The Sadrist Revolt

The Student

Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to take time out of his rebellion for studies.  The increasingly popular Iraqi nationalist and Shi’i religious leader, it was reported late last year, is seeking the title of Ayatollah (“Sign of God”).  Muqtada’s Iraqi supporters presently confer on him the title of Hujjat al-Islam (“Proof of Islam”), although it is not clear that his studies have taken him that far.1  Muqtada had sought to make contact with religious sheikhs, but it was impossible under the scrutiny of Saddam Hussein’s mukhabarat, and his religious research was interrupted repeatedly, particularly after his father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, and two brothers were killed by the Ba’ath regime in February 1999.  Sadr undertook studies to become a mujtahid in 2000 but had to interrupt these to wage an at times open military combat with the occupiers of Iraq.  In mid-2003, he acknowledged that he had not yet reached the status of mujtahid.  In the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, Sadr and his supporters had been surprised by the upsurge in support among the Shi’i working class for them.  Suspicious of returning exiles and the occupation soldiers, laborers and the unemployed were ready for the kind of militancy that the Sadrists represented, just as they had once flocked to the now discredited Iraqi Communist Party.  The situation, at any rate, demanded a rapid orientation toward self-defense, and status in the religious hierarchy was less relevant to that end than it might become in a future Iraq.2

Sadr is not the first Islamist leader whose studies have been frustrated by the exigencies of political struggle.  Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the general-secretary of Hezbollah, initially studied under Sayyid Abbass al Musawi in Iraq, himself a student of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr.  Thrilling to the pulse of the incipient Iranian Revolution and repulsed by sectarianism in Lebanon, the young student traveled to Iraq without a penny on his person to study the emerging ideology of revolutionary Shi’ism — quite distinct from its quietist forebears, which had emphasized the observance of religious duties, the collection of donations, and the administration of penalties.  He had to flee Iraq during a Ba’athist crackdown and once again found his studies at Musawi’s school in Baalbek interrupted when Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, then the rest of Lebanon in 1982.3

Already an activist in Amal, having been a member since its early inception as Harakat al-Muhrumin (Movement of the Deprived) and chief of its Bazouriyeh region at the age of fifteen, Nasrallah supported the Islamist wing of the movement in breaking away to form the Party of God, Hezbollah, in 1982 — initially as a local reaction to Israel’s invasion.4  Hezbollah, rejecting both the USSR and the United States, adopted a Third Worldist discourse of the Oppressed versus the Oppressors, in which could be found supporting figures as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Daniel Ortega, and Fidel Castro.5  It mounted a highly effective military campaign to drive American soldiers out of Lebanon, and subsequently defeated Israel, while building up a solid base of political support among the Shi’i poor.  Today, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is the secretary-general of Lebanon’s largest political party and commands respect both as an astute politician and as a religious commentator.  Political struggles have prevented him from undertaking the lengthy religious education required to become a mujtahid.  He has expressed the wish that “someone else were secretary-general” so that he could continue his education.6

Muqtada al-Sadr’s dilemma may appear similar, but it is different.  His lack of religious credentials has been used by opponents to depict him as unintelligent and inapt for public office.  Unlike Nasrallah, he commands nothing like the mass organized force of Hezbollah.  Indeed, until recently, it was debatable whether he even commanded the Jaish al-Mahdi movement that he launched in the summer of 2003.  He does not have the authority to issue fatwas, which could have a disabling effect if he is obliged to defer to more senior clerical authorities such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who prefer political quietism to the noisy revolt of the Sadrist movement.  As will become clear, the weaknesses and strengths of Sadr’s position and his various ideological commitments — nationalism, with opposition to Ba’athism; Islamism with hostility to sectarianism; Shi’i politics with hostility to Iranian influence — have caused him to surge, falter, retreat, and surge again.  He has at times pursued pan-Iraqi unity, at other times vied for influence with sectarian parties in the Council of Representatives.  He has been on the verge of alliances with Sunni leaders only for the Mahdi Army fighters to be accused of ethnic cleansing.  Perhaps all of this makes the acquisition of status in the Shi’i clerical hierarchy seem more urgent.  Yet, this demands several years of uninterrupted study under a single scholar.  If Sadr is unlikely to have such a luxury, there may be no alternative to the business of party-building.

