UNDERSTANDING MUQTADA AL-SADR
& THE SHI'ITE INSURGENCY IN IRAQ
By Nimrod Raphaeli
Muqtada al-Sadr, a young cleric from a prominent family, almost immediately launched a fierce campaign of resistance, first against competing clerics and then against the Coalition forces. "Continue the resistance," Muqtada told his supporters in a May 21, 2004, sermon. "Do not use my death or arrest as an excuse not to finish what you have started."  Muqtada's statement underlines the lasting threat he now poses to Iraq's internal stability and to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government. A large body of young, poor Shi‘ites have found voice in Muqtada's violent populist movement. In Muqtada, they have found a leader who trumpets their rage.
Understanding Muqtada's roots, ideology, and his backers is key to understanding Muqtada's goals for Iraq as he continues to command his forces into political and military confrontation.
Under Saddam Hussein's rule, no religious leader could operate free from the dictator. Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr's relations with the Iraqi president were complex. He incorporated the slogan, "No, No, to America; No, No, to Israel," into his Friday sermons. He used to predict publicly that either the United States or Israel would assassinate him. With such slogans and statements, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr may have sought to ingratiate himself with Saddam Hussein, who shared an obsession with both countries.
Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr's soaring reputation and influence made him suspect to the Iraqi president. Saddam Hussein's long-harbored distrust for Iraq's Shi‘ite community only intensified after their 1991 uprising. President George H.W. Bush had called for the Iraqi people to rise up and throw off the rule of Saddam Hussein. They did rise up, and, in March, 1991, Shi'ite and Kurdish dissidents seized control of 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces. But, when the U.S. government refused to intervene on their behalf, Saddam's forces retaliated harshly, filling mass graves with tens of thousands of Iraqi rebels and their families. 
Saddam Hussein's destruction of real or perceived enemies among Iraq's Shi‘ite community neither began nor ended with the 1991 rebellion. In 1980, the regime executed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, at the time, the family's patriarch. In 1999, assassins gunned down not only Muqtada's father but also Mu'mil and Mustapha, two of his three brothers. The government denied responsibility for the ayatollah's assassination. The regime tried and convicted three alleged killers, who were quickly executed. However, there is evidence that one of the suspects had been in prison at the time of the murder. As Max Van Der Stoel, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Iraq, noted in his report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights:
After the murder of his family, Muqtada's surviving older brother became a recluse, burying himself in religious study. It was Muqtada, still only in his twenties, who assumed responsibility for both his widowed mother and the wives and children of his two slain brothers.
Upon the death of his father, Muqtada opened an office in Najaf to receive condolences, but the mukhabarat (secret police) quickly closed it. Saddam's security shadowed Muqtada everywhere; Saddam's government said it was for Muqtada's own protection while murders of his father's followers continued across Iraq. While there is no indication that Saddam ever threatened Muqtada's life, the stress of the time may have psychologically scarred the young cleric.
Muqtada is a charismatic leader and gifted orator. He delivers fiery Friday sermons, usually in person, but sometimes by surrogate, in the famous mosque in Kufa, where, not by coincidence, tradition has it that ‘Ali bin Abi Taleb, the first imam of Shi‘ite Islam and the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, addressed his followers. Muqtada uses symbolism to his advantage. He adopted his father's anti-U.S., anti-Israel slogan, not only to stake his claim as inheritor of his father's political and religious legitimacy, but also to galvanize supporters to fight the military occupation of Iraq.
Muqtada may not have inherited his father's religious legitimacy, but the large number of Shi‘ites who follow him do so, not because of his status as a marja' (religious authority), but because, for them, he is the symbol and the personification of Sadr's legitimacy. Shi‘ite Islam is hierarchical. At the top of the Shi‘ite pyramid is the marja'. The marja' is usually a senior cleric, such as an ayatollah who, after years of study, may issue fatwas (religious edicts) on a wide range of political, social, and legal matters -- fatwas to which his followers adhere. The seat of the marja' is referred to as marja'iya.
Shi'ite Islam is unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where the pope is the undisputed leader. A Shi‘ite Muslim individually chooses a living marja' to emulate. So, at any time, there might be a handful of prominent ayatollahs or grand ayatollahs who fit the bill.
Since Muqtada has not reached the rank of Ayatollah, let alone Grand Ayatollah, he cannot be a marja', but this has not hurt his ability to mobilize the young and disaffected. A personality cult has developed with Muqtada pictures adorning shops, stores, mosques, and public buses.
