Muqtada Al-Sadr is an interesting person, to say the least. He's been making the headlines that concern Iraq
for some time now. But who is he? Newspapers have had lots of difficulty characterizing him, describing him as a "radical", "rebel", "firebrand," but do any of them actually describe him? Would he agree with any of those statements? How powerful is he, and how popular is he? How did he get where he is today?
Background and family history
Muqtada Al-Sadr's life story is hard to find in mainstream press, so I will ignore his birthplace and childhood origins (until I find it documented). What everyone knows is this: He is the son of a prominent Ayatollah, Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (1943-1999), who was a very widely respected leader of the Shias in Iraq. The Shias composed a substantial majority, despite the fact that they lived under a dicatorship of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party, both of which claimed to be Sunni. Muqtada's father-in-law and distant cousin, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, had been a prominent theorist of Islamic Revolution for the al-Da`wa Party. Saddam Hussein had him hanged in 1980.
Muqtada's father called publicly for government reforms and the rights of Shias within Iraq. Saddam Hussein backed him, partly because he was Arab and wanted to purge the Iraqi Shia leadership of non-Arabs (which was a result of tension following the Iran-Iraq war; he thought Arab leadership would make the group less pro-Iranian, as Iran was Persian). After the first Gulf War, the government attempted to promote Mohammad al-Sadr to a puppet position within the government, but he didn't go along. He was extremely popular among the Shia people in Iraq, which probably worried the Ba'ath party, especially when Al-Sadr called for reforms. Iraq's secret police had tremendous difficulty in infiltrating his followers, as he drew a lot of his support among the lower classes, like the slums in Baghdad. A large Shia dissident movement became established in the southern cities and even in the slums of Baghdad, under Saddam Hussein's nose. The Ba'ath Party found it difficult to penetrate and control the teeming ghetto of East Baghdad, allowing the Sadrist organization to flourish there. In 1999, he was gunned down in Najaf, along with two of his sons. It was widely believed that the Iraqi secret services was responsible. Saddam Hussein allegedly took credit for it during his interrogation in late 2003, saying he wanted to get him "off his chest" (a pun in Arabic, since 'Sadr' also means "chest").
Muqtada, only 30, which is young for someone who wishes to assert himself in Shia leadership, continued in his father's footsteps to lead the Hawza, a religious college that is the main Iraqi Shia center for learning, in Najaf. He assumed control over his father's clerical offices, although he lacks the religious education and degrees required by Shia doctrine. He does not qualify as a senior religious scholar nor does he have the authority to issue fatwas (Islamic rulings), but he is often given honorific titles of cleric (though he hasn't achieved the rank). He is also referred to as a Sayyid, a title used to denote that the person has lineage tracing back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), which is why he wears a black turban. Some call him "Sheikh," the closest english equivalent would be "Sir." His religious authority is based upon his lineage and the strong popularity of his father. Although years have gone by, his father still holds a strong amount of respect among the community. After the fall of the Iraqi government in 2003, the citizens renamed Saddam City to Sadr City and repainted many of the public portraits of Saddam Hussein to Muhammad Al-Sadr instead.
When Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated in 1999, some of his followers in Najaf remained loyal to him and became known as "Sadriyun." They revered him, and felt as Iraqi Shias that it was forbidden to follow the rulings of anyone but al-Sadr. This was unorthodox, since Shia doctrine forbids following a dead jurisprudent, and it is typical to draw from multiple sources. Over time they came to give some loyalty as well to al-Sadr's son Muqtada, who was in his 20's and therefore was just a teenager when his father was killed. He organized his people especially among the very poor Shiites in Najaf, which had about 560,000 people.
Muqtada's father and two of his brothers and his father-in-law were all murdered at the hands of Saddam Hussein's government. It taught him some hard lessons, namely he became very cautious over who he trusted. He went underground and emerged as the new sectarian leader.