The Rebel

Most Western readers heard of Muqtada al-Sadr for the first time in April 2003, when reports emerged that he was responsible for the killing of the pro-American cleric Sayyid Abd-al-Majid al-Khoei, which is denied by Sadr’s supporters.7  It was reported that there were schisms in the Shi’i religious leadership as a result of the young cleric’s waywardness, again denied by his supporters.8  This was a prelude to an attempted US siege on Sadr’s house in June which, to the astonishment of the occupiers, produced a wave of protest across Iraqi cities and forced them to back off.  Sadr was cheeky enough to demand a written apology.9  The sense that he was a disruptive element grew.  In August, he was reported in the Iranian press as having urged the “Iranians” (exiles belonging to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a splinter of the Da’wa Party founded in Tehran in 1982) who had taken over government posts to leave the country.10  Even more worrisome were his criticisms of the political structures created by the occupiers.  He insisted that the Interim Governing Council should not represent Iraq at the Arab League.  He had within mere months constructed a Mahdi Army with thousands of members, whose first battalion graduated on 6 October 2003.  And he was rapidly in full control of Sadr City from where he declared the formation of an alternative government to the cheers of “thousands” of Iraqis in cities across the country.11  Despite his criticism of “Iranians,” and despite his Arab nationalism,12 the US media fingered him as a puppet of Tehran stirring up trouble.  The hostility of Shi’is to the occupation was “largely the fault of” Muqtada and his “close ties with radical leaders in neighboring Iran.”13  Further, he was held responsible for “terror” as a car bomb attacked the Baghdad Hotel in October 2003 — although responsibility was never claimed, and the use of this tactic has not characterized the Sadrist movement.14

It seems that the occupiers had not seen Sadr’s movement coming.  The neoliberal alchemy of “state-building,” which seemed in all essentials to imitate the IMF-driven transformation of post-Stalinist societies in Russia and Eastern Europe, had as one of its precepts that the existing state machinery had to be broken up and replaced by a liberal state, state industries privatized and the old elite giving way to a new class of capitalist oligarchs.  This was not as poorly conceived as many commentators imagine.  After all, it could reasonably be expected that state power and funds could be disbursed in a patrimonial fashion among America’s clients such as Iraqi Nationalist Congress, the Da’wa Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the SCIRI.15  Meanwhile the new capitalist elite would work as local clients for American capital.  Any pain from the imposition of “shock therapy” would be overcome as the lifting of sanctions and the free flow of oil boosted revenues for the Iraqi government and funded the reconstruction of infrastructure.  Even as officials and companies used their new power to extort up to $12 billion of the $20 billion in Iraq’s oil revenues that was appropriated by the Coalition Provisional Authority,16 it could be expected that this was so much grease for the squeaky wheels of neoliberal governance.  The political influence of OPEC would be reduced by privatization in the oil industry.  And the Shi’i population, of all people, would surely be grateful to the Americans.

However, as Patrick and Andrew Cockburn reported in Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession, aside from well-founded bitterness about the way the West facilitated Saddam’s repression of the 1991 uprising, Iraqis were far more angry about the US-led regime of sanctions and bombings than anyone perhaps realized, and never took seriously the idea that Washington viewed Saddam as an existential foe.17  Aside from the Marsh Arabs, who were able to inflict humiliating defeats on British troops, the Sadrists were initially the only anti-occupation Shi’i force in Iraq, and by far the most significant.  For all the talk of “Shi’philia” and “Sunniphobia,” sectarian manipulation was a secondary, tactical factor for the occupiers, who were most interested in the creation of a new “national” bourgeoisie at massive cost to most Iraqis, including the middle and professional classes.  In a situation in which 70% of Iraqis were unemployed, Sadr’s uniquely populist message mobilized those who suffered most from the occupiers’ policies.  Half of the workforce had been employed by the state before the occupation began.  Much of the economy relied on subsidies to industries, and it was their elimination that Paul Bremer had prioritized above privatization.  There was little support among Iraqis for the liberalization program, and while the CPA ended up in combat with Iraqi trade unions, the Sadrists became the political movement of choice for much of the working class, particularly those who were unemployed.18

The Sadrists were different from other Shi’i groups in another respect: for all the enforced puritanism in Sadrist-controlled areas, they did not call for an Islamic state, because such would not reflect the realities of Iraq.  They spoke the language of Iraqi nationalism rather than religious particularism.  They took up the slogans of the Arab nationalists, including support for the Palestinians.19  The occupiers weren’t the only ones who were taking fright at Muqtada’s power.  Patrick Cockburn describes how the wealthier Shi’is saw him as a “dangerous Islamic Bolshevik” leading “a mob of robbers and thieves.”20  But the failure of the occupiers to anticipate the movement, and the incomprehension about its deep roots in Iraqi society, led to one of the most catastrophic miscalculations on Bremer’s part during the whole of his time as the colonial governor.  Urging someone, anyone, to rid him of this turbulent cleric, he shut down the Sadrists’ newspaper, al-Hawza, at the end of March 2004, and placed Muqtada al-Sadr’s residence under siege.

