Iraqi supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad's Tahrir square on March 2, 2018. His cousin-in-law is a contender to become prime minister. Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye
Iraqi supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad's Tahrir square on March 2, 2018. His cousin-in-law is a contender to become prime minister. Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye

Jaafar al-Sadr, 48, is a strong candidate to become the next prime minister of Iraq. He was nominated for the job by his cousin and in-law, Muqtada al-Sadr, who swept the country’s parliament seats in this month’s election, leading in six provinces, including Baghdad, with 52 seats.

He personally cannot become premier, since he is not a member of parliament and his cousin-in-law also cannot unilaterally name a prime minister without consulting with other parties within the chamber.

Over the weekend, Sadr met with current Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, who won only 40 seats, and told reporters: “We agreed to work together.” Abadi, who came to power in 2014, campaigned on being the man to defeat ISIS in Mosul and Takrit, but that clearly was not enough for him to defeat the Sadrists, who are deep-rooted in Iraqi society, especially among young Shiites and the urban poor.

Abadi still has a chance of returning to power, only through a broad coalition cabinet dominated by the Sadrists and written off by Muqtada.

Officially, the rebel-turned politician has denied any favoritism for his cousin – or anybody else. His spokesman Jaafar al-Mousawi insists that Muqtada is yet to name a prime minister, fearing accusations of nepotism if he gives the job to Jaafar, especially since he campaigned on fighting corruption, embezzlement and misconduct, saying he wanted both Iran and the United States ejected from Iraqi politics.

Jaafar al-Sadr, however, is very close to the Iranians, having spent most of his adult life studying at its seminary in Qom, where he still owns a home and visits often. He threw off his Islamic garb back in 2005, however, re-positioning himself as a moderate secularist, who nevertheless is balanced, well-educated and learned in Shiite Islam.

Few people outside Iraq have heard the name, but within Shiite circles throughout the Muslim World, Jaafar is a ranking notable, due mainly to his family name, rather than any personal merit or achievement. He is the only son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Sadr, a revered Shiite leader and the ideological founder of the Dawa Party, who was executed by Saddam Hussein in April 1980.

Abadi and his two predecessors, Nuri al-Malki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, are all disciples of Mohammad Baqir Sadr, although Jaafar himself is not a member of the ruling Dawa Party.

Jaafar was only 10 when his father was executed – reportedly by having a nail driven through his head – and has since lived within his shadow, influenced no doubt by his towering personality, which earned Jaafar automatic fans and supporters throughout Iraq.

When he ran for parliament on Nuri al-Malki’s State of Law List, he received votes almost equal to the then-prime minister. Traditionalists voted for him, so did an older generation of Shiites, religious clerics and students of his father. He supported his cousin Muqtada’s rise to fame in 2004, when he led an insurgency against American forces, and played a silent role in the Mehdi Army, which has since been rebranded “Saraya al-Salam” or “Peace Forces.”

He was always critical of Muqtada’s violent tactics, however, especially when the Mehdi Army created death squads to finish off Sunni enemies in 2005-2006. He also briefly quarreled with Muqtada when he said he no longer believed in political Islam, adding: “I think Sayed Mohammad Baqir Sadr, if he were here today, would change his thoughts when faced with the demands of reality.”

They then parted ways, again, when Jaafar ran for parliament on Malki’s list, rather than that of Muqtada, and then again, when he said he would like to see Iraq modeled after the United States and Great Britain. The men have since re-connected, with sources close to Muqtada confirming that his name is high on the list of potential prime ministers.