Who’s afraid of Moqtada al-Sadr?

The Iraqi Shia cleric who only looks strong in contrast to the coalition.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

A year ago he was an obscure Shia cleric not much liked by other Shia clerics, whose only claim to fame was a famous dad (Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, killed by the Baathists in 1999) and a small following in the al-Sadr suburb of Baghdad and the southern town of Kufa.

Today he is described by Bush officials as one of the most dangerous men in Iraq and hailed by some for heading a ‘popular resistance’ to the US imperialist occupation; his army has clashed with coalition troops and Iraqi police in the cities of Najaf and Basra; and when he threatened in August to sabotage southern Iraq’s oil pipelines, the price of crude oil on the futures markets ‘rose to record levels’, deepening, according to one report, the world oil crisis (1).

How did Moqtada al-Sadr make this meteroric rise – from a two-bit cleric who made the occasional anti-American fiery speech to whomever would listen in Kufa to a powerful leader apparently holding the coalition to hostage in Najaf and Basra and rocking the world oil markets? Shia clerics still dislike him; according to one report, some clerics tentatively gave coalition troops a ‘green light’ to attack al-Sadr’s men when they were holed up in the holy city of Najaf.

And, for all the fantasies of some on the anti-war left, al-Sadr hasn’t won the backing of the Iraqi masses; in May, protesters in Najaf carried placards calling on al-Sadr to ‘leave Najaf to the residents of Najaf’, while Basra residents have called on the British Army to eject al-Sadr’s men (2). So what’s with his transformation?

Al-Sadr didn’t burst on to the postwar scene by rallying mass support or by issuing a political challenge to the occupying forces or by positing an alternative to coalition rule; he was effectively promoted to his current position of ‘most dangerous man in Iraq’ by the nervous coalition’s overblown response to his rhetorical bluster.

From the end of major hostilities in May 2003 through to March 2004, al-Sadr was, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, a ‘minor cleric’. He was no doubt a bit of a thorn in the side of the coalition, with his anti-American speeches and his men’s alleged involvement in the murder of a rival Shia cleric in Najaf in April 2003, but he hardly posed a threat to the armies of America, Britain and the coalition of the willing. In July 2003, US Lieutenant Colonel Chris Conlin accused media reports of ‘exaggerating’ al-Sadr’s influence and brushed ‘al-Sadr’s people’ aside as a ‘bunch of riff-raff’ (3). Estimates of the number of armed supporters he has, referred to as the Mehdi Army, vary wildly, from 500 to 10,000 (the 10,000 figure may have come about because that is reportedly how many copies his weekly newspaper used to sell).

Al-Sadr’s position changed at the end of March 2004, courtesy of the coalition. Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, shut down al-Sadr’s newspaper Al-Hawzah, justifying it as a pre-emptive measure against potential anti-coalition violence; Bremer said the paper was ‘dangerous’ and incited ‘violence against coalition troops’ (4). Yet as one report pointed out, this ‘trashy’ paper with a ‘circulation of 10,000 was hardly going to arouse Shias to attack [coalition forces]’. The coalition also arrested some of al-Sadr’s colleagues and issued a warrant for al-Sadr’s arrest (5).

As the LA Times reported in April 2004, such measures helped to transform al-Sadr from a ‘minor cleric’ into a ‘martyr’. The Times of London said al-Sadr had become a ‘magnet’ for disgruntled Shias; if that’s true, he was made into one by a nervous coalition that saw its existence threatened everywhere and which took risk-minimising measures against anyone with an anti-American grudge and a big mouth (6). It was a coalition concerned with protecting itself from every possible risk, rather than any special powers or insight on al-Sadr’s part, which, overnight, transformed this obscure cleric into a symbol of defiance against America.

Having made Al-Sadr into a major player, the coalition then watched as he sought to live up to his name by causing trouble in the cities of Najaf and Basra. Al-Sadr supporters first had run-ins with British forces in Basra when they stormed the Iraqi governor’s office there in April 2004, and later with American troops and Iraqi police in Najaf, during the heated stand-off that seemed to come to an end in late August 2004 when al-Sadr supporters filed out of the Iman Ali mosque after agreeing a deal with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric.

It is telling that Al-Sadr chose to flaunt his newfound fame as America’s most hated enemy in Najaf and Basra, where the American and British armies respectively have taken a hands-off approach, avoiding heavy patrolling for fear of offending local Iraqis. In both Najaf and Basra, the al-Sadr movement exploited the coalition’s sense of trepidation, rather than launching anything like a daring strike for political control of the cities.

