Hezbollah on the Tigris?

Like the militant Lebanese group, fiery cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr is using both guns and butter to seize power in Iraq.

Published May 8, 2006 12:11PM (EDT)

Ghaith Al-Tamimi used to live with his wife and two young sons in a tiny two-room apartment above a garage in Sadr City, the vast north Baghdad slum that was built for 200,000 people but holds 10 times that. There was no running water in Tamimi's apartment, and his sons had no place to play.

That was before Tamimi, an organizer in the movement of the fiercely nationalist and anti-occupation cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, led hundreds of al-Sadr followers out of Sadr City and "took back" a Sunni mosque in a mixed middle-class neighborhood near Palestine Street, a major thoroughfare south of Sadr City. In one of a number of such mosque seizures that followed the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, al-Sadr's militiamen kicked out the Sunni imam's family and installed Tamimi as the new imam. (The New York Times' Edward Wong reported on the incident. )

Tamimi moved into the house on the mosque grounds. Now his children play in the mosque and a sprinkler waters the lawn. Tamimi, who is a member of al-Sadr's media and education office, crows about the work he and his men are doing for the neighborhood.

"Yesterday an electrical line broke in the neighborhood," Tamimi said. "It might have taken weeks to get it fixed. But I called one of my friends in the ministry of electricity, and it was fixed the same day."

In Sadr City and other Shiite slums, al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (Jeish al-Mahdi) operates openly. Not here: The guards at the mosque are heavily armed and the streets leading to the mosque have been blocked off. The mosque feels almost as much like a forward operating base as a house of worship.

The mosque episode is just one example of the way the Sadrieen, as Muqtada al-Sadr's followers are known, are steadily gaining power. In Iraq's constantly shifting political landscape, the fiery young cleric whose militia fought the U.S. twice in 2004 is bidding to become a key player. Al-Sadr has a two-pronged strategy: vehemently resisting the U.S. occupation, while providing social services for the poor and assisting the thousands of Shiite families displaced by sectarian attacks. It's a tactic that reminds many of that employed by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that is credited with driving the Israeli Army out of south Lebanon and is now a powerful Lebanese political party. Indeed, if anything, al-Sadr is on a faster track -- Hezbollah did not enter the Lebanese government until 1996.

To be sure, al-Sadr and his followers face significant challenges that Hezbollah did not, notably a vicious retaliatory war with Sunni insurgents and a Shiite population that is not unified. Al-Sadr is locked in a power struggle with the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq Party, the leading Shiite organization. Al-Sadr's followers may be devoted, but the young leader does not have the prestige or the respect of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric who has an uneasy relationship with al-Sadr and could clip his wings. Unlike Hezbollah, al-Sadr's movement does not enjoy the support of Iran. And the election of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who replaced Sadr's ally Ibrahim Jaafari, leaves Iraq's political future undecided. Key issues like federalism, the role of militias, the fate of Kirkuk, how to deal with escalating tit-for-tat killings, attempts to bring Sunni insurgents into the political process and, of course, the future of the American occupation could play out in ways that could diminish (or enhance) al-Sadr's power.

However, in Iraq facts on the ground are usually decisive. And al-Sadr is moving more quickly than any other leader to fill the void left by the barely functioning Iraqi government. At the very least, it seems certain that al-Sadr and his followers -- nationalist, militant, vehemently anti-American and anti-Israeli, and strongly religious -- will be significant players in the new Iraq, whatever form it takes.

The mosque takeover followed the Feb. 22 bombing of the revered Askariya shrine in Samarra, a Shiite pilgrimage site in a restive city with a majority Sunni population an hour north of Baghdad. The Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias attacked many Sunni mosques in Baghdad and killed a number of Sunnis. Some of those attacks, including Tamimi's, appear to have been less than spontaneous. (Al-Sadr's followers have long wanted these mosques back, and indeed had seized other mosques in 2003. Also, I spoke with a Sunni sheik who said that some members of the Mahdi Army had warned people that other Mahdi cells were going to attack them. In the light of these facts, Samarra seems more like a pretext than a catalyst.)

Tamimi said that the mosque he now occupies had been taken from a Shiite cleric in 1980, during one of Saddam Hussein's purges of politically active Shiite Islamists.

"We had a court decision saying that the mosque would be given back to us," Tamimi said. "It was supposed to be given back to us [at the beginning of March] anyway. We just took it back early." (In his New York Times piece, Wong reported that a former Shiite lawyer who claimed Saddam stripped the mosque from him possessed documents showing that the judge had indeed ruled in his favor.)

Hazem Al-Aaraji, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, said that "20 or 30" mosques have recently been taken back, and that the Sadrieen are attempting to have others returned.

Muqtada al-Sadr's power ultimately derives from his family. His father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999 after a series of sermons that challenged the government. His popularity was immense, and after the invasion, his followers looked to Muqtada, his only surviving son, for guidance. Muqtada's uncle, Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, was also killed by Saddam in 1980. The two elder al-Sadrs are arguably the most revered Iraqi ayatollahs of the last century, their pictures now appearing all over Iraq in a manner reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's visage before the invasion.

Al-Sadr is "a son of Iraq, and this makes him popular with the Iraqi people," said Wael Abdul Latif, the former governor of Basra who is currently a member of the Iraqi parliament. "He's not from Iran, like some other leaders," he added, referring to a common charge made against Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq Party leader Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim. Al-Hakim, who unlike al-Sadr has made an alliance of convenience with the U.S. occupiers, spent most of his exile from Iraq in Iran and received support from the government there.

