ATbar Muqtada al-Sadr A Threat to coalition forces and moderate Iraqi Shiite
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Muqtada al-Sadr A Threat to coalition forces and moderate Iraqi Shiite

10/04/2004 | by Marzuk, Moshe (Lt. Col. Res.)  
The recent clashes between coalition forces and followers of the young Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, come as no surprise to those who have closely followed events in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Sadr, considered to be a rebellious, recalcitrant Shiite leader, has often criticized the US presence in Iraq, referring to America as the “big Satan”. Subsequently, he also acted to torpedo any political initiative proposed by the US. In addition, Sadr has undermined, with the backing of radical Iranian elements, the traditional and moderate Shiite leadership in Iraq (al-Marjaia), headed by Ayatollah Sistani.

What is Muqtada al-Sadr’s source of power?

According to Iraqi sources, Sadr’s power and popularity stem from various factors[1]:

1. The power and leadership credentials of al-Sader’s father, Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr Sadek (who was murdered in Najaf in 1999, likely by Saddam Hussein loyalists).
2. His young age (38) and charismatic character draw many young Shiites. He combines an “adventurous” fa?ade, seemingly unafraid to confront the US, with some pragmatic elements.
3. The political vacuum created in Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s removal.
4. Sadr’s opposition to the provisional governing council in Iraq, which many Shiites view as collaborating with and a product of the US occupation.
5. The desire of many Shiite Muslims, particularly among the young, to fight the occupying “Crusader who is soiling Muslim Land”. These youngsters are seeking a Shiite leader who will provide them with religious backing to fight the Americans, in the face of the call for restraint made by the moderate Sistani.
6. The establishment (on July 18, 2003) of a Shiite military force headed by al-Sadr, the “al-Mahdi Army”, which recruited many young and unemployed Shiites across Iraq. This armed force constitutes Muqtada Sadr’s military wing.
7. Sader’s position as the leader of an internal opposition within the Shiite camp in Iraq who does not shy away from challenging Sistani’s traditional Shiite leadership .[2]

Muqtada al -Sadr’s conduct emphasizes four major elements:

1. Boosting his power within the Shiite camp through the waging of a determined and ongoing struggle against Sistani’s traditional moderate leadership.
2. Standing up to, sometimes through violence, coalition and occupation forces. This struggle is characterized by a tendency to “go to the brink” and test the limits of the Americans without going overboard, so that gains already made are not lost.
3. A struggle against the Sunnis and against former Saddam’s loyalists in order to boost the position of Shiites in Iraq vis-?-vis other powers.
4. Tightening relations with Iran, with the support of the Iran-based Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khairi and Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s campaign against the traditional moderate Shiite leadership

One of the underlying causes behind the recent clashes between muqtada al-Sadr supporters and coalition forces is the coalition’s attempt to arrest al-Sadr on suspicions of complicity in the murder of Shiite leader Ayatollah Khoi, as well as other murders in Iraq .[3]

The takeover by al-Sar’s armed supporters of security and guard duties at Shiite institutions in Najaf and the attempt to charge visitors to those holy sites only increased the friction between al-Sadr’s camp and Sistani’s moderate Shiite camp. On more than one occasion, al-Sadr’s men have attacked figures associated with Sistani , such as Khijat al-Islam Safa’a al-Musfar, one of Sistani’s senior advisors.[4] Sistani supporters were also warned against going into their leader’s home. In addition, one of Muhammad Said al-Hakim’s assistants was also attacked. Moreover, Sadr’s supporters issued provocative calls against Sistani and al-Hakim and in favor of al-Sadr’s leadership.

In the framework of this internal Shiite power struggle, there are some who attribute the murder of Ayatollah Bakr al-Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Shiite Council, in a terror attack in Najaf to Muktada al-Sadr .[5] According to these sources, this was part of an old dispute between the al-Hakim and al-Sadr families over religious Shiite leadership in Iraq (al-Marjaia). Moreover, the sources claim that the murder was carried out following al-Hakim’s attempts to cut ties with Teheran and cooperate with the Americans. Finally, during bloody clashes between armed members of the two opposing Shiite camps, which claimed the lives of dozens of Shiites , Muqtada Sadr’s loyalists attempted to take over Shiite holy sites and sources of revenue derived from these sites, in order to finance muqtada Sadr’s activities.[6]

One of the expressions of US weakness in its handling of Muqtada Sadr was the silent agreement to the presence of armed Sadr loyalists in Sader City at the outskirts of Baghdad, as well as the American consent to Sadr’s people securing holy Shiite sites in Najaf and elsewhere. In this regard, it is possible that the US initially believed that Sadr’s armed forces constitute a part of an Iraqi militia tasked with maintaining law and order in Iraqi cities .[7] In any event, this US consent to the presence of armed Sadr supporters at important Shiite centers boosted Sadr’s position vis-?-vis Sistani’s leadership.

