April 10, 2004


Son of the Hidden Imam preaches rebellion to his army of men in black (Rory McCarthy, April 6, 2004, The Guardian)

The young cleric has built himself an astonishing position of strength in the past year. He taunted the US occupation authorities with threats immediately after the war but was dismissed as a minor irritant. Now he has returned, this time with a large, armed militia and a highly organised militant political force with roots in several southern cities and in the eastern Shia slums of Baghdad.

Its intellectual base is a large group of young clerics in their 20s and early 30s, all students at the Hawza, Iraq's preeminent religious school in Najaf. Notably, they all reject Najaf's more conservative traditions, which insist that religion should remain separate from politics.

Mr Sadr, a dour man with a thin dark beard, trades largely on the name of his father, a respected moderate cleric, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam in 1999, and on his virulent criticism of the US occupation.

"Syed Moqtada al-Sadr has expressed in a public way, in a brave way, the pain in the hearts of the Iraqi people," said one of his senior deputies, Sheikh Qais al-Qazali, 30, a science graduate who has studied at the Hawza since 1995. "What happened in the demonstrations was a popular reaction by the Iraqi people. The Americans have seen the demonstrations and the sacrifices of the martyrs. Now they should judge what would happen if they arrest Syed Moqtada."

The limited numbers and the immaturity of the Shi'a participating in Mr. Sadr's riots suggests that the more conservative vision of Ayatollah Sistani still predominates. We should be doing whatever is necessary to make sure this remains the case. If Sistani wants us to rid him of Sadr, then do so. If he says they'll take care of him after we're gone then let them.

MORE: (via Mike Daley)
-Muqtada Al-Sadr Not Supported by Other Iraqi Leaders (Nimrod Raphaeli, April 9, 2004, MEMRI)

Although the closing for two months by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of his weekly, Al-Hawza,triggered violent demonstrations by Muqtada Al-Sadr's supporters, particularly his armed militia known as the Mehdi Brigades, it is by no means the primary reason for the recent violence. Al-Sadr has been angry and frustrated for some time at being kept outside the Iraqi Governing Council. Not unlike the Iranian Ayatollahs who prepared him as a cleric, Al-Sadr is interested, first and foremost, in achieving an Islamic state in Iraq, and he will not avoid confrontation if it enables him to achieve his ultimate objective. While his influence among the Iraqi Shi'a Muslims may not be as powerful as that of the most senior Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, his propensity for mischief can not be ignored. However, Al-Sadr is not supported by other Iraqi Shi'a leaders.

For now at least, Al-Sadr seems to have been isolated by the Iraqi Shi'a leadership, in particular by Ayatollah Al-Sistani and by some Shi'a members of the Iraqi Governing Council. Al-Sistani has many outstanding issues with Al-Sadr:

Al-Sadr's attempt at the end of last year to grab by force the revenues of Al-Hawza which are derived from religious pilgrims who visit the Shi'a holy sites in Najaf and Karbala.

The assassination, upon his return from England, of the moderate Shi'a cleric Abd Al-Majid Al-Khoei in a mosque in Najaf. Al-Khohei was the son of Grand Ayatollah Abu Al-Qassem Al-Khoei who was Al-Sistani's mentor. It is this assassination which prompted an Iraqi court to issue an order for Al-Sadr's arrest and his seeking refuge in a mosque.

Al-Sistani has so far rejected appeals to issue a fatwa (religious edict) against the occupation forces. Al-Sadr's activities are anathema to Al-Sistani. Following the violence initiated by Al-Sadr, Al-Sistani went as far as issuing a statement calling on the demonstrators to exercise self-control and not to strike back if they were struck by the coalition forces.

By his own admission, Al-Sadr, who is young and considered as mujtahid, roughly the equivalent of graduate student, has failed, despite many attempts, to obtain an interview with Al-Sistani.

-Moderates in Retreat in Najaf as Fear Echoes Across the City (Alissa J. Rubin, 4/08/04, LA Times)
Abu Nouras, a bookseller in Najaf, considers himself part of the moderate Shiite majority, and he is upset by Sadr's takeover of the city. He believes that the silent majority still will have its day.
Silence Is Wise

"The people who are silent are the people who will make history," he said. However, he added: "Sometimes it is wiser to stay silent because, if we speak, there might be fighting among the Shiites."

Events in Najaf, as well as Sadr's effort to reach out to Sunni Muslims battling U.S. forces elsewhere in Iraq, bring the main conflict in the country into sharp relief, said Adnan Pachachi, a member of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, the only major Iraqi institution to speak out against Sadr.

"In the end, the confrontation will be essentially between moderates and extremists on both sides — Sunni and Shiite," Pachachi said. "It is between fundamentalism and liberal secularism."

-Call of History Draws Iraqi Cleric to the Political Fore (Anthony Shadid, February 1, 2004, Washington Post)
In a meeting steeped in symbolism, 68 tribal elders gathered last month on a worn Persian carpet in a crowded reception hall, sharing tea and cigarettes, and listened to a tall, ascetic cleric summon them to action in a country being transformed.

In ceremonial Arabic accented by his native Persian, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani declared that power should be in their hands, not in the hands of those from abroad, two participants recalled. With a keen sense of Iraq's history, he called the tribesmen "descendants of the 1920 revolution," the Shiite Muslim revolt against the British occupation after World War I. Elections, he insisted forcefully in the 45-minute meeting, were the only way to ensure that their voice would be heard.

"We want the authority for you," Sistani said, according to Nijm Abid Sayyah, a 50-year-old participant from the southern city of Rumaythah. "We serve you and all Iraqis, people of honorable history and great glory."

