Muqtada al-Sadr is one of the few Shiite leaders in Iraq distancing himself from the Iranian regime. He stands with the demonstrators as an ally of the Iraqi left.
In the popular uprisings now being carried out by protesters across Iraq, which have so far seen more than 104 killed and 6,000 wounded, al-Sadr called on the Iraqi government to resign and prepare for early elections under the supervision of the United Nations (UN). In a statement, al-Sadr described what is happening in Iraq as a "disregard for Iraqi blood" which "cannot be tolerated."
Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?
Al-Sadr, a member of an influential religious family, already has considerable influence in Iraq, which became evident soon after the US invasion in 2003. His political positions were characterised by opposition to the US military presence.
He once called for a national revolt against foreign forces and summoned armed militias to confront the "invaders". At other times, he appeared more moderate and sought to play a political role within Iraq.
Al-Sadr, 45, is fairly young compared to other influential Shiite clerics in Iraq. However, in the eyes of his supporters, his wisdom far exceeds his years. His opponents argue that he lacks political and religious experience and is an extremist who aims to control the Shiite religious establishment in Iraq.
Al-Sadr blends Iraqi patriotism with religious attitudes, making him popular with many of Iraq's poor and ordinary Shiites. Muqtada al-Sadr, the youngest son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was a Shiite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein's regime and founder of the Islamic Dawa Party (Islamic Call Party).
The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 revealed the strength of the Sadrist movement, a network of charities founded by al-Sadr's father. In the first weeks after the US invasion of Iraq, his supporters spread through the streets of the Shiite slums of the Capital Baghdad and distributed food.
The largest Shiite neighbourhood in Baghdad has also been renamed "Saddam City" to "Sadr City."
In June 2003, al-Sadr established a militia, The Mahdi Army, also known as the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), to US-backed counter coalition control. Al-Sadr also announced the establishment of a rival government for the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, but it failed to take power.
He also established the weekly newspaper "Speaking Hawza". On March 28, 2003, coalition forces friendly to the US announced a 60-day ban on the newspaper, accusing it of encouraging violence against the United States.
Unlike moderate Shiite leaders such as Ali al-Sistani, al-Sadr has demanded that Shiite leaders should play a role in shaping political life in Iraq.
A spokesperson for al-Sadr said in late 2003 that he planned to set up a political party to run in the first general elections planned for January 2004. But the Shiite leader returned to criticise Iyad Allawi, the prime minister of Iraq's interim government, saying it was just a continuation of the US-led occupation.
Al-Sadr's supporters refused to take part in a national conference, which was postponed until mid-August 2004, to choose a national assembly. His supporters said a single seat was not enough to recognise an organisation of thousands of members.
In April 2003, just two days after the fall of Baghdad, al-Sadr's supporters were accused of killing Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, a moderate Shiite leader who collaborated with the US and British governments from exile, and an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr. However, he denied his involvement in the crime.
His supporters also clashed with supporters of rival al-Sistani, who rose to prominence in the run-up to the handover of power to Iraqis on June 30th 2003. He condemned the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.
Al-Sadr's popularity is due mainly to his acceptance among the poor and marginalised Shiites. However, many Iraqis also see him as a symbol of resistance against foreign occupation.
Far from the Iranian regime
Al-Sadr is one of the few Iraqi Shiite leaders who have kept a distance from Iran, and in 2017 he called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Popular Mobilisation Forces (al-Hashd ash-Shaʿabi), which played an important role in the fight against Isis.
He also called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "take a historic heroic decision" to step down from power to avoid further bloodshed in his country.
Al-Sadr is seen as a prominent leader of the mass protests, and his supporters joined the protests in Baghdad's Tahrir Square against "government corruption" last year. They took part in mass demonstrations in Baghdad, demanding electoral reform.
In 2017, al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where he met with senior officials. His alliance with civil and secular forces such as the Communist Party set a political precedent Iraq, further cementing his name and status.