Over the past year, the coalition has largely left Najaf unoccupied, instead occasionally patrolling on the outskirts of the city or from on high in helicopters and planes. Its major concern has been to keep away from Najaf’s holy sites, including the Iman Ali mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam. During the war itself, British and American officials decreed that religious sites in cities such as Najaf and Kerbala were ‘non-targets’; indeed, as a BBC report points out, coalition forces made little ‘attempt to enter these extremely sensitive places or even hit targets inside them’ (7). Even when US troops moved in to Najaf following rioting and protesting in April this year, the aim was to enforce ‘a degree of control’ and generals promised that Americans would ‘stay away from sensitive holy sites in the centre of the city to avoid rousing the anger of Shias’ (8).

This sensitivity on the part of the US army is not the result of any newfound respect for Iraqis or their culture (after all, morally speaking, what’s the difference between bombing a cafe full of people on a whisper that Saddam Hussein is inside and bombing a mosque?). Rather, it spoke to a more profound uncertainty about the coalition’s own mission, and to a sense of its faltering political and moral authority over Iraq, or anywhere else. Al-Sadr and his men have tapped into this in Najaf, moving into a city that the coalition has largely steered clear of on grounds of ‘sensitivity’. US officials have accused al-Sadr of cynically using the Iman Ali mosque for cover; but what do they expect when they have spent the past year promising not to enter, target or bomb the mosque or anywhere near it?

During the stand-off over Najaf, al-Sadr’s men explicitly contrasted their own alleged bravery with what they described as the coalition’s cowardice. Some of the fighters reportedly held up banners saying, ‘Where is the bullet that will grant me martyrdom?’ Others attacked the US army’s reliance on helicopter gunships and planes to calm the city, calling on US troops to ‘fight us hand-to-hand’. ‘They are cowards’, said one fighter. ‘They stay thousands of feet away in their aeroplanes. They are scared, they know we will slaughter them.’ (9)

Where coalition forces avoid patrolling religious sites for fear of offending Iraqis, al-Sadr’s men hole up in such sites and taunt the ‘cowardly coalition’; where coalition forces prefer to occupy Iraq from on high, or at least at a distance, al-Sadr supporters demand real, manly battles on the ground. Al-Sadr only appeared strong in Najaf in contrast to the presumed weaknesses of the coalition. Without the backing of the local people or clerics, al-Sadr instead postured himself in direct contrast to the seemingly distant occupying forces.

Similarly in Basra, al-Sadr forces have moved in as British forces have largely stepped aside. The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that ‘after three [British] deaths in as many weeks, the British army has stopped patrolling the streets of Basra’. The Brits are apparently only moving in armoured vehicles, ‘on patrols not more than 100 yards from base’. Not surprisingly, as the Telegraph reports, opportunistic al-Sadr supporters have ‘stepped into the vacuum, roaming the streets with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s’ (10).

Following demands from Basra residents to expel the ‘al-Sadr people’, British Major Ian Clooney said: ‘I can understand what the Iraqis are saying, but confronting violence with violence is not going to work.’ (11) So the British military is anti-violence? As with Najaf, al-Sadr supporters haven’t taken over Basra; they’ve kicked at an open door and found that it swung open.

It is the coalition’s curious occupation-in-denial that made al-Sadr what he is today, and which allowed his supporters to try their hand in Najaf and Basra. The clashes that have occurred in these cities – clashes so despised by the people who live there – show how the coalition’s hands-off style of occupation visits its own kind of instability on to Iraq. Al-Sadr has no political programme or end goal to his military posturings; when one of his aides was asked in mid-August how a truce might be reached in Najaf, he said: ‘We can stop fighting if the Americans stop fighting.’

This is no traditional clamour for power between occupying forces and a rebel army, but a further falling apart of postwar Iraq under a directionless coalition. With his cocky press releases and his supporters’ taunts to coalition forces to come out and fight like men, this might look like a strike to the coalition’s power from without – but the recent clashes are better understood as being the consequence of deeper insecurities from within. It’s a military pantomime, and the Iraqi audience, it would appear, have had more than enough.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Oil prices edge closer to $50 mark, Guardian, 20 August 2004

(2) Sistani followers, new Najaf governor up pressure on Sadr, Middle East Online, 11 May 2004

(3) Shiites warn US troops to leave Najaf, Scotsman, 21 July 2003

(4) See Iraq: how to make a rod for your own back, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) See Iraq: how to make a rod for your own back, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See Iraq: how to make a rod for your own back, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Iraq’s holy cities pose dilemma, Sadeq Saba, BBC News, 1 April 2003

(8) US troops to move into Najaf, Associated Press, 25 April 2004

(9) Sadr’s men hold Iraq shrine in defiance of government, Reuters, 21 August 2004

(10) British trapped in Basra vacuum, Thomas Harding, Daily Telegraph, 30 August 2004

(11) British trapped in Basra vacuum, Thomas Harding, Daily Telegraph, 30 August 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today