The Shia of Iraq: friends, enemies, or agents of Iran? Moqtada al-Sadr (3/3)

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Baghdad by Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai

Many Iraqis and westerners “scream and cry” about the Iranian influence in Iraq, and would like to see Tehran’s authority over Iraqi politicians and security services ending. But few ever ask why the Iraqis allowed Iran to have such a say in Mesopotamia! Is the IRGC-Quds brigade commander General Qassem Soleimani capable of enjoying so much influence in Iraq without the support of the Iraqis themselves? Why, in every government formation, do politicians reach out to Beirut and Tehran to find a proper coalition and have a seat in government, if the Iraqis are not happy to see Iran enjoying influence in Bilad ma Bayna al-Nahreyn?

In Iraq, there are politicians who consider Iran a bridge to reach certain high positions within the government and, in consequence, enrich their own local party. Other politicians do seek independence from Iran, like Moqtada al-Sadr, although this man enjoyed Iranian money, training, a villa in Qom, and shelter for years, before claiming “independence”. In fact, Moqtada doesn’t have a long-term (or even a short-term) strategy but acts according to the moment. Our paths crossed on different occasions throughout the last decade. I met (and still meet to-date) regularly with his inner circle and (ex) Jaish al-Mahdi commanders to gain insight into his thinking. It needs to be said that membership of Moqtada’s inner circle has an “expiry date”: no senior Sadrist stays in the same position or for more than a few months. Here is a small window into the Moqtada story.

Moqtada al-Sadr:

It all began in 2004 when Moqtada al-Sadr called for a demonstration in Najaf, a short walk from the holy city of al-Koufa where his late father the Grand Ayatollah MohamadSadeq al-Sadr used to preach.

It is not possible to speak about Moqtada without mentioning his father, who laid down the path for his young son. Sayed Mohamad Sadeq had the privilege from the Saddam Hussein Baathist regime to approve residence permits for all foreign Ulema, including the existing non-Iraqi Grand Ayatollahs of Najaf. But the Grand ayatollah Mohamad Sadeq al-Sadr was firm in his last year and quite revolutionary, challenging Saddam and calling for the release of prisoners. He was in conflict with the Marjaiya, represented by the grand Ayatollah Sistani, accused by Sayed Mohamad Sadeq, without mentioning him directly, of leading the “silent Marjaiya” (al-marjaiya al Samita): while Sadr was leading the “outspoken Marjaiya” (al-Marjaiya al Natiqa), appealing to youth and attracting impoverished Iraqis from Baghdad and the south of Iraq.

This positioned al-Sadr to becoming a very prominent figure, influencing Iraqi policy. Moqtada adopted his father’s narrative after his father’s death: Sayed Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr was killed along with his two sons by Saddam Hussein Mukhabarat’s (Intelligence service) in 1999 when Moqtada was just 16 years old. Moqtada imitated his father also by wearing al-Kafan, the white dress shroud with which Muslims cover corpses with before they are buried; but it was also a symbolic indication saying: “I am ready to die any time but will speak the truth”.

Moqtada was left, very young, under house arrest by Saddam’s men, but with a lot of money from Beit al-Maal (the house of money or house of wealth managed by a Marja’ representing a percentage of donors’ yearly excess of benefit). Religiously speaking, the 16-year-old Moqtada had no right to touch or spend from Beit al-Maal, and needed a “licence” (permission) from an existing Marjaa.

Sayed Mohamad Sadeq had two most prominent students: Sheikh Ali Smeism and Sheikh Mohamad al-Ya’cubi. They too needed permission from an existing recognised Marjaa. This is when the Grand Ayatollah Ishac al-Fayad delegated his authority to sheikh Smeism to use the money in Beit al-Mal. Sheikh Ali Smeism, unlike Ya’cubi, refused this responsibility, turning down the Grand Ayatollah’s wish, but earning himself the integrity and respect, to-date, of all the Marjaiya (which is not the case for any of Moqtada’s inner circle). Ya’cubi later split from Moqtada and formed his own “Hawza,” becoming self-proclaimed Grand Ayatollah and also head of the al-Fadila political party.

