A firebrand rebellious young cleric, or a  mini-Ayatollah with a long term strategy?

Moqtada al-Sadr 

By Adel Darwish

 Basra- August 20, 2004

 His men were in control of the old part of the holy city of Najaf, daring Iraqi security and their American backers to attack the holy shrine thus turning the entire Iraqi Shia - and perhaps Iran too- into enemies.

 Najaf for Shia is like the Vatican for the Catholics. Najaf holy shrines, include the mausoleum of the Fourth Caliph, Imam Ali Ibn Abi-Talib, cousin and son in law of prophet Mohammed, and the first man on earth to believe his mission as `a messenger of god.'

Following his 7th century AD assassination in a mosque in Kufa Abi-Talib's body was placed on a camel, as he wished, and was buried in Najaf where the camel finally stopped.

 Mr Sadr's latest stand off- undermining Iyad Allawy's interim government and throwing a brick at President George Bush's re-election window-display - was the third in nine months.

 Last September (2003) -Sadr supporters took over the tomb  of Imam Ali, leading to bloody clashes with the Badr militia of the Iran backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) lead by al-Hakim family and with supporters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Shia in Iraq and beyond.

 Taking advantage of  al-Sistani's absence for a heart surgery in London, Sadr's men provoked confrontation with Iraqi police in August ( 2004)  leading to his second occupation of Najaf, breaking a ceasefire he reached with the government in June.

 The name Moqtada al-Sadr was first heard outside Iraq last April ( 2003) as implicated in the killing Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who had just returned from a two decade exile in London.

 Sadr owed his fast rise more to the usual American blunders than to his own cunning - helped by a family name. al-Khoei's assassination - for which a warrant for Sadr's arrest was to be issued six months later- dashed American hopes for peaceful transition with the demise of a great  moderate  Shia leader who promoted  a South Africa style truth and conciliation commission to heal a post-Saddam Iraqi society.

 Encouraged  by the British, al-Khoei had hoped to persuade  al-Sistani, to back a new order in Iraq. He was assassinated  before talks with Sistani, who was once a student of his father Ayatollah Abu Al-Qasim al-Khoui, himself a spiritual leader of the Shia in 1970s.

 Typically, American at the time analysts dismissed al-Sadr as a young over zealous rebel.

 Born in Baghdad in 1974, the youngest son to Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, head of one of the most illustrious Shia religious families in Iraq, Moqtada was exposed to violent political turmoil. His  father and two of his older brothers were assassinated by Saddam Hussein regime in 1999. 

 Sadr believed he would  himself assume the rank of Marjyyh ( the highest authority on religion and law in Sha'ism, like a Bishop in the church of England) - or in American pop-cultural terms a knight on the highest Jedi council.

He inherited the recognitions of the Shias in the slums of North Baghdad, after his father's death, whose example he cites of becoming  authority - or mujtahid - at the age of 25, while his uncle  Muhammed Baqer al-Sadr attained that rank at 22.

 Although enrolling  in a-Hawza learning seminar in Najaf, Sadr never, officially,  became a religious scholar. This deprived him of a foot-hold in the Shia hierarchy, diminishing his chance in any fair political contest, making his rebellion a short cut to power.

 Moqtada - the name means ` a role model' became a student of Iranian Ayatollah Kadhem Al-Ha'iri, on whom he relies for fatwas and interpretations since he has no qualifications to do so. He later would criticise most of Shia leaders, with the exception of his Iranian tutor. But the latter stopped short of endorsing his former disciple's occupation of Najaf, showing respect to al-Sistani's authority.

 His relations with the Iran's religious establishment ( the only country he visited) played a role larger than what seems in his politics. The  confrontations he generated  coincided with American or Israeli criticism of Iran.

Sadr's men provoked the Najaf confrontation by attacking Iraqi policemen, about the time Iran was criticised its nuclear programme. At the same time, some untypical trouble started in Basra, controlled by  British, when London joined other EU members criticising the Iranians ( They asked their stunned negotiators for nuclear know how to ` protect themselves from Israeli threats' Iran then  threatened to attack Israeli nuclear facilities if the Israelis attacked Iran)

 Wishful thinking convinced the Americans the Shia majority would remain grateful for the fall of Saddam; they blundered into another disaster by  disbanding the Iraqi army.

 Immediately, tribal and sectarian leaders rushed to consolidate their power bases.  Sadr established  himself as the de facto ruler of large Shia ghetto in North East Baghdad that was built by General Abdel Karim Qasim - a Shia officer backed by the communists, who's bloody coup  ended the monarchy in 1958, - as ` al-Thawrah' ( revolution) city', to be renamed by The Baathist, ` Saddam City'. But in May last year it was renamed again by the 30 year old cleric,  `Sadr City in honour of his  uncle, the legendary anti-Saddam rebel cleric. Its  near 2 million Shia residents make up 8 percent of Iraq's entire population.

 Within a month he established Mahdi's Army, after  Al-Mahdi Almuntathar'  the divine guided  mythical Imam who will return one day in messianic form. In another error the Americans, dismissed the  Mahdi army then  as  nothing more than a manifestation of muscle flexing by  young Al-Sadr.

 Followed Ayatollah Khomeini role, Sadr called upon  Shia spiritual leaders to be active in shaping Iraq's political future.

 The Shia practice through two designations, often interchangeably - Al-Hawza and Al-Marja'iyyah - for the religious sites in the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Al-Hawza is the centre of administration and finance, and the supervision of the holy sites, particularly the graves of Imam Ali and his two sons, al-Hassan and al-Hussein (the latter's  martyrdom forms the essence of the Shia faith).

