Sadr's Rising Star To Eclipse Bush's Surge?
April 17, 2007
Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation Iraqi Freedom
and After and, most recently, Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the
World's Vanishing Oil Resources. This article first appeared on
Editorial Note: One day after Dilip Hiro posted this article, Moqtada
al-Sadr ordered his ministers to quit Iraq's coalition government to
protest Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for
U.S. troops to withdraw.
Public opinion polls are valuable chips to play for those engaged in a
debate of national or international consequence. In the end, however,
they are abstract numbers. It is popular demonstrations which give
them substance, color and—above all—wide media exposure, and make them
truly meaningful. This is particularly true when such marches are
peaceful and disciplined in a war-ravaged country like Iraq.
This indeed was the case with the demonstration on April 9 in Najaf.
Over a million Iraqis, holding aloft thousands of national flags,
marched, chanting, "Yes, yes, Iraq/ No, no, America" and "No, no,
American/Leave, leave occupier."
The demonstrators arrived from all over the country in response to a
call by Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, to demand an end to
foreign occupation on the fourth anniversary of the end of Baathist
rule in Baghdad.
Both the size of the demonstration and its composition were
unprecedented. "There are people here from all different parties and
sects," Hadhim al-Araji, Sadr's representative in Baghdad's Kadhimiya
district, told reporters. "We are all carrying the national flag, a
symbol of unity. And we are all united in calling for the withdrawal
of the Americans."
The presence of many senior Sunni clerics at the head of the march,
which started from Sadr's mosque in Kufa, a nearby town, and the
absence of any sectarian flags or images in the parade, underlined the
ecumenical nature of the protest.
Crucially, the mammoth demonstration reflected the view prevalent
among Iraqi lawmakers. Last autumn, 170 of them in a 275-member
Parliament, signed a motion, demanding to know the date of a future
American withdrawal. The discomfited government of Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki played a procedural trick by referring the subject to
a parliamentary committee, thereby buying time.
Opinion polls conducted since then show three-quarters of Iraqi
respondents demanding the withdrawal of the Anglo-American troops
within six to twelve months.
What Makes Sadr Tick?
Though in his early thirties and only a hojatalislam ("proof of
Islam")—one rank below an ayatollah in the Shiite religious
hierarchy—Muqtada al-Sadr has pursued a political strategy no other
Iraqi politician can match.
The sources of his ever-expanding appeal are: his pedigree, his fierce
nationalism, his shrewd sense of when to confront the occupying power
and when to lie low, and his adherence to the hierarchical order of
the Shiite sect, topped by a grand ayatollah—at present 73-year-old
Ali Sistani—whose opinion or decree must be accepted by all those
below him. (For his part, Sistani does not criticize any Shiite leader.)
Muqtada's father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and two
elder brothers were assassinated outside a mosque in Najaf in February
1999 by the henchmen of President Saddam Hussein. The Grand Ayatollah
had defied Saddam by issuing a religious decree calling on Shiites to
attend Friday prayers in mosques. The Iraqi dictator, paranoid about
large Shiite gatherings, feared these would suddenly turn violently
Muqtada then went underground—just as he did recently in the face of
the Bush administration's "surge" plan—resurfacing only after the
Baathist regime fell in April 2003; and Saddam City, the vast slum of
Baghdad, with nearly 2 million Shiite residents, was renamed Sadr
City. As the surviving son of the martyred family of a grand
ayatollah, Muqtada was lauded by most Shiites.
While welcoming the demise of the Baathist regime, Sadr consistently
opposed the continuing occupation of his country by Anglo-American
forces. When Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq, banned his
magazine Al Hawza al Natiqa ("The Vocal Seminary") in April 2004 and
American soldiers fired on his followers protesting peacefully against
the publication's closure, Sadr called for "armed resistance" to the
Uprisings spread from Sadr City to the southern Iraqi holy cities of
Najaf and Karbala as well as four other cities to the south. More than
540 civilians died in the resulting battles and skirmishes. Since the
American forces were then also battling Sunni insurgents in Falluja,
Bremer let the ban on the magazine lapse and dropped his plan to
Later, Sadr fell in line with the wishes of Grand Ayatollah Ali
Sistani to see all Shiite religious groups gather under one umbrella
to contest the upcoming parliamentary election. His faction allied
with two other Shiite religious parties—the Supreme Council for the
Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Al Daawa al Islamiya (the
Islamic Call)—to form the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).
By so doing, in the face of American hostility, Sadr gave protective
political cover to his faction and its armed wing, called the Mahdi
Army. (U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington have long viewed Sadr
and his militia as the greatest threat to American interests in Iraq.)
Of the 38 ministers in Maliki's cabinet, six belong to the Sadrist group.
When the Pentagon mounted its latest security plan for Baghdad on
February 13—aiming to crush both the Sunni insurgents and Shiite
militias—Sadr considered discretion the better part of valor. He
ordered his Mahdi militiamen to get off the streets and hide their
weapons. For the moment, they were not to resist American forays into
Shiite neighborhoods. He then went incommunicado.