Muqtada's power is anchored in Sadr City, an almost two million-person slum on the outskirts of Baghdad. Once labeled "Saddam City," the residents renamed their area Sadr City, not after Muqtada al-Sadr, but, rather, after his father. Within the grid of streets, markets, and apartment blocks, Shi‘ites loyal to Muqtada have developed their own municipal, educational, medical, and social services. Judges appointed by followers of Muqtada adjudicate conflicts between city residents. "Security committees" enforce verdicts.
While the Shari‘a (Islamic law) courts in Sadr City are ostensibly voluntary, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. As part of the Islamization of life in Sadr City, Muqtada al-Sadr has issued orders forbidding the sale of videos or liquor. Individuals who violate the order receive public lashings. Some observers compare Muqtada's young judges to the students of the religious schools in Pakistan -- students who would later become the nucleus of the Taliban. 
From among Sadr City's young and disaffected, Muqtada was able to channel young recruits into the Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Army of the Mahdi (the Mahdi is a messianic figure in Islam). As early as July, 2003, when most Iraqis were still celebrating the fall of the Saddam regime, Muqtada al-Sadr was delivering sermons calling on his followers to join his new army. Initially, the Jaysh al-Mahdi modeled itself on Saudi Arabia's religious police to enforce Islamic law in Sadr City and elsewhere, but the Jaysh al-Mahdi also strengthened Muqtada in his increasingly fierce confrontations with the Hawza.
Muqtada himself has presented inconsistent visions of the army's purpose. When seeking to avoid confrontation, he says his army is an "unarmed civilian force for the reconstruction of Iraq."  But he has also said that his "army is capable of becoming a striking force at any moment . . . a time bomb that will go off" and has called the army "the striking arm of Hamas" in Iraq, with "suicide units, keeping all options open." 
The death of the 40-year-old Khoei reverberated around the world, for he was the son of Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim Musawi al-Khoei, the Iranian-born architect of a prominent school of thought in the principles of jurisprudence and Islamic law. Abulqasim Musawi al-Khoei had also been the teacher of Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, perhaps the most prominent living Shi‘ite religious scholar today. Abdul Majid was prominent in his own right, however. Following the failed Shi‘ite rebellion against Saddam in 1991 and the subsequent liquidation of many clerics, Abdul-Majid al-Khoei fled to London to head the Al-Khoei Foundation, a charitable organization active, not only in southern Iraq, but also across Africa and Asia. Many Shi‘ite and Iraq watchers considered Khoei both a religious moderate and a rising young star. Following Khoei's assassination, supporters of Muqtada demonstrated outside the home of Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, the most senior ayatollah in the Hawza, calling on him to go back to Iran. The siege ended only after Sistani called in 1,500 tribesmen from surrounding areas to disperse the crowd.
Khoei's assassination removed from the Iraqi political and religious scene one of Muqtada al-Sadr's chief competitors. Hawza officials put together the details of Khoei's murder and named Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters as responsible. They delivered their findings to a U.S. Marine Corps officer who passed a translated version up the chain of command, but the U.S. military took no action.  Had U.S. officials authorized the immediate detention of Muqtada al-Sadr for Khoei's murder, they, not only would have won the hearts and minds of the Shi‘ite establishment, but also would have spared themselves a festering problem, made more lethal by the extra year of organization.
Shortly afterward, another prominent Shi‘ite figure was assassinated, again apparently at the hands of Muqtada al-Sadr's followers. Assailants murdered Hayder ar-Rifa'i, the klaydar (keeper of the key) of the tomb of Imam ‘Ali. Like his ancestors before him, Rifa'i kept the key to a secret door to a museum, where, under the tomb of Imam ‘Ali, were displayed gifts of gold and silver and other objet d'arts -- a museum that was opened only for distinguished guests. A year after the murder, after Muqtada's followers seized control of the shrine of Imam ‘Ali, unknown individuals broke into the museum and stole much of its contents. 
These treasures — and many other Iraqi antiquities — may have disappeared forever. In June, 2004, alone, Kurdish customs officers confiscated more than 4,000 pieces of Iraqi antiquities destined for Iran. 
The murder of Khoei and Rifa'i and subsequent looting of the holy shrine have put Muqtada on a collision course with Sistani, who holds the mantle of greatest religious legitimacy, not only among Iraq's Shi‘ites, but among many Shi‘ites outside Iraq as well.
