The iraqi government has decided that the moment has come to crush the Mahdi Army and the followers of Muqtada Sadr once and for all. Despite its failure to eliminate his militiamen in Basra at the end of March, the government, with American backing, is determined to try again, according to senior Iraqi officials.
It is a dangerous strategy for both Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and the U.S. Sadr remains one of the most powerful and revered leaders of the Shiite community — and the Shiites make up 60% of Iraq. What’s more, the 34-year-old Sadr is not exactly the mercurial “firebrand” or “renegade” cleric portrayed by journalistic cliche-mongers; rather, he has repeatedly shown himself to be a cautious and experienced political operator.
Ever since he unexpectedly emerged as a central figure in Iraqi politics in the days after the overthrow of the old regime in 2003, Sadr’s many enemies have invariably underestimated him and the commitment of his followers. When the U.S. viceroy in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, moved against Sadr in April 2004, he was astonished when the Sadrists took over much of southern Iraq in response. Maliki had a similar experience in March: He demanded that the Mahdi Army militiamen hand over their weapons within three days — only to see pictures on TV of disaffected troops and police surrendering their guns to the militia instead.
Sadr enjoys such great religious and political authority because he is the scion of the most respected Shiite clerical family in Iraq. His father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, and two of his brothers were killed, presumably by Saddam Hussein’s gunmen, in 1999. His cousin and father-in-law, Mohammed Baqir Sadr, a revered Shiite theologian, was executed by the old regime in 1980.
It was Sadeq Sadr who created the Sadrist movement, whose mixture of puritanical Islam, nationalism and social relief appealed to the millions of Shiite poor, impoverished by war and economic sanctions. Although Hussein initially saw Sadeq Sadr as a potential ally, he realized late in the day that he was fostering a dangerous enemy and ordered Sadeq Sadr’s assassination.
Muqtada Sadr became so important so fast after the fall of Hussein because he inherited his father’s movement — and it is still the basis of his influence. He only narrowly avoided being killed at the same time as Sadeq Sadr and was held under house arrest, allowed to live only because Iraqi security believed he was no threat.
Living so close to death for so many years helps explain Muqtada Sadr’s secretive character. “Even his closest lieutenants sitting beside him do not know what is going on in his head,” one of his aides said. Highly intelligent with a quick, nervous manner, he illustrates his words with rapid hand movements in apparent imitation of his father’s manner.
Muqtada Sadr created the Mahdi Army in 2003 and rapidly turned it into the most powerful militia in Iraq. Lightly armed and poorly trained, it suffered terrible losses fighting the U.S. Marines in two battles in Najaf in 2004, but the outgunned militiamen did not surrender. The Sadrists have always seen political and social activism as essential to Islamic practice. They criticized the rival Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the established Shiite clergy for their “quietism” and their failure to actively oppose Hussein (and later, the American occupation).
What makes Sadr different from other Shiite leaders, and gives him credibility among the Shiite masses, is that he opposed the U.S. occupation from the beginning. When the U.S. invasion overthrew Hussein, Sadr said that “the big snake has succeeded the small snake.” He pulled his followers out of the Iraqi government in 2006 because Maliki would not condemn the occupation. He also became increasingly reliant on Iran in the face of U.S. hostility.
The once impressive political unity of the Shiite community is now collapsing. Maliki (who is a Shiite) and his small Dawa Party, along with his main ally, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, believe that they can isolate the Sadrists and, with American help, marginalize them before the October provincial elections in which the Sadrists were expected to do well. The long rivalry of the Sadr family and the Hakim family (the founders of the Supreme Islamic Council in 1982) has once again exploded. The U.S. may come to regret taking sides against the Sadrists in this intra-Shiite feud.
Ever since the battles for Najaf four years ago, Sadr has tried to avoid direct military confrontation with U.S. military forces. He has agreed to truces and cease-fires, and two weeks ago, he even called his militiamen off the streets in Baghdad and Basra when they seemed to be winning.
But for the Iraqi government, those clashes were only the first round in a battle to crush the Sadrists as a political and military force. Going by past experience, Sadr will try to arrange a compromise to avoid the destruction of his movement. But if he is forced to fight, the U.S. will face a whole new front in the war in Iraq.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Iraq correspondent for the Independent in London and the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”