Maliki and Sadr

Baghdad Correspondent

American troops entering Baghdad on April 9, 2003 noted the strange quiet that enveloped large parts of the city. While Baathist gunmen continued to launch spoiling raids north of the the city, large segments of the population remained calm. This was particularly true in the largest Shia neighborhoods to the east, where Baghdad’s population seemed almost eerily nonchalant about the American victory. Two days later, and at the express orders of their enterprising commanding officer, two Arabic-speaking American lieutenants were escorted by a small fireteam of U.S. soldiers into the heart of the newly renamed Sadr City. Their assignment was to listen to Friday prayers — and give an assessment of the mood of the city’s Shia population.

What they heard should have warned American leaders that they faced an organized movement that was dedicated to redressing the wrongs of the Saddam era. A disciplined militia, clothed in black, had been deployed along the major thoroughfares of Sadr City to keep order, the lieutenants reported. The lightly armed militia was under the control of a fiery, young and charismatic leader name Moqtada al-Sadr. The lieutenants reported that al-Sadr was responsible for shaping the message of the the open-air sermons they heard that day: that all Iraqis must live by Islamic law, that all Iraqis must oppose foreign domination, that Iraqi clerics living in Iranian exile were not qualified to lead the people, that clerics not born in Iraq were not fit to speak on Iraq’s future, and that “Allah and not the United States has freed us.”

From that moment, the United States should have been put on notice that they faced a strong, home-grown Iraqi Shia opposition that was dedicated to speaking for Iraqis and forming the new Iraqi government. With just a little research, American commanders might have concluded that this new movement — “the Sadrist current” as it is now called — had rejected the leadership of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani (born in Iran) and Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (then living in Tehran), and had organized a formidable network of mosques, schools and community centers, the centerpieces of a rooted and credible political party. But instead of focusing on Sadr, the Americans paid homage to Ayatollah Sistani, in the whimsical hope that the quietist cleric would be able to speak authoritatively for the Shia community. This was a fatal mistake.

The emergence of Moqtada al-Sadr could have been predicted. His uncle, Mohamed al-Sadr, played a formative role in the founding of al-Dawa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Dawa Party) in late 1957. In 1980, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister were arrested and executed, leaving Moqtada al-Sadr’s father, Sadiq al-Sadr in charge of the movement. Sadiq quickly rose to prominence. He defied Saddam Hussein, criticizing his decision to attack Iran. Sadiq was murdered for his activities in 1999, but his martyrdom provided a powerful message to Iraq’s Shia community: it was possible to oppose Saddam in the mosques of Baghdad, and not only in Iran’s holy city of Qom. Sadiq al-Sadr also set the tone for future political action in Iraq — by calling himself “the speaking jurist” — while subtly castigating his Shia cleric competitors in Najaf as “silent jurists.” When he was killed, Sadiq al-Sadr bequeathed a strong political organization comprised of urban youth of peasant tribal leaders to his young son.

Among the many senior activists in the al-Dawa organization was Nouri al-Maliki, an Iraqi living in exile in Damascus. For the Syrian arm of the al-Dawa organization, their Damascus exile was as important to them as Ho Chi Minh’s time in Paris. In Damascus, Maliki and his colleagues were exposed to the fevered atmosphere of Shia politics, meeting regularly with their Shia colleagues from the Arab world — and most particularly from Lebanon. Many of these same Lebanese Shias, then fighting a vicious civil conflict in Lebanon, were among the senior leaders of a new Lebanese Shia political movement: Hezbollah. The politicization of Shiism was well underway by the mid-1980s, at the same time that — perhaps ironically — it had failed to take root among the Najaf school of “silent jurists.” A second al-Dawa exile group was growing prominent in Tehran, but this wing of the party was undergoing a different kind of conversion, one heavily influenced by the Iranian revolution and its belief in rule by jurists. Al Daw-Damascus, on the other hand, believed that the Iranian conception was flawed, as it repudiated the ideals of democracy enunciated by Sadiq al-Sadr in his “three sermons” prior to his death.

According to a Dawa senior official who outlined this period in the history of his movement to me, many of these Tehran Dawa activists were being attracted to SCIRI — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — a movement they saw as likely to survive Saddam’s reign of terror than the one led by the Sadrists. Fearing that the split between the Damascus and Tehran wings of the party would become permanent, the Dawa leadership in Damascus sent Nouri al-Maliki as “a special emissary to patch up political differences with our Tehran brothers.” Maliki’s assignment, which lasted on and off for nearly six years, eventually failed, with the result that Maliki spent much of the 1990s determined to build an Iraqi Shia exile community that would provide an overseas financial network when Saddam Hussein passed from the scene. Saddam’s 1991 slaughter of Shias in southern Iraq actually strengthened the Damascus Dawa faction, as it was able to take credit for leading many of the fighters in southern Iraq.

Given this complex but eminently comprehensible background, senior officials around Nouri al-Maliki are continually surprised by America’s inability to understand the Iraqi Prime Minister’s loyalties. “We are continually asked, ‘do we support Moqtada al-Sadr?’” a senior Iraqi government official close to the Prime Minister said. “It is as if the Americans have never even looked at our website. His uncle’s picture is right there. His sermons are right there. Do you think that we would forget this part of our glorious history?” Yet, the question of whether Nouri al-Maliki actually cooperates with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army is extremely complicated. Maliki became Prime Minister with the support of the Sadirists and “on an ideological level Maliki,” this official adds, “belongs to the Sadr school which makes him attractive to young Sadr followers.”

