America’s unlikely savior

Recently, the U.S. was calling for Muqtada al-Sadr's head. Now, the fiery cleric may be the only man who can defuse Iraq's Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Topics: Iraq, Middle East,

America's unlikely savior

In the spring and summer of 2004, the radical young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr led an armed uprising against the U.S. occupiers. His militia, the Mahdi army, fought several bloody battles against American forces. Muqtada’s intifada, along with the Sunni insurgency that broke out in Fallujah at the same time, spelled doom for the neocon fantasy that the U.S. occupation would be a cakewalk. High-ranking U.S. officials called for Muqtada to be captured or killed. But the fiery cleric not only survived, but flourished — and in the last two years he has turned his enormous street credibility into political power. In the December elections his slate earned potentially 30 seats in Parliament, making him an equal partner with two other Shiite groups in the largest Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

But what sets Muqtada apart from the other Shiite leaders — and makes him a potentially crucial, if supremely unlikely, ally for the United States — is his close ties to the Sunni insurgents. With sectarian tensions in Iraq and the region increasing, Muqtada may be the only Shiite leader in Iraq who can reach out to Sunnis, who see him as “the good Shia.” His Mahdi army fought the American occupiers, establishing street cred with the Sunni resistance. Much of Muqtada’s appeal is his fervent nationalism. Unlike the leadership of Dawa or the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Muqtada was not in exile and, like his father, has condemned foreign-born clerics based in Iraq.

On the crucial issues that divide Shiite and Sunni, Muqtada sides with the Sunnis. He opposes federalism, which he believes will lead to the breakup of Iraq, and supports amending the constitution. SCIRI and the other main Shiite party, Dawa, support federalism and refuse to amend the constitution. For Sunnis, federalism means the loss not just of the old Iraq, which they dominated, but also of oil revenue, and they are determined to resist it. Muqtada is their only Shiite ally. Inexperienced in foreign affairs and barely experienced in politics, Muqtada may nonetheless be the only figure capable of halting Iraq’s steady descent into a civil war that could ignite the entire region.

Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who is an expert on Iraq’s Shiites, says, “Muqtada is indeed now in a position to form a link between fundamentalist Sunnis and hard line Shias, to the extent that they do have some goals in common. [American ambassador to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad is now supporting a better deal for the Sunni Arabs and is pushing for a national unity government into which the Shias incorporate them, so he is a de facto potential ally of Muqtada, though neither he nor Muqtada will admit it.”

Muqtada is an unlikely ally for the United States. Before joining the Shiite coalition, Muqtada insisted that other Iraqi politicians agree to his “Code of Honor,” which sets a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, legitimizes resistance if the U.S. stays, and rejects any relationship with Israel. Muqtada also refused to work with more secular former Baathist parties, calling the participation of U.S. favorite Ayad Allawi in particular a red line that would force him to back out. Allawi and his party were hated by Muqtada’s men both for having former Baathists in their ranks and for Allawi’s asking the Americans to battle Muqtada in the spring and summer of 2004.

In recent weeks, Muqtada burnished his credentials with both the Sunni and Shiite establishments when he visited first Saudi Arabia, then Iran — where he warned the United States that if it attacked Iran, he would send his forces into the field. His meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abullah proved he is the only Shiite leader in Iraq that Sunnis can tolerate; his trip to Iran cemented his ties with the Shiite clerical elite and boosted his regional stature as an ideological foe of the United States and Israel.

Muqtada’s legislative triumph makes him legitimate, no longer an outsider. Crucially, his presence gives Sunnis hope that he will succeed in defying SCIRI by blocking federalism and modifying the constitution. It also complicates SCIRI’s coalition with the Kurds. The hypernationalist Muqtada and his followers are fierce enemies of the Kurds, condemning their autonomy and clashing with them in the north, where many Shiite Turkmens are aligned with Muqtada.

Muqtada is far from impressive in person. His unpolished speech and youth (it has been widely speculated that he is younger than his putative age of about 32) have led American officials to consistently underestimate him. But Muqtada has drawn on his impeccable family pedigree and his fiery anti-Americanism to build vast popular support — and he has proved much more clever than his enemies expected.

I first met Muqtada in May 2003 in his barani, or office, in a Najaf alley, across a shop where his and his father’s sermons were sold on CD and one could buy watches with the Sadr family members depicted on the face. Unlike other clerics in Najaf, who speak classical Arabic, Muqtada speaks in a strong colloquial slang. He seemed cocky. He disparaged Shiite exile leaders who had been based in Iran and had not suffered with the Iraqis, singling out the SCIRI for particular disdain. Muqtada expressed only contempt for the Americans who had so recently rid his people of Saddam, and resentment of Iran, which had done nothing to help Iraq’s Shiites. “I am not afraid,” he said, “I wish to be a martyr and I don’t fear death.” I was struck by how awkward Muqtada looked and how ill-experienced he was for a man so popular that throughout Shiite neighborhoods he was known only by his first name, a tribute no other Iraqi leader received. I wondered, as I do to this day, if there was some other brain behind his operation. His young, unctuous associates seemed too smug, as if they already knew Iraq was theirs.