Many politicians, following the fall of Saddam, (wrongly) saw in Moqtada a man they could easily manipulate to attract and detach many of his father’s hundreds of thousands of followers. Al Ya’cubi, Ahmad al-Chalabi, Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, Nuri al-Maliki, Iran, all tried but managed to pull away only scraps of the popularity Moqtada inherited from his father.

Many very young men surrounded Moqtada: most of these were students (beginners) of his father’s Hawza (“Hawza ilmiyya”, a centre for teaching Shia clerics). Because of his young age, when the US occupied Iraq in 2003 Moqtada was easily influenced by the many ideas around him- none of these strategically thoughtful, rather more likely to be impulsive.

He liked the image of the leader of Hezbollah Sayed Hasan Nasrallah and wanted to imitate his style but eventually decided he was better off with broader popularity, taking on the more prestigious religious background of his father. Moqtada wanted to adopt the same revolutionary ideas as Hezbollah, as a resistance against the occupation forces. Israel was occupying Lebanese territories and Hezbollah fought to recover most of it. At the time the US was just declaring itself an occupying force.

I landed in Baghdad in 2003 following the US occupation and the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was normal to see US forces patrolling the streets of Baghdad on foot: they felt safe in the capital, and believed they were welcomed by all Iraqis. Jogging daily around Baghdad, from Shourjah to Kadimiyah, I felt uncomfortable when crossing al-A’zamiyeh. A few months later I realised the centre of decision-making in Iraq was in Najaf.

Just at the perimeter of Wadi al-Salam, the second largest cemetery in the world after the Vatican, Al Sedeer hotel was the best available, run by a nice man that soon was forced to leave because he was a senior member of the Baath party. The hotel was equivalent to a less than a 1 star hotel in any Middle Eastern country I have visited, but that was what was available at the time. I knew no one in the city but over the years I have realised it was the right choice.

Nevertheless, I had to hang around for a long time, learning about the city and its dynamic until I had the opportunity, during Moqtada’s occupation of Najaf, to have many doors open, due to Moqtada’s behaviour and my audacious reporting: Sistani was very surprised to read an article written by a foreign journalist living in Najaf and writing about Moqtada’s wrong doing : Jaish al-Mahdi was terrorising everybody in the city, including the Marjaiya. In fact, for weeks Jaish al-Mahdi was looking for me and Najafi were laughing about the fact that I was walking in the streets of the city, passing by Moqtada’s men regularly. People of Najaf were very friendly and most generous, offering me drinks and wanting to explain to me about the families in Najaf and enjoying chatting about the situation in Iraq. In fact, the city gave me a degree of access to decision makers that any journalist or researcher could only dream about.

The US occupation forces saw in Moqtada and his entourage a kind of minor headache and took the first step by arresting Moqtada’s close companion and Head of Finance Sayed Mustafa al-Ya’cubi in May 2004. Moqtada was advised to call for a demonstration, a long walk from Najaf to nearby city of al-Koufa.

So in 2004, I joined Moqtada’s protest demonstration against the arrest of Sayed Mustafa al-Ya’cubi by US Special Operation Forces. I was immediately spotted by Jaish al-Mahdi for being a foreigner, just before sahat al-Ishreen. After a thorough search, I was allowed to join in. There were armed men among the hundreds of demonstrators, all in black and with obvious hot blood: the 5-6 kms to al-Kufa were already expected to be a long walk.

As soon as the gathering reached Hay al-Sinaei, men shouted aggressively at the Salvadorean forces, part of the coalition led by the US, based at the left hand side of the main street going towards al-Kufa. The soldiers were taken by surprise, and started to run, disorganised, when an exchange of fire caught everybody and emptied the street in less than a minute. A small white van was already burning in the middle of the street: it was Moqtada’s first “adventure” and, most probably, the first gunfire he wanted to be involved in.