The inability of the United States to navigate its way through Iraqi politics is now well-known, its lack of intelligence on Iraqi political parties legion. The U.S. has proven particularly inept when it comes to sorting through the complex world of Shia family loyalties. This ineptitude was on display this summer, during Israel’s war in Lebanon, when Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington. What was supposed to be a visit highlighting Maliki’s competence instead turned into a visit that highlighted the fecklessness of the Bush White House. “The Americans are fools,” a senior government official from the Dawa Party relates. “We heard clearly that our leader [Maliki] was criticized when he went to America for not supporting Israel’s attack on our brothers in Lebanon [during the Israel-Lebanon War of August 2006]. We laughed and laughed. Our friend the Prime Minister went to school with them. He knows them well. Did you really think that we would renounce our own brothers?”

According to officials at the highest level of al-Dawa, Maliki continues to walk a fine line — hoping to keep the support of the U.S., while maneuvering to ensure the continued support of his Shia political base. “He wants to bring order, he wants to end the violence, but he also believes in the work of the Sadrs,” I was told during an interview in Baghdad. “He emulated Mohamed al-Sadr as a father figure and he is loyal to the movement and to his memory.” Three months ago, after the Americans announced the implementation of their “Baghdad Security Plan,” this official says, “the Prime Minister urged Moqtada to make sure that his ten most vulnerable security people could not be found.” But Moqtada himself, this official says, remained in Baghdad. “We heard these reports on CNN and Fox News that Moqtada had ‘fled’ to Tehran, and we laughed,” this official relates. “They are gullible, for they have received this from the White House. Moqtada going to Iran? He would do no such thing. Do you believe that we are afraid of the Americans? Are they worse than Saddam? If Moqtada went into exile it would be a repudiation of his family. This he would not do.”

Even so, the United States claims on the basis of its intelligence reports that Moqtada fled to Iran just as General Patreaus’s “security plan” went into effect — and that Sadr therefore owes the Iranians, who protected him and a number of his followers. The U.S. military has also made claims that Iranian arms are entering Iraq through networks tied to Sadr. American officials also point out, accurately, that Moqtada al-Sadr is threatening to pull out of the Iraqi government coalition unless Maliki sets a date for the American withdrawal. How does this square with Moqtada al-Sadr’s claim that he is not a puppet of the Tehran government? “The Americans pick their friends and their friends stay their friends until they are betrayed,” a Sadrist says of these reports. “His eminence there from the south [referring to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim] was seen in the White House. He is very close to Iran. But would you accuse him of receiving arms from Iran? Of course not. After all, he has shaken the hand of George Bush. So now it is in America’s interest to say that Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers are in the pockets of the Iranians and not Hakim. But which do you really think it is?” Do the Americans have Maliki right? Will the current Prime Minister crack down on Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, or will he continue to walk a fine line?

“The militia protected him when he first became Prime Minister,” a government official with Sadrist leanings told me in a telephone interview. “Did you think that Americans are competent enough to protect him? He would not be alive if it were not for the Mehdi Army.” But another anti-Sadrist government official in the interior ministry is not nearly as forgiving: “He [Maliki] showed tolerance with dozens of evil deeds committed by the Mehdi Army. He knew about the MR’s kidnapping of 150 Sunnni officials from the Ministry of Higher Education and he did nothing about it. He knew about the kidnapping of 80 persons from the Iraqi Olympic Committee, including its Chairman, General Ahmed Abdul Gafoor Al Samaraee. This General was a friend of the Americans — that is why he was kidnapped.” Worse yet, according to this official “Mahdi al-Muhandes, who fled to Iran because he was accused of bombing the U.S. Embassy [in Kuwait in 1983] was chose by our Prime Minister to hold a seat in the new Iraqi parliament. Surely, there is blood on his hands.” With this as a background, it is “very unlikely,” this official says, that Maliki will distance himself from Moqtada al-Sadr. “The Americans will someday be gone. It could be soon,” this official says, “and when that happens Prime Minister Maliki will need Moqtada al-Sadr. You should not underestimate the loyalty he has to the family.”

So it is that the early divisions in Dawa are now being replayed in Iraq. Many of the top officials of SCIRI are a part of — or have been heavily influenced by — the split in the organization between the Damascus and Tehran branches. They look for leadership to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and view Moqtada al-Sadr as an upstart who has proven unworthy of his uncle and father’s political mantle. SCIRI’s resentment of the government — and its ties to the Sadrists — is well-known, and began soon after the arrival of the Americans. Successive governments seemed to give the best jobs to Baghdad Shias, while southern Shias allied to Hakim were ignored (see Reidar Visser). Reliable sources in SCIRI told me last week that “SCIRI will never accept the idea of choosing new ministers to Maliki’s government from Sadr Current.” This is an indication that relations between Moqtada and Hakim Family is deteriorating.

The split among the Shias is escalating. An official in al-Sadr’s movement says that the Sadr family is now convinced that “the Hakim family had a hand in Sadiq al-Sadr’s murder.” The rhetoric is also increasing on the Hakim side, as many of Hakim’s senior aides believe that Moqtada was behind the murder of Mohammed Baqir Al Hakeem in Najaf early in 2004.

Observers now say openly both in the south and in Sadr City that an imminent confrontation between SCIRI and the Mahdi Army cannot be avoided. Skirmishes have already taken place between them. “No one from SCIRI dares to go to Al Sadr City,” a Hakim follower in the capital confirms. “It is just too dangerous.”

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