The two murders mark the beginning of the abuses by Muqtada. But there were others as well, many of which created friction between Muqtada's followers and ordinary residents of Najaf and elsewhere. For example, there were arbitrary arrests and sentencing by unofficial Shar`ia courts he established; forced veiling of women; acts of violence against liquor stores and merchants, many of whom were either killed or received public lashings; closure of cinemas; and confiscation of money and property under the guise of religion. His excesses have led people in Karbala to declare Muqtada's people "worse than Saddam."
There may also be economic overtones to Muqtada's challenge. The Hawza collects large sums of money in charitable contributions from pilgrims and wealthy donors. Sistani controls disbursement of these contributions. Muqtada, no doubt, would like a share of the revenue.
Many of Muqtada's moves may be attempts to seize sources of revenue. On October 15, 2003, Muqtada's supporters sought to take over the shrines in Karbala, an incident in which dozens were killed and many more injured. At the same time, Muqtada also attempted to seize the tomb of Imam ‘Ali, leading to bloody clashes between his supporters and the Badr militia of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shi‘ite group headed by supporters of Sistani.
The Hawza was not blind to the threat posed by the Jaysh al-Mahdi. In a July 26, 2003, declaration to the "honorable sons of Najaf," the Hawza condemned the Jaysh al-Mahdi, declaring:
However, Muqtada does enjoy some advantages. His name is magic, particularly among the young and downtrodden. While Muqtada hails from Iraq, Sistani is Iranian born and hence lacks the young cleric's purity in the nationalist context. The willingness of Muqtada to use violence to achieve his goals also is significant.
Muqtada distinguishes between the vocal Hawza (an-natiqa) and the silent Hawza (as-samita). The vocal Hawza represents clerics like himself, who seek an active political role and advocate an Islamic republic in Iraq. The silent Hawza has historically rejected the involvement of the Shi‘ite clerics in the political life of the country.
Muqtada sought unilaterally to translate his political philosophy into reality, although his attempt fell flat. On October 10, 2003, Muqtada appointed a shadow government, a direct challenge to the Interim Governing Council (IGC). Speaking in Kufa, he announced, "I have established a government comprising the Ministries of Justice, Finance, Information, Interior, and Foreign Affairs." Muqtada eventually backed down amid Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) threats, but his antagonism both toward the CPA and the IGC intensified. 
Does Muqtada seek to create in Iraq the type of Islamic Republic that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran? Muqtada has acknowledged that the situation in Iraq differs from that which prevailed in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The idea of guardianship of the jurisprudent (vilayat-i faqih) advanced by Khomeini has very little support in Iraq. Even Muqtada acknowledges that the political and social (and, perhaps, ethnic) nature of Iraq will not permit an exact replica of an Iranian-style Islamic Republic. 
Sistani himself does not advocate that any group wearing turbans (mu‘ammamin) should hold the reins of power in Iraq. Rather, he would like to see the religious authority in Najaf give guidance and advice to those in power. 
In reality, however, the distinction between vocal and silent Hawza may be more semantic than real. The paramount role played by Sistani in the months leading to UN Security Council Resolution 1546, his rejection of the Transitional Administrative Law, and his insistence on direct elections to legitimize the Iraqi government is hardly the reflection of a silent Hawza. Nevertheless, Sistani has consistently refused to issue a fatwa for a jihad against the occupation. Had he done so, the implications for the Coalition forces might have been catastrophic.
Whatever their political objectives, the traditional Hawza has had a calming effect upon the young firebrands. The elderly leaders in the Hawza, for example, condemned Muqtada following his threat to issue a fatwa calling on supporters to blow themselves up, should Coalition forces enter Najaf and Karbala in pursuit of his militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi. In a statement, the Hawza denied Muqtada's qualifications to issue a fatwa and also the permissibility of any suicide operations, "regardless of reasons," when it declared that the blood which will be shed without following a legitimate fatwa based on Islamic law will be borne to the Judgment Day by whoever authorized such operations. 
It is not surprising that, having been snubbed, Muqtada questioned the IGC's legitimacy. "The government," he thundered, "is the result of an illegitimate order by the IGC, which, in itself, is illegitimate because it was appointed by illegitimate occupation." He concluded, "We do not recognize the occupation directly or indirectly, since it exists contrary to the wishes of the Iraqis, and their political and religious leadership rejects it totally." 