More than words, Sistani's speech on Jan. 10, to tribesmen from the city where the 1920 revolt began, signaled the emergence of a new Iraq and a new ayatollah. Gone was the reserve that ensured his survival under former president Saddam Hussein, who executed and expelled hundreds of his colleagues. In its place was a new assertiveness. For perhaps the first time in a life that has spanned Iraq's modern history, Sistani, 73, sent a message that was more political than religious.

Rarely seen in public, and in isolation for the past six years, the Iranian-born cleric has derailed one U.S. plan for Iraq's political transition and is striving to undo another through a demand for direct elections. He has caused anxiety among U.S. officials who are wary of the theocracy in neighboring Iran and envision Iraq as a secular, democratic outpost in the Arab world. His statements -- often handwritten, seldom spoken -- have already secured the Shiite clergy a crucial if not dominant role in determining Iraq's future.

From his biography and in interviews with fellow clerics, his staff and Iraqis who have met him, a complex picture emerges of a man whose exercise of power is as much a consequence of time and place as of his personality.

A deeply traditional cleric, Sistani has been steeped in the culture of religious schools since he was 10 years old, educated by some of their most illustrious scholars and dedicated to the preservation of the schools' authority. He cultivated such an austere image that he did not buy a refrigerator until a decade ago. Yet he oversees institutions and a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, and in the subterranean contests for power and prestige in Najaf, he has proved himself a skilled infighter.

While his detractors see his newfound activism as cause for alarm -- the onset of clerical influence and the ascent of the Shiite majority in a divided country -- his followers describe his moves as defensive. Sistani fears the loss of what he describes as Iraq's Islamic identity, and he trusts that Iraqis, a Muslim, Arab people, will not disavow it if given a voice through elections. He thinks historically, they say, acknowledging mistakes by the clergy in the 1920 revolt, and chafing at the secular nature of modern Turkey.

Sistani has explicitly refrained from pronouncements on what shape Iraq's constitution and law should take. He is described as a flexible thinker who believes that religion should adapt to time and place. Yet his edicts reveal a profoundly traditionalist view of society. In declarations on the most minute elements of personal behavior, he has said that men and women should not mix socially, that music for entertainment is prohibited and that women should veil their hair.

Through no choice of his own, his interlocutors say, Sistani has now been forced to define his legacy. "Any grand ayatollah would have done exactly the same," said Mowaffak Rubaie, a member of the Governing Council who visits Sistani often. "He keeps on saying that in 50 years from now, if I don't act, people will remember me by saying why didn't he do this, why didn't he say anything? They will say the country lost its identity, and you did nothing to stop it."

-Surprise: Some Iraqi Gunmen Have Held Their Fire (JOHN H. CUSHMAN Jr., 4/11/04, NY Times)
If political power grows from the barrel of a gun, then every armed Iraqi has a stake in the transfer of authority that is supposed to take place there in 11 weeks. But so far, one of the most important armed groups in Iraq has not plunged into the wild uprisings that spread last week.

Even as the rebellious Mahdi militia of Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, took over government buildings and streets in several towns, and even as it claimed to have forged a common fight with rebellious Sunnis in central Iraq, another, larger, better trained and equally ardent Shiite force, the Badr militia, seemed mainly to stand aside. It could now play a profound role in setting Iraq's future.

If the Badrs continue to withhold support from the Mahdi insurrection, or act to block it, they might gain more power under constitutional rule. But their appearance on the battlefield as rebels would greatly complicate the task of restoring order.

Until a week or so ago, the American-led military coalition seemed to have little trouble keeping a lid on Iraq's militias, despite sporadic violence by other insurgents.

But the expected transition to Iraqi political leadership has now proved destabilizing. The Iraqi Governing Council, which has 25 members, may double in size after June 30, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suggested on Thursday, to mirror the multiplying schisms of Iraqi society. That remains uncertain, however; on Friday some of the council's members suspended their participation in protest of the renewed combat.

For his part, Mr. Sadr, who sees himself as a ruling figure in the Baghdad slums, was always a political outcast. There was no way the coalition would have named him to the new body that is to take over on June 30.

That was one reason Mr. Sadr grabbed for power - and his militiamen grabbed their guns - days after Sunni insurgents stepped up their violence in Falluja, in central Iraq. American officials said last week that Mr. Sadr's move was not wholly unexpected. Indeed, the coalition had provoked him by closing his newspaper.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2004 2:24 PM

Of course, the $80 million +++ Iran's funneled there has helped.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 10, 2004 9:30 PM

Khomeini used to speak such nice words in public as well. Deeds are what matter, time will tell if Sistani is from the Khomeini-school or not.

The most interesting thing to me about the Guardian article was the very rare use of "conservative" to describe a viewpoint other than that which the author thinks is the worst possible option.

Posted by: brian at April 10, 2004 9:37 PM


No, actually Khomeini had developed an aberrational doctrine of Shi'a totalitarianism:

The fundamental difference between Islamic government, on the one hand, and constitutional monarchies and republics, on the other, is this: whereas the representatives of the people or the monarch in such regimes engage in legislation, in Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to God Almighty. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator. It is for this reason that in an Islamic government, a simple planning body takes the place of the legislative assembly that is one of the three branches of government. This body draws up programs for the different ministries in the light of the ordinances of Islam and thereby determines how public services are to be provided across the country.
   Islamic Government (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini)

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2004 10:59 PM

Isn't it true that Khomeini took out full page ads in American and French newspapers around the time of his return saying that the West and Iran could be the best of friends?

Posted by: brian at April 10, 2004 11:41 PM
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