When everybody reached al-Kufa, it was clear that Moqtada and his inner circle were confused, taken by surprise and faced with an unplanned situation. A little struggle took place between his lieutenants: sheikh Fuad al-Turfi was proclaimed head of Jaish al-Mahdi in al-Kufa and Moqtada’s spokesperson. But the ambitious Qais al-Ghaz’ali convinced the young Sadrist to select him. Just a few meters away from me, I was able to see the bitterness of al-Turfi who was later even removed from the Kufa leadership, given instead to Sayed Riyad al-Nouri (later assassinated by JAM).

It was obvious that Moqtada never planned anything but acted impulsively, selecting a “good idea” proposed by his lieutenants when he just liked it and if it had some action in its details. Moqtada’s style is to adopt any good idea from his lieutenants, but only if it has a strong chance of working. In fact, when he decided to occupy Najaf in 2004, one could see youngsters from outside the city establishing checkpoints in the same al-Rasoul street, meters away from the Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s street. And these youths were tough with the people of Najaf.

Moqtada even imposed a special laissez-passer on foreigners or anyone from outside Najaf. I was taken to the Islamic court one day. I was just walking down Rasoul Street and was stopped by the young thugs, fully armed. Sayyed Hashem Abu-Ragheef received me by the door of the Islamic court, and when I asked him, as a journalist, why I needed a special pass, the head of the court told me: “You may very well be a spy in the city of Emir al-Mo’mineen. I’ll give you the proper documentation so you can walk freely”.

“If I was spying – I answered – on Emir al-Mou’mineen (he is dead now), why indeed would you give such a document to a spy?” Abu Rgheef told me to shut up, take the document and leave. I took it and had two in my pocket, both signed by the same Abu Rgheef who doesn’t remember he has already given me a similar document a week before! But the experience of going to the “Islamic court” was too tempting. I heard a lot about massacres between its walls but of course, none of this could be confirmed. It was the normal story telling of Iraqis who like to exaggerate the information and sometime turn rumours to reality.

During the 2004 war against the Americans, in his Barrani (office), Moqtada was always sitting on the first floor, with access to Internet. The Barrani (his late father’s office) was still located in front of Imam Ali’s Shrine. During the battle of Najaf, I walked in one day asking about Moqtada. One of his close aides told me that he had received a new Atari game and was trying it. Since then, I call him Abu al-Atari, but discreetly: Moqtada is a dangerous man and can’t bear much criticism or being made fun of.

But he is a courageous man: during the negotiations with the Americans, he was driven around many times without a body guard, only with Sayed Imad Kilintar who mediated between JAM and the Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. He would have been arrested at every corner yet he refused even to put his Amama (turban) on the side to be less recognisable. But that part I have lived in person in every single detail- so that needs another story!

The US forces bombed the hotel I was in and only one out of four floors remained accessible. I was the only client, with a receptionist who was firing at shadows in the night because he was afraid, alone in a large area, as everybody fled the cemetery surroundings. He stopped firing his AK-47 when I convinced him to come and sleep in the room next door to avoid waking me up every night. Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) was firing from the floors above my room, between the debris, when I decided to leave the hotel to go to Hay al-Saad: the hotel had become too noisy with the daily exchange of fire.

Moqtada was hiding inside the Imam Ali Shrine where I met him on more than one occasion. He was anti-Sistani at that time, accusing him of representing the “Marjaiya al-samita” (the silent Marjaiya). A few JAM were caught armed, trying to reach Sistani (and the other Marajee like Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi) home from the roofs. I asked Moqtada in person: why do you say you support al-Marjaiya when it is against your interest? Moqtada answered: “I support the Marjaiya of my (late) father”. That was the time when Qais al-Khaz’ali was still his spokesperson (giving me signs behind his boss’s back to stop) and Moqtada was hot headed- unlike his attitude today and his policy that is in complete harmony with Sistani’s vision of Iraq. Moqtada was violent with his lieutenants: I saw him slapping Qais in the face the day the Shrine was hit by a mortar (it was JAM, not the US, even if people said otherwise at the time).