Seizing upon the opportunities offered to him by the Arabic satellite television network Al-Jazeera, he lashed out at the IGC, labeling it "a U.S. toy" and "the most preferred agent of Americans." The appointed ministers fared no better. Muqtada condemned their appointment as based more on sectarian considerations than on ability. 
The IGC was not without response. Reproving him on a personal level, it said Muqtada's conduct was not consistent with the status of the family to which he belongs, and then went on to accuse him of being "ignorant, backward, and dictatorial." 
Muqtada took advantage of the unprecedented freedoms which occupation brought to Iraq. For the first time, Iraqis enjoyed freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. There was one restriction on press freedom, however: journalists could not incite against Coalition forces. The CPA used its authority twice — once to close the daily Al-Mustaqbil and again, on March 28, 2004, to suspend Muqtada's weekly, Al-Hawza an-Natiqa, for the same reason. Following the closure, many of Muqtada's supporters demonstrated. Muqtada declared that peaceful protests had become useless and urged his followers to "terrorize" their enemy. He said, "the memories of the revolution in the 1920s [against the British in Iraq] and the intifada ash-sha'baniyah [referring to the 1991 Shi‘ite uprising in the Islamic month of Sha'ban] are still fresh" in the memories of the Iraqi people.
The Coalition failed to extinguish the uprising quickly, and Muqtada gained greater support among some segments of the Shi‘ite population and increased his challenge to the authority of Sistani and other senior ayatollahs in Najaf and Karbala. At one time, he blocked the road leading to the homes of Sistani and his ally Ayatollah Is'haq al-Fayadh. For a short time, his control of the two holy Shi‘ite cities, Najaf and Karbala, was complete. Realizing that the Coalition forces would be reluctant to pursue him inside the holy shrines, for fear of causing physical damage to the holy sites, he placed forces inside the shrines. He then moved to consolidate control, establishing a Shari'a court that issued warrants for the arrest of many individuals, particularly his political opponents in the SCIRI.  On April 11, 2004, the CPA submitted a proposal for resolving the conflict with Muqtada, a proposal providing that he meet three conditions: (1) disband his militia, (2) respect state institutions, and (3) withdraw armed men from public places. Jawad al-Maliki, an intermediary from the Da'wa Party, delivered these demands. Muqtada offered his own conditions, including a demand that the Coalition forces withdraw from Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa. This demand brought mediation to a standstill.  In all, there were seventeen failed attempts to mediate with Muqtada, attempts involving several members of the Governing Council and Shi‘ite political parties. Muqtada's main argument was that all these initiatives were generated by the IGC, which, as a tool of occupation, was unacceptable to him.  However, Az-Zaman, probably the most widely read daily in Iraq, illuminated the core of the issue, when it said Muqtada would not reach any agreement so long as he was excluded from the country's political process. 
CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer repeatedly threatened "to capture or kill" Muqtada, but consistently failed to act.  His empty threats undermined the CPA's authority and made it look inept in the eyes of Iraqis, who had been conditioned during Saddam's regime to take seriously any pronouncement.
Having failed to capture or kill Muqtada, the CPA issued a decree prohibiting him from playing any political role for three years.  This was another empty assertion, because the CPA had no power to enforce such a decree after the June 28, 2004, transfer of sovereignty. Indeed, in contrast to the CPA's ban on Muqtada's political activity, the leaders of Iraq's interim government had long urged Muqtada to join in the political process.
After weeks of fruitless mediation, the U.S. military attacked Muqtada's strongholds in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa, killing hundreds of his supporters and confiscating arms and ammunition, much of it hidden in mosques. Muqtada's supporters simply were not up to the standards of a modern military force.
In despair, Muqtada called on the Hawza to denounce the U.S. incursion into the holy cities. His appeals, however, were not answered. The Hawza was only too pleased to see Muqtada defeated or, at least, expelled from the holy cities.  In the meantime, religious pilgrimage stopped, and the small shopkeepers who drive the economy have become Muqtada's strongest opponents.
On May 27, 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr and Coalition forces reached a cease-fire mandating the withdrawal of his militia from Najaf. At first, Muqtada appeared to comply. He called on members of the Jaysh al-Mahdi "who spared nothing in the presence of Allah and their society" to return to their provinces and "to engage in activities that will please Allah and his Messenger."  But it soon became evident that Muqtada's message was merely a smoke screen; his control of the holy shrine remained unabated.