The reason for Bremer’s move is likely that Sadr had seen his support diminish slightly by the end of 2003, and though he continued to call for an end to the occupation and denounce the delaying of elections, he had publicly opposed violence.21  However, Sadr still controlled Sadr City, a vast area of Baghdad with a population of up to two and a half million, which — had it been a separate city — would have been the second largest city in Iraq, bigger than Basra and Najaf.  And he had several advantages, not least of which was that the Mahdi Army could claim to provide security for the Iraqi Shi’i population against the ultra-salafist sectarian bombers such as those who attacked the Ashura celebrations at the beginning of March, which the occupiers could not.22  The action led to protests in support of Muqtada tens of thousands strong.23  The crackdown provoked Sadr into calling for the use of “other means” than protest, “such as armed operations.”24  On 4 April 2004, the Sadrists took control of Al-Kufa, where the US was accused by protesters of firing on civilians, and the following day Sadr’s supporters rioted in Karbala.25  “To the horror of the CPA,” Cockburn reports, “the Mahdi Army swept into cities and towns across southern Iraq without meeting much resistance.”26  On 6 April, the US issued an arrest warrant against Sadr, declaring him an “outlaw.”27  Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt declared that he would “destroy” the Mahdi Army.28

The occupiers had set their sights high, but this was a bad moment to pick a fight with the Sadrist movement, because Fallujah was also rising up in arms.  Initially, one of the quietest and most orderly areas of post-invasion Iraq, US behavior provoked growing resentment and resistance.  Reviewing the build-up to April 2004, Associated Press recalled that “American troops fired twice on crowds” in 2003 and subsequently carried out “numerous patrols and raids on houses” which infuriated Fallujans.29  On 31 March 2004, Iraqis captured, lynched, and mutilated four mercenary contractors working for Blackwater.  The US immediately planned and waged a full-scale assault which, for all its savagery in targeting civilians, ambulances, and hospitals, was eventually defeated, and the occupiers seen out of the city by cheering crowds of Iraqis.30  Muqtada al-Sadr’s astonishing progress in this context was a tremendous blow to the occupiers, even if his army lacked the means to hold the conquered territory.

It was odd, in a way, that Sadr should get holed up in Najaf, where he commanded little support from a population largely loyal to Ayatollah Sistani.  But thousands of committed young fighters, hardly trained if at all, poured into Najaf and al-Kufa to help fight off the army of the world’s most powerful state.  If their courage was astounding, their losses were heavy.  It soon emerged, however, that they had established connections with the Fallujah insurgency and were receiving weapons and fighters from that city.31  This raised the shocking possibility of a national liberation struggle unbounded by sectarian hostility.  Bush was, at long last, a uniter and not a divider.  Eventually, however, with Fallujah temporarily in Iraqi hands and the Mahdi Army barely holding out in Najaf, Sadr agreed to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Ayatollah Sistani’s clerical supporters (who were anxious to avoid the bombing of the Imam Ali shrine in which Sadr was secreted).  Sadr would not only elude arrest, but his militia would retain its arms.  He had little military power, but enormous political clout, and emerged from the April siege as the clear winner.32 

Sadr continued to side with Sunni anti-occupation politicians, as when both he and the Association of Muslim Scholars boycotted a national conference supposedly aimed at representing Iraqis, due to its undemocratic procedures.33  The second round of combat, in August, resulted from the fact that many Mahdi Army fighters refused to return to their homes on Sadr’s instructions, believing the US promise of a truce to be a lie.  The US launched an unrestrained assault, gunning down hundreds of fighters with simple ease.  Yet, again, the Mahdi Army withstood the assault.  It has been suggested, by its opponents that the Mahdi Army had at this point been gaining support from Iran.  If this was true, it didn’t show.  The Mahdi Army still lacked the kind of weaponry that, for example, Hezbollah used to destroy Israeli tanks in the summer of 2006.  Its sole, and hardly insubstantial, virtue was that it could take tremendous punishment without disintegrating.  Eventually, the US was compelled to accept a truce negotiated by Sistani, in which the Najaf fighters handed over their weapons and left the city, but the Mahdi Army remained intact.34  Sadr had lost control of Najaf, from which his rivals in the SCIRI and Da’wa Party benefited; but the occupation forces had once more failed to destroy his movement.

The Politician

Although Sadr had boycotted the national conference along with Sunni politicians, he was already forming a list to take part in any future elections in June 2004.35  The disappointment after the loss of Najaf weighed heavily on Sadr and his supporters.  Sistani’s approach of conditional cooperation with the occupation seemed to have yielded results in that, after the Ayatollah threatened to withdraw his support and encourage a broader uprising, the long delayed elections for a transitional government were finally scheduled for the end of January 2005.  Even so, Sadr did his best to prevaricate, manifesting his distrust of the process while many of his supporters organized through the list of Fatah al-Sheikh, whose newspaper, Sadr Rising, made his loyalties plain.36  There was a possibility of Sadr standing on a combined platform with Sunni nationalist politicians on an anti-occupation platform, but Sadr expected them to denounce bomb attacks on Shi’i civilians as a condition for that.  Arguably, Sunni politicians had a choice between splitting the Sunni resistance and remaining aloof from the Sadrists, and perhaps predictably they chose the latter.37