Muqtada al-Sadr derives his power from his family connections. He is the scion of the revolutionary Sadr family, one of the most illustrious religious names in Iraq. His great-uncle, Muhammad Bakr Sadr, was the most important Shiite theologian of the 20th century, writing about economics, politics and philosophy as well. Bakr Sadr led the Dawa Party, an underground movement whose members were decimated by the Baath Party. In 1980, after Bakr Sadr declared Baath Party membership forbidden, he was arrested with his sister, forced to watch her raped and executed, and then executed himself by having nails driven into his head. He became known as the First Martyr.

Bakr Sadr’s nephew (and Muqtada’s father), Ayatollah Muhamad Sadiq Sadr, envisioned himself as the wali al am, or general leader, of the clergy, a position above all others, including the top clerics in Iran. He aspired to lead world Shiism and head an Islamic government in Iraq. In 1998, when Saddam Hussein relaxed restrictions on the Friday khutba, or sermon, Sadiq Sadr began preaching at the Kufa mosque outside Najaf. His 47 very influential sermons reached all Iraqi Shiites. He was particularly obsessed with the coming of the Mahdi, or Shiite messiah, the 12th leader of the Shiite community who disappeared into an occult realm and whose return is eagerly awaited by Shiites.

Muhamad Sadiq Sadr may have looked like an avuncular Santa Claus, but he regularly damned as infidels those who disagreed with him, and hung up lists of the damned in his office. (Many on the lists were accused of homosexuality.) Sadr outraged the Shiite establishment in Najaf’s hawza, or seminary, by denouncing the other leading ayatollahs who were not of Iraqi origin. Saddam’s regime promoted Sadr as a homegrown alternative to non-Iraqi clerics, especially those originating from Iran. In 1999 Muhamad Sadiq Sadr became the Second Martyr after he and two of his sons were killed when their car was riddled with bullets. Although Shiites blamed it on the regime, it is likely that rival clerics in the hawza were responsible for the assassination.

Muqtada moved quickly to establish his power base after Saddam fell. Posters of the First and Second Sadr martyrs appeared throughout Iraq’s Shiite areas, symbolizing the new order. The downtrodden masses of Iraq, the Shiite “mustad’afeen,” as the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iraq had called them, were in power for the first time since the 7th century, when the Sunnis had begun ruling over them. Muqtada’s father, the Second Martyr, had built an impressive network of mosques and social services around the country, controlled by his former students, and Muqtada capitalized on this network, dispatching young clerics around the country to seize mosques, hospitals, clinics, and looted goods, and to provide security and social services. His men soon gained control of the Baghdad slums known as Saddam City, where up to 3 million Shiites lived. Built in the ’50s to house Shiite migrants from the south, it was originally called Madinat Athawra, or Revolution City, and was a bastion of the Iraq Communist Party. Signs and graffiti proclaimed Saddam City’s new name: Sadr City. (Part of the reason for Muqtada’s support for a centralized Iraq may be because he has so much support in Baghdad.)

There was a nearly messianic euphoria among Iraq’s Shiites, many of whom viewed the Mahdi’s arrival as imminent. Among Muqtada Sadr’s followers it was common to hear the view that the U.S. Army had come to kill the Mahdi, but that the Mahdi would kill all the Americans — and all the Jews too, for good measure.

The Shiite leadership followed the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who counseled the faithful to bide their time and not resist the American occupation. But Muqtada remained defiant. Rejected for a post in the Iraqi Governing Council established by American proconsul Paul Bremer, he seized the role of spoiler, condemning the occupation and the IGC and establishing his Mahdi army, allegedly to protect Shiites. Muqtada became a rallying point for Iraqi nationalism. In August 2003, when an American helicopter tried to remove a Shiite flag in Sadr City, enraged followers of Muqtada rioted, convinced that America was the enemy of Iraq and Islam.

From the start, Muqtada has supported the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency, with the exception of the foreign Arab-dominated Zarqawi movement that finds Shiites anathema. As the insurgency spread, Muqtada established a close working relationship with radical Sunni movements, especially the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a neo-Baathist movement of Sunni clerics. The AMS controlled one of Iraq’s most important indigenous resistance groups, the 1920 Revolution Battalions, named for the rebellion against the British occupation, and AMS scholars routinely sermonized in support of the resistance. Muqtada’s clerics held joint prayer sessions with them, and in the fateful spring of 2004, when Fallujah rose up against the Americans, followed by an uprising of Shiites in the south, Shiite followers of Muqtada helped their Sunni brethren and benefited from aid and arms sent at the behest of the AMS.