In an interview given to the al-Hayat newspaper and to the BBC network (September 11, 2003), Sadr attempted to soften his radical image. In the interview, Sadr rejected any comparison between him and the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. According to Sadr, “Nasrallah acts through his military force while I act through my political and religious influence”.al-Sadr also noted he intends to improve relations with al-Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Shiite Council, as well as with the Sunnis and with Iraq’s neighbors. However, he bluntly dismissed any intention of talking or coordinating with the Americans.

Mutada al Sadr’s struggle against coalition forces

In one of the first demonstrations of Sadr’s power, directed against the Americans (July 2003), over 10,000 of his loyalists stoned US forces who besieged Sadr’s home in Najaf.[8] Similar demonstrations took place in Basra as well. Sadr’s loyalists indicated back then already, in an awesome display of power, that it will not be easy for the Americans to detain their leader, demanding that the siege be lifted, a US apology, and an American departure from the holy city of Najaf.

Since July 2003 and particularly following the establishment of the provisional governing council in Iraq, we have witnessed the escalation and intensification of Sadr’s activity and statements regarding coalition forces in general and the US in particular. Sadr bluntly opposed the establishment of the council and called to set up an alternative Islamic spiritual and popular leadership in its place.
In a Friday sermon delivered at the Kufa mosque , Sadr demanded that US soldiers who purportedly humiliate the Iraqi people be brought to an Islamic court.[9] He also issued a scathing attack against “the American aggression at the gravesite of Shiite leader al-Hussein in Karbala and US belligerence towards Iraq and the entire world”. Sadr’s remarks were warmly received by thousands of Shiite worshippers yelling: “No to America, No to the occupier and oppressor”. Sadr made those remarks after US forces threw smoke grenades near al-Hussein’s gravesite in Karbala, with one of the grenades hitting the grave itself. Following the incident, thousands of Shiites clashed with American troops, with two Shiites dying in the confrontation. During his sermon, Sadr also rejected the establishment of civilian courts by the Americans and called to set up Islamic courts that will rule according to Islamic religious law. Sadr also called on all Iraqis to join his militia, the al-Mahdi Army. Notably, Sadr also charged that American forces are spreading diseases in Iraq and subsequently called to expel them and to set up isolated zones at border areas in order to examine anyone entering the country.[10] Sadr also attacked the UN for contributing to the occupation of Iraq.

At one of the demonstrations held at Sadr City near Baghdad, Muqtada Sadr distributed leaflets signed by him calling on his thousands of supporters to hold a special prayer in protest of “the American assault against Muslims”.[11] The demonstrators, who protested the killing of a Shiite demonstrator, carried (in line with Sadr’s instructions) green and black flags, similar to the ones displayed in the 1920 anti-British revolution in Iraq. Protestors also yelled out slogans directed against the “enemies of Islam”. It is notable that al-Sadr City is home to two million mostly Shiite residents.

Further reflection of the American weakness in the face of al-Sadr’s supporters is the failure to act on an ultimatum aired on television in Najaf calling for the disarmament of the al-Mahdi Army,al-Sadr’s military wing.[12] The failure to take any steps following the expiration of the ultimatum was interpreted as a sign of weakness and allowed the Shiite leader to continue his provocative conduct.