As it turned out, Sadr was correct to be wary of the electoral process, as were the Sunni politicians who boycotted it.  Western viewers were treated to a dramaturgy of purple fingers and jubilation, presumably concocted by Tony Marsh and Lance Copsey, principals of the Republican media consulting firm Marsh Copsey & Scott, who assisted the International Republican Institute (IRI) in managing the campaign.38  Information was tightly managed by the American handlers in the Ministry of Information, while the Comical Alis of the occupation spouted triumphalist gibberish for the cameras — their control of information enhanced by the absence in most of Iraq of journalists and international observers, who were banned.39  In truth, less than half of eligible Iraqis voted, while in Sunni areas turnout was negligible — “one of the best voter turnouts” in the Sunni triangle was in the recently destroyed city of Fallujah, where 8,000 people voted.40  Despite the bribery41, the deliberate exclusion of thousands of voters,42 and widespread claims of ballot-rigging, the majority of voters selected candidates opposed to the occupation and the extreme neoliberal policies of Bremer, et al.43

The biggest single winner was the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shi’i groups including the SCIRI, the Da’wa Party, Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, the Islamic Virtue Party (al-Fadhila), and a number of Sadr’s supporters.  The SCIRI was the biggest component with 34% of the vote, and its nearest rival was Al-Fadhila, an off-shoot of the Sadrist movement that rejected Muqtada’s right to lead it, which gained 7% of the vote.44  Locally, the Fadhila party was also the second biggest party in Basra, gaining 22% of the vote with the support of the Sadrists, below the “Islamic Basra” slate of the SCIRI and Da’wa, which won 33%.  The Fadhila were able to assemble a coalition with other minority parties to get more than half the seats and a governorate position for one of its members.45  Sadr, whatever his public protestations, was now pursuing a more quietist path of tactical cooperation with the occupiers in the slender and heavily managed representative institutions of the “New Iraq.”  He had publicly disavowed violence to pursue “political resistance.”46  However, participation in the government did mean that his supporters could find employment in the organs of the state — the new police force and army, for example.  The material benefits for some in the Shi’i working class were matched by a surge in electoral support for the Sadrist movement which in the December 2005 elections became the single largest bloc in the National Assembly — despite Sadr’s continuing formal commitment to a boycott.47  At the same time, and much to Sadr’s disdain it seems, the movement was also being penetrated by Iranian intelligence throughout 2005, with a surge of material support that Sadr personally resisted.  The Iranian government was supposedly tiring of its main client, the Badr organization, as it could not command the kind of grassroots loyalty that the Mahdi Army could.48  It is hard to tell what effect this had — many supporters of Sadr were unhappy about cooperation with the institutions created and organized by the occupiers, and there were ongoing battles, for example against the British in Basra when the latter opened fire on demonstrators, and tried to dissolve the entire Basra police force, which the UK military considered disloyal.49

Sadr’s decision to cooperate with the institutions of the government, and particularly with the sectarian Shi’i parties whose grasp of the levers of power remained overwhelming, coincided with a rising arc of sectarian violence in Iraq.  Although the civil war would never overtake the insurgency war in its intensity, it was nevertheless real, and it utterly transformed Iraq’s demographics.  To a degree, sectarian warfare was part of the occupiers’ strategy in Iraq, as Kurdish peshmerga were allowed to ethnically cleanse parts of northern Iraq and deployed to attack Sunni resistance fighters.  At the same time, Shi’i death squads such as the Badr organization were dispatched to take out rivals of the occupation.  The Badr frequently acted as part of the Special Police Commando death squads co-founded by former DEA specialist Steven Casteel (whose previous expertise included helping train government forces in Colombia), trained by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, and led by a former Baathist general.50  By early 2006, more than 1,000 Iraqis were being tortured to death and executed every month by death squads integrated into the government, and it was later estimated by the UN special investigator that the scale of repression was far worse than under Saddam Hussein.51

