Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr


In early March 2004, I went to visit the office of al-Hawza, Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper in Baghdad. There were only a few staff there, but they were relaxed and friendly. I talked to a young man called Hussein who was a student in the French department at Mustansiriyah University on Palestine Street near Sadr City, which was increasingly under Sadrist control. He was explaining the Sadrist positions on various questions when he was interrupted by the roar of an explosion nearer to the city centre.

I said I would have to cut short our meeting to go to the nearest hospital to talk to the injured. It was almost impossible to get to the site of a bomb blast in central Baghdad, unless one was very close by when it happened, because the explosion immediately caused immense traffic jams. I had discovered that the best way to find out what had happened was to go directly to the hospitals receiving the casualties and talk to survivors and their friends.
Hussein wanted to see them too, and asked if we could give him a lift. We drove to al-Kindi hospital, but the uniformed policeman at the gate said he was under strict orders not to let anyone in. Hussein, who was sitting in the back seat, leant out the window and said quietly: “We are from the office of Sayyid al-Shahid [the Office of the Martyr, named after Sadr’s father but in practice Sadr’s office].”

The policeman froze, and then ran to open the gates, saying in an awed voice to the other police as we drove through: “They are from the Muqtada Sayyid’s office.” Clearly, the popularity and influence of the Sadrists in Baghdad had increased markedly since I had gone to an ill-attended protest march in Sadr City four months earlier.

I thought of this incident when the US viceroy and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer, closed al-Hawza for 60 days a few weeks later on March 28. I suspected that the US officials in the Green Zone were going to get a bigger reaction than they expected.

The reason for the closure of the newspaper was that it had carried a sermon from Sadr praising the September 11 attacks in New York as “a miracle and blessing from God”, though the letter handed to the editor said only that the paper had broken the law on fomenting violence.

“Close the rag down,” Bremer had said to aides when he read a translation of the issue. In his account of his disastrous year ruling Iraq, Bremer shows extreme animus towards Sadr, describing him as “a rabble-rousing Shiite cleric” and even comparing him to Hitler. As early as June 2003, he quotes himself as thinking: “Muqtada al-Sadr has the potential of ripping this country apart. We can’t let this happen.”

In the second half of 2003, Bremer repeatedly portrays himself as decrying the timidity of the US military, the CIA and the British, all of whom hesitated before confronting Sadr. Their fears were understandable and, as events soon demonstrated, wholly justified. Given the escalating armed resistance by the Sunni community, it did not make sense to provoke a Shia uprising at the same time.

For months, Bremer hovered on the edge of ordering the arrest of Sadr and his closest lieutenants for the murder of Sayyid Majid al-Khoei, son of the Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei and one of Saddam’s ablest and most important opponents, who was dragged from the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf and hacked to death within 24 hours of the dictator’s fall. An Iraqi judge, Raad Juhi, had even issued an arrest warrant for Sadr in November, saying that he had two eyewitnesses who said they had heard Sadr give the order for al-Khoei to be killed (the pretence that there was an independent Iraqi judiciary operating at the time was never going to cut much ice with Iraqis).

Bremer held two beliefs that were dangerously contradictory. For him, Sadr was a powerful, menacing figure capable of tearing Iraq apart, and simultaneously so weak that he would tamely submit to arrest, while his following would be too small to make effective protests. Iraqi ministers were struck by the degree to which Bremer hated and belittled Sadr. They were told not to refer to the “Mehdi Army” but to call it “Muqtada’s militia”.

Ali Allawi, the independent Islamist who was a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, once tried to explain to Bremer how the Sadrists were the political representatives of the millions of Shia poor. Bremer furiously retorted that he “didn’t care a damn about the underclass and what they [the Sadrists] represented”.