One of these provocations was Sadr’s call to establish an Iraqi shadow government to counterbalance the provisional Iraqi government set up by the US. Even so, Sadr stressed that his proposal should not be seen as encouragement for his supporters to confront the Americans militarily, but only as a sign of peaceful opposition to American policies.[13] Later, Sadr retracted the proposal after it failed to garner any support. Meanwhile, following clashes between US troops and Sadr loyalists in Al-Sadr City, a Shiite cleric associated with Sadr issued a religious edict (fatwa) forbidding US forces from entering the city, “as not to soil it”.[14]

Other serious clashes between al-Sadr’s men and American and British troops were reported in October 2003 in Karbala and Basra as well. In a Friday sermon in Kufa, Sadr again refereed to the Americans as “big Satan” , a term commonly used by Iran (according to Sadr, Saddam Hussein’s regime constituted “small Satan”).[15] In the sermon, Sadr also rejected US pressures exerted on Muslim preachers to refrain from issuing attacks against America. Moreover, Sadr harshly criticized President Bush’s Thanksgiving Day visit in Iraq, saying it was undertaken without authorization from the Iraqi people .[16]

It is notable that al-Sadr left Iraq at one point, apparently to Iran, following clashes between his followers and US forces .[17] Indeed, for several weeks Sadr did not deliver Friday sermons at his Kufa mosque.

Against the backdrop of the increased tension between al-Sadr and the US, the Shiite al-Dawa party proposed to mediate between the sides.[18] Following this effort, Muqtada Sader stressed that “we don’t want to fight the Americans and support peaceful measures”.

Sadr’s stand against the Sunni camp and Saddam Hussein loyalists
Among the actions that made Muqtada Sadr popular within the Shiite camp, in addition to his stand against the “occupier”, were efforts to recover religious assets, which Sadr claimed were expropriated from the Shiites during Saddam’s reign. Moreover, Sadr’s struggle against supporters of the ousted dictator has also been well received among Shiites. Notably, these actions on Sadr’s part were often met with American “understanding” and acceptance. This served to boost Sadr’s position and increased his popularity within the Iraqi Shiite camp. For example, in July 2003, hundreds of al-Sadr’s followers took over the Sunni religious affairs offices in Basra, kicked out all the employees and appointed Hammed al-Sadi to replace the ousted director. Sadr’s men also seized the thousands of files and lists found in the offices. Subsequent Sunni requests for intervention, directed to the Iraqi police, British forces stationed in Basra and even to the provisional governing council were ignored .[19]
Sadr’s followers even took over the city hall building in Sader City, kicked out all the employees on charges of accepting bribery, and appointed new representatives.[20]

Meanwhile, one of the Sunni leaders in Iraq, Dr. Abd al-Salam al-Kubisi, accused Muqtada Sader of taking over 18 Sunni mosques in the country, including 12 in Baghdad.[21] This charge came after of Sadr’s takeover of the only Sunni mosques in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala. Al-Kubisi also claimed Sadr is being incited by the radical Shiite camp in Iran headed by supreme leader Khamenei, suggesting that Sader’s positions have radicalized following his visit to Iran and meeting with Khamenei.

Sader’s ties with Iran

According to sources in the Shiite leadership in the city of Kum, Muktada al-Sadr received guarantees (during his July 2003 visit to Iran) for financial and moral support in exchange for his recognition of the Iranian spiritual Shiite leadership as a source of Shiite religious and political authority. Sadr was purportedly also urged to accept the revolutionary Iranian Islamic doctrine and face off against the traditional Iraqi Shiite leadership headed by Ayatollah Sistani.

It is notable that Sader visited Iran in order to take part in memorials for the Imam Khomeini. The visit aroused harsh criticism both from the traditional Shiite establishment in Iraq as well as from the reformist camp in Iran. Both camps accused Sadr of being the man who incited for the murder of Ayatollah Abd al-Majid Khoi. An Iranian web site affiliated with the reformist camp in Iran headed by President Khatami also raised the alarm over Sadr’s visit to Iran and its dangerous implications on the reformist camp and on American-Iranian relations. During his visit, Sadr met with several Iranian leaders, including the spiritual leader of radical Shiites in Iraq who also serves as a Khamenei advisor, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazam Khairi. The two discussed ways to undermine the leadership of Ayatollah Sistani following the latter’s refusal to accept Iranian spiritual authority.

According to the same sources, Iran’s decision to continue supporting Muqtada Sadr was also linked to the refusal of Shiite leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baker al-Hakim (who was since murdered in the Najaf car bombing attack) to declare his loyalty (Bi’a) to Iran and willingness to cooperate with the US. A source in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard also confirmed that al-Sadr met with Brig. Gen. Kassam Salimani, commander of the al-Quds forces and the man in charge of the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence apparatus. According to the source, this meeting points to long-term plans for cooperation between Sadr and Iranian intelligence elements .[22]

In an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Iran-based Iraqi Shiite cleric al-Khairi confirmed that he met with Sadr during the latter’s visit to Iran.[23] Khairi also noted that Sadr’s expressed his “willingness to accept my authority unconditionally and follow the orders of my representative, al-Ashkuri, who was dispatched to Najaf”.