In the months following the attack on the Al-Askari mosque, approximately 365,000 people were driven out of their homes.52  One of the main dynamics of the ongoing sectarian warfare was the war between the Sadrists and the SCIRI.  This had been the case in August 2005 when Badr organization members attacked staff at a Sadrist office, who they knew were unarmed as a result of a previous agreement.  Sadr, often slow to be provoked, responded on this occasion by having his followers burn down 350 SCIRI offices across southern Iraq.53  Juan Cole commented that, though the SCIRI were formally in power in 11 of Iraq’s governorates, the Muqtada al-Sadr “increasingly represents the current thinking of the electorate” and his movement was growing daily as a result.54  Yet, Sadr’s movement was also accused of involvement in some of the worst acts of ethnic cleansing in that period.  It was said that Mahdi fighters had responded to the Al-Askari attack by besieging Sunni mosques and houses.55  The leader of the Iraqi Accord Front accused the Sadrists of driving Sunnis out of eastern quarters of the capital.56  Those from the wrong community were driven out of hospitals controlled by the Ministry of Health, one of the ministries under the control of the Sadrists.57  In truth, it would have been amazing if this, after wave upon wave of car bombings and rocket attacks in Sadr City, had not produced a violent response.  Sadr and the leadership of the movement tried to maintain calm in the wake of the attack on the Al-Askari shrine, but there was no chance of avoiding the coming bloodbath.  “Muqtada gave orders for this to stop,” a witness tells Patrick Cockburn, “but nobody responded.”  Muqtada al-Sadr protested that death squads claiming his name were “trying to destroy us and divide us and prevent us from raising arms against the occupiers.”  It didn’t make any difference: the attacks continued, and Sunnis — both civilian and military — were tortured to death, sometimes drilled.  Muqtada and the Mahdi Army became almost synonyms for attacks on Sunnis by Shi’i death squads.58

Muqtada al-Sadr bears a family name made famous by those murdered by the Ba’ath regime, including his father-in-law, his father, and two brothers.  The family had led resistance to Saddam Hussein, and Muqtada’s father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, had been involved in the 1991 uprising.  The Sadrists saw resistance to the occupation as a continuation of their resistance to Saddam Hussein.  Partially as a consequence, one of the Mahdi Army’s first orders from Sadr was to hunt down and capture the former Iraqi president before the occupiers did.59  It may have seemed like a solid populist gesture at the time, but it was to lead to an incident that consolidated the growing sectarian rift.  Two of Sadr’s supporters filmed what was seen as the sectarian lynching of Hussein after a farcical trial, at the US-Iraqi army base Camp Justice in Khadimiya on 30 December 2006, while chanting “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada!”60  Only a small element of the Sunni resistance seriously wished for a Ba’athist restoration, but few would have enjoyed the spectacle of Sadrists exulting in a stage-managed lynching by the occupiers and sectarian Shi’i groups, particularly as Saddam was dying more to expiate America’s sins than his own.

As the UIA coalition frayed; as the occupiers sought to clamp down on the gains made by the Sadrist movement’s entryist strategy into the comprador state; and as military combat between Sadrists and SCIRI loyalists intensified, a rapprochement with the Sunni resistance was surely needed.

The Resistance

Reputedly, Muqtada al-Sadr is a friend and admirer of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.61  He may wish to match the latter’s evident skill and charisma, but he has had to spend some time getting his house in order.  As Cockburn says, “the Sadrists were never able to emulate the discipline and unity of the Lebanese guerrillas.”62  Notwithstanding Sadr’s disapproval, the ugly period of ethnic cleansing in 2006 had despoiled the movement’s credibility with most Sunnis.  However, he still had 60,000 loyal fighters by early 2007, in much better shape than before.63  And, resuming his nationalist role, Sadr initiated the “Reform and Reconciliation Project” to include both Sunnis and Shi’is in a new political alliance, and which would set Sadr once more at odds with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, the renamed SCIRI), in May 2007.64  As the US occupiers sought to institutionalize the effects of the ethnic cleansing of the previous year with a “separation wall” in the Baghdad area of Adhamiyah, Sadr called a national demonstration, saying: “We will stand hand in hand with you (Sunnis) to demonstrate and protect our holy land.”65  The fact that the wall was universally unpopular, so much so that even Nouri al-Maliki had to register his opposition, demonstrated that the 2006 cataclysm had not made sectarianism unshakable.

Unknown to Sadr, however, the occupiers were pressuring Maliki to launch a crackdown on Sadr’s forces.  The “surge” had been launched with Bush ominously speaking of elements in Iraq’s Shi’i community who were as hostile to the US as Osama bin Laden.  Pro-US Iraqi militias and police put the Mahdi Army under intense pressure, with hundreds of arrests and attacks on homes.66  American sources put it about that Sadr had fled to Iran, making him out to be both a milksop and a puppet of Tehran.  In fact, Sadr was instructing the Mahdi not to put up a fight against the “surge” — this was one punch he was intending to duck.  Part of the “surge” strategy was to coopt a segment of Sunni nationalism which was opposed to the takfiris (generally referred to as “Al Qaeda”).  With agreements in place, the US handed over weaponry and money to the insurgents.  Sunni nationalists had been fighting the takfiri elements for some time, but the open rift caused Sadr to reinforce his nationalist position.  “Before they were killing Shiites with their car bombs,” he said.  “Now they are killing Sunnis with their car bombs.  They have become a common enemy.”67  At the same time, his forces were being drawn more and more into open combat with the SIIC, across the cities of southern Iraq.  In good relations with the occupiers and anticipating future electoral contests, the SIIC launched a series of attacks aimed at driving the Sadrists and the Fadhila movement into the margins of local politics, while claiming to uphold the authority of the central government.  Sadr was in a strong enough position to wage that battle, so it was only when he heard from Nouri al-Malki that the US was pressuring him into a crackdown that Sadr announced a ceasefire, which would be observed as of 31 August 2007.68  The following month, Sadr’s movement quit the United Iraqi Alliance.69  It so happens that this coincides with the moment of a sharp drop-off in all kinds of sectarian and insurgent attack across Iraq.70  Sadr’s tactical retreat delivered the statistics that the Bush administration called “success.”

