Moqtada al-Sadr: a force to be reckoned with


Richard Moore

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Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr makes bid for greater role in US-occupied Iraq

By James Cogan
29 May 2007
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Last Friday Moqtada al-Sadr, the 33-year-old head of the Sadrist Shiite movement
in Iraq, made his first public appearance since October, putting to rest US 
claims that he had fled the country for Iran. Sadr delivered a speech at a 
mosque in his home city of Kufa, near Najaf. In an indication of the political 
influence now wielded by the Sadrists, the event dominated the Iraqi media over 
the weekend.

Sadr¹s speech was in line with recent efforts to present his movement as an 
Iraqi nationalist tendency that can unify the people against the US occupation 
and the catastrophic conditions it has inflicted. On April 9, the Sadrists 
organised a demonstration of up to one million people in Najaf to demand a 
timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. A week later, six Sadrist 
ministers resigned from the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in protest
at his refusal to ask Washington for a date. They subsequently won majority 
support in the parliament for a resolution demanding a US withdrawal. This 
month, leading Sadrists have held talks with Sunni Arab tribal leaders from 
western Iraq with the aim of developing a non-sectarian anti-occupation 

Draped in a white burial shroud to symbolise his willingness to face death, Sadr
began Friday¹s speech with a chant: ³No to the devil, no to America, no to the 
occupation, no to Israel². He repeated his movement¹s demand for a timetable for
the withdrawal of US and other foreign forces. The Maliki government, he 
declared, ³is not authorised to extend the mandate of the foreign forces in Iraq
after a million people demonstrated to protest that presence and 144 [out of 
275] lawmakers signed to demand the withdrawal of these forces².

The cleric condemned Maliki for making ³endeavours to bring Baathists back into 
power², a reference to US demands that the Iraqi parliament repeal the 
³de-Baathification² laws that prevent senior members of Saddam Hussein¹s regime 
from holding positions in the government, public service or security forces. The
Sadrist movement, like all Shiite fundamentalist tendencies in Iraq, was 
brutally repressed under Hussein¹s secular, but largely Sunni Arab-based 
Baathist regime. It is bitterly opposed to US efforts to allow former Baathists 
to re-enter the political process.

Sadr¹s speech, however, was also an appeal for unity between Iraqi Shiites and 
Sunnis. He blamed the occupation for the murderous civil war that is raging 
between rival Shiite and Sunni extremists. ³The invader has separated us,² he 
told his audience. Calling for an end to sectarian violence, he stated: ³Unity 
is strength. Division is weakness.²

Promising to defend all Iraqis regardless of their religious or ethnic 
background, Sadr called on his Mahdi Army militiamen not to attack Sunnis or 
minorities such as Christians: ³I want to say now that the blood of Sunnis is 
forbidden to everyone. They are our brothers in religion and nationality. Let 
our Christian brothers know that Islam is a friend to minorities and to other 
faiths and seeks dialogue with them.² Going further, he appealed to his 
supporters not to fight with their ³brothers² in the Iraqi army and police as 
clashes were exploited as a ³pretext for the occupiers¹ presence².

Despite the speech¹s anti-occupation tenor, Sadr was careful to call for 
political, not military, opposition. He did not issue any timetable of his own 
for the withdrawal of foreign troops. He also did not reverse his order earlier 
this year for the Mahdi Army to go to ground and offer no resistance to US 
military operations.

In fact, one aim of Sadr¹s decision to resurface after six months appears to be 
to head off the outbreak of full-scale fighting between his supporters and the 
occupation forces. The militia¹s non-resistance has permitted American or 
government forces to detain hundreds of its lower-level commanders and fighters.
Sunni extremists have exploited the decreased militia security to carry out a 
series of massive car bombings in Shiite civilian areas.

The Shiite masses and the Mahdi Army are growing restless. Revenge killings of 
Sunnis by Shiite death squads are once again on the increase, with close to 30 
bodies found every day in Baghdad alone. Shiite militiamen have fought 
occupation troops in the capital, Basra, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah and Kut.

A major US incursion into the Sadrist¹s Baghdad stronghold, the suburb of Sadr 
City, is expected over the next several weeks. By refusing to endorse militia 
activity in Sadr City or anywhere else, Sadr is seeking to both discourage 
resistance as well as distance himself and his organisation from any fighting.

Reports last week in the Washington Post and Associated Press indicated that 
Sadr¹s movement is basing its political calculation on the inability of the US 
military to sustain its current surge beyond the end of the year. The Sadrists¹ 
primary concern is not fighting the occupation, but increasing their political 
influence and that of layers of the Shiite elite. Inevitably, they believe, 
Washington will be forced to do a deal with the Iraqi faction which has the 
greatest ability to deliver political stability and security.