It's extremely difficult to dig up any information of Muqtada Al-Sadr before the invasion, I can't find any information mentioning him pre-invasion, partly because he went underground due to the threat of Saddam Hussein. He is said to be pro-Iranian, anti-American, and to have deeply opposed the US invasion. I suppose one could call him a Nationalist to some extent. His position is similar to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Al-Sadr, like his father, accepts the theory of the vilayat-i faqih, the "guardianship of the jurisprudent," put forth by Ayatollah Khomeini in that the religiously qualified should rule. Khomeini was his father's teacher. However, he has complained about Iranian influence on Shiism in Iraq and says that Iraq's chief religious leadership must be Iraqi-born and bred.
The Supreme Jurisprudent in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insists that his authority extends beyond Iran to all Shiite religious communities. But this claim is rejected by Muqtada, who says Khamenei's authority pertains only to Iran, and that Iraq must have its own supreme jurisprudent (presumably ultimately Muqtada himself, though that would have to wait 20 years at least).
When the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Sadrists were free to do as they pleased in the open. Muqtada came out of hiding and his followers established soup kitchens and offered social services, provided security through neighborhood militias and organized huge Friday prayer services that were attended by thousands. They demanded through repeated small demonstrations that the Americans leave immediately.
Al-Sadr's relationship with other clerics is tense. He has been said to have competed for control of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. The Coalition (mainly American)-led provisional Iraqi governments have accused him of taking part in the murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei by a mob and issued a warrant for his arrest, though any evidence is murky. Al-Sadr argued with other clerics over a variety of issues, namely cooperation with the American forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority, which he vocally opposed and viewed as illegitimate. There was reportedly tension between him and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is Iranian, living in Iraq, and outranks him. Sistani rejects the idea of vilayat-i faqih, opting for a government based on popular representative democracy instead of requiring religious qualifications for office. Sistani is also warmer to the idea of having foreign troops in Iraq, consenting to having troops temporarily to keep the peace (though he wishes for UN intervention instead of the coalition), while Al-Sadr wants them out as of right now, and if there must be troops, let them be under the UN control instead of the US.
Al-Sadr also created an armed militia. On July 18, 2003, he announced the formation of the "Army of the Mahdi." For those who are unfamiliar with the Mahdi, it is prophesized in Islam by both Sunnis and Shias that a leader known as the Mahdi (or Imam Mahdi as the Shias refer to him) will eventually appear and rebuild the Islamic state, setting the stage for the return of Jesus, peace be upon him. (Muslims view him as a prophet who will return to Earth). The majority of the militia is young, and generally angry or dissatisfied with the situation in Iraq. I think they were meant to be a militia to counter rival SCIRI's armed militia, "Badr's Brigade." The name suggests that he sees the coming of the Mahdi, the promised one, as imminent. They performed security and administrative functions.
In September 2003, he declared a shadow government in opposition to the Interim Governing Council officals chosen by the US. This initiative, although popular among his followers, apparently didn't last, as it was opposed by both the CPA and Sistani's followers. There were two skirmishes between his followers and the occupying forces in the Sadr City ghetto. Muqtada was threatened with arrest, and he fell silent for a few months.
In October 2003, Spanish troops in Najaf went to detain Al-Sadr and disarm his militia (many were guarding his house) and hundreds of supporters flocked about his house, pushing the troops back and threatening violence if Al-Sadr was detained. The Spanish troops had to pull out of the area.
Muqtada Al-Sadr's influence should not be underestimated. He easily has over a million followers (some say it’s up to 4 million) and they practically revere him. As I mentioned before, it’s not him personally that makes him so important with his followers, it’s the fact that he is the son of a famous Shi’a cleric who was assassinated in 1999, although his stance on the issues also adds to his popularity, even among some Sunnis in Iraq. There's also a strong Nationalist element in his movement. Three of the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf aren't Iraqi, and his followers seem to be rebelling against them, considering them foreigners. While the majority of the middle and upper class Iraqis want a secular government, Al-Sadr seems to resonate with the impoverished, currently jobless men in the south and in some of Baghdad’s slums. His strong anti-occupation stance earns him a lot of support among the disenchanted Iraqis, as well as the disenfranchised. Further missteps by the American-led coalition, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the siege of Najaf (which made Shiites worldwide go livid), have only increased his popularity. His angrier tone against American soldiers is in strong contrast to more moderate voices like Sistani and other Shia leaders.