Muqtada fought the Americans once more in the summer of 2004. Though American forces swore to arrest or kill him, Muqtada survived and even indirectly fielded candidates in the January 2005 elections. They won seats in both the national and provincial governments and even had two ministers in the Cabinet.

These battles were invaluable in establishing Muqtada’s militant and patriotic credibility, particularly among Sunnis. Muqtada’s followers boast that “the two intifadas” they have fought against the Americans prove that they are true Iraqi nationalists who refuse to accept occupation, unlike the two other leading Shiite movements, SCIRI and Dawa. In addition, Muqtada’s movement has drawn many former Baathists into its ranks, as well as Shiites who served in Saddam’s dreaded security and intelligence services. And he has been a fierce critic of Iran, warning of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. All these factors make Muqtada acceptable to Sunnis who fear and hate the rest of the Shiite establishment.

Sunnis increasingly view all Shiites as Iranians or Persians, refusing to recognize that Shiites are the majority or that Shiites had been singled out for persecution under Saddam. Sunnis are the primary victims of American military aggression, and they view Shiites as collaborators with the occupation.

And Sunni antagonism towards Shiites has been fed by an increasingly violent series of targeted killings of insurgent leaders. In the fall, Sunni leaders accused SCIRI’s Badr militia of infiltrating the Ministry of Interior and sending out uniformed death squads to assassinate former Baathists and Sunni clerics. (In fact, Muqtada’s militia, the Mahdi army, also sends out death squads to assassinate Sunnis it deems deserving of death, but this fact is not widely known.) The existence of secret prisons revealed that the SCIRI-dominated Ministry of Interior had learned well from America’s prisons in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

For their part, Shiites tend to view Sunnis as Baathists or Wahhabis, but until last year — despite suffering an endless onslaught of terror attacks meant to provoke a civil war — they showed restraint. But last year the situation grew more ominous. Politics became increasingly sectarian — and bloody. Tit-for-tat killings began: After a Shiite cleric was assassinated, a Sunni cleric would turn up dead the following morning. Threats and bombings drove Shiites from Sunni neighborhoods.

The Sunni-Shiite discord unleashed by the U.S. invasion is not confined to Iraq. Muqtada’s trip to Saudi Arabia took place against a backdrop of rising sectarian tensions throughout the region. Sunnis make up the majority in every Arab state except Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon; in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, in particular, they feel threatened by the Shiite renaissance in Iraq. In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of a “Shiite crescent” from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran that would destabilize the entire region. Iraq’s Shiites have demonstrated against Jordan in the past, condemning the country for its steady trickle of suicide bombers who cross into Iraq and commit atrocities against Shiite civilians.

These tensions have spilled over into acrimony between Iraqi and Saudi officials. In September, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that a civil war in Iraq would destabilize the entire region and complained that the Americans had handed Iraq over to Iran for no reason. In response Bayan Jabr, Iraq’s interior minister — and the former commander of the Badr Corps, SCIRI’s militia — called the Saudi foreign minister a “Bedouin riding a camel” and described Saudi Arabia as a one-family dictatorship.

In Saudi Arabia, home of Wahabi Islam, Shiites are known as “rafida,” which means “rejectionists.” A highly pejorative term, it implies that Shiites are outside Islam, and to Shiites it is the equivalent of being called “nigger.” This is the same word that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq, uses to describe Shiites, as do Sunni radicals in the region. The ascension of King Abdullah, who has taken a more moderate stance on the Shiites, is a positive development. But Saudi Arabia’s 2 million Shiites have been persecuted, prevented from celebrating their festivals and occasionally threatened with extermination. Saudi Arabia is also the main exporter of foreign fighters to the Iraqi jihad to fight both the Americans and the Shiite “rafida” collaborators.

In this context, Muqtada’s trip to Saudi Arabia was at least a small step in building a regional bridge between Sunnis and Shiites.

As Iraqis try to form a government, it is not yet clear whether Muqtada will succeed in persuading his fellow Shiites to compromise on key issues like federalism and the constitution. Iraq’s Shiites are triumphant, knowing that Iraq is now theirs and cannot be taken away from them except by the Americans. There is no threat of Sunnis retaking the country, because they had never taken it before; they had been given it — first by the Ottomans and then by the British. SCIRI sees no need for compromise. It plans to forcefully impose a new order on Iraq, one that directly clashes with Sunni aspirations and reinforces all their fears.

The one figure opposing SCIRI’s maximalist demands is Muqtada. Should he win out over SCIRI in a battle for influence, we might see a majority in the Assembly calling for an American withdrawal from Iraq, and we would also see support for a stricter imposition of Islamic law as well as increased tension with the Kurds. The Americans who had once called for his arrest or death would be forced to deal with their former enemy, though he too would now be restrained by his own political participation.

It is a priceless irony that Muqtada Sadr — the poorly educated, inarticulate, thuggish and violently anti-American young cleric — may be the one man who can allow America to get out of Iraq without the roof caving in after them.

Nir Rosen is a freelance writer in Iraq.

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