During the second battle of Najaf, Iran walked in, thanks to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, and started the relationship with Moqtada al-Sadr, who ordered Sheikh Qais and sheikh Akram al-Ka’bi to look after the connection. Abu Mohamad Shibl, the head of JAM, was dismissed by Moqtada after the battle of Najaf for reasons that are impossible to explain here. When I met Shibl, he was trying to return under Moqtada’s wings who refused categorically, despite Sheikh Smeism‘s intervention, to reintegrate him. He decided to seek shelter under Iran’s wings instead.

In fact, the 2004 (first and second) battle fiasco cost a lot of blood to JAM. It was an unbalanced and unnecessary war. I saw how US snipers would kill without hesitation a Jaish al-Mahdi militant standing in the middle of the street close to hay al-Saad in Najaf while opening fire from his AK-47 against an Abrams tank. But the story of JAM in Najaf, its battle against the US forces, the capture of a Canadian-Jew and how Moqtada was commanding his security chief Sayyed Husam al-Husseini Falafel and Coca-Cola is also for another time.

The Grand Ayatollah Sistani returned from London (where he went for medical reasons) to save Moqtada from being killed or captured. He and his men fled during a demonstration, mimicking the Egyptian film (which I hadn’t seen) “Irhab wa Kabab”, due to the similarity of events. Moqtada reached Baghdad safely and was protected by three of his lieutenants: Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali, Sayed Mustafa al-Ya’cubi and Sayed Haidar al-Mussawi. Each would be in charge of Moqtada’s security for 15 days. At al-Sadr city in Baghdad, I went to see Moqtada in 2006 when he was hiding and was very concerned to be arrested or killed by the US forces. I was driven by two armed men for half an hour around the very populated city while lying down in the back seat to make it difficult for me to identify Moqtada’s cache.

It was a period (February 2006) when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi managed to stir up the sectarian reaction he always looked for, by blowing up the Shia holy shrine of Imam al-Askari in Samarra . In ancient Islam, Samarra was a military garrison town holding many Askr – soldiers. Its name comes from the Imam who lived under house arrest and prison most of his life, during the time of Abbasid Caliph al Mo’tamed and his brother al-Muwaf’faq.

I was in Baghdad arguing about the Shia reaction and how these were falling into al-Qaida’s (Zarqawi was the Emir of al-Qaida in Iraq -AQI) trap with Sheikh Jalal-eddine al-Sageer at Buratha Mosque. It was around midnight and Sheikh Jalal was suffering from repetitive failed attacks from Al-Qaeda, overwhelmed by bodyguards, accused of leading “black squads” eliminating those he believed linked to AQI or ex-Baathist officers. He didn’t like the conversation and left me at midnight outside to walk back from al Karkh to the city centre (around 10km) whereas a curfew was imposed from 19:00 pm onward. Luckily Iraqi security forces are not that strict: a foreigner without an ID in a country at war with insurgents! No wonder Zarkawi’s men were highly active.

Moqtada went along with Iran and accepted to form a clandestine group, camouflaging his direct involvement. Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali, Moqtada’s lieutenant, was leading Asaeb Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), a branch of Jaish al-Mahdi, until he was arrested in March 2007 along with his brother and a Lebanese Hezbollah commander, Ali Musa Daqduq. He was travelling under an Iraqi passport and successfully played the mute and deaf for a month before being recognised from Israeli records. Daqduq existed in Israel record, helping to identify him. He was commander of a large front in the south of Lebanon and participated in many battles. Again this, together with Daqduq team operations, the attack and killing of US officers in Karbalaa by Hezbollah-AAH, Daqduq’s arrest and his release- they all deserve another story.

Following the arrest of Qais, Moqtada tried to take all the wealth offered by Iran to the Asaeb (many institutions, gasoline stations, shops and much more). Akram refused to give these away. “These carry the name of al-Sadr and I am his legitimate representative. He is my father”, Moqtada told Akram who responded: “Sadr is not only yours. It is for all of us. We are all Sadrists but you are not everybody’s leader”. Akram remained faithful to Qais and to Iran but not Moqtada. That marked a turn in Moqtada’s loyalty and attitude, from being pro-Iran to become relatively anti-Iran.