Though Sadr and the Sadrists were not strong enough to stand on their own against the US, their support, which had dipped in the second half of 2004, was growing once more. This was principally because they were the only Shia movement against the occupation, the unpopularity of which was increasing by the day. Not only was there friction with US soldiers on the street, but the US-led CPA was manifestly failing to restore services and provide jobs. Teachers and civil servants were paid more, but the vast “underclass” that Bremer so despised was seeing few benefits from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Some 70 per cent of the population was unemployed, according to the Ministry of Labor. The SCIRI and Dawa parties were members of the Iraqi Governing Council, which brought them little real power and did them political damage as they were seen as pawns of the occupation. The murders of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (in a suicide-bomb attack) and Sayyid Majid al-Khoei also removed the two most active scions of the Shia clerical aristocracy who might have competed with Sadr.

Yet the Sadrists were still a minority movement. The Shia might not much like the US occupation, but most were still far from wanting to fight it. The most prestigious and influential Shia leader was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The Sadrist distinction between the politically active and inactive marji’iya (religious authority) was always an oversimplification. Sistani might not want the clergy to take part actively in politics, as in Iran, or seek to create their own clerical government. But this did not mean that he believed in a legal division between church and state, as in the US and France, or wanted a secular Iraq. He was not so much apolitical as acutely conscious of the corrupting effect of political power on the Shia clergy, as evidenced by Iran. He kept his distance from the CPA and would not meet its officials. This lack of personal contact, combined with distortions of Sistani’s views when passed on by self-interested go-betweens, led Bremer and the CPA to underestimate the determination of the marji’iya to force elections, which the Shia community was bound to win, and to insist on a new constitution in which Islam was the primary source of legislation.

On 26 June 2003, Ayatollah Sistani issued a crucial fatwa, which said: “First of all there must be a general election so that every Iraqi citizen who is eligible to vote can choose someone to represent him in a foundational Constitution preparation assembly. Then the drafted Constitution can be put to a referendum.” This was a recipe for revolutionary change. If it happened, Iraq, part of the Sunni order in the Middle East for hundreds of years, would become a Shia state. Sistani’s position was immensely powerful because of his own great influence on the Shia.
For a few months after the overthrow of Saddam, Washington and its emissaries in Baghdad had an arrogant and self-deceiving sense of being in control of Iraq.

As the Sunni insurrection began to take off, Washington and its emissaries in Baghdad became more and more desperate for local Iraqi allies. They could not afford to fight the Sunni and offend the Shia at the same time. If Sistani’s limited co-operation was rebuffed, then the alternative to him would be Sadr, who was against the occupation root and branch.

Sadr had come close to an all-out fight with the CPA in August and in October, when Bremer was eager to order his arrest but was always frustrated at the last moment. Bremer optimistically hoped the arrest itself would be carried out by the Iraqi police–something that was unlikely to happen. The coalition military force outside Najaf at this moment was Spanish and had no intention of entering the holy city to snatch Sadr.

Sadr himself went on denouncing the occupation, but was chary of a direct military confrontation with the US military. This was a pattern we were to see twice in 2004 during the Mehdi Army’s battles with US forces. Sadr adopted similar tactics in 2007 when he stood down the Mehdi Army in February at the start of the US “surge”, and in September, when he declared a six-month ceasefire after fighting with the police and Badr Organisation during the 15 Shaaban pilgrimage to Karbala. For all his white martyr’s shroud and messianic rhetoric, he was a cautious man.

Bremer’s errors are glaring in retrospect, and in later years his superiors were swift to hold him responsible for much that went wrong for the US during the first catastrophic year of occupation. This was unfair or misleading, as it was evident in Baghdad at the time that US actions were determined by the Washington political agenda and, above all, the upcoming presidential election in 2004.

Bremer also received disastrously poor advice from the returning Iraqi exiles, senior members of SCIRI and Dawa, and from Shia clergy hostile to Sadr, all of whom had their reasons for wanting to see the US dispose of a dangerous rival.

The animosities between the different Shia leaders and groups were very evident to American officials in the Green Zone, but, confusingly, the divisions could suddenly be replaced by solidarity in the face of a common threat. Failure to see this was a principal reason why they were outmanoeuvred by Sadr and failed to eliminate him. In their hearts the Shia Islamists, whether SCIRI, Dawa, Sadrist or just supporters of Ayatollah Sistani, knew that the US disliked not only Sadr but all the Shia religious parties that were led by, or were under the influence of, black-turbaned clerics. At critical moments the Shia leaders saw that, however much they detested each other, they would be wise to hang together, if they did not want to hang separately.