Sadr has generally gotten under the US' skin over the last 2 years. He dismissed the interim constitution as “an illegitimate document” that did not represent the aspirations of “our people” and certainly “did not derive from its will.” He compared L. Paul Bremer to Saddam Hussein. While other dissident clerics and their militias have gained some legitimacy, reaching compromises with the coalition forces and even jointly patrolling, Al-Sadr's army has not. Other heads of the various movements have generally calmed down and accepted offers to run in the upcoming parlimentary elections, but Al-Sadr seemed initially to distance himself from the system. At the same time, L. Paul Bremer issued an edict barring any militia leaders such as himself from the upcoming Iraqi parliament for at least 3 years. This only made him spurn the Coalition further, with his chances for joining the political process cut off.
He condemned the US for its use of violence near the Imam Ali shrine, for the prison torture scandal, and for the assasination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and subsequent bombing of Fallujah. When Sheikh Yassin was assainated in Israel, Sadr's newspaper Al Hawza gave it front page news. Al Sadr himself publicly declared solidarity with Hamas in its struggle against oppressors. "The fate of Iraq and Palestine is the same," he declared, making many in power nervous both in Iraq and the US. The Americans became alarmed that the radical Shiite might align himself with radical Palestinians.
In March 2004, Coalition authorities in Iraq shut down Al-Sadr's newspaper, Al Hawza, claiming it was inciting violence. Although the paper never directly encouraged attacking coalition forces, the authorities claimed it had an anti-coalition tone and contained false reporting on American soldiers. This act was viewed by many as a mistake and an unnecessary provocation; many railed against the government for promising freedoms and then restricting their freedom of press. Al-Sadr responded to this by mobilizing many Shi'a followers to demonstrate, protesting the paper's closure. The demonstrations escalated throughout the week, growing in number and militancy. Upping the ante, Bremer sent occupation troops to al-Sadr’s home and arrested his aide. That action predictably sparked further protests.
On April 2 Spanish troops from the occupation forces fired on demonstrators in Najaf demanding Yaqubi’s release, killing at least 20, according to Al-Jazeera. The same day al-Sadr issued a statement calling on his supporters to stop staging demonstrations “because your enemy prefers terrorism.”
This prospect of Sadr's aligning himself with Hamas and Hizbullah, and their subesquent favorable gestures back, may have frightened the coalition to the idea of a new international anti-Israel, anti-American league. This is possibly what drove the Americans to issue arrest warrants for 28 of al-Sadr’s close aides on April 3, 2004, and to arrest 13 of them. Al-Sadr’s militia had not been violent toward Americans, and the Bush administration’s decision to go after him appears to have been a matter of policy. Al-Sadr, having lived under the Ba'ath party and remembering his father's assassination, knew that his own arrest was coming, and he launched a preemptive rebellion. At his command, the Shiite south was shaken by an uprising led by the Mahdi army.
The next day, on April 4, 2004, fighting broke out in Najaf, Kut, Amara, Nasiriyah, Sadr City (East Baghdad), Karbala, Kufa, and Basra against Coalition troops. Sadr's al-Mahdi Army took over several points, even taking over police stations and throwing out the nascent Iraqi force. It attacked coalition soldiers, killing dozens and taking many casualties of its own in the process. They took control over several cities, even forcing the Ukranian battalion to flee. By this point the Al-Mahdi army had described itself as the Iraqi equivalent of the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas in fighting oppression and occupation. Sadr moved from his home base in Kufa to the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. The Shrine is venerated by both Sunnis and Shiites; its sanctity made it difficult for the U.S. Army to simply invade and grab Muqtada. Under severe pressure from its Shiite allies on the Interim Governing Council, the US abandoned its plans for an immediate push on downtown Najaf and agreed to allow Shiite forces to attempt to negotiate with Sadr and his militia.
L. Paul Bremer, then the US administrator in Iraq, declared on April 5, 2004 that Sadr was an outlaw and that uprisings by the cleric and his followers would not be tolerated. It then emerged that months earlier an Iraqi judge had secretly issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr on charges relating to the murder of Abdul Madjid al-Khoei. Despite the warrant being issued before, it became public. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said April 12, 2004 that “the mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada Sadr.”
