019.

6 Dodge, Toby, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism (Oxon: IISS, 2012), 40.

7 Kirk H. Sowell, “Iraq's Fake Populism and Anti-sectarianism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 9 June 2016, accessed 1 January 2019,; Zalmay Khalilzad, “Why American Needs Iran in Iraq,” Politico Magazine, 2 May 2016, accessed 1 January 2019,

8 Michael Weiss, “Moqtada al-Sadr, the Donald Trump of Iraq,” The Daily Beast, 26 May 2016, accessed 1 January 2019,

9 Nibras Kazimi, “Iraq: What Was That All About?,” Talisman Gate, 10 May 2016, accessed 1 January 2019,; Doyle, Damian, “Pulling and Gouging: The Sadrist Line's Adaptable and Evolving Repertoire of Contention,” in New Opposition in the Middle East, ed. Conduit, Dara and Akbarzadeh, Shahram (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 45.

10 Doyle, “Pulling and Gouging,” 48.

11 McAdam, Doug, Tarrow, Sidney, and Tilly, Charles, Dynamics on Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

12 Melucci, Alberto, “The Process of Collective Identity,” in Social Movements and Culture, ed. Johnston, Hank and Klandermans, Bert (London: Routledge, 1995), 45.

13 Faris Kamal Nadhmi, “al-Taqarub al-Madani–al-Sadri fi Sahat al-Ihtijaj,” al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin, 18 July 2016, accessed 1 January 2019,

14 AAH claims to have split from Jaysh al-Mahdi in 2004, while other accounts put the split as late as 2008.

15 For more on Sadiq al-Sadr, see Rashid al-Khayun, al-Islam al-Siyasi bi-l-ʿIraq: al-Shiʿa (Dubai: al-Mesbar, 2012), 353–81.

16 Clarke, Killian, “Unexpected Brokers of Mobilization: Contingency and Networks in the 2011 Egyptian Uprising,” Comparative Politics 46 (2014): 379.

17 Schwedler, Jillian, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 22.

18 Clark, Janine A., “The Conditions of Islamist Moderation: Unpacking the conditions of cross-ideological cooperation in Jordan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 38 (2006): 539–60.

19 Browers, Michaelle L., Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

20 Pierret, Thomas, “Islamist-Secular Cooperation: Accounting for the Syrian Exception,” in The Dynamics of Opposition Cooperation in the Arab World: Contentious Politics in Times of Change, ed. Kraetzschmar, Hendrik Jan (New York: Routledge, 2013).

21 Dyke, Nella Van and McCammon, Holly J., Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xxiii.

22 Ellen Reese, Christine Petit, and David Meyer, “Sudden Mobilization,” in Strategic Alliances, 286.

23 Juliet Kerr, “The Biggest Problem We Face Is Keeping Our Independence” (discussion papers, DP45, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, 17 May 2017), accessed 1 January 2019, See also, Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 278; and Davis, Eric, “The Historical Genesis of the Public Sphere in Iraq,” in Publics, Politics, and Participation, ed. Shami, Seteney (New York: SSRC, 2009), 408–9.

24 Dodge, Toby, “State and Society in Iraq Ten Years after Regime Change,” International Affairs 89 (2013): 254.

25 Only two monographs have been written on the Sadrist movement, Nicholas Krohley's study of the movement's paramilitary wing, and Patrick Cockburn's journalistic account of the Sadrist movement (much of which focuses on the pre-2003 period). See Krohley, Nicholas, The Death of the Mehdi Army: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Iraq's Most Powerful Militia (London: Hurst & Company, 2015); and Cockburn, Patrick, Mutqada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (New York: Scribner, 2009).

26 Cole, Juan, “The United States and Shi'ite Religious Factions in Post-Baʿthist Iraq,” The Middle East Journal 57 (2003): 544.

27 Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W. N. Norton & Co, 2006), 231, 173.

28 Jabar, Faleh A., The Shi'ite Movement in Iraq (London: Saqi Books, 2003), 25.

29 This is exclusive of the numerous splits within the Sadrists’ paramilitary wing, which are typically thought to be purely strategic and the result of Iranian interference rather than to have ideological roots.

30 A good example was the deaths of twelve babies in a Baghdad hospital fire that was blamed on corruption. Sadrists dominate the health ministry. See “At Least 12 Babies Killed in Baghdad Hospital Fire,” al-Jazeera, 8 November 2016, accessed 1 January 2019,

31 Oil revenues represented 43 percent of Iraqi GDP, 99 percent of exports, and 90 percent of federal revenues in 2015. See Matt Bradley, “Iraq Plagued by Budget Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, 5 November 2014, accessed 1 January 2019,; and World Bank data on oil rents 2018, accessed 1 January 2019,

32 Borzou Daragahi, “Iraq's Cash Crisis Forces Salary Squeeze,” Financial Times, 23 February 2015, accessed 1 January 2019,

33 Pierre Bourdieu described a logic of field solidarity, i.e., an implicit recognition amongst participants in a social field of the need to sustain the value of the field as an object of collective struggle.