Muqtada's decision to avoid bloodshed won plaudits not only from Iraqi
politicians but also, discreetly, from Sistani, who decries violence,
and whose commitment to bringing about the end of the foreign
occupation of Iraq is as strong as Sadr's—albeit not as vocal.
In a message to the nation, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of
the demise of Saddam's Baathist regime, Sadr coupled his order to the
Mahdi fighters to intensify their campaign to expel the Anglo-American
troops with a call to the Iraqi security forces to join the struggle
to defeat "the arch enemy—America." He urged them to cease targeting
Iraqis and direct their anger at the occupiers.
It was the Mahdi Army—controlling the shrine of Imam Ali, the founder
of Shiite Islam, in the holy city of Najaf—that battled the American
troops to a standstill in August 2004. The impasse lasted a fortnight,
during which large parts of Najaf's old city were reduced to rubble,
with the government of the U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi,
favorite Iraqi exile of the CIA and the State Department as well as
leader of the exiled Iraqi National Accord, failing to defuse it.
By contrast, it took Sistani—freshly back in Najaf, his home base,
from London after eye surgery—a single session with Sadr over dinner
to resolve the crisis. A compromise emerged. The Mahdi army ceded
control of the holy shrine not to the Americans or their Iraqi cohorts
but to Sistani's representatives, and both Mahdi militiamen and U.S.
troops left the city.
The Towering Sistani
Ali Sistani established his nationalist credentials early on. As the
invading American forces neared Najaf on March 25, 2003, he issued a
religious decree requiring all Muslims to resist the invading
"infidel" troops. Once the Anglo-American forces occupied Iraq, he
adamantly refused to meet American or British officials or their
emissaries, and continues to do so to this day.
In January 2004, when Washington favored appointing a hand-picked body
of Iraqis, guided by American experts, to draft the Iraqi constitution
along secular, democratic, and capitalist lines, Sistani decided to
act. He called on the faithful to demonstrate for an elected
Parliament, which would then be charged with drafting the constitution
– and he succeeded.
Sistani then issued a religious decree calling on the faithful to
participate in the vote to create a representative assembly committed
to achieving the exit of foreign troops through peaceful means. The
Bush White House, however, exploited Sistani's move as part of its own
"democracy promotion" campaign in Iraq, with Iraqi fingers dipped in
inedible purple ink becoming its much flaunted "democracy symbol."
When Allawi began dithering about holding the vote for an interim
parliament by January 2005, as stipulated by United Nations Security
Council Resolution 1546, Sistani warned that he would call for popular
non-cooperation with the occupying powers if it was not held on time.
In the elections that followed, the United Iraqi Alliance—the
brain-child of Sistani—emerged as the majority group and thus the
leading designer of the new constitution. Respecting Sistani's views,
the Iraqi constitution stipulated that Sharia (Islamic law) was to be
the principal source of Iraqi legislation and that no law would be
passed that violated the undisputed tenets of Islam.
In the December 2005 parliamentary general election under the new
constitution, the UIA became the largest group, a mere 10 seats short
of a majority. Though Ibrahim Jaafari of Al Daawa won the contest for
UIA leadership by one vote, he was rejected as prime minister by the
Kurdish parties, holding the parliament's swing votes, as well as by
Washington and London. A crisis paralyzed the government. Once again,
Sistani's intercession defused a crisis. He persuaded Jaafari to step
Jaafari's successor, Maliki, is as reverential toward Sistani as other
Shiite leaders. For instance, in December 2006, when American
officials reportedly urged Maliki to postpone Saddam Hussein's
execution until after the religious holiday of Eid Al Adha (the
Festival of Sacrifice), Maliki turned to Sistani. The Grand Ayatollah
favored an immediate execution. And so it came to pass.
Sistani's next blow fell on the Bush administration earlier this
month. He let be known his disapproval of Washington-backed
legislation to allow thousands of former Baath Party members to resume
their public service positions. That undermined one of the White
House's pet projects in Iraq—an attempt to entice into the political
mainstream part of the alienated Sunni minority that is at the heart
of the Iraqi insurgency.
In sum, while refraining from participating in everyday politics,
Sistani intervenes on the issues of paramount importance to the Iraqi
people, as he sees them. Western journalists, who routinely describe
him as belonging to the "quietist school" of Shiite Islam (at odds
with the "interventionist school"), are therefore off the mark. Given
Sistani's uncompromising opposition to the presence of foreign troops
in Iraq, his staunch nationalism, and the unmatched reverence that he
evokes, particularly among the majority Shiites, he poses a greater
long-term threat to Washington's interests in Iraq than Muqtada
al-Sadr; and, far from belonging to opposite schools of Shiite Islam,
Sadr and Sistani, both staunch nationalists, complement each
other—much to the puzzled frustration of the Bush White House.
What must worry Washington more than the massive size of the
demonstration on April 9 was its mixed Shiite-Sunni composition and
nationalistic ambience. The prospect of Sadr's appeal extending to a
section of the Sunni community, with the tacit support of Sistani, is
the nightmare scenario that the Bush administration most dreads. Yet
it may come to pass.
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