There were signs of this on the street. In October, the Mehdi Army had fought guards loyal to Sistani for control of the shrine in Najaf, but by January 2004 supporters of both had united to take part in marches in Baghdad called by Sistani to demand direct elections for the next Iraqi parliament. Enormous chanting crowds, waving their banners, carried portraits of Sadr’s father and Sadr himself, along with those of Sistani.

Bremer was probably right in thinking that Sadr was at his most vulnerable in the second half of 2003, though he was not nearly as vulnerable as Bremer supposed. He still controlled the great Sadrist fortress of Sadr City and this alone made him an important political player in Iraq. An area of 20 square kilometres of close-packed housing in east Baghdad, with a population approaching 2.5 million, it was routinely described in the media as “a suburb of Baghdad”, but it was a lot more than that. If it had been a separate city it would have been the second-biggest city in Iraq, larger than Basra or Mosul.

It was always obscure how big Sadr City really was, because Saddam Hussein’s regime, the CPA and succeeding Iraqi regimes found the existence of such an area, covertly or openly hostile to the powers that be, intimidating. Its population was almost entirely Shia, many of them from Amara, the province in the south from which they had fled to escape the tyranny of the feudal landowners by coming to Baghdad in the 1950s.

But, as Ali Allawi points out in a description of the area based on unpublished Iraqi government studies dated 2004: “All the main tribes of the south, that is, up to 164 different tribes and clans, were represented [in Sadr City]. The power of the local tribal leaders, numbering over 300, was generally acknowledged, but with the rise of the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr [Muqtada’s father], who had specifically reached out to the inhabitants of Sadr City, most of the tribal elders had deferred to his overarching authority.”

Following the fall of Saddam, the religious, tribal and professional leaders in the area gave their backing to Sadr. By the summer of 2003, some 90 per cent of the mosques in Sadr City were under Sadrist control. Islamic mores were enforced in institutions such as orphanages run by the Sadrists. Boys and girls were separated and girls were forced to wear the veil. Even so, the latter said they preferred the orphanage to the danger of the streets.

“The growing power of the clerics means the chief of a clan has less influence in Sadr City,” says Fadhil Muhammad, a professor of sociology and an expert on the area. “The big change since 2003 had been the growth of religious parties and groups such as the Mehdi Army, SCIRI and Dawa, but the strongest of these is the Sadrist movement. Thousands of young men belong to these organizations so the clans have lost their authority over them. When there is a dispute the clans themselves ask for a sayyid or a sheikh to be the judge.”

Enforced Islamic puritanism became the norm. Gypsy villages, to give one example, were seen by the Sadrists as centres for prostitution and came under attack. Munawar Mashelah, who now works as a guard in a building in central Baghdad and disguises his gypsy origins, recalls how a dozen or so young men in five saloon cars approached his village (known as a kawliya). They shouted warnings to leave by the following morning. “As soon as they left, families fled quickly,” Munawar recalls. They didn’t know where to go, though some hid in Rashid military camp. Others who stayed were attacked and one woman in each family was killed.

As so often when it comes to violence attributed to the Sadrists, it is impossible to make a precise distinction between their actions and those of freelance and criminal gangs. It is a measure of the failure of the CPA and Iraqi government to provide personal security that the surviving gypsy families thought their only chance of survival was “to pay large bribes to join and take the names of well-known tribes and clans who would then protect them in central and western Iraq”.

There was a further reason why the political tide favoured Sadr in the first months of 2004, ensuring that he was going to be a more dangerous opponent than Bremer imagined. The sectarian bombing campaign orchestrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi showed that the US was incapable of providing security to ordinary Shia.