In a clear presentation of the Sadrist¹s willingness to consider some form of 
new arrangement with the US occupation, Sadrist leader Salah al-Obaidi told the 
Washington Post last week: ³We are not anti-American. We think the Americans 
have an important role in rebuilding Iraq, but through companies, not as an 
army. We can open a new channel with the Democrats and even some of the 

If it is desperate enough, a US administration might well turn to the Sadrist 
movement, particularly if it is heading an alliance with Sunni parties. The 
Sadrists are Arab nationalists and have fewer historic ties to Iran than other 
Shiite fundamentalist tendencies. At present, they enjoy widespread support and 
expect to make substantial gains in provincial elections due by the end of this 
year, including in Baghdad, Basra and other southern, predominantly Shiite 
provinces. Sadr¹s loyalists also have a strong presence inside the newly formed 
Iraqi security forces.

Any attempt to militarily destroy the Sadrists risks a major escalation of the 
Iraq war under conditions where antiwar opposition in the US is already 
overwhelming. A deal may be a better option. Hints have been given by US 
officials and military commanders that they are, at least, keeping open the 
possibility of working more closely with the Sadrists. National Security Council
spokesman Gordon Johndroe responded to Sadr¹s speech on Friday by expressing the
hope that it indicated he wanted ³to play a positive role inside Iraq². The 
cleric, Johndroe said, ³has an opportunity to be a part of the political 
reconciliation process².

Iraqi politicians are also positioning themselves for a possible realignment. 
Miriam al-Rayyis, an advisor to Maliki and a member of his Shiite-based Da¹wa 
Party, declared that ³we wish all our political leaders would talk like this². 
Iyad al-Sammaraie, a member of a Sunni Islamic party in the parliament, hailed 
Sadr¹s ³call for national reconciliation². Abbas al-Bayati, a leader of an 
ethnic Turkomen Shiite party, declared Sadr could ³calm the political and 
security situation².

One price that Sadr would have to pay for a greater political role would be the 
elimination of more militant elements within his movement. In April 2004, 
thousands of Mahdi Army fighters took up arms against the occupation, forcing 
the US military to fight bloody battles to regain control of Karbala, Najaf and 
other southern Iraqi cities. While Sadr accepted a truce and called off the 
uprising, the US military remains deeply concerned over the existence of a 
substantial militia based on anti-occupation and Shiite fundamentalist rhetoric.
Factions of the Mahdi Army are almost certainly carrying out guerilla operations
against American and British troops. In the event of a US confrontation with the
Shiite clerical regime in Iran, even more may take up arms.

According to Associated Press, the Sadrists are already carrying out a purge of 
militants, including by providing information to the US military on so-called 
³rogue² elements within the Mahdi Army. The newsagency reported: ³Those willing 
to cooperate with the Americans are part of a larger group that calls itself the
Œnoble Mahdi Army¹ and accuses others in the Mahdi Army of going too far by 
killing innocent Sunni civilians and embezzling militia funds. The informants 
also target fighters they claim were trained and armed by Iranians but offer no 
further proof or details.²

Sadr¹s speech was followed by high-profile killings and arrests of so-called 
³rogue² militiamen. On Friday, British and Iraqi government troops gunned down 
Abu Qadir, the Mahdi Army commander in Basra, who was accused of directing 
attacks on Shiite political opponents in the city. According to the Iraqi 
newspaper al-Hayat, Sadr had ³lifted his protection² for the militia leader. 
Local fighters, however, retaliated by bombarding British positions for over 
three hours. Air strikes were called in and the situation remains tense.

On Saturday morning, US troops launched a successful raid deep inside Sadr City.
Obviously acting on inside information, they detained a militia commander who 
was allegedly involved in smuggling explosives from Iran into Iraq. The raid 
produced outrage in Sadr City. The raiding party called in an air strike on a 
convoy of nine vehicles they claimed were blocking their exit and preparing an 
ambush. Locals reported that the cars were queuing for a gas station to open and
that at least five innocent people were killed.

The ability of Sadr to openly collaborate with the White House and the US 
military is, however, limited by the social base on which his movement rests. 
His anti-occupation rhetoric last Friday is aimed at maintaining influence over 
the broad layers of Iraqi Shiites who are bitterly opposed to the US occupation 
and the social disaster that it had brought. If Sadrists leaders assume a more 
prominent role in supporting the continued US dominance over Iraq, the movement 
could rapidly lose support and its ability to contain popular resentment and 

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