 Al-Marja'iyyah, or source of  spiritual and doctrinal authority, including religious interpretations, religious law, and the issuance of Fatwas. Only one of four Ayatollahs at the top of the pyramid, Al-Sistani, has emerged as the recognised voice of the Shia in Iraq.

 Lacking religious stature to challenge Al-Marja'iyyah on doctrinal matters, al-Sadr concentrated his criticism on Al-Hawza since, in the final analysis, he is an opportunist politician than a religious leader. He also wanted a share of its wealth - through collections and large donations from visitors  pilgrims to religious seminaries and tombs of  Shia saints, all controlled by Sistani. For 1300 years, the shrines controlled rotated between a handful of families, al-Sadr's wasn't among them.

 Al-Sadr distinguishes between the Silent Hawza (Al-Hawza al-Samita) and Vocal Hawza ( Al-Hawza Al-Natiqa), presenting fiery-speech, by less learned clerics like himself, who seek an active political role and advocate an Islamic republic in Iraq as promoted by Khomeini's theory of  Valayyat al-Faqieh - the authoritarian rule of the learnt clergyman .

The silent Hawza represents the seat of the senior and more learned philosophical Shia clerics like Sistani, who, historically rejected Khomeini's doctrine of clerics'  involvement the ` corrupting,' political life.

 Sistanti's insistence early this  year ( 2004) on election taking place before the transfer of power, was a step he took reluctantly as it meant crossing the line between the two hawza.

Like American administration Paul Breamer, who's authority Sistani refused to recognise through meeting in person,  requests by Sadr for an audience  was rebuffed by the old cleric, letting his junior staff only meet Sadr when he visited his home.

 This subtle `political activism' of Sistani was a clear attempt to neutralise Sadr's rising power - only  noted by the Americans when it was too late.

 Within months of establishing Mahdi army, Sadr city, in which sale of videos and alcohol is  banned,  developed its own municipal, educational, medical, and social services. Sadr created  "courts" presided over by young judges among his followers, adjudicating individual disputes through  verdicts  carried out by "security committees." The only law recognised is Shia interpretation of  Shari'a (Islamic law). Reports in Arabic papers  compared student-judges to those  religious schools in Pakistan who later formed the Taliban movement in  Afghanistan.

 Seizing upon the opportunities offered to him by Al-Jazeerah TVA, he continued to lash out at the Governing Council - to which he was not selected- and later he Interim government as  ``a U.S. puppet'' .

 During a sermon at his mosque in Kufa early this year, -Sadr  appointed a shadow government ( an entire cabinet with a new ministry for  'The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice)  to represent the Iraqi people. His followers, mainly from Sadr city, then marched in  streets of Najaf supporting this initiative.

 Sadr doesn't  have  qualms about attacking the Americans-  ` The Greater  Satan that replaced the lesser Satan  ( Saddam)'  or spreading  untrue rumours about his opponents.

He told the pro-Saddam London Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi that ``Americans deploy  disease carrying  soldiers to infect Iraqi society.' He demanded the expulsion of  `sick soldiers', establishing  health-centres to examine new arrivals barring the sick among them. - an echo of Saddam' 1980s  subjecting foreign workers to AIDS test upon their arrival, and deporting those tested positive.

 In reaction to Abu Ghraib scandal he demanded  ``trying American soldiers  under  Shari'a, ''  and threatened  to take revenge on ``the monkeys and pigs [i.e. Jews] that come from America.''

 Like many  Shias Sadr rejected the idea of a federal government - which will grant the Kurds the measure of autonomy already obtained under Anglo-American no fly zone since 1991- as ``an Israeli idea designed to divide Iraqis like what  happened in Yugoslavia.''

 Declaring that ``the presence of Muslims in the [ oil rich Northern] city [of Kirkuk] is weak,'' Sadr  sent his aid, Abd Al-Fattah Al-Mousawi, over to incite the Arabs and Turcomen against the Kurdish population condemned as  ``not Muslims.''

 His statements are often contradictory ( like sending greetings to the American people in Ramadan) reflecting his  dilemma of having to walk a tight rope between his youthful rebellion and his desire to play a key role in shaping the future of Iraq but he failed, in three occasions, to  avoid unnecessary confrontations with the occupation forces.

 A charismatic leader and gifted orator, Sadr delivers fiery speeches to his loyal young followers, donning a white shroud in mourning for his father. Participants in his  sermons must repeat after him : ``No No to Israel, No No to America, No No to terrorism.''

 With his chubby frame draped in black robes and turban, he maintained a permanent scowl throughout his press briefings adding gravity  to his words, delivered with a lisp in colloquial Arabic peppered with street slang, rather than in eloquent classical Arabic more common among Shia scholars and clerics.

 When asked during his first meeting with the press last year  whether he would attack the Americans?

His shocking reply in street slang was the equivalent of :

``Why would I want to f**k myself?'' 

 Avoiding what seems a predictable fate, is remain to be seen.


Copyrights 2004  Adel Darwish & World Media UK Ltd, no reprint, reproduce of all or parts of article without permission

 The difficult task facing America  No smoking gun but America keeps pressure on * The Show Rolls on  * Hans Blix's text 14 Feb 2003  *  who will have the last laugh? Sorting out Saddam ?   The raid *.  Iraqi Official Statement   *. The View from Britain    * American policy on Iraq in disarray    * .Saddam, the popular dictator among Arabs.  . 

Further information:
Iraqi Mission in the UN.
British Ministry of Defence
The pentagon

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