On March 2, millions of Shia marched and prayed to celebrate Ashura, the most important event in their religious calendar, commemorating the battle of Karbala when Imam Hussein and his 72 companions were massacred in the year 680. It was a peculiarly triumphant moment; the first Ashura to be celebrated since the fall of Saddam at which ancient rituals could be performed openly, without fear of arrest. Men slashed their scalps with swords so blood ran down their faces in memory of the death and suffering of Hussein and those with him. People cried “Hussein! Hussein!” and beat their chests in ritualized grief. The walls of the shrine in Karbala were decorated with scenes from the battle 1,400 years earlier: Hussein’s half-brother Abbas fighting his way to the bank of the Euphrates to bring water to the thirsty but refusing to drink himself; Hussein’s infant son pierced in the neck by an arrow when clasped in the arms of his father; the severed head of Hussein stuck on a pike by the victorious Umayyad army.
These modern-day Shia mourners felt a sense that, so many centuries after their historic defeat, they were finally on the winning side. Outside Karbala, a group of Sadrists chanted warnings against those who might try to deny the Shia their victory. “The oppressors tore apart your land, my people,” they cried. “The envious ones sowed discord among you, but do not attack us to the sound of your drums or we will crush you–Iraq! Iraq!”

At about 10am, a series of bombs exploded near the shrines in Karbala and Kadhimiyah in Baghdad. About 270 people were killed and 570 wounded. Limbs torn off by the blast and mangled, bleeding body parts were placed in a heap in the inner courtyard of the Kadhimiyah shrine.

Zarqawi’s bombing campaign had been sectarian from the start, but earlier attacks, such as those on Shia police recruits and the killing of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and 125 worshippers in Najaf in August 2003, had some military or political motivation. The Ashura bombings were aimed at killing as many Shia civilians as possible, simply because they were Shia. They bloodily demonstrated that the US and the nascent Iraqi government security forces could not protect the Shia masses, enabling the Mehdi Army to justify its existence as a Shia self-defense force.

Bremer and the CPA could scarcely have chosen a worse moment than March 2004 for a confrontation with Sadr. His newspaper al-Hawza had a circulation of only about 15,000 (Bremer seems to have been one of its few assiduous readers), but within days there were demonstrations by as many as 20,000 people in Baghdad demanding its reopening.

Sadr decided to make an issue of its temporary closure. The inflammatory tone of his speeches and those of his lieutenants give the impression that he believed this would be a good moment at which to confront the occupation authorities. “We fought Saddam and now we’re fighting the Americans,” said Sayyid Hazim al-Araqi, Sadr’s representative in Baghdad: “Listen, America, Britain and Israel, there’s a man named Muqtada al-Sadr and he gives resistance fighters their courage.”

Araqi’s denunciation of the occupiers was an interesting mixture of Iraqi patriotism, Islamic fervor, defense of tribal mores, anti-Baathism and anger at the failure of the US to improve living standards. He accused the US and its Iraqi proxies of creating “streets full of thieves, carjackers and rubbish”. By cracking down on honor killings they had encouraged adultery, and by dismissing only top-level Baathists they were treacherously preparing the ground to reconcile with the Baath party. What happened in the next few days was as much a sign of the CPA’s weakness and poor judgement as of Sadr’s strength.

On March 31, a convoy carrying security guards from the US security firm Blackwater was ambushed in the main street in Fallujah, a stronghold of the Sunni resistance. After killing four guards, the insurgents ran off, but day-laborers who normally stood beside the road waiting for work dragged the bodies of the dead Americans out of the burning vehicles and savagely hacked at them with their hoes and shovels, before hanging the charred remains of two of the security guards from the steel girders of the bridge over the Euphrates.

It was the sort of public humiliation shown on US television, akin to the notorious pictures of the body of a dead American helicopter pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, to which Washington was bound to respond. The Sadrists were sharp enough to see that US resources and attention would be largely focused on the spreading Sunni insurrection in Fallujah and the Sunni heartlands. Astonishingly, even after the killings in Fallujah, Bremer escalated his confrontation with Sadr by arresting his senior aide, Mustafa al-Yaqubi, a Sadrist militant from the time of Sadr’s father, on 3 April.