34 These ideas were also embraced nominally by the so-called “opposition bloc” in parliament (widely believed at the time to be a Maliki-orchestrated front).

35 See report in al-Ghad, 26 February 2017, accessed 2 January 2019,

36 Jassim al-Helfi, Facebook, 28 February 2017, accessed 1 January 2019,

37 Muqtada al-Sadr, “Bayan Muqtada al-Sadr Hawl al-Islah,” 22 March 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

38 Muqtada al-Sadr, “Bayan,” 14 June 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

39 Kirk H. Sowell, “Iraq's Status Quo Elections,” Carnegie Endowment, 8 February 2018, accessed 2 January 2019,

40 AAH had contested the 2014 elections as part of Maliki's State of Law (Dawlat al-Qanun) coalition, winning just one seat. Following the 2018 elections, the group had raised its parliamentary representation to fifteen seats.

41 Louër, Laurence, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008), 260–61.

42 ʿAli Mamouri, “Why Shi'ites Are Divided over Iranian Role in Iraq,” al-Monitor, 12 May 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

43 Fanar Haddad, “Understanding Iraq's Hashd al-Sha'bi,” The Century Foundation, 5 March 2018, accessed 2 January 2019,

44 Benedict Robin-D'Cruz, “Muqtada al-Sadr Wears Military Uniform,” Iraq After Occupation, 12 July 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

45 For more, see Benedict Robin-D'Cruz, “Nation and Citizenship in the Political Discourse of ‘Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr” (Master's thesis, 2016).

46 “Muqtada Becomes First Iraqi Shi'ite Leader to Urge Assad to Step Down,” Reuters, 9 April 2017, accessed 2 January 2019,

47 “‘Muqtada al-Sadr’ Yujammid Kutlatu al-Siyasiyya fi al-Barlaman al-ʿIraqi Muʾaqitan,” al-Arabia, 20 April 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

48 “Muqtada al-Sadr Yanhi Muqatiʿa Imtaddat 6 Ashhوr al-Ijtimaʿat al-Tahalوf al-Watani al-ʿIraqi,” Rudaw, 1 October 2016, accessed 2 January 2019.

49 Rayburn, Joel, Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institute, 2014), 216–19; Zangana, Haifa, “Iraq,” in Dispatches from the Arab Spring, ed. Amar, Paul and Prashad, Vijay (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

50 In February 2011 Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters in several cities, killing about thirty. See Rayburn, Iraq After America, 218.

51 Zangana, Iraq,” 320.

52 Rayburn, Iraq After America, 216–19; Zangana, “Iraq.”

53 During the second demonstration many civil trend activists were assaulted by gangs linked to AAH that forced them to retreat from Tahrir Square.

54 Muqtada al-Sadr, press conference, 21 May 2017, accessed 2 January 2019,

55 See Faris Nadhmi, “al-Shuyuʿiyyun wa-l-Sadriyyun,” al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin, 17 June 2010, accessed 2 January 2019,

56 Interviews carried out by the author with Saʿdun Mohsen Thamad and Shiruk al-ʿAbayachi, among others, indicated opposition to the overweening influence of the ICP within the civil trend.

57 Mahmood Y. Kurdi, “Interview with Mithal al-Alusi,” Rudaw, 14 August 2017, accessed 2 January 2019,

58 “Al-Tiyar al-Sadri wa-l-Hizb al-Shiyuʿi Yabhathan al-Tansiyq fi al-Tazahurat,” All Iraq News, 7 March 2017, accessed 2 January 2019,

59 Face-to-face interview carried out by the author with Jassim al-Helfi, Erbil, 6 August 2017.

60 For examples, see Schwedler, Faith in Moderation; Pierret, “Islamist-Secular Cooperation”; Browers, Political Ideology; Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994); and Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama'at-i Islami of Pakistan (Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994). On Shiʿism specifically, see Jabar, The Shi'ite Movement; and Cole, Juan and Keddie, Nikki, eds., Shi'ism and Social Protest (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986).