However, with the Sunni triangle supposedly pacified, the US evidently set its sights on a confrontation that would consume and destroy the Mahdi Army.  Maliki was forced into action, although he initially begged the occupiers not to get involved for fear he would be seen as an occupation tool.  Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts, many defecting to the Mahdi Army.  Basra was clearly in Sadrist hands, and the union leader Hassan Jumaa reported that there was a general uprising underway.71  Eventually, US bombers and British troops had to be called in.72  The Mahdi held out better than in previous confrontations, so well that the Maliki administration veered wildly between denying that there was an attack on the Mahdi Army and branding his opponents as “worse than Al Qaeda.”73  Finally, government officials begged Iran to step in and negotiate a deal with Sadr, which it did.74  Once again, it seems Muqtada has won a confrontation that he did not initiate, based on his strength in the masses; he was evidently militarily better prepared, too.  The Mahdi Army has buried the myth of the “surge” in the rubble of Basra and come out politically stronger.

Sadr has now called for a national demonstration against the occupation on 9 April 2008, five years after the fall of Saddam, and four years after Muqtada’s first serious clash with the occupiers.  “Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and Arabs, must express their rejection and raise their voice against the tyrant occupier,” he said, urging participants to carry Iraqi flags to “show the unity of Iraq.”75  The upcoming local elections are likely to manifest a surge in support for the Sadrist movement.

The Mahdi Army alone can’t possibly liberate Iraq, and Sadr knows he needs allies.  However, if he is to work with the Sunni resistance, he will have to deal with a strong component of it, elements of the former Baathist Party, to which Sadr has been unremittingly hostile.  Can he?  That remains to be seen.  The best thing the resistance has going for it, for now, is the fact that both Sunni fighters and the Mahdi Army hate the occupiers more than they hate each other.


1  Juan Cole, “Muqtada Hits the Books; Said to aim at one day being Ayatollah,” Informed Comment, 14 December 2007; see also Cole’s earlier piece, “It Takes a Following to Make an Ayatollah,” Washington Post, 15 August 2004.

2  See Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, Faber & Faber, London, 2008: 140-7.

3  Nicholas Blanford, “Introduction,” in Nicholas Noe, ed, Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Verso, London & New York, 2007; “Biographical Sketch of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah: ‘The Nasrallah Enigma,'” Al-Bawaba, 10 November 2003.

4  Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shi’ite Leader, Saqi, London, 2005: 196-9.

5  Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion, Pluto Press, London, Sterling & Virginia, 2002: 16-22; Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2007: 35-7.

6  Noe, op cit: 130-1.

7  Ma’ad Fayyad, “Correspondent Recounts April Killing Of Iraqi Shiite Al-Khu’i In Al-Najaf,” World News Connection, 11 April 2003; “Top Shiite Cleric Seen Threatened by Gunmen Who Killed Khoei in Najaf,” Agence France Presse, 13 April 2003; Cockburn, op cit, says that the Sadrist denials have some credibility, although it is hard to disprove any involvement whatsoever on their part: 149-58.

8  “Shi’i Scholar’s Aides Blame Media for ‘Rumours’ of Dispute among Al-Najaf Ulema,” Al Hayat, 18 April 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.

9  “Iraq: Al-Sadr Supporters Want ‘Written Apology’ from US,” Al-Jazeera TV, 20 July 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.

10  “Iraq’s Sadr Accuses Iranians of Controlling Security in Baghdad,” Baztab, 23 August 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East; on the background to SCIRI and the Da’wa Party, see Juan Cole, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn 2003 and Faleh A. Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, Saqi, London, 2003: 235-63.

11  Cockburn, op cit: 146 and 169; “Cleric Says Council Should Not Represent Iraq at Arab League,” Al-Iraq Al-Jadid, 15 September 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East; “Iraq: ‘Thousands’ Demonstrate in Support of Al-Sadr,” Al-Jazeera TV, 13 October 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.

12  On this, see Matthew Duss, “Misunderstanding Muqtada al-Sadr,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 27 July 2007.  Cole, 2003, op cit, goes so far as to describe the movement as “xenophobic.”  Sadr has been persistent in denying links with the Iranian regime — see, for example, “Iraqi Shi’i Cleric Downplays Iran Links in Lebanese Paper Interview,” Al-Safir, 5 November 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.  Indeed, he has accused Iran of collaborating with the US to boost the quietist Ayatollah Sistani’s role in Iraq: “Iraq’s Young Shi’i Leader Says US, Iran Try to Boost Al-Sistani’s Role,” Al-Hayat, 21 January 2004, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.

