The rise of Moktada al-Sadr

Ashley Smith reviews a new book by Patrick Cockburn that helps explain the backdrop to a new stage in the crisis gripping Iraq.

AT THE end of March, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, with U.S. political and military support, launched Operation Knight's Assault to assert government control over Basra and several other cities dominated by rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. George Bush called the assault a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq."

Review: Books

Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq. Scribner, 2008, 240 pages, $24.

The U.S. and the Iraqi government--chiefly, Maliki's Dawa Party and his backers in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)--hoped to assert central government control over Basra's oil fields and port, and block the Sadrists from winning in October's provincial elections. Success would have ensured their ability to establish a federal structure in Iraq and implement a new oil law allowing U.S. multinationals to invest and develop Iraq's oil industry.

The Sadrists foiled these plans by holding their ground in Basra. The government offensive sparked demonstrations across Shia Iraq, with Mahdi forces launching mortar attacks on U.S. positions inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. After a week of fighting, Iran stepped in to broker a ceasefire.

Thus, Iran and Sadr emerged as the victors. Sensing his advantage, Sadr has called for a million-strong demonstration against the occupation on April 9, the anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003.

Supporters of Moktada al-Sadr demonstrate in Sadr City (James Maier | AFP)Supporters of Moktada al-Sadr demonstrate in Sadr City (James Maier | AFP)

Meanwhile, the U.S. and the Iraqi government are promising to crack down on "illegal militias" and have continued their attack on Sadr strongholds in Sadr City and elsewhere.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

HOW DID the Sadrist movement arise, and what are the sources of its conflict with other Shia forces, such as the clergy-dominated Dawa party and ISCI? A new book by journalist and author Patrick Cockburn--called Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq--provides answers.

The Shia Islamist currents represented by Sadr on the one hand and the ruling Shia parites on the other were a minority until the last few decades. Iraqi politics was dominated by various secular forces--nationalism, Baath pan-Arabism and Communism.

As Cockburn writes, "Few paid much attention to the radical potential of Shi'ism before the Iranian revolution of 1978-79; the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon following the Israeli invasion of 1982; and the Shia uprising in Iraq in 1991, followed by their gradual takeover of power after the U.S. invasion of 2003."

What else to read

Patrick Cockburn's The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq documents the crimes of the occupation and the emergence of the ensuing civil war.

British journalist Jonathan Steele's Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq is a damning indictment of the war lies used to justify the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq, and the occupation that followed.

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story. Also, see In Praise of Barbarians, a collection of essays on U.S. imperialism and society by Mike Davis.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, now republished in an updated paperback edition from the American Empire Project with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

The Sadrs, one of the great families of the Shia clerical establishment, played a key role in forging Shia Islamism in Iraq in the run-up to the secular nationalist revolution in 1958. Moktada's father-in-law, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, along with a layer of radical young clerics, founded the Dawa Party in 1957.

Mixing nationalist aims along with a religious commitment to defend Islam and its institutions from the secular threat, the Dawa Party aimed to build an alternative to the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which recruited heavily among impoverished Shia workers.

Dawa was the source of all the major currents of Islamism in Iraq today, from the ISCI to the Sadrists. Baqir was forced out of the party in 1960, but he continued his political activism in opposition to the Baath Party, which eventually seized power in a coup in 1968. With U.S. backing, the Baathists mounted a relentless campaign of persecution against all its political opponents, from the ICP to Kurdish parties to Dawa and Baqir's Shia followers.

Baqir and Dawa's conflict with the Baathists came to a head in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution, when the Shia clergy led by Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. Baqir became an open advocate of Islamic revolution in Iraq.

Faced with a Shia revolution in neighboring Iran and within Iraq itself, Saddam Hussein seized control of the Baath Party and the Iraqi government. The new regime banned the Dawa party, making membership in it punishable by death; it arrested and executed Baqir; and it launched a disastrous eight-year war against Iran.