61 Anticommunism and resisting secularization of the Shiʿi masses were core objectives of Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr's Daʿwa Party, established shortly after the 1958 revolution. Grand Ayatollah Mushin al-Hakim issued a fatwa against membership in the ICP in 1960. Leftist and Islamist forces clashed during the 1970s, culminating in the 1977 Intifada Safar. For more, see Franzen, Johan, Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam (London: Hurst & Co., 2011), 237–38; and Jabar, The Shi'ite Movement in Iraq.

62 Rachel Kantz Feder, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and the Foundations of Revivalism and Modernization in Shi'ism, 1946-1980, unpublished doctoral thesis submitted to Tel Aviv University, 2016.

63 The “al-ḥannana meeting” is a famous audio recording of an interview with Sadiq al-Sadr from 1997, named after the neighbourhood in Najaf where he lived.

64 Cockburn, Muqtada.

65 Ismael, The Rise, 296–302.

66 Baker, Raymond, Ismael, Shereen T., and Ismael, Tareq Y., eds., Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered (London: Pluto Press, 2010), contains several chapters dealing with the targeting of academics, journalists, and activists by militias.

67 This account is based on several written discussions between the author and Saʾib ʿAbd al-Hamid that occurred between 2015 and 2018.

68 This account is based on a combination of numerous discussions between the author and Faris Kamal Nadhmi between 2015 and 2018, as well as two face-to-face interviews conducted by the author with Nadhmi in Erbil on 7 August 2017 and 10 September 2017.

69 Nadhmi, “al-Shuyuʿiyyun wa-l-Sadriyyun.”

70 See, e.g., Sadiq al-Taʾi, “‘al-Kutla al-Taʾrikhiyya’ fi al-ʿIraq … Tafkik al-Muqarabat,” al-Quds al-Arabi, 16 March 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

71 “Al-Intikhabat al-Muqbila wa-Hadud al-Taghir,” al-Mada, 11 April 2017.

72 Based on face-to-face interview carried out by author with Jassim al-Helfi, Erbil, 6 August 2017, Erbil.

73 The committee included other prominent leftist academic figures such Faleh A. Jabar, Amer H. Fayadh, and several liberal intellectuals, such as Haider Saeed and Senan al-Shebebi.

74 This account is based on several discussions between the author and Ahmad ʿAbd al-Husayn that occurred between 2015 and 2019 and written accounts of events provided to the author by ʿAbd al-Husayn.

75 Ahmad ʿAbd al-Husayn, “To My Sadrist Friends Only!,” Facebook, 31 July 2016, accessed 14 January 2019,

76 See, e.g., Karim al-Thuri, “Ahmad ʿAbd al-Husayn Mara Ukhra,” al-Muthaqaf, 25 May 2016, accessed 2 January 2019,

77 This account is base on several written discussions between the author and Shaykh Sadiq al-Hasnawi that occurred during 2018.

78 Other examples would include Diyaʾ al-Asadi and ʿAbd al-Jabar al-Hidjami.

79 This account of interactions between the civil trend and AAH is based on information provided to the author by Ahmad ʿAbd al-Husayn and the author's translation of ʿAlaʾ al-Baghdadi's unpublished memoir.

80 Nabil Jassim, Mustafa Saʾadoun, ʿAli Wajih, ʿAli al-Sumeri, Jihad Jalil, Baha Kamil, Moʾayd al-Tayeb, ʿAli al-Khalidi, Ahmad ʿAbd al-Husayn, Zaid al-Ajili.

81 ʿAbd Al-Husayn, ʿAli al-Sumari, Jihad Jalil, Baha Kamil, and Muʾayad al-Tayib supported the idea of not leaving the square under any circumstances; Nabil Jassim, ʿAli al-Khalidi, Zaid al-Ajili, Mustafa Saʾadoun, and ʿAli Wajih supported postponing the demonstration.

82 Account based on ʿAlaʾ al-Baghdadi's unpublished memoirs.

83 This account is based on several written discussions between the author and Hasan Hadi Zabun that occurred between 2017 and 2018.

84 This account of these meetings is drawn primarily from ʿAlaʾ Baghdadi's unpublished memoir.

85 “Al-Sadr: al-Tazahurat didd al-Fasad Mustamirra wa-ʿala al-Hukuma al-Istijaba li-ha wa-Hamaya Qadatha,” al-Mada, 22 October 2015, accessed 2 January 2019،

87 This account is based on several written discussions between the author and Hasan al-Kaʿbi that occurred in 2016.

88 Based on the author's face-to-face interview with Saʿdun Mohsin Thamad, Sulaymaniyah, 13 September 2017.

89 Based on the author's face-to-face interview with Shiruk al-Abayachi, Irbil, 13 August 2017.

91 Anonymous Sadrist source close to events.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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