Well that did it. Muqtada spent his life fighting Saddam Hussein, and once the former dictator said something like that, it meant they were as good as dead. Muqtada sees the Americans through the experiences in his life of Saddam's ruthlesness, and views the US as following Saddam-like behavior.
Despite the tough talk and show of force, the US really became stymied by Sadr's forces. The following month of fighting became bloody for US forces, who came under attack in several Shia cities by the Mahdi army. The United States continued to wage a war of attrition against the army. However, American troops were unable to decisively crush the Sadrists, who could simply go home and store their weapons if they felt in too much danger and then come back out when the pressure lessened. The combination of standoff in Najaf and fierce continued fighting in Karbala, East Baghdad, Nasiriyah and some other cities plunged the south of the Iraq into turmoil previously seen only in the Sunni Arab heartland. Iraq started to look like all of its cities were in the red on the map, the Sunni triangle calming down only to be replaced by mass uprisings in formerly peaceful Shia areas.
In Fallujah, George W. Bush ordered the American military to retreat from the Sunni Arab city and to rehabilitate the Baathist forces once associated with Saddam Hussein to help restore order. This caused more discontent among the Shiites. Most of the prominent Shiite clerics in the country have made it clear that, while opposing a U.S. assault on Najaf, they don’t back the Sadr militia takeovers of Iraqi public buildings.
The US military likes to imply that Sadr is a minor figure with a small following. The Washington Post did a poll of Iraqis in late March 2004 and discovered that a large portion of Iraqis from central and southern Iraq backed Muqtada. 67% of the city of Basra and 45% of Baghdad said they stood behind him. Baghdad is only about 40% Shiite, implying that he's overwhelmingly popular among Shiites and now some Sunnis are backing him as well. The poll was taken before the Sadrist uprising of early April and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and it is likely that popular support for him has increased since. It's believed in hingsight that the US didn't face any serious threat by Al-Sadr or his movement that required attacking him in such a fashion, which triggered the insurgency and inflamed the Shiite majority. By going after Muqtada personally, they just made him a hero and a symbol of Iraqi opposition to continued US occupation.
The Abu Ghraib torture scandal of Iraqi prisoners practically demolished the moral standing of the United States in Iraq and played into al-Sadr’s hands. In his May 7 sermon at Kufa, he asked, “What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you [Americans] when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?” He demanded that the U.S. guards accused of abuse be tried by Iraqi courts. And he dismissed President Bush’s expressions of regret: “Your statements are not enough. They [the guards] must be punished in kind.” The American vow to make al-Sadr himself a prisoner looked much more sinister in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the leading religious authority in Iraq, kept mostly silent about Sadr. It's rumored that Sistani disagrees with Sadr's actions and dislikes him, but won't rebuke him publicly. He kept silent when the US moved in on Sadr, perhaps concerned that the Sadirist movement would destabilize the country as well as be slightly religiously unorthodox. He did, however, strongly denounce Al-Sadr when Muqtada threatened to unleash suicide bombers against the Americans if they invaded Najaf (don't know how serious he was on the threat). Sistani then called on Shiites to demonstrate throughout the country against the desecration of the holy city of Najaf caused by open warfare between the United States and the Mahdi army (implicitly condemning both and calling for U.S. withdrawal).
Realizing they couldn't just kill Al-Sadr, the US switched to mediation between Paul Bremer, representing Bush, and Muqtada Al-Sadr. A whole slew of mediators showed up in Najaf to attempt it. President Muhammad Khatami of Iran sent a delegation, but withdrew after an embassy official was assainated. The al-Da`wa Party tried. Even the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, despite its abhorrence of Muqtada, took a turn. The Najaf police chief got involved. Tribal chieftains came and went. The new head of Iraqi internal security also gave it a go. It fell flat after more than a month of negotiations.
Why? Former Interim governing council member Abdul Karim al-Muhammadawi, who had suspended his membership to protest what he saw as heavy-handed U.S. tactics at Fallujah, blamed Bremer for insisting that the only acceptable outcome of any negotiation would be for al-Sadr to surrender himself to the Americans. The odds were nil that Muqtada would do that; his family history of relatives being executed saw to that. Al-Muhammadawi charged that the United States was not interested in actual negotiation and compromise, only in capitulation. Further embarrassing the US, Spain's army publicly announced their refusal of a secret US request to capture al-Sadr. The reason the US probably asked Spain to do so was that they wanted to avoid the reaction by the Sadirists if the US was the one to capture him.
