Misunderstanding Muqtada al-Sadr

In a July 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed, writer Kimberly Kagan touted the success of the Iraq surge strategy. Kagan noted, among other supposed triumphs, that the Maliki government had “confronted Muqtada al-Sadr for promoting illegal militia activity, and has apparently prompted this so-called Iraqi nationalist to leave for Iran for the second time since January.” While one can perhaps excuse Kagan’s sunny defense of the surge, (the plan was partly devised, after all, by her husband, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a fact which the Wall Street Journal did not reveal to readers) the repeated attempts by conservative defenders of Bush’s Iraq policy to dispute Sadr’s nationalist credentials and treat him as an Iranian puppet indicate a real and troubling lack of knowledge of the Iraqi political scene, and of Sadr’s place within it.

It’s almost comical how many times Muqtada, after provoking a reaction from U.S. forces, has gone to into hiding, and been declared irrelevant by wishful thinkers, only to return later, with his organization intact, drawing bigger crowds than before. True to form, less than a week after Kagan’s dismissive aside, Muqtada returned to Iraq, (if indeed he had even left) to great acclaim, with his political base, his Mahdi militia, and social services network, more evident than ever.

Sadr and Iraqi Nationalism

Far from being an Iranian instrument, among Iraqi Shi’i leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr is probably the least susceptible to Iranian influence. Journalist Bartle Breese Bull, who has spent several years in Iraq observing the Sadr movement, wrote in the New York Times on June 3 that “The Sadrist movement has always been about Iraq for the Iraqis. They might accept help from Iran–and I saw Iranian supplies in their compounds in Najaf in 2004–but the movement is not for sale. Mr. Sadr gets his strength from the street. And the Arabs of the Iraqi street have no time for Persian bosses.”

Sadr has repeatedly stated his opposition to Iranian interference in Iraqi politics, and has consistently advocated Iraqi political unity. He has fashioned a populist-Shi’i political platform that has deep resonance among Iraq’s long-oppressed Shi’i underclass, whose votes helped install a bloc of his loyalists in the Iraqi Parliament, and put control of the Health and Transportation ministries in his hands. There is a strong nativist element in his rhetoric; he has indicated his belief that the religious leadership of Iraq should be in the hands of ethnic Arabs, rather than the ethnic Persians who currently make up much of the higher Shi’i clerical establishment in Najaf.

Muqtada al-Sadr comes from a highly revered line of Iraqi Shi’i clerics. One of Muqtada’s great-uncles was among the leaders of the 1920 Iraqi revolt against the British occupation. Muqtada’s uncle, Grand Ayatollah Baqr al-Sadr (1935-1980), is widely considered to be the most significant Shi’i scholar of the 20th century. He engaged with and critiqued Communism and Marxism in his early works, becoming the first to elucidate a modern Islamic system of cooperative economics. He later developed a model of clerical activism distinct from the more quietist approach dominant in the Najaf clerical establishment. Along with Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim, Sadr was one of the founders of the Da’wa Party in the 1960’s, and served as its guiding spiritual leader. After the establishment of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic in neighboring Iran, which was inspired in part by Sadr’s ideas, many Iraqi Shi’is hoped that Sadr would lead a similar revolution in Iraq. Fearing this, Saddam Hussein had Baqr al-Sadr executed in 1980, the first execution of a Grand Ayatollah in modern history.

In the wave of repression that followed Baqr al-Sadr’s execution, many Iraqi Shi’is fled Iraq and found refuge in Iran. Among this group was Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim and his younger brother, Abd al-Aziz. In Iran, with the support and funding of the Iranian government, the Hakims founded SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq). The goal of SCIRI, as its name suggests, was to create a revolution in Iraq and establish an Islamic republic on the model of Iran’s. Around the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Abd al-Aziz reentered Iraq as commander of the Badr Brigade, the militia wing of SCIRI, which was armed and trained by the Iranian Republican Guard, and made up mainly of Iraqi defectors from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. After the murder of Ayatollah Hakim by a truck bomb in Najaf in 2003, Abd al-Aziz took over as leader of SCIRI.

