Muqtada al-Sadr was born in Al-Najaf, Iraq in approximately 1974 (though his exact date of birth is uncertain). He is the son of Iraqi cleric Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite figure who was murdered, along with two of his sons, by agents of Saddam Hussein in February 1999.
In early 2004, al-Sadr became the de-facto ruler of the Sadr City section of Baghdad and he commanded the loyalty of the al-Mahdi Army, a militia he helped form. In April of that year, he clashed with U.S. forces. This was followed by a truce in June, at which point al-Sadr sent mixed signals: though he promised to disband his militia and become involved in the political process, his militia nevertheless kept up a barrage of suicide bombings and other attacks. The Iraqi Conditional Provisional Authority (CPA) had threatened to arrest al-Sadr on several occasions previously, but to end the crisis he was given assurances that he would not face arrest, and that he would be allowed to run in the 2005 elections if he laid down his arms.
Tensions rose again in August 2004, and U.S. and Iraqi forces moved against al-Sadr and his militia, which was estimated to consist of anywhere between 500 and 1,000 trained and hard-core combatants along with another 5,000 to 6,000 active participants, although some estimates pegged this number as high as 10,000.
The al-Sadr group was charged with involvement in attacks and intimidation in Najaf against other Shiite political factions, including the killing of a pro-U.S. cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, shortly after his return from exile in London. (Al-Khoi was himself the son of another extremely powerful former grand ayatollah, Abolqassem al-Khoi.) Abd al-Majid al-Khoi was murdered as he emerged from the city’s Imam Ali Mosque. In an attempt to bridge gaps between the Sunni and Shiite communities, he had met with the mosque’s custodian Haidar Raifee, who was widely believed to have collaborated with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Raifee was brutally killed along with al-Khoi.
Immediately following al-Khoi’s murder, al-Sadr militants surrounded the house of the grand ayatollah in Najaf, Ali Sistani, al-Sadr’s main rival for influence. Sistani, a moderate, escaped and temporarily went into hiding, emerging only after being bolstered by reinforcements.
An Iraqi judge subsequently issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the killing of Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, and coalition forces closed his Al-Hawzah newspaper. The situation escalated when al-Sadr’s militia began a new campaign of intimidation against Iraqi citizens in Baghdad and Najaf. The militia attempted to occupy and gain control of police stations and government buildings. During this attack, al-Sadr’s forces engaged coalition forces, which quickly repulsed the attack and reestablished control. Coalition troops also fought gun battles with the militia in the southern cities of Nassiriyah, Amara and Kut. Conditions rapidly deteriorated, and coalition forces were soon involved in the most widespread fighting in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in the previous year.
Troops battled Shiite militias in half a dozen Iraqi towns and cities, from Kirkuk in the north to Basra in the south. The Al-Mahdi militia took full control of the city of Kut and partial control of Najaf. In Karbala, Polish and Bulgarian troops fought Al-Mahdi militants as hundreds of thousands of Shiites were gathering ahead of a religious festival. Militants then attacked British troops in the center of Basra, south of Baghdad, and simultaneously attacked the governor’s offices and coalition headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades. British forces counterattacked and killed several militants. These attacks were precipitated by a Basra cleric inciting militants with an offer of cash rewards for the killing or capture of British and American troops. The cleric, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, an al-Sadr sympathizer, also promised that anyone who captured British or American female soldiers could keep them as slaves. In June 2004, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi offered amnesty to all militiamen who agreed to disarm. Their members would either join state-controlled security services or return to civilian life.
August, however, brought an escalation of violence. There were clashes across central and southern Iraq between the Al-Mahdi militia and U.S., British, and Italian forces. Al-Sadr’s total abandonment of the previously agreed-upon truce was now evident. His forces attacked Italian troops in Nasiriyah with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. They attacked U.S. positions in Baghdad, Najaf and Basrah. A U.S. helicopter was downed in Najaf, without loss of life. Coalition forces hit back hard, and al-Sadr’s forces were suffering large casualties. Al-Sadr soon offered another ceasefire. In a magnanimous gesture, interim Prime Minister Allawi signed a limited amnesty law that would pardon insurgents as long as they had not killed anyone. He also offered an olive branch to al-Sadr, giving him the opportunity to legitimize himself by taking part in the political process. Al-Sadr had previously rejected invitations to participate in Iraqi elections.
Fighting continued in August 2004, and by mid-month U.S. forces had killed as many as 400 militants in Najaf alone. Two U.S. Marines were also killed in the fighting in Najaf.