Al-Sadr's followers hold 32 seats in parliament, the largest bloc within the Shiite alliance. In the transitional government that nominally ruled Iraq last year, they held three ministries (health, transportation and civil affairs), and are hoping to see that increase to at least five. But while other parties fight over revenue-heavy positions like the Ministry of Oil or crucial security portfolios like the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the Sadrieen are angling for social service and infrastructure ministries such as trade, which is responsible for the country's food ration program, and electricity.

When foreign troops begin pulling out of southern governorates, including Maysan, where Sadrieen already control the provincial council, al-Sadr will likely gain even more power.

Al-Sadr's maneuvering for key social service ministries follows the tactics used by Hezbollah. In interviews with foreign journalists, al-Sadr's followers and the cleric himself have often tried to downplay the similarities between the two groups during the last three years, and have emphatically denied any coordination between the two, though suspicions abound.

In messages to al-Sadr's followers, the group has been less cagey about the comparison. In 2004, posters picturing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah together with al-Sadr could be found in Baghdad. Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods increasingly feel like Beirut's southern suburbs, complete with pictures of "martyrs" hanging from lampposts and small yellow donation boxes to collect money for the party.

But while Hezbollah has been loath to turn its guns on other Lebanese, the Sadrists have frequently battled fellow Iraqis, especially in the last year. Clashes have broken out in cities around Baghdad between Sunni insurgents who have terrorized Shiites and the Mahdi Army, which has launched retaliatory attacks, including the reported use of death squads. (The Mustafa Husseinia, which the Americans claimed was the operating base of one of these cells, was definitely a Sadrieen office.) However, al-Sadr's followers seem to be less involved in death squads than SCIRI's Badr militia.

The Sadrieen have a complex relationship with the Sunnis. In 2004, when Sadr's followers fought the Americans as the Sunni insurgency flared in Fallujah, Sadr worked together with the Sunnis. That cooperation has totally disintegrated, members of the Mahdi Army said, and they are much more willing to see Sunni clerics who do not condemn attacks against Shiites as complicit in them. But Sadr's nationalist rhetoric still makes him the most acceptable Shiite leader to increasingly wary Sunnis.

Al-Sadr has called on his followers not to attack Sunnis in general, but he has given them permission to attack terrorists, takfireen (extremist Sunnis, like al-Zarqawi, who consider Shiites heretics) and Baathists. The problem is that deciding who exactly falls into those categories seems to have been left to Mahdi commanders on the ground. Some of al-Sadr's followers believe that hard-line fundamentalist Sunni members of the government such as Adnan Dulaimi fall into such categories.

The campaign by Sunni guerrillas to drive Shiites out has resulted in the displacement of thousands if not tens of thousands of families. (Though there have been cases of Shiite militias evicting Sunnis, the vast majority have been poor Shiite farmers.) The displaced families are gathering in newly built neighborhoods in Shiite cities in the south and on the edges of Shiite slums in Baghdad like Sadr City. They have received minimal assistance from the government. This is where Sadr's offices have stepped in to help, providing food, gas and protection, and even pointing them toward vacant lots on which to build new homes.

"The only people who help us are the Jeish Al-Mahdi," said Naim Hussein, who lives in Imam Al-Ridha, a neigborhood of displaced families from Taji, north of the capital, that has sprung up on the outskirts of Sadr City.

Fears of further sectarian violence are also fueling recruitment for the militia. In interviews during the last month, organizers in the militia in Baghdad said their numbers are growing. An al-Sadr spokesman in Kirkuk, the hub of northern Iraq's oil industry, recently said that militiamen have been going to that city from Baghdad as tensions between Shiites and Kurds increase.

Ominously, many of al-Sadr's followers are members of the Iraqi security forces as well. And as those security forces continue to grow, the sheer numbers involved make it statistically impossible for militiamen not to be incorporated. Already, it's common in Sadr City to see police and army cruising through militia checkpoints, smiling and waving.

"Some of [the Mahdi] are in the national guard," said Abu Nour al-Deraji, a Jeish Al-Mahdi commander in charge of about 250 men. "They are receiving training that way."

Amer al-Karbalaee, the commander of the militia in Baghdad, has been making frequent trips to Iskandariya, south of the capital, a rough area that has been the site of sectarian violence and the gateway to Mahmoudia and Latifiya, violent towns where extremist Sunni guerrillas have asserted themselves and fought with the Mahdi as well as staging frequent attacks on Shiites traveling between Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala further south. (In 2005, the U.S. military gave this area the nickname "triangle of death," and the highway, correspondingly, the "highway of death.")

Faced with the prospect of a widening war between Shiite and Sunni guerrillas, al-Sadr's fighters say they'll fight.

"We are buying more weapons," says Abo Ali Tamimi (no relation to Ghaith), a Mahdi Army cell commander in Sadr City. "The situation in Iraq is very bad, and we are ready to fight. Saddam had weapons factories in Abu Ghraib and Ramadi and Falluja. If the Americans leave, [Sunni insurgents] will have these weapons, and we don't."

Members of the militia express pride that they do not employ suicide and car bombings as other groups have. Deraji said the group has the technology and munitions to begin employing car bombs on a large scale, but he said that the group would continue to fight with "honor" and refrain from employing such tactics.

As I leave his home, Deraji walks me to the gate. A pickup truck with four of the Ministry of Interior's police commandos passes by, and they wave to Deraji, smiling. He waves back.

By David Enders

David Enders has spent more than 18 months in Iraq since 2003 and has written for The Nation and Mother Jones. His first book, "Baghdad Bulletin," is available from the University of Michigan Press and his next book, also from UM Press, will be out later this year.

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