In the wake of the Shi’i uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein attempted to dilute the influence of the largely Persian Shi’i clerical establishment by supporting the Arab cleric Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father. Sadeq initially followed the plan, taking advantage of government patronage to build a network of loyal activist clerics throughout Iraq’s poor Shi’i communities that distinguished itself from the Shi’i establishment in Najaf. Soon enough, however, Sadeq al-Sadr turned his criticisms on Saddam’s regime, and was assassinated by Saddam’s agents in 1999, along with two of Muqtada’s elder brothers.

The massive demonstrations and riots that broke out in response to Sadr’s murder became known as the 1999 Intifada. After the fall of Saddam in April 2003, Sadrist militias quickly took over the huge Shi’i slum neighborhood in northeast Baghdad neighborhood known as Saddam City, and renamed it Sadr City, in honor of Grand Ayatollah Sadeq al-Sadr.

From nationalist standpoint, the legacy of the two Sadr martyrs has been a powerful rhetorical weapon for Muqtada. Posters and murals featuring the three men, Baqr, Sadeq, and Muqtada, adorn walls and billboards throughout Shi’i neighborhoods, and Muqtada rarely appears in public without a portrait of his father nearby. Their status as Arab martyrs of Saddam’s tyranny provides Muqtada with credibility that many other leaders lack.

The Shiite Split

Though both the Hakim and Sadr families suffered greatly from Ba’athist repression, Muqtada’s adherents have relentlessly hammered at the fact that the Sadrs stayed and struggled in Iraq, while the Hakims fled. This gets at another of Muqtada’s key rhetorical devices: presenting himself and his family as emblematic of Shi’i oppression under Saddam. Like the poor Shi’is that make up the bulk of his movement, he suffered. Like them, he lost loved ones. Like them, he is now entitled to a share of power in the new Iraq.

That the Sadrists have been able to compete so well against the far better organized and funded SCIRI indicates the effectiveness of this rhetorical framework. That SCIRI was founded in, and continues to be funded by, Iran, certainly makes them vulnerable to Muqtada’s charge of being insufficiently Iraqi in their outlook. Recognizing this, last May the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) changed its name to the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council, and indicated that it would now look to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, rather than Iran’s supreme jurist, Ayatollah Khamenei, as its main source of guidance. This move should be seen as an attempt to make up for SIIC’s nationalist deficit vis-a-vis Sadr, and to combat the perception that SIIC is an Iranian instrument by more closely associating themselves with the religious structures and culture of Iraq.

Mistakes of U.S. Policy and Looking Forward

It must be understood that the confrontational stance that the United States continues to take toward Muqtada’s movement benefits no one as much as Muqtada himself. His staunch and consistent opposition to the U.S. presence enables him to credibly criticize the failure of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government to deliver services and security, while at the same time, his control of several government ministries provides access to government funds and resources, which can then be distributed as patronage and charity under the banner of his movement.

Given his popular support and nationalist credibility, the cooperation of Muqtada al-Sadr is essential for stability in Iraq. One possible way to bring about Muqtada’s cooperation is for the United States to offer him the one thing that he seems to want from us: the U.S. out. Working through Ayatollah Sistani as an intermediary, the U.S. could agree to a phased withdrawal timetable, with each phase being contingent on Muqtada’s ability to reign in of violence by his followers, and by his willingness to acknowledge the legitimate authority of the Iraqi government.

While a withdrawal by the U.S. will be cast as a victory by various elements in Iraq, including al-Qaeda, given that the eventual U.S. withdrawal is inevitable, it is imperative to use that withdrawal as an opportunity both to strengthen those figures in Iraqi society, such as Sistani, who can contribute to stability, and to give popular leaders such as Sadr a tangible stake in the survival of the new Iraqi state.

Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers are already deeply embedded in the political structures of the new Iraqi state, regardless of how Muqtada might currently challenge the legitimacy of that state because of its dependence on U.S. support.

It’s long past time that U.S. policymakers recognized this, left aside the questionable advice of “experts” such as Kimberly Kagan, and found some way to work with Sadr, encouraging and enabling him to use his influence to create stability and help strengthen and legitimize Iraq’s vulnerable new political institutions, rather than continuing to condemn and confront him, and thus ensuring chaos.

Matthew Duss holds a Masters in Middle East Studies from the University of Washington and is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.