Rise of a radical

Print edition : February 09, 2007

Moqtada al-Sadr. In recent statements, he has stressed that his focus is on the liberation of Iraq. One of his heroes is Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah .-JAMAL SAIDI/REUTERS

Moqtada al-Sadr, who has emerged as the pre-eminent Shia leader, is likely to dominate the future politics of Iraq.

THE undignified happenings that immediately preceded the judicial execution of Saddam Hussein on December 30 put in sharp focus the widening sectarian divide that has characterised Iraqi politics since the beginning of the American occupation. Some of the guards and unidentified civilians present at the execution were heard taunting Saddam in his last moments by repeatedly raising slogans in favour of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric. Saddam, in response, spat out the name "Moqtada" in contempt. Moqtada and his supporters were braying for Saddam's blood since his capture two years ago. There were unverified reports that Moqtada was present at the hanging. Most of the celebrations that followed were confined to Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb with a population of more than two million, where it is Moqtada's writ that runs, not that of the Iraqi government or the occupation forces.

Moqtada, who has emerged as the pre-eminent Shia leader in Iraq, is the youngest son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr. The Ayatollah and two of Moqtada's elder brothers were gunned down in February 1999. The Shias who owed allegiance to the Sadr family were convinced that the assassination was carried out by agents of the Iraqi government and held Saddam personally responsible. At the time, the government conducted an inquiry and sent four Iraqi Shias to the gallows. The government arrested hundreds of clerics and Islamic theology students in connection with the case and kept Moqtada under constant surveillance. This was ostensibly for his own protection - intra-Shia rivalry in Iraq was prevalent even during Saddam's time.

Moqtada inherited his radical politics from his father, who ended Friday sermons with the slogans: "No, no to America! No, no to Israel!" Moqtada's speeches against the occupation end the same way. Moqtada's uncle, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, was executed by the government in 1980. He was an outspoken admirer of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when the Iraq/Iran war had just begun. He was also a proponent of the theory of "popular caliphate", where the people's political rights should be officially independent of the Islamic jurists.

During Saddam's time, Shia clerics were allowed to conduct their clerical duties but prevented from interfering in politics. The Baath government was quite successful in stopping the tension between nascent sectarian divisions from boiling over. On many occasions, strong-arm methods were used. The majority Shia community was well-represented in the Baath-run government that ruled Iraq for more than three and a half decades; many leaders were Shias of a secular orientation.

Moqtada came into his own after the Americans entered Baghdad. Though his theological training was rudimentary in comparison with such luminaries as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Moqtada, who is in his mid-thirties, inherited his father's mantle. His followers in Sadr City and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala accepted his leadership. He stood out from other clerics when he called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and declared Sadr City out of bounds for the U.S.-led forces. In a Friday sermon in Najaf in July 2003, Moqtada denounced the Iraqi politicians serving in the U.S.-appointed Governing Council as "puppets". In October in the same year, he announced that he was creating his own militia, the Imam al Mahdi army. Like all devout Shias, Moqtada believes that the 12th hidden Immam will reappear soon and signal the dawn of a new peaceful epoch. In October 2003, he appointed a shadow government. While the other Shia-dominated parties were vying for seats in the government, Moqtada denounced the interim government as "illegitimate, because it was appointed by an illegitimate occupation force". Al Hawsa Al Natiqa, the newspaper espousing Moqtada's views, was closed by U.S. authorities on the grounds that it was inciting Iraqis to rise against occupation forces; an editorial had described the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a "blessed event".

Moqtada came to international prominence after the Americans implicated him in the slaying of a fellow cleric, Hojat ul-Islam Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Khoei, who lived in exile in London after the American-instigated Shia uprising of 1991, was known to be in close contact with the Americans before the occupation. His hurried return to Iraq was an effort to counter the influence of radical clerics such as Moqtada. An overzealous Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant against Moqtada. Some close associates were also arrested. But with the popular support for him in the Shia-dominated south and with the reluctance of most of the mainstream Shia parties to criticise him, there was little U.S. forces could do. His followers, meanwhile, had elevated him to the rank of hujjat al Islam (the proof of Islam), the third highest rank in the Shia clerical hierarchy.

The Mahdi army evolved into a competent fighting force and survived a major confrontation with the U.S. military during the siege of Najaf, Karbala and Kufa in 2004. Though it suffered hundreds of casualties, the Mahdi army refused to capitulate to U.S. forces. The U.S. pro-consul in Iraq at the time, Paul Bremer, repeatedly issued threats to capture or kill Moqtada. Though the Mahdi army gave up control of Najaf and Karbala following the personal intervention of Ayatollah Sistani after three weeks of fighting, Bremer could not implement his edict banning Moqtada from entering politics for three years - with the "official" transfer of sovereignty back to an Iraqi government in early 2004, the ban was lifted.

In the elections that followed, the Sadrists translated their popularity into votes. Moqtada's supporters hold 30 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Their votes are crucial for the survival of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki. Moqtada has called for a boycott of the government since the meeting of the Prime Minister with U.S. President George W. Bush in Amman in November 2006.

The Americans seem to have firmed up plans for yet another military campaign against the Sadrists. The decision by the U.S. President to increase the troop strength in Iraq could be part of a last ditch attempt to bring Moqtada to heel. The Iraqi Prime Minister, if reports in the Western media are to be believed, has given the Americans the green light to launch another assault on Sadr City and other Sadrist strongholds. Currently, the efforts of the U.S. military have pummelled areas of Sunni resistance into submission.

The other serious threat the Sadrists face is from the Sunni insurgency. Owing to a variety of factors, the two groups have daggers drawn. The turning point seems to have been the destruction of the golden dome of the holy Askarriya shrine in Samarra in February 2006, one of the most revered shrines of the Shias. Moqtada, who cooperated with Sunni insurgents initially in their fight against the occupation, seems to have given the green light to his followers to retaliate and thus open a bloodier chapter in the ongoing sectarian war. Moqtada called on the Sunni insurgents to disavow extremist elements such as the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He has chosen to distance himself from sectarian killings. Speaking recently on the anniversary of his father's death, Moqtada pledged that Shias and Sunnis "will always be brothers". After the incident at Samarra, Sadr City was targeted by a wave of suicide bombings, which killed hundreds of people. Moqtada's hand was seen in the Shia retribution that followed in Baghdad and elsewhere. In the ongoing fight for Baghdad, the Sunnis seem to be at the receiving end.

In recent statements, Moqtada has stressed that his focus is on the liberation of Iraq. One of his heroes is Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah. The Americans fear that if Moqtada is left unchecked, his militia will emerge as the pre-eminent force in Iraq. He has opposed the U.S.-backed plan to hand over the oil city of Kirkuk to the Kurds of the north and said that the last thing he wants is the break-up of Iraq or a civil war. He wants the Americans to announce a speedy timetable for a full withdrawal from Iraq. A recent poll showed that 80 per cent of Shias want U.S. forces to leave the country within a year. The overwhelming majority of Sunnis also want the occupation forces to leave.

"Seen by many as a spoiler, his political positioning and legitimacy in the eyes of a restless, disenfranchised population have made Moqtada a key to Iraq's stability, and he must be treated as such," says a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

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