The Sadrist response was swift and exceeded in scope and violence anything that US officials in the Green Zone imagined. At midday on April 4, Bremer received an urgent and alarming phone call from the US commander, General Ricardo Sanchez. “All hell is breaking loose with Muqtada,” he said. “We’re getting reports from a lot of different sectors, Sadr City, Najaf … al-Kut. Demonstrators flooding the streets. A lot of them carrying AKs and RPGs.”

To the horror of the CPA, the Mehdi Army swept into cities and towns across southern Iraq, meeting little resistance. The fledgling Iraqi police had no intention of stopping them. The security in cities in southern Iraq was in the hands of Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Salvadoran and Spanish troops sent there at the high tide of US success in 2003 and whose governments had never expected them to fight.

A few weeks earlier I had been in Kut, the fly-blown city on the Tigris that was the site of the great British defeat by the Turks in 1916. Local people did not have a high opinion of the Ukrainian contingent who were the only armed representatives of the coalition. “They are even poorer than we are,” said a friend. “You can bribe them to let your car through a checkpoint by handing them a few cigarettes.”

Sadrist gunmen were briefly able to occupy Kut. In Nasiriyah, the Sadrists seized part of the city from the Italians, though the latter swiftly regained control amid accusations from the Sadrists that they had reneged on an agreement to withdraw.

Meanwhile, the lethal anarchy that spread across Iraq had an important political advantage for the CPA and Washington. Rory Stewart, the adventurous former British diplomat who was senior adviser in Dhi Qar province, the capital of which was Nasiriyah, makes a significant point in his memoir that the situation had become too dangerous for the media to turn up. “Then and later,” he writes, “the world press were unaware that we were losing control of a city of 600,000.”

The spectacular Sadrist gains in the first week of April far exceeded what they could hold and, in most areas, they were soon on the retreat. There were, in fact, just three cities that the Sadrists needed to occupy permanently–Sadr City; Kufa, where Sadr delivered his Friday sermons; and Najaf, the spiritual capital of the Shia in Iraq and around the world, which the Sadrists knew the US would be reluctant to attack because of the danger that they would damage the shrines. The Sadrists were not particularly popular in Najaf–the 500,000 population was loyal to Ayatollah Sistani and feared that their city would be turned into a battle zone–but with the Mehdi Army in control there was nothing, for the moment, that they could do about it.

Sadr chose this moment to start a religious retreat in the mosque in Kufa but, before doing so, he issued a direct call to arms. “Make your enemy afraid, for it is impossible to remain quiet about their moral offences,” he said. “I beg you not to resort to demonstrations, for they have become nothing but burned paper. It is necessary to resort to other measures, which you take in your own provinces. As for me, I am with you, and I hope I will be able to join you and then we shall ascend into exalted heavens. I will go into inviolable retreat in Kufa. Help me by whatever you are pleased to do in your provinces.”

For a man on religious retreat, Sadr was surprisingly voluble. He issued a statement: “The US-led forces have the money, weapons and huge numbers, but these things are not going to weaken our will because God is with us.” On April 5, Dan Senor, the CPA spokesman, announced that a warrant had been issued for Sadr’s arrest several months earlier and implied that it might now be implemented. When Bremer subsequently called Sadr an “outlaw”, he responded: “If Bremer means that I am an outlaw according to the American legal code, then I take pride in it.”

Mehdi Army reinforcements from Sadr City poured into Kufa and Najaf. They were untrained, violent but committed young men who came near to shooting me, Haider al-Safi and Bassim Abdul-Rahman at their checkpoint outside Kufa on April 19.

One militiaman who came to Najaf from Sadr City was a 23-year-old labourer, Ali Ahmed. “Frankly, the Mehdi Army wasn’t prepared for such an uprising,” he says. “It wasn’t divided into companies and battalions, but was in the form of groups who heeded the call for the coming battle against the Americans, the defense of the holy sites and to ensure that the Sadrist current survived. The biggest concentration of our forces was in Najaf. People either had their own weapons or ones taken from the old regime. Some people were selling what they owned in order to buy weapons so they could fight with the Mehdi Army.”