During the war, another great clerical family, the Hakims, called a meeting of Shia Islamists in Iran in 1982 to form the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, recently changed to ISCI). The Iranian state backed SCIRI and built up its Badr Brigades as a force it hoped to install in Baghdad after defeating Saddam. The Badr Brigades even fought on Iran's side in the war against Iraq. As a result, Dawa, which had Iraqi nationalist leanings, distanced itself from SCIRI.

Cockburn argues that SCIRI "swiftly acquired a dubious reputation in Iraq for doing the Iranians' dirty work. 'They tortured Iraqi prisoners during the war,' says one professor at Najaf University. 'The Sunni and the Shia twice as badly because they used to ask them: Why did you join Saddam's army if you are a Shia?' In the coming years, SCIRI never quite shook the reputation, in the minds of many Iraqis, of being stooges of Iran who tortured their fellow countrymen."

Inside Iraq, the clerical establishment advocated a return to quietism, rejection of the Sadrists and Khomeini, and accommodation to Saddam's dictatorship. This strategy didn't resonate with the Shia masses, however. In the wake of Saddam's defeat in his next disastrous war, the 1991 Gulf War, Shia troops revolted in southern Iraq, setting off a regional rebellion to accompany a Kurdish uprising in the North.

The U.S. government under George Bush Sr. feared the development of another Islamic revolution and therefore refused to aid the Shia. Iran, SCIRI and the Badr brigades also balked at aiding the rebellion, out of fear of a hopeless confrontation with the U.S. Left with a free hand, Saddam's forces massacred 150,000 Shia. The regime also attacked the Kurds in the North, driving millions into Turkey and Iran. But after an international outcry, the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone and cultivated the Kurdish parties as their key ally in Iraq.

Despite the genocidal U.S.-UN sanctions imposed on Iraq, Saddam was able consolidate his police state around Sunnis from his tribe, and carried on the oppression of both Shia and Kurds. He attempted to co-opt Baqir al-Sadr's cousin and Moktada's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, to provide the regime with a base among Shia.

Sadiq used the space to develop his own distinctive brand of Islamism and never expressed support for the regime. In contrast to Baqir's orientation on political struggle, Sadiq pioneered a new Islamism focused on waging a cultural revolution and advocacy for economic grievances of the Shia poor, suffering under the sanctions.

Sadiq built a mass base in the city that would eventually be named after him, Sadr City in Baghdad. In his Friday sermons, he denounced U.S. imperialism, Israel, the devil, the sins of the West and economic injustice. He also advocated Sunni and Shia unity, thereby posing an Islamist alternative to the more moderate clergy and the exiled parties.

SCIRI and the other exiles abroad denounced Sadiq as an agent of Saddam and looked down on his appeal to the Shia poor. Their base was among the elite--the petty bourgeoisie and other expatriate ruling classes. Moreover, Sadiq infuriated Iran by proclaiming himself supreme leader of the Shia in Iraq. The Iranian clergy closed down his offices in Iran and expelled his representatives.

Increasingly, however, Sadiq came into conflict with Saddam, who feared, rightly, that the Sadrist movement would be a threat to the regime. Saddam moved to suppress the movement, murdering Sadiq and two of his four sons in February 1999.

The Shia masses rose up in the al-Sadr Intifada, and the regime again carried out mass collective punishment against them. Once again, Iran, SCIRI and the Badr brigades refused to lift a finger to support the uprising. Outraged at this betrayal, the Sadrists chanted in their meetings, "Long live al-Sadr! The al-Hakim family are traitors."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IN THE run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, SCIRI, Dawa and prominent secular Shia collaborated with the U.S. in the hopes of establishing themselves in the new Iraqi government.

Sadiq's son, Moktada al-Sadr, pursued a different course. He survived the assassination of his father and two brothers, went underground and maintained a skeletal structure of his father's movement. He held SCIRI, the Dawa Party and the clergy in contempt for collaborating with U.S. imperialism or Iran, or standing passively by.

Once the U.S. invaded, Moktada emerged from the underground, quickly established control of Sadr City and reached out to the Shia south. He rebuilt the Sadrist mass movement among the Shia poor that advocated Shia-Sunni unity in opposition to the occupation.