13  John Siegenthaler, “Young Iraqi Cleric Leading Group Calling for US to Leave Iraq,” NBC News, 11 October 2003.

14  Drew Brown, “Cleric Reportedly Led Terror Attacks,” Knight Ridder News Services, 15 October 2003

15  “This pattern of ‘fragmented clientelism’,” Philippe Le Billon comments, “is characteristic of countries in transition, such as Russia in the 1990s.”   See “Corruption, Reconstruction and Oil Governance in Iraq,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4–5, 2005: 685-703.

16  See Dave Whyte, “The Crimes of Neoliberal Rule in Occupied Iraq,” The British Journal of Criminology, No 47, 2007.

17  Patrick Cockburn and Andrew Cockburn, Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession, Verso, London & New York, 2002: xxvi-xxvii.

18  Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala, Iraq in Fragments: The Occupation and Its Legacy, Hurst & Company, London, 2006: 222-36.

19  Ahmed S. Hashim, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq, Hurst, London, 2006: 249-59.

20  Cockburn, op cit: 163.

21  ‘Iran: Muqtada al-Sadr Opposes Violence, ‘Occupation’ of Iraq,” IRNA News Agency, 23 February 2004, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.  Sadr said: “From the very beginning, I believed that the occupiers did not want Iraq to enjoy either the rule of the people or freedom. . . .  There is no reaction at present.  If there is a reaction, it is going to be manifested through such peaceful means as staging demonstrations or sit-ins.”

22  Cockburn, op cit: 177

23 Carol Rosenberg, “Thousands March in Support of Cleric,” The Miami Herald, 3 April 2004.

24  “Iraq Cleric Al-Sadr Calls for ‘Armed Operations,’ Ending Protest,” BBC Monitoring International Reports, 4 April 2004.

25  “Al-Jazeera: Al-Sadr Supporters Take Control of Al-Kufah In Iraq,” BBC Monitoring International Reports, 4 April 2004; “Iraqi Protester: Us Fired on ‘Defenceless’ People Asking for ‘Free Expression,'” BBC Monitoring International Reports, 5 April 2004; “Al-Sadr Supporters Riot in Iraq’s Karbala; Al-Amarah Toll Rises to Eight,” BBC Monitoring International Reports, 5 April 2004.

26  Cockburn, op cit: 181.

27  Hamza Hendawi, “Iraqi Cleric Deemed ‘Outlaw’: U.S. Announces Arrest Warrant after Day of Carnage,” Associated Press, 6 April 2004

28  “U.S. General Vows to ‘Destroy’ Shiite Militia behind Fighting in Iraqi Cities,” Associated Press, 7 April 2004.

29  “Fallujah — City of Mosques and of Resistance,” Associated Press, 5 November 2004.

30  See Nir Rosen’s account, “Resistance: Meet the People of Fallujah,” Socialist Review, October 2004.

31  Cockburn, op cit: 180-6; “Sunni Representatives of Fallujah Meet Moqtada Sadr, Send Aid,” Agence France Presse, 16 May 2004.  As Sunni representatives met with Sadr, trucks packed with aid rolled into Najaf, with banners reading: “The hearts of the people of Fallujah are with the patient people of Najaf.”

32  Ibid.

33  “Sadr Boycotts Upcoming Polls in Iraq,” Agence France Presse, 26 July 2004.

34  Cockburn, op cit: 187-202; Hashim, op cit: 261-4.

35  Edward Wong, “Shiite Cleric Is Forming Party That May Play Role in Elections,” New York Times, 14 June 2004.

36  Cockburn, op cit: 203-7; Robert Siegel and Lourdes Garcia Navarro, “Moqtada al-Sadr’s Position on Iraqi Elections,” National Public Radio, 12 January 2005.

37  Cockburn, op cit: 207.

38  “American Media Consultants to Assist Iraqi Elections,” PRWeb, 11 December 2004.

39 Julian Manyon on ‘International Correspondents’, CNN International, 29 January 2005; Robin Wright, “No Foreign Observers to Monitor Iraq Vote,” Washington Post, 22 January 2005.

40  Scott Petersen, “Fallujans Welcome Security, Await Electricity,” Christian Science Monitor, 8 February 2005.

41  See Dahr Jamail, “The Dollar Campaigns for Allawi,”, 28 January 2005.

42  The number of excluded voters was estimated to be as high as 3 million.  Juan Cole, “Allawi: ‘Pockets’ Will Not Be Able to Vote,” Informed Comment, 12 January 2005.