In May 2004, 500 Iraqi nationalists met in Baghdad and expressed their support for Al-Sadr. Likewise, the people of Sunni Fallujah showed their support for al-Sadr by sending nine trucks full of food and medicine to Kufa, al-Sadr’s urban base. They were returning a favor. The Sadrists had helped send a convoy of supplies to Fallujah when it was being besieged in early April. Sunni nationalists also support him; they admire him as an anti-imperialist.
Not everyone supports Al-Sadr, though; The Kurdish minority has their own wishes and is opposed to Al-Sadr's aims. The US is trying to capitalize on this by supporting Shiite leaders who oppose Al-Sadr, as well as Kurdish leaders.
Many say that IF the US gets any sort of victory over Al-Sadr, it will surely be a pyrrhic one. If the US managed to kill Muqtada, it would hardly dent his movement now. In pursuing al-Sadr and the Mahdi army, the U.S. military has fought in close proximity to the most sacred shrines of Shiite Islam, desecrating its holy cemetery and destroying at least one historic mosque completely, while putting bullet holes in the Imam Ali shrine. Before March 2004, the Shiite areas in the south had been relatively quiet, but the Fallujah siege, the bombing of Najaf, and the prison abuse scandal have made the US extremely unpopular. This could lead to a long-term guerilla war against Shiite rebels. Calling the Shiites "outraged" doesn't begin to describe it. It's as if the Vatican were being bombed, and the city under siege. International press is showing images of buildings in the city blowing apart. People are accusing the US of acting like Yazid. The real shame of it is that I know of so very few Americans who even know who Yazid was, making me think we shouldn't be there in the first place. Although the American public is largely unaware of how tense the situation over there is, bombing a sacred city, damaging its sacred shrines and bombing its sacred cemetary, everyone in the Muslim world knows exactly what is going on. I see this leading to a terrible rift at the moment. (Americans are wondering why more Muslims than before hate the US.)
There have been some updates in the last 3 weeks, let me collate it all together. Check this node again for an update. (Sorry, but I've been away for the last 2 weeks from reading the news regularly, I need to catch up.) Breaking News everyone, as of August 20, 2004, the Mahdi Army withdrew from the Imam Ali shrine, giving the keys to Sistani's people. This is very good news, it means that there's not going to be an armed assault on it, which would have triggered worldwide protests. Still, the Mahdi Army hasn't laid down its arms.
According to Iraq expert Juan Cole:
Muqtada has given many sermons and interviews in the past 16 months outlining his goals exactly.
1) He wants the US troops out of the country immediately, which is to say, an end to Occuption. If there have to be foreign troops in Iraq, he wants them under a United Nations command.
2) He refuses to cooperate (he would say "collaborate") with the caretaker government of Iyad Allawi, which he sees as a puppet regime installed by the United States. He insists that no legitimate Iraqi governmental process can begin until the US is out.
3) He wants the reestablishment of a strong central Iraqi government with a strong military, but which has cut all ties with the Baathist past.
4) He wants Iraq to stay together rather than being partitioned, and has denounced Kurdish demands for loose federalism.
5) He wants Iraqi Shiism to emerge from Iran's shadow and to establish its independence from Iran. His movement is rooted in the Shiite ghettos of Iraq and is very indigenous. He is not Iran's catspaw in Iraq, quite the opposite. He is strong Iraqi nationalist.
6) He sometimes talks about "democracy" in post-American Iraq, but probably just means populism. Like Peron and Franco, his populism implies his ability to maintain and direct his own militia, who provide "order" (read puritanical morality imposed by force) to Shiite neighborhoods.
7) In the long term, he would like to see a system in Iraq similar to the regime in Iran. He wants Islamic law to be the law of the land, and he wants clerics to rule. His father studied with Ayatollah Khomeini and accepted the notion of clerical rule. So does Muqtada. That is, there may be a place for elections (as in Iran), but true power would rest in the hands of the clerics. He has admitted all this in Arabic press interviews.