Iraqi anger at US overcomes doubts about leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr

Developing Just Leadership

Nasr Salem

Rajab 16, 1425 2004-05-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3, Rajab, 1425)

Although the outcome is still unresolved, the ongoing stand-off between the US-led occupation forces and supporters of young Shi’i alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr can hardly be anything but ominous for the neo-conservative hawks in Washington...

Although the outcome is still unresolved, the ongoing stand-off between the US-led occupation forces and supporters of young Shi’i alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr can hardly be anything but ominous for the neo-conservative hawks in Washington. Any sense of certitude that the US could impose its preferred political order in Iraq has been tempered, if not completely shattered. If anything, the recent confrontations with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fighters are a glimpse of the battles that US-led occupation troops have yet to fight in the weeks and months to come.

The clashes have been expected for some time, despite the uneasy détente that until recently characterised relations between the US-led coalition and the Shi’i community, whose members suffered immensely under Ba’ath party rule. Perhaps the détente was doomed anyway. It was born of an ephemeral sense of relief at the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein, rather than of a firm conviction in favour of foreign occupation. It was inevitable that the spiraling impatience of Iraqi Shi’is with the heavy-handedness of the occupation, with US designs for Iraq’s future, and with America’s arrogant one-upmanship in running the country, would disrupt the Western coalition and break its iron grip on the country.

The closure in March of a newspaper published by al-Sadr’s group provoked the spark for the conflagration. The closure in itself, set to last 60 days, is curiously unjustifiable. The American authorities imposed the closure on the pretext that the paper, al-Hawzah, was inciting violence. Although al-Hawzah never published any calls for attacks, the authorities claimed that it printed reports falsely implicating the Americans in some incidents, and as such was inciting violence against coalition troops. The closure of al-Hawzah touched off a week of street demonstrations by al-Sadr’s supporters, who demanded that the paper be allowed to appear as usual.

In another display of the delirium of power , the American authorities stoked the fires of protest with another confrontational move. They arrested Shaykh Mustafa al-Ya’aqubi, a top aide of al-Sadr’s, on suspicion of involvement in the murder last April of Sayyid Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, a seemingly pro-US alim who was stabbed to death by a mob in Najaf shortly after his arrival there. Al-Sadr himself has also been accused of involvement in the killing of Khoei. On April 2 the American authorities announced their intention of implementing a six-month-old arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi judge for al-Sadr in the case of Khoei’s murder.

The fact that it was al-Sadr’s supporters who spearheaded the Shi’i challenge to the occupation is not surprising. Since coalition troops invaded Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr has been adamant in his opposition to foreign occupation. He has repeatedly issued statements denouncing the occupation and the coalition. In June he formed a militia called the Mahdi Army. Yet, at the time, he was careful to specify that this armed group would adopt "peaceful means" to achieve its ends.

As friction mounted between al-Sadr and the occupation authorities, his statements grew more acerbic and scathing. In July last year, al-Sadr announced the establishment of a rival government to the US-appointed interim Iraqi Governing Council. The move came to nothing: it failed to gain the popular support Sadr had said would be expressed by mass demonstrations. In February he described the Mahdi Army as "the enemy of the occupation."

In a Friday khutba after the assassination of Hamas founder Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, al-Sadr announced his "solidarity with the genuine unity announced by Hujjat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the victorious Hizbullah, and with the mujahid movement, Hamas." Worse from the US-led coalition’s point of view, al-Sadr added that both movements, which are labelled "terrorist" by the US, could "consider me their striking arm in Iraq whenever the need arises and whenever there is an interest in this."

After occupation troops killed scores of his supporters in intifada-like street clashes in a number of Iraqi cities in early April, al-Sadr called on his supporters to "terrorize" their enemy, because they "cannot remain silent over its violations." He added in a statement: "There is no use of demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises people."

Unlike many other Iraqi Shi’i ulama, including the leaders, who adopt a quietist approach that shuns direct political action, al-Sadr favours establishing an Islamic government in Iraq. His willingness to navigate the tumultuous shoals of everyday politics, coupled with his organizational infrastructure, enables him to step into a leadership void. His uncompromising anti-occupation rhetoric inspires large segments of the Shi’i population, who are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the unfulfilled promises of the occupation, and long for an Islamic leader able and willing to wield political power.