43  Naomi Klein, “Getting the Purple Finger,” The Nation, 10 February 2005.

44  Herring and Rangwala, op cit: 117-8.

45  Herring and Rangwala, op cit: 122.

46  Cockburn, op cit: 205

47  Herring and Rangwala, op cit: 142-5.

48  Cockburn, op cit: 207-11.

49  Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer, “British Smash into Iraqi Jail to Free 2 Detained Soldiers,” Washington Post, 20 September 2005; Tom Regan, “Britain Will Scrap and Replace Police Force in Basra,” Christian Science Monitor, 26 September 2005.

50  Peter Maass, “The Salvadorization of Iraq?” The New York Times Magazine, 1 May 2005; Steve Fainaru and Anthony Shadid, “Kurdish Officials Sanction Abductions in Kirkuk,” Washington Post, 15 June 2005; Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru, “Militias on the Rise across Iraq,” Washington Post, 20 August 2005; Pratap Chatterjee, “The Boys from Baghdad: Iraqi Commandos Trained by U.S. Contractor,” CorpWatch, 20 September 2007.

51  Andrew Buncombe and Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq’s Death Squads: On the Brink of Civil War,” The Independent, 26 February 2006; Jonathan Steele, “Baghdad Official Who Exposed Executions Flees,” The Guardian, 2 March 2006; Elaine Engeler, “U.N. Expert Says Torture in Iraq Maybe Worse Now than under Saddam,” Associated Press Worldstream, 21 September 2006.

52  “UNHCR Worried about Effect of Dire Security Situation on Iraq’s Displaced,” UNHCR, 13 October 2006.

53  Cockburn, op cit: 217

54  Juan Cole, “Shiite vs. Shiite,” Salon, 8 September 2006; “Training Iraqi Police Forces,” PBS NewsHour, 30 December 2005.

55  Cockburn, op cit: 219; Mark Kukis, “Ethnic Cleansing in a Baghdad Neighborhood?” Time, 25 October 2006.

56  Juan Cole, “Ethnic Cleansing in Battle for Baghdad; Sistani Aide Claims Threat to Islamic Line,” Informed Comment, 6 January 2007.

57  Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq Is Disintegrating as Ethnic Cleansing Takes Hold,” The Independent, 20 May 2006.

58  Cockburn, 2008, op cit: 218-32.

59  “Muqtada al-Sadr Followers Told to Capture Saddam ‘Dead or Alive,”‘ Al-Zaman, 19 October 2003, via BBC Monitoring Middle East.

60  Dexter Filkins, “Who Wins in Iraq?  Muqtada al-Sadr,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2007.

61  Sami Moubayed, “Iraq’s Muqtada Not Quite Hezbollah Mold,” Asia Times, 18 December 2007.

62  Cockburn, op cit: 211

63  Thomas E Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson, “Intensified Combat on Streets Likely,” Washington Post, 11 January 2007.

64  Babak Rahimi, “A Shiite Storm Looms on the Horizon: Sadr and SIIC Relations,” Global Terrorism Analysis, Volume 5, Issue 10, 24 May 2007.

65  Bassem Mroue, “Sadr Calls for Demonstration over Wall,” Associated Press, 25 April 2007.

66  Cockburn, op cit: 233-7.

67  Cockburn, op cit: 243.

68  Damian McElroy, “Moqtada al-Sadr Announces Ceasefire in Iraq,” The Telegraph, 31 August 2007; Cockburn, op cit: 244-6.

69  Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar, “The Battle for Iraq Is about Oil and Democracy, Not Religion!” AlterNet, 10 September 2007; Raed Jarrar, “Al-Sadr Quits the United Iraqi Alliance,” Raed In the Middle, 17 September 2007.

70  “Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq,” Department of Defense, March 2008.

71  James Hider, “Iraqi Police in Basra Shed Their Uniforms, Kept Their Rifles and Switched Sides,” The Times, 28 March 2008; Qaiz Mizher, “Firsthand Look at Basra Shows Value of White Flag,” New York Times, 31 March 2008; Simon Assaf, “Revolt Spreads across Iraq,” Socialist Worker, 28 March 2008.

72  “British Army Joins Basra Fighting,” BBC News, 29 March 2008.

73  Peter Graff, “Maliki Says Sadrist Foes ‘Worse than al Qaeda,”‘ Reuters, 29 March 2008.

74  Charles Levinson, “Iranians Help Reach Iraq Cease-fire,” USA Today, 30 March 2008; Leila Fadel, “Al-Sadr Orders Militia to End Confrontation,” McClatchy Newspapers, 30 March 2008.

75  “Iraq’s Sadr Calls for Anti-US March,”, 3 April 2008.

Richard Seymour lives and writes in London.  His first book, The Liberal Defense of Murder (Verso, forthcoming), will arrive in bookstores this summer.  Visit his blog, Lenin’s Tomb, at <>.

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