Why did Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr become the archenemy of most Shiite politicians?

Written by – Elijah J. Magnier:

Eight thousand two hundred seventy-three polling stations were allocated on Sunday for 25 million eligible Iraqi voters to choose the future 329 MPs among 3227 candidates competing to win Parliamentary seats. Iraq is preparing to announce the results of the fifth elections, which are being held for the first time under the eyes of international observers. These have long been rejected in the past by Iraqi politicians on the pretext of preserving Iraqi sovereignty. But what many Iraqi politicians fear the most, and expect, is the victory of the Sadrist leader, Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi politicians fear al-Sadr most because of his hard-line stances on many political matters, foremost of which are domestic politics and relations with other countries, including immediate neighbours.

The international media often wrote about Sayyed Muqtada and his various political stances that his opponents used to criticise him because of their lack of awareness of the political view and positioning that he wishes for Iraq. What is the real political vision of Sayyed Muqtada? And why has he become the archenemy of Shiite politicians in Iraq, who are waging a fierce media war against his supporters?

Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr is the youngest son of the late Marja’, Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. He inherited a robust and numerous popular base from his father, mainly from the poor Shiites, whose duty gives him an undisputed loyalty.

When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, the young Muqtada did not have the political experience to run a hugely popular party declaring absolute allegiance to the al-Sadr family. (Former) Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Ahmed al-Shalabi (one of the key people who encouraged the US to occupy Iraq) and a large number of politicians in Iraq approached him in the hope of stealing many of his supporters. No one had any matching popularity and such a substantial human reservoir loyal to him like Sayed Moqtada did.

Sayed Mohamad Sadeq al-Sadr was critical of the silence of the supreme authority in Najaf, which he called the “silent Marjaiya”: he called himself the “vocal Marjaiya”. His criticism was mainly directed towards the religious leaders who had failed to stand against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. Sayed Mohammad’s son, Muqtada, followed his father’s footsteps in the early years of the US occupation and wore the white veil, imitating his father as a sign of his willingness to die if that would be the price of the truth he believed in.

In the early years of the occupation, Sayed Muqtada took control of Najaf and also “Saddam City” that was renamed “Sadr City”, in Baghdad, which represents the largest neighbourhood in the Iraqi capital. Sayyed Muqtada emerged as the first Shia religious-politician, with known residence in Najaf, to openly challenge the US occupation and demanding it leaves Iraq. This was at a time when most Shia political parties were welcoming the Americans and describing these forces as partners. Sayyed Moqtada is known for his resilience, not to say resistance, against the US occupying forces. He was the pioneer who harshly criticised the first Iraqi prime minister in the interim government established by the US occupation, Iyad Allawi.

Thus, Sayed Muqtada became the first symbol of marginalised Iraqis and a symbol of resistance to the US occupation, especially after the US civil administrator, Paul Bremer, decided to close Muqtada’s “Al Hawza newspaper”. However, Bremer’s decision was mainly caused by harsh criticism by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which itself was rejected and publicly attacked by Sayed Muqtada.

The young Sadrist leader was the first to call for the withdrawal of the occupation by the use of force that he advocated from the Kufa Mosque, where his father had been challenging Saddam Hussein with his intelligence officers present inside the mosque. Sayed Muqtada also called for the necessity of completely free and fair elections and choosing an Iraqi parliament responsible for drafting the constitution and nominating the next government.

Sayed Muqtada formed the “Mahdi Army” that spread through Najaf, Basra, Amarah, Nasiriyah and Kut, to the surprise of the US occupation forces at the time. Armaments were weak compared to those of the US, the strongest army in the world. However, this did not deter Sayed Muqtada from insisting on declaring his hostility to the US and fighting a second war in the holy city of Najaf. So when the first war broke out in Najaf, although Sayed Muqtada and his supporters did not know the art of war, they were armed with the belief and the will necessary to confront the occupation. The US Viceroy Paul Bremer decided to arrest or kill Sayed Muqtada.

This will to fight the US attracted Iran, which sent the late Hajj Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to Najaf to offer the “Islamic Republic” assistance in arming and training the Sadrists as long as the hatred toward the US was shared.

Sayed Muqtada established the “special forces” and then secretly formed a group called “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq”, whose leadership was given to the former spokesman for the movement, Sheikh Qais al-Khazali and his deputy at the time, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi. Sheikh Khazali was operating under the command of Sayed Muqtada and within his circle, after the Sadrist leadership left Najaf for Baghdad at the end of the battles of Najaf.

Sayed Muqtada travelled back and forth to Iran because he was convinced that the US occupying forces wanted to assassinate him. But the US was ignorant of the Iraqi domestic dynamic; therefore, the conspiracy against Sayed Muqtada came in the first place from Iraqi politicians. Consequently, the advice of Iraqi politicians who supported the US was specific, that Sayed Muqtada posed a threat due to his political ideas and his rejection of any country’s influence over Iraq. Consequently, the killing of Sayed Muqtada would have comforted many Iraqis and could have fragmented his supporters.

Moreover, the US was profoundly watching and registering how Moqtada al-Sadr supported Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early years, Iran’s closeness to Moqtada’s group, his confrontation with the US presence and hegemony, and his broad popularity. These were more than enough elements to justify trying to get rid of him.

When the confrontation with the US turned ugly, and Sadrists were hunted down by the local security forces supported by the Americans, Sayed Muqtada sought refuge in Iran. Notwithstanding his presence in Iran, the Sadrist leader never submitted to the Iranian leaders’ wishes and travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet Iran’s fierce enemy Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, to the intense dislike of the Iranian hosts. This is what prompted Iran to try to split the Sadrist movement by embracing Sheikh Akramal Kaabi and encouraged him to form his party, the “Al-Nujaba Movement”, as it did with Sheikh Khazali, who adopted the “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” group, both parties from the womb of the Sadrist base. And in a move unrelated to Iran’s role, Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, once part of Moqtada’s father’s inner circle, took a chunk of the Sadrists and formed the al-Fadilah party. 

The split encouraged by Iran angered Sayed Muqtada, who insisted on his campaign, asking the Iranian leaders to stop interfering in “Iraq’s affairs”. As for Sayyid Muqtada’s position on the defection of the dissidents, his position has always been as follows: no one in the Sadrist movement is compelled to stay under my command. Whoever wants to leave can do so; this will not seriously affect the large base of the Sadrist movement. Because of his great popularity, which surpasses that of any other party, the more politically experienced Sayed Muqtada has remained the dominant force in the Iraqi arena. Despite being the declared enemy of the US occupation forces, he was ready to work closely with the US after the announced total withdrawal due 

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Proofread by: Maurice Brasher

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