By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Moqtada al-Sadr, the Muslim Shi'ite cleric who dominated Iraqi politics for two decades, seems isolated for now after his move to step back from formal politics emboldened his Iranian-backed rivals and raised the prospect of fresh factional flare-ups.
Iran, which already controls dozens of heavily-armed Shi'ite militias in its oil-producing neighbour, may now have an opportunity to expand its influence over Iraq's government, a worst case scenario for the United States and its allies.
Although Sadr won a parliamentary majority in a 2021 election, he chose to withdraw in August after his failed, year-long bid to form a cabinet without rivals close to Iran.
Sadr's decision may already be driving away some of the swathes of followers who helped propel him to the centre of Iraqi politics in the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled longtime dictator, Saddam Hussein.
"Some of the followers who support his eminence Sayed Moqtada have started to complain that retreating from politics and parliament will leave the path more open for corrupt parties to control government," said Ali al-Iqabi, a Sadrist activist.
"Unfortunately that has happened now," he told Reuters.
New Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani has reshuffled several top security posts and installed officials who are close to Iran-backed parties, including in the critical position of chief of military intelligence, four security officials told Reuters.
The post was previously held by a more pro-Western official.
But Sudani has privately rejected calls by Sadr's opponents to sack pro-Sadr government officials, fearing that would push Iraq back into violence, five Shi’ite lawmakers and two senior Sadrist officials said.
This account was corroborated by four Shi’ite lawmakers who attended meetings between Sudani and Shi'ite politicians on Oct. 20 and Dec.11.
PLANNING A RETURN?
Sadr's followers took to the streets after he stepped back from politics, and the country briefly slid toward a civil war between Shi'ite factions until the protests were called off.
"Sudani is struggling not to awaken the dragon," said one Shi'ite government official who attends weekly cabinet meetings.
Sudani's office did not respond to a request for comment about the appointments or his refusal to move against officials seen as having ties to Sadr.
Sadr, who has not made the kind of public appearances that once fired up supporters and intimidated rivals, has retreated from politics before only to make a return. Some of those close to the mercurial cleric expect this withdrawal to be temporary.
"As soon as there is a sign of a new election Sadr will sign up," one of those close to him told Reuters.
Sadr, who has closed several of his offices since his withdrawal from politics, could not be reached for comment.
A representative of the cleric in the city of Kerbala said: "Sadr is watching closely the political developments and performance of Sudani’s government which he (Sadr) believes would not last much longer."
A 2022 survey by British think-tank Chatham House found Sadr supporters were more likely to vote than other groups.
But, alongside losing some backing on the street, his hand may now have been weakened y his reluctance to show more pragmatism in forming a government with those backed by Tehran, which some see as an ally in the fight against Islamic State.
"The failure of Sadr to form such a government and the collapse of his alliance in the face of pushback from Iran and its allies in Iraq has affected Moqtada's political position and forced him and his movement to take back seats," said Baghdad-based analyst Jasim al-Bahadli.
Pro-Sadr clerics, former legislators and analysts say Sadr has no clearly defined political role for the first time since 2005, leaving him at his weakest since entering Iraqi politics.
In August, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, a religious scholar in Iran who was anointed as a spiritual adviser by Sadr's father, angered Sadr's supporters by saying Sadr had split Shi'ites.
Sadr officials, pro-Sadr Shi'ite clerics and religious sources in the sacred Iraqi city of Najaf told Reuters they believed Tehran was behind the pronouncement.
Haeri told Sadr's followers to seek future guidance on religious matters from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a scholar who is Iran's Supreme Leader.
Sadr himself also suggested Haeri spoke under pressure without naming who was to blame. "I don’t believe he did this of his own volition,” Sadr wrote on Twitter.
Ghazi Faisal, chairman of the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies think-tank, said Haeri gave "momentum to Iranian efforts to consolidate the powers of its allies in Iraqi politics."
When asked for comment by Reuters, a representative of Haeri said the scholar did not comment on politics.
Many Shi'ite Iraqis still view Sadr as a hero of the downtrodden. He inherited much early legitimacy from his father, a revered cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein's agents, before building his own powerbase and leading hundreds of thousands of followers in protests against everything from corruption to inflation.
Human rights groups accused Sadr militiamen of kidnapping and killing Sunnis at the height of Iraq's civil war. Sadr says his fighters were hunting down Sunni insurgents not civilians.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Edmund Blair)