In the arena of Shi’i religious learning, a loosely knit and quasi-hierarchical system, al-Sadr is an upstart. To some extent his relatively lowly status explains why his allure seems to fade when more senior ulama join the political tug-of-war with the occupation. Last autumn al-Sadr’s political role was overshadowed by Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali al-Sistani, the leading and most influential Shi’i authority in Iraq, who led calls for direct voting to approve a new constitution and elect a government to whom the Coalition Provisional Authority would transfer authority by the end of June.

But Sadr’s lineage apparently compensates for his lack of strong scholastic credentials and support in the traditional ranks of the Najaf hawzah (religious seminary). Al-Sadr comes from a long line of ulama, who include luminaries of the calibre of the late Ayatullah al-Udhma Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was executed, with his sister Aminah, in April 1980. The 31-year-old Muqtada is the only surviving son of a revered Iraqi Shi’i alim, Ayatullah al-Udhma Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated with his two elder sons, Mustafa and Mu’ammal, in February 1999 by Saddam’s hit squads.

The legacy of the slain Ayatullah constitutes the chief strength of Muqtada al-Sadr. In a world where age, learning and experience are the most important credentials, the respect his father commanded enables Muqtada to mobilise his people’s support. Al-Sadr controls an organisational infrastructure that he inherited from his father. This infrastructure – complete with a network of support structures in many parts of the country, which works through a host of local mosques, hussayniyahs and offices – is well-suited to protracted insurrection.

Al-Sadr’s following seems especially devoted, giving him the ability to mobilise thousands in several areas in central and southern Iraq at short notice. Immediately after the invasion, al-Sadr deployed supporters to patrol the streets of Baghdad’s predominantly Shi’i slums in Saddam City, which was renamed al-Sadr City after Muqtada’s father, to prevent looting and provide security and order. His men also distributed food and water to the needy. In addition, al-Sadr established a network of Shari’ah courts in some parts of the country to resolve disputes arising between Iraqis.

In the realm of Shi’i political activism, where involvement in politics must be sanctioned by a senior mujtahid (jurist) in order to be deemed legitimate from an Islamic standpoint, this legacy also helps to legitimise al-Sadr’s movement. The sanction is provided by Ayatullah al-Udhma Kazem al-Ha’iri, a senior exiled Iraqi alim who lives in Iran, who was declared a standard for emulation (marja’ taqlid) by Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr shortly before his assassination.

Al-Sadr’s good relations with Iran have led to a chorus of accusations from both western media and Washington that Islamic Iran is involved in the revolt against the occupation. In June al-Sadr visited Iran to attend functions commemorating the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini (ra). During his week-long visit, al-Sadr met several leaders, including Ayatullah Ali Khamene’i, the Rahbar, and Ayatullah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary.

Apart from his junior status in the Najaf-based establishment, al-Sadr’s ability to provide the kind of leadership necessary to unify Iraqi society around a programme of resistance to occupation remains uncertain. He has shown little interest in rising above rivalries that have long plagued relations between established families of ulama and scholars in Najaf. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of his alleged involvement in the murder of Khoei, al-Sadr’s tendency to settle old scores has got him a reputation for vengefulness. His supporters have also been involved in internecine bloodletting: in October clashes broke out between followers of al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani after followers of the former occupied a mosque in Karbala that is linked to the latter. Only time will show whether al-Sadr can summon up the moral courage needed to rise above pointless trivia. This would go a long way towards forging a national consensus upon which a coherent protracted resistance strategy can be forged.

There are signs that the ongoing confrontation with al-Sadr’s supporters portends the onset of a sustained guerrilla-style resistance. In the last few weeks there has been a number of incidents in which guerrillas attacked coalition military positions and convoys in various areas of southern and central Iraq before melting away into the civilian population. In other incidents, supporters of al-Sadr have taken to the streets in scenes that combine mass protest with armed resistance. Although some Shi’i ulama might regard al-Sadr as a dangerous hothead, they are unlikely to align themselves with the Coalition against him. Ultimately, the spread of insurgency can only push the US occupation closer to the precipice.

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