The Sadrist 'victory' in the elections has been greatly over-emphasised and exaggerated by the mainstream media due to the disproportionate number of seats they won. Having said that the Sadrists still have the support of large swaths of uneducated, unemployed and impoverished Shia in the south who see them as their only hope and that is why they are still being taken seriously. People who have nothing to lose can become dangerous with a moments notice.
A vital ingredient in the toxic mix of Iraqi politics is still missing. It is extraordinary that the Sadrists have all this support and not even have a living Ayatollah to boast about. In Shia circles, it’s important to emulate one because it justifies day-to-day actions. Your Ayatollah says you can smoke whilst fasting in Ramadhan. His Ayatollah says I can eat gelatin. My Ayatollah says I can't play poker. Religious edicts that are binding on a personal level but hardly matters of consequence in the dynamic and fast-paced world of international politics. The nitty-gritty fatwas become matters of life and death when it comes to the subject of war, and crucially, a dead Ayatollah cannot declare war.
On the scale of religious credentials Moqtada cannot compare to the Grand Ayatollahs Sistani and Hakim. On the scale of influence Moqtada can compare with both. Followers of Sistani and Hakim play the credentials trump card when debating any Sadrist but the Sadrists are undoubtedly more loyal to their leader. When Ayatollah Sistani says stop looting, no museums or government offices are spared. When non-Ayatollah Moqtada says stop fighting, most drop their guns. That is the difference.
Moqtada has been studying in the Iranian city of Qum for a couple of years now and sooner or later is going to officially attain the rank of Ayatollah. The paperwork involved is a lot less complicated than in Western academia and generally there is more room for flexibility. His followers regularly spread rumours of his imminent return probably to gauge how absurd the Iraqi people find the concept. The more times you hear it, the more normal it becomes.
Moqtada for now has the power to declare war de facto, but when that power becomes de jure thanks to his new credentials, the fatwas will have an added punch and become legally binding to all his followers.
To the elite scholars in Najaf and intellectuals in Baghdad, a huge distinction is going to made between Sistani, who has been studying for over half a century in Najaf, and Moqtada, who besides having blood on his hands has just only received his Made-In-Iran certificate.
To the large masses of Iraqi Shia in Baghdad and the south, the lines are going to be blurred. Both Sistani and Moqtada have black turbans, they both have white beards and they are both 'Sayyids' – direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and her husband Imam Ali.
The key element is going to be the relationship that will develop between Moqtada and Sistani and due to the latter’s cautious policy it will most certainly be characterised by a fragile peace.
However, Moqtada’s honeymoon will be over after Sistani’s death and matters are going to be greatly complicated in Najaf. People are already talking about a smooth transition in the marja’iya and the most likely successor is Ayatollah Hakim. Hakim has been openly hostile to Moqtada in the past and its unlikely he will suddenly have a change of heart when he becomes the spiritual leader in Iraq. Hakim once called Moqtada ‘a messed up child’, and that’s just about the worst insult a Grand Ayatollah can ever dish out.
Not before long, Ayatollah Moqtada will become Grand Ayatollah Moqtada, an untouchable who is going to enjoy unrivalled support and a degree of influence and privilege that is going to make many American officials in the previous administration regret not dealing with him when he was just a nuisance in 2004 and Moqtada is going to be a legacy of one of the biggest failures of the Iraq war. Have the Americans accidently paved the way for theocracy through democracy? Maybe not, but brace yourselves for his return and be prepared to witness what is going to be a defining chapter in Iraqi modern history.