Almost immediately, the schisms between the Shia factions emerged. SCIRI, Dawa and other Shia formations participated in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). In contrast, Moktada denounced the IGC as a tool of the occupation and set up the Madhi Army to provide security amid the post-occupation chaos and to resist the occupation.

The U.S. immediately targeted Moktada. They accused him of murdering the cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, repeatedly battled the Mahdi fighters and finally shut down the Sadrists' newspaper. In response, while the Sunni resistance rose up in Falluja, Sadr's followers rose up in Sadr City, across the South and finally in the holy city of Najaf.

For a brief moment, a united Arab resistance against the occupation seemed about to emerge. But the U.S. struck a deal with the leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, which enabled Moktada to survive, but also broke the possibility of a joint resistance.

Sistani compelled all the Shia parties to campaign for the series of elections that eventually established the Iraqi government, something that alienated the Sunnis who increasingly feared a Shia majority. The Sunnis also contributed to the breakdown of Arab nationalism by refusing to purge al-Qaeda forces who were carrying out increasing attacks on Shia.

Sadr shifted from military opposition to the U.S. toward politics and used the Mahdi Army to impose his puritanical religious edicts and self-defense against al-Qaeda and U.S. attacks.

The Shia parties divided the government among themselves, taking over its various institutions as bases to compete with one another, and against the Sunnis and Kurds. ISCI controlled the Security Ministry, filling its forces with the Badr Brigades. The Sadrists gained control of the Health Ministry and sent the Madhi Army into the police.

Unlike other Shia parties, however, Moktada maintained his opposition to the U.S. occupation, denouncing the Americans for failing to meet the needs of the Shia poor. As a result, as the U.S. failed to reconstruct the society or provide basic security, Moktada's popularity soared among the Shia poor--while ISCI and Dawa lost support because they were tainted by open collaboration with the occupiers.

When a full-scale civil war broke out between Sunnis and Shia after the bombing of al-Askari Mosque in February 2006, the Madhi Army defied Moktada's public call for Shia-Sunni unity and joined in an ethnic-cleansing campaign of atrocities against Sunnis. Sadr's forces won the Battle of Baghdad, asserting control over half the city and 80 percent of Shia neighborhoods.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FACED WITH a failing occupation, the Bush administration opted for the so-called "surge." This involved making peace with the Sunni tribes, arming them to attack al-Qaeda and setting their sites on Sadr's Madhi Army in Baghdad and the Shia south.

The U.S. pressured Maliki to confront the Madhi Army. Maliki had been the compromise candidate for prime minister supported by the Sadrists, but now wholly dependent on the U.S., he broke with Sadr and formed an alliance with ISCI that took was based on orders from the U.S.

To avoid an unwinnable confrontation with the U.S., Moktada declared a ceasefire. He went underground and implemented a plan to regain control over the loose structure of the Mahdi Army through religious indoctrination and military training.

The U.S., ISCI and Dawa, in alliance with the Kurdish parties, went ahead with their plans for the soft partition of Iraq into a federated state, with Kurdish, Sunni and Shia super-provinces. The U.S. also pushed for a new oil law to open Iraq's industry to foreign investment.

The Sadrists agitated for a strong central state, opposition to the occupation and defense of the national oil industry. They still appealed for Sunni-Shia unity for a new Iraq--notably leaving the Kurds out of their vision. But given the Mahdi Army's pivotal role in the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad, the Sadrists are unlikely to forge a genuine nationalist resistance.

Meanwhile, Iran has cultivated relations with all the Shia parties--not only their favored sons in ISCI, but also the Sadrists--in the hopes of positive relations with whoever wins the intra-Shia battle.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments' decision to attack Sadr has destabilized the country and forced into the open the conflicts among the Shia, and between them and the Sunnis and Kurds. This foolish gambit disrupted the temporary peace that coincided with the U.S. surge--and tipped Iraq toward further chaos.