On August 27, 2004, tensions were diffused somewhat when a deal between the American-led coalition and al-Sadr’s forces was brokered by Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The keys to the Imam Ali mosque, which had been taken over and used as a base by insurgents, were handed over to Sistani. Al-Sadr ordered his militia to cease hostilities and stated that he would soon announce plans for his political future.
Al-Sadr chose not to run in the 2005 Iraqi elections, and his followers joined with other Shiite parties to form the United Iraqi Alliance. The Alliance won a plurality of seats in the Iraqi Parliament (128 of 275). Sadr supported Nuri al-Maliki for prime minister. (In April 2007, several of al-Sadr’s followers left al-Maliki’s cabinet unsatisfied with a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.)
As part of the 2004 deal, the Iraqi government agreed not to arrest Sadr based on a previously issued warrant connecting him to the murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoi. However, his Mahdi army was linked to a large part of the sectarian killing in 2006-2007. The Mahdi was accused of running death squads with the purpose of killing Sunni Muslims and those of rival Shiite groups. Occasionally, al-Sadr would condemn the violence.
In November 2006. al-Sadr called for a boycott of the government in response to a summit held between al-Maliki and U.S. President George W Bush. The boycott lasted two months, after which his followers (Sadrists) returned to their positions in the Parliament.
In late 2007 or early 2008, al-Sadr moved to Qom, Iran, where he established a theological seminary. It is believed that his reason for leaving Iraq was to pressure from the Iraqi and U.S. military after President Bush ordered the so-called troop “surge,” which greatly escalated the number of American soldiers in Iraq. While in Iran, Sadr continued to support his followers in Iraq.
In August, 2007, while still in Iran, al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi army to cease fighting after bloody fighting in Karbala. Not all elements of the Mahdi agreed to stop fighting, however. In February 2008, al-Sadr ordered the Mahdi to resume fighting, which triggered a bloody battle with Iraqi forces in the city of Basra on March 26.
On March 28, 2008, al-Sadr accepted an Iranian-brokered cease fire. In August 2008, he again ordered the Mahdi to lay down their arms. Though he announced that the Mahdi would become a cultural and social operation called the Mumahidoon, it would maintain an armed group that would continue resistance against foreign troops. They were named the Promised Day Brigades. This group was not allowed to attack Iraqi troops or civilians, but did continue to oppose U.S. forces up until the full withdrawal of American troops in December 2011. The group was also opposed to the presidency of al-Maliki. (In 2010, al Sadr’s followers had been instrumental in helping al-Maliki win re-election. Al-Sadr and al-Maliki subsequently had a falling out and became rivals.)
Al-Sadr returned to Najaf, Iraq in January 2011. While the Iraqi government was negotiating an extension for having U.S. troops in the country, al-Sadr threatened to reactivate the Mahdi force if an extension was granted. By September, he was holding rallies to protest al-Maliki’s “tyrannical and divisive policies,” and in December he called for new elections.
By 2012, al-Sadr was presenting himself as a man of peace and sectarian harmony.
In August 2013, al-Sadr announced that he was retiring from politics as well as dismantling the Mahdi forces. Al-Sadr’s followers did remain active in Iraqi politics, however. When Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014, al-Sadr reformed his forces under the name Peace Brigades. This group was opposed to ISIS, as well as to the continued presidency of al-Maliki. When al-Maliki was replaced by Haider al-Abadi in the summer of 2014, al-Sadr gave him his support in the fight against ISIS.
In 2015, al-Sadr formed an alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party and other secular groups reportedly based on security concerns and fighting against corruption. In March of that same year, he issued a statement opposing the Saudi invasion of Yemen.
On February 26, 2016, al-Sadr led a million-man march in Baghdad to protest the al-Abadi government’s alleged corruption and its failure to deliver on promises of reform. On March 18, al-Sadr’s followers commenced a sit-in outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, which al-Sadr called a “bastion of support for corruption.”
That same year, in July, al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to discuss regional issues. In April 2018, al-Sadr offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resolve problems involving Iraq and the region.
In May 2018, al-Sadr’s Sairoon (Marching Toward Reform) electoral list, which included an alliance with communists, won 54 seats in the Iraqi Parliament. It was the largest number of seats for any of the competing coalitions. This election success led former Colonel Michael D. Sullivan, writing in Foreign Policy, to call al-Sadr “Iraq’s best hope” for ending sectarian violence and corruption. Conceding that al-Sadr had been deeply involved in bloody sectarian violence in the past and likely remained an opponent of the U.S., Sullivan stated that the al-Sadr of 2004 was not the al-Sadr of 2018.