May 27, 2008


Sadr Pursues Image to Match His Power: Unexpected Heir Studies, Strategizes to Become an Icon Like His Father (Amit R. Paley, 5/27/08, Washington Post)

Sadrists flocked to Moqtada as the inheritor of his father's legacy. "People understand that Moqtada is the closest to the light of martyr Sadr. So they follow him because of that," Obaidi said.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, most American officials were unaware of Sadr's massive following and the hatred many of his devotees harbored toward the U.S. government. He was quickly seen as the polar opposite of Abdul Majeed al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric and supporter of the American invasion, who was hacked to death in Najaf in April 2003. Sadr was accused of ordering the killing; his aides have denied his involvement.

Sadr began speaking out against the occupation and formed the Mahdi Army militia in mid-2003. The militia was grounded in a theological concept developed by Sadr's father, who said that an army of believers would be led by the Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure who Shiites believe will redeem mankind.

The Mahdi Army took part in two major uprisings against the U.S. military in 2004, making Sadr popular as a resistance figure and showing how formidable his fighters were. But the battles also engendered anger from Iraqis who saw him as a hooligan.

The reputation of the Mahdi Army as a militia of killers was cemented after Sunni insurgents destroyed the golden-domed Samarra mosque in 2006 and Sadrists retaliated by killing and torturing thousands of Sunnis. The cycle of revenge triggered paroxysms of sectarian cleansing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war. [...]

By 2007, his aides said, Sadr had decided he needed to take steps to change the direction of the movement, prodded in part by older, more moderate clerics who had studied with his father. After giving a speech at his mosque in Kufa in the spring, Sadr disappeared from public view, Obaidi said.

Over the summer he began discussing a radical idea with his aides: ordering the Mahdi Army to lay down its weapons. Obaidi said he advised Sadr to declare a freeze on violence in exchange for commitments from the government to stop raids and mass arrests of its followers.

But Sadr refused. "He knew that if we rely on the government that they would break their promise, and we would be forced to end the freeze," Obaidi said.

After a battle in late August between Sadrists and government forces in the Shiite holy city of Karbala that left dozens dead, the public image of the Sadrists was further tarnished. Sadr ordered the freeze, despite the objections of close aides such as Shaibani, who thought it would be viewed as a sign of weakness.

Though the precise timing is unclear, it was around this period that Sadr decided to devote himself to religious scholarship.

He has studied for the past year under Shahroudi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, according to Abdul Razzaq al-Nidawi, Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi and Hazim al-Araji, three of Sadr's top aides and leaders of the Sadrist movement. Nidawi and Mohammadawi added that Sadr has been studying in Qom, Iran, though Araji, like many other top aides, said he did not want to discuss Sadr's whereabouts for security reasons.

The choice of an Iranian cleric as a teacher is sensitive politically, since Sadr espouses a nationalist philosophy and because of the U.S. military's assertions that Iran is supplying weapons and support to militiamen affiliated with Sadr.

But aides said Sadr chose Shahroudi because he is one of the two most highly regarded disciples of Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr. Shahroudi, a native of Najaf who has run the judicial system since 1999, is seen as a relative moderate in Iran, perhaps best known for speaking out against torture and ordering a sometimes-ignored moratorium on stoning six years ago. Shahroudi's office in Tehran did not respond to a request for comment.

Sadr has said that he is at the third level of clerical study, known as external research, which precedes becoming a mushtahid, a cleric who can issue fatwas, or religious edicts, on his own authority. Achieving this status normally takes many years of study, but several of Sadr's followers, including Nidawi, said they believe that Sadr will be certified as a mushtahid within the next year.

Reprisals against the Sunni laid the preconditions in which the latter welcomed the surge--once they realized the Shi'ites were in power to stay--while co-operation helped it to succeed. Now it's just a question of how soon the surge is drawn down.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2008 6:44 AM

Muqtada al-Sadr lived all his young life in a household led by his father and grandfather, both of whom were mushtahideen. His brothers (who were later assassinated, along with his father) were students widely expected to achieve that status. Shi'ia religious ranks are remarkably nepotistic. If Muqtada could not achieve status at the knee of his father and grandfather, what chance for him to gain it under the tutelage of Iranians?

No. You have the right stick, but have grasped the wrong end of it.

When the poor Shi'ia noted the Mooreonic Convergence -- that is, that their Sunni oppressors were heroic Minute Men and Defenders of the Faith -- they grasped at Muqtada al-Sadr as the last remaining residue of a family they could trust. Mookie betrayed that trust by running to the Iranians for support, and demonstrated his fecklessness and inability to lead by allowing his putative followers to indulge in excess.

The problem could not be solved by American or Coalition intervention, because the constant drumbeat from the international Press that ennobled the Sunni made poor Shi'ia suspicious that they were to be treated much the same under the new regime as the old. Now that Nouri al-Maliki has discovered that it is much more fun to lead a functional nation than a trivially violent sect, and the Iraqi security forces have begun to approach some semblance of professionalism, it becomes possible for them to squash the extremists and explain to the poor Shi'ia that they will get something resembling fair treatment. At that point, Muqtada al-Sadr becomes irrelevant. He may in future be a minor political figure, but everyone will be aware that he is too stupid to do much on his own and will be constantly looking for his string-pullers.

Poor Iraqi Shi'ia are not precisely patriotic, but they are Arab chauvinists, an attitude reinforced by the contempt held for them by the Iranian mullahs. If al-Maliki can exploit that chauvinism and convert it to patriotic attachment to a nation called "Iraq", it will be a major step toward America's real goals in Iraq -- which are, and always were, to create a functional polity there. The early indications are good.