The Iraqi government had had enough. In mid-August, Muqtada still controlled the Imam ‘Ali shrine, threatening to blow up pipelines and set oil fields afire. The government delivered an ultimatum: Muqtada and his forces were to either disarm, evacuate the holy shrines and publicly declare acceptance of the terms, or they would face military action.  As an olive branch, the interim government invited Muqtada to participate in the political process. In his typical fashion, Muqtada first rejected the ultimatum, then promised to accept it and to deliver to officials of the Hawza the keys to the shrine.  When he reneged on all promises, the Iraqi police, the Iraqi National Guard, and the multinational forces launched an attack. Muqtada's forces took a devastating hit, but the military action failed to eject them from the shrine or force Muqtada to turn over the keys, until Sistani brokered a ceasefire, which took effect August 27.
According to Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based pan-Arab newspaper, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force established three military training camps in Qasr-i Shirin, ‘Ilam, and Hamid, on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border to train Jaysh al-Mahdi elements. A former Quds Force official cited in Asharq al-Awsat claims the Iranians have trained between 800 and 1,200 Iraqi supporters of Muqtada in espionage and reconnoitering, in addition to standard military arts. There are also reports that the Iranian embassy in Baghdad has distributed 400 international cell phones to supporters of Muqtada, as well as to clerics in Sadr City and Najaf. In addition to communications and logistical support, Iran provides $80 million a month in direct aid to Muqtada's movement. 
The Iranian support is controversial. According to one critic, "Behind al-Sadr's phenomenon and money are the most extremist and anti-democratic governing bodies in Iran, which seek to settle Iran's account with the international community with the blood of the Iraqis." 
Muqtada has denied any political coordination between himself and Iran and has accused those making the allegations of wanting to label his movement as a terrorist organization similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon in order to provide an excuse to target his supporters. In fact, Muqtada has played an interesting game. While accepting Iranian money and perhaps even volunteers for his militia, he has sought to divorce himself from his Iranian mentor Ayatollah Kadhem Hussein al-Ha'iri, who rebuked Muqtada for not coordinating his activities with Ha'iri's office in Najaf.  In the broader scale of things, however, the Iranian leadership is concerned about the rise of Najaf to its pre-Saddam glory as the leading center of Shi‘ite seminaries and scholarship a position that would diminish the role of the Shi‘ite center in Qum, whose leaders provide the religious underpinnings for the Iranian regime. By empowering Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian leadership can keep Iraqi politicians and religious figures occupied with sorting out their own house, and the threat to the Islamic Republic's religious legitimacy is delayed.
Muqtada has missed no opportunity to be contrary and provocative. He seems to relish the role of the outlaw, which, with all its negative connotations, has brought him fame and power. At present, Muqtada alone can mobilize the disenfranchised and marginalized Shi‘ite masses that suffered under Saddam and whose situation has not improved in scale to their expectations. The ability to mobilize supporters, including those residing in Sadr City, will constitute a formidable political force in any future free election, especially if the United States and the United Nations continue their plans to impose a Weimar Republic-style proportional representation system in Iraq. The murder charges against him are not insurmountable. The interim government may find it in the national interest to let the matter slide, especially if Muqtada agrees to pay ad-diya, blood money. 
The case of Muqtada is emblematic of the inability of the Coalition forces to understand the texture of the Iraqi political culture in timely fashion or to construct and successfully execute plans to deal with those who would subvert the forces' goals. Believing in the authority of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Coalition forces underestimated the potential harm a young and rebellious cleric with a distinguished name could inflict upon them. Further, the Coalition's failure to carry out threats "to capture or kill" Muqtada when the dangers he posed began to become clear has left the transitional government with a growing crisis that it cannot easily resolve.
While Muqtada's influence is growing among many poor and marginalized Shi‘ites, it is doubtful that he can continue his rebellion indefinitely. Muqtada's isolation among the religious establishment, his inconsistency and inexperience, the resentment he engenders among the people of Najaf because of the hardships his rebellion has brought, as well as the balance of military force in favor of the interim government all disadvantage him. Both the interim government and multinational forces realize that they cannot allow Muqtada to operate in defiance of the order they seek to impose.
It is imperative that Muqtada be neutralized either through military force or through cooptation into the political process. Failing to do so will only cause chaos.
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
The Middle East & the Arabs
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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War & Peace in the Real World
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Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at the Middle East Media Research Institute. He spent almost thirty years at the World Bank.
The foregoing article by Nimrod Raphaeli was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Fall, 2004, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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