Conclusion

Since the time coalition forces entered Iraq, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr has stood at the forefront of the radical Shiite opposition to the allied presence in the country and to the establishment of the provisional governing council. In recent months, al-Sadr has continuously boosted his position vis-?-vis the traditional moderate Shiite leadership headed by Sistani and also stood up against Saddam loyalists. He managed to do so by taking advantage of a political vacuum within the Shiite camp created in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s removal and the elimination of Ayatollah Khoi and Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim.

Despite his scathing attacks against the Americans, who he referred to as “big Satan”, Sadr continued to stress that he does not encourage his followers to fight the US but rather, merely expressing his opposition to the occupation through “peaceful and political means”.

Sadr’s contacts with Iran, supreme leader, Khamenei, and Iranian intelligence elements points to an increased Iranian meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and the utilization of Sadr to encourage Iraqi Shiites to accept Iran’s radical religious authority. Meanwhile, the current clashes between the US and Sadr’s followers are being perceived as the opening of another American front against Iraqi Shiites, at a time when coalition forces are still engaged in fighting against powerful opposition elements, particularly in the Sunni triangle area.

Therefore, defeating Muqtada Sadr should be viewed as an essential requirement at this time, particularly in order to prevent the radicalization of Iraqi Shiites at the expanse of Sistani’s moderate leadership. Defeating Sader would also help in preventing Iraqis from adopting Iranian-style radical Islamic doctrine. Similarly, a continuing Sadr consolidation of power is likely to constitute a short and medium-term threat to the Americans, as the US power-transfer to the Iraqi people and general elections in the country (expected to be held in July 2004) approach.

The initial American lack of resolve in standing up to Sadr, as well as the decision to allow his armed followers to openly operate throughout Shiite areas in Iraq, was perceived by al-Sadr as a sign of American weakness. It is this perception that has likely pushed Sadr to continue his provocative conduct vis-?-vis coalition forces and the traditional Shiite leadership, a move that boosted his standing and encouraged him to intensify his provocations.

However, it is notable that the Shiite camp in Iraq is at this point still largely under the influence of Sistani’s moderate leadership. Hence, a firm American response to Sadr’s antics is unlikely to bring in its wake a massive Shiite resistance to the US presence in Iraq. However, any moves directed against Sadr should be coordinated with and backed by the Sistani’s moderate Shiite leadership, in order to avoid the impression that the US is opening another front against all Iraqi Shiites.

Notes:

1. www.islamonline.net  Oct 31, 2003
2. www.daralhayat.com July 10, 2003
3.http://www.daralhayat.com/arab_news/levant_news/04-2004/20040406-07p01-01.txt/story.html 
4. www.daralhayat.com  Aug 01, 2003
5. http://islammemo.cc/  Aug 31, 2003. According to Turkish newspaper “Houreieth”.
6. http://islammemo.cc/  Oct 23, 2003
7. www.daralhayat.com August 3. 2003
8. http://www.aljazeera.net  July 20, 2003
9. www.daralhayat.com  August 01, 2003
10. Al-Nahar newspaper, Lebanon August 01, 2003
11. http://www.aljazeera.net/ August 15, 2003
12. http://islammemo.cc/  September 14, 2003
13. http://www.aljazeera.net  , October 16, 2003
14. Al-Zaman Iraqi newspaper , October 11, 2003
15. www.daralhayat.com  November 22, 2003
16. http://www.aljazeera.net  November 29, 2003
17. http://www.alwatan.com.kw/  , November 3, 2003
18. Al-Zaman, December 3, 2003
19. www.daralhayat.com/  July 18, 2003
20. http://www.alqabas.com.kw/ , October 10, 2003
21. http://217.205.164.249/azzaman/http/display.asp?fname=/azzaman/articles/2003/09/09-02/999.htm . As quoted on Islamic web site al-Saha, September 13, 2003
22. http://www.asharqalawsat.com/ , London, December 6, 2003
23. http://www.alqabas.com.kw/ , July 18, 2003