Meanwhile, major props to those American and Coalition planners and leaders who were able to discern that the correct thing to do about Muqtada was nothing, despite irritation. Refraining from placing a stone at a seemingly-desirable vertex can be the strongest move of all.


Posted by: Ric Locke at May 27, 2008 9:22 AM

It will come as a shock to Ali Sistani and the Iraqi Shi'a that they will disregard a cleric because he was trained in Iran, or because he is Iranian for than matter.

We worked with Mookie because it was mutually beneficial. If it stops being so one or the other side will break the truce and we'll whack him.

In the meantime, he's acquiring the training and credibility he'd require to be taken seriously in the Iraq of the future. Maliki is a temporary figurehead who bumbled in Sadr City because he's afraid Mookie will do well in the coming elections. Luckily, we were there to save him.

Posted by: oj at May 27, 2008 12:36 PM

Disregard? No. But considering that Sistani is suspicious of clerics trained in Iran -- which is why he's in Iraq in the first place -- it's fair to say that that there'd be some wariness there, at minimum. Arabs and Persians are rivals, at best, and that doesn't change because they have the same religion any more than the fact that all the participants in the Thirty Years War were Christians did. That's not even counting the fact that Iraqis think they ought to be top dogs in the Shi'ia sect -- after all, the Shrine of the Imam Ali, the home and center of Shi'ia belief, is right there in Baghdad.

What you describe is what Muqtada al-Sadr wishes for, and perhaps imagines in his more vainglorious moments. If he were a fraction the man his father, brothers, and grandfather were, that's how it would work out. But if that were the case he would have gotten his religious credentials from his father and his associates, and Iranian training would be a moot point. Unfortunately he's stupid and irresponsible; his father actually denied him status on those grounds. The Sadrists never really followed Muqtada; they followed the memory of his father, with him as an emblem or figurehead.

Maliki is an interesting character, I think. He shows all the signs of someone who's had an "Aha!" moment, at which he discovered that the Pluralist Leaders' Club has comfier chairs and better meals than the Association of Sectarian and Ideological Despots, not to mention a better mentoring program. "Stumbling" is about right, but he doesn't appear to have fallen over just yet, and I for one will be watching his future career with interest.


Posted by: Ric Locke at May 27, 2008 3:21 PM

The shrine is, the important seminaries aren't. Which is why Sistani, an Iranian, trained in Iran, not Iraq.

Yes, the Persian/Arab rivalry is why it's absurd to fret about Iranian influence in the region.

Posted by: oj at May 27, 2008 4:14 PM

It's not "absurd" to fret about Iranian influence.

Muqtada saw that he didn't have enough resources to set up the force he wanted, so he went to the Iranians for help. They were happy to give it, because they wanted to increase their influence in Iraq. Because Muqtada is an al-Sadr, his word was enough to get his followers to allow the Iranians to send operatives; otherwise they would have been suspicious to the point of rejection. Muqtada knew that that was a problem. He's ambitious, yes, and expected (probably still expects) to have the sort of influence you see for him in the postwar regime; so like any fool, he was sure he could ride that tiger. When it started getting out of control, when the Iranians showed themselves as wreckers instead of helpers, Muqtada tried to reassert his control -- but, like the idiot he is, went to Iran to demand control over the forces under Iranian command.

He isn't studying anything. He gets to rattle around Qom, but when he wants to come home there's an odd shortage of transportation. Meanwhile, Quds Force continues to operate under the pledges he made on their behalf.

Maliki started out doing this because he wanted to appear evenhanded -- he'd sponsored raids and the like in Anbar and against the Sunni, and was starting to look to the rest of the Iraqis like he does to you: a simple sectarian. When the Basra operation worked, he looked up, said "Oh, shit!", and ordered the same against Sadr City. It's working better than you think, with the Iranians being pushed into smaller corners and the forces (all Iraqi, on the ground) doing the work making real efforts to be professional about it. They don't talk bad about Muqtada, or make accusations; they talk about "criminals" et. cetera, and that gives the Sadrists an out. Meanwhile the capture of weapons caches and arrest of the more violent of the militias reassures the Sunni that something is being done. It's actually rather clever, I think.

Like I said, Maliki has realized that if he really does become relatively evenhanded (nobody expects him to do so fully, and they'd be suspicious if he claimed to, but appearances are important) he can be one of the Good Guys to the world in general.

When Muqtada al-Sadr returns from Iran, if the Iranians let him (not guaranteed), he will be the leader of a plainly sectarian, Shi'ia only, Iranian-influenced Party -- and therefore be treated with suspicion by all the other parties in Iraq. He'll have political influence, but will never be a kingmaker. Just another politician. Iraq can live with that, and so can we.


Posted by: Ric Locke at May 27, 2008 6:01 PM

He'll be the most powerful figure in Baghdad which will be a separate polity eventually--Kurdistan, the South and various Sunni provinces having spun off--because of sectarian rifts. It seems unlikely he'll be a more widely influential religious figure. But Mayor of Baghdad may be enough to sate his ambitions.

Posted by: oj at May 27, 2008 7:14 PM

Mayor of Baghdad? Ye gods. Mookie as the Gavin Newsom of Iraq. Or the Evan Meacham (take your pick). Surely he blusters for more than that. Why else kill al-Khoie as soon as possible?

Posted by: ratbert at May 27, 2008 10:44 PM

He may bluster for more, but that's where his base is and probably his ceiling.

Posted by: oj at May 28, 2008 9:05 AM