Moqtada suffered the defection of three of his main lieutenants who formed new independent groups: Asaeb Ahl al-Haq (led by Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali), Harakat al-Nujaba’ (led by Akram al-Qa’bi) and Kataeb Imam Ali (led by Shibl al-zaidi or better known as Abu Muhamad Shibil). But Moqtada considers today all these splits as being irrelevant, because he now has an overdose of followers (hundreds of thousands, in fact).

During his exodus to Iran, Moqtada was travelling from Tehran to Saudi Arabia, meeting Prince Bandar Bin Sultan (head of the Saudi Intelligence Service at that time)- to the complete dislike and disapproval of Soleimani. Moqtada kept his independence, up to a certain point. His contact with Hezbollah was also extremely normal, without any special level of relationship, even if Sayed Hasan Nasrallah looked after Moqtada and his lieutenants, met them regularly and always (until recently) sent a protection team to Moqtada.

When the war in Syria erupted in 2011, Iran offered to support the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who refused a major intervention but agreed on the presence of Hezbollah fighters around the Shia holy shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab in rural Damascus. In 2013, al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) reached the heart of the capital and Assad asked for help. Iran sent advisors and fighters and asked Hezbollah and several Iraqi groups to send forces to stop the Takfiri (al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” ISIS) before it was too late. Moqtada refused, at the start, to send his men to Syria at that time because he believed Bashar should be removed. When he was the only Shia group left, he accepted to send 2,000 of his men in that first year, to detach these for good.

Moqtada al-Sadr never integrated his military branch within Hashd al-Sha’bi but fought against ISIS under the volunteer flag: his Saraya al-Salam took control of Samarra, the birth town of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al Samarraei, to protect the city and the Shia holy shrine of Imam Hasan ‘bn Ali ‘bnMohamad al-Askary (already destroyed once in February 2006 by al-Qaeda in Iraq – ISIS today – sparking brutal sectarian retaliation).

Moqtada is today looking to get rid of Saraya al-Salam (Moqtada changes his mind again!), knowing that the time of militia in Iraq will end, with the blessing of the Gran Ayatollah Sistani and the will of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Therefore, he has asked all his group members to join the Hashd institution or the security forces once the entire Iraqi territory will have been liberated. Moqtada will be without an armed militia (though he has the power to mobilise thousands at short notice) and is today looking for new political alliances, for a strong Prime Minister.

He would like to support the actual Prime Minster Haidar Abadi against al-Maliki, (sponsored by Iran, and also wants more than ever to return as Prime Minister). But Moqtada is keeping his options open, thinking about identifying a military personality or a technocrat that he could support from behind the scenes. He could even back the ex-Prime Minister and the Gulf-West’s best candidate, Ayad Allawi- who, in 2004, gave his orders as Prime Minister to capture or kill Moqtada.

Moqtada has earned the respect of the Marjaiya represented by Sistani because he saw the power the Grand Ayatollah is capable of. He is consulting with Sayed Sistani on most important matters and earns mutual respect in exchange . Therefore Moqtada’s recent visits (to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates) and Gulf contacts are not to be considered a unilateral move, confronting Iran and its axis in Iraq, represented by all groups who will stand behind al-Maliki. Moqtada voiced his will to travel to Europe and visit the Vatican, to present himself as “the moderate popular but peaceful Shia leader” in comparison to the Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Hasan Nasrallah, “the trouble maker”. The world would be happy to promote Moqtada (who is standing against Iran’s plans and their proxies in Iraq, Moqtada’s old lieutenants) and use him without necessarily considering him a serious and reliable Iraqi politician.

The Shia in Iraq are politically divided today and the forthcoming elections will be decisive: all the gloves will be off. There will be one side supported by Iran and the other side will stand with Moqtada, Abadi and all those hoping to defeat Iran. Led by Moqtada al sadr, these will without doubt, receive Gulf and US support in the hope of defeating Iran’s allies in Mesopotamia.


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