Ali Ahmed noticed that one advantage early in the fighting was that “there were US troops in Diwaniyah and Hilla provinces but we mostly faced Spanish soldiers”. These were in the process of being withdrawn by the new Spanish socialist government. Overall, he says: “We didn’t fight because of the closure of the newspaper or the arrest of al-Yaqubi, but because we thought our religion was in danger.”

It was Sadr’s strength that he could mobilise the Shia masses, millions of angry and poor young men; his weakness was that he could not control them, and he knew the risk of being designated a dangerous troublemaker. As the uprising began to run out of steam, he called on his followers to follow the instructions of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who’d called for a political solution and negotiations. The Americans were sending emissaries to Sistani to persuade him to give them permission to enter Najaf in pursuit of Sadr.

On April 7, Muqtada issued a statement to his followers, justifying the uprising but admitting that “a rebellious faction has infiltrated your [Mehdi Army] ranks and deliberately attempted to fan the flames of turmoil by plundering and looting government offices and money-changers. They shut the doors of the universities and seminaries in such a way as to distort the image of Islam and of Muslims and of the Mehdi Army.” He said that he was heeding the call of religious, tribal and political leaders for a ceasefire.

His intention was to portray Bremer and the US as the aggressors in the eyes of the Shia community. The last thing the CPA wanted to do was negotiate with Sadr, because its aim was to eliminate him. Bremer, again overplaying his hand, said that there were just three choices facing Sadr: surrender, arrest or death.

Militarily, the Mehdi Army was increasingly restricted to central Najaf. US troops had replaced the Spanish forces in the middle of April. Ali Ahmed and the militiamen he was with moved into the vast cemetery of Wadi al-Salaam “because it is large, difficult for the enemy to enter and we knew its layout”. The cemetery was a good place to hide and fight; it is a labyrinth of narrow lanes between earth walls, partitioning off compounds where the dead are interred. “We moved cautiously at night by the light of torches because we were afraid to reveal our positions. We used snipers, mortars and Katyusha rockets; we were not able to sleep at night and our food, when we could get it, was very simple.”

There was little the militiamen could do against US power. “They destroyed shops and buildings so Najaf became like a city of ghosts. The street fighting was intense, with the American troops staying in their tanks while we tried to hit them from all directions.” There were heavy losses among the militiamen and few US casualties.

Sadr, dressed in his usual dark robes and turban, moved secretly through Najaf to inspect his militia. Ali Ahmed recalls how careful he was. “No one knew where he was going in the alleyways,” he says. “He used to give misleading hints about his movements to confuse the enemy, who unfortunately were not only Americans.”

As the weeks passed, the Mehdi Army’s military situation grew weaker, but Sadr’s political position became stronger. Shia politicians in Baghdad and the marji’iya wanted to end the siege of Najaf by negotiations and were desperate to avoid an American assault on the shrine. The CPA abandoned its earlier demand for the arrest of Sadr and, crucially, the disarmament and dissolution of the Mehdi Army. Sadr, for his part, agreed to withdraw his men from the shrine and from Najaf.

Another development deeply alarmed the CPA and the US military commanders: co-operation was growing between Shia fighters in Najaf and Sunni fighters in Fallujah. Military supplies came to the beleaguered Mehdi Army men from Fallujah through Karbala. “Fighters came from Fallujah though there were not many and it was towards the end of battle,” says Ali Ahmed. “They were useful because they had also fought the Americans and were experienced in street fighting tactics.”

The co-operation was brief, but was an important motive for the US to bring the crisis in Najaf to an end. Losses among his men were heavy, but Muqtada al-Sadr had emerged the winner because he had challenged the US-led occupation, held off their greatly superior army for weeks, and survived without making concessions that would weaken him permanently.

Extracted from Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq by PATRICK COCKBURN

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.





Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).