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Muqtada's powerful push for prominence
By Nir Rosen

BAGHDAD - "Our god prays for Muhamad and Muhamad's family," the crowd of Shi'ite faithful in Baghdad's Kadhim Mosque began in traditional chorus. But then they continued with a strange innovation, "and speed the appearance of the Mahdi [Shi'ite messiah], and damn his enemies and make victorious his son Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!"

This had never been heard before, but Turkmen Shi'ites were shouting it in demonstrations in front of the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters, as well as in Kirkuk during a February 27 show of force that included thousands of Muqtada's followers, as well as 2,000 members of his militia. Followers of popular cleric Muqtada Sadr now repeat it in their daily prayers.

For the past year, Muqtada has been changing all the rules while confronting the US occupation and rival clerics he sees as weak. The United States and Muqtada have been engaged in a game of brinkmanship, with US forces occasionally leaking threats that they will arrest him. Muqtada, meanwhile, warns US forces that his people's armed rebellion will soon begin. So far, Muqtada has been winning in this game, gaining experience as a leader as well as admirers of his defiance and followers of his father's office. Muqtada is the only living son of assassinated grand ayatollah Muhamad Sadiq Sadr.

Although mainstream Shi'ite Islam requires Shi'ites to choose a marja, or jurisprudent, and follow his religious verdicts based on his rational interpretation of Islam, it also requires that he be alive. By preserving the office of his slain father, Muqtada has changed yet another rule.

Muqtada and his followers have established eight religious courts throughout the country, with two in Baghdad. In Najaf, they initially tried to establish the court within the shrine of Ali, where they already have an office, but such an audacious move was prevented by the Najaf police. Within the shrine there are two prayer groups, one led by Hojatollah Sadrudin al Qubanchi, the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the other by a cleric from the office of Muqtada's father.

Haidar al Ma'amar, a 22-year-old student in the Hawza Shi'ite seminary, was praying with Qubanchi's group when two men sat beside him and asked him why he opposed praying on Fridays and why he criticized Muhamad Sadiq Sadr. Haidar denied both charges and the men said "so come with us to the court". Sheikh Haidar felt threatened, so he consented. Four men escorted him forcefully down the alleys leading to the court.

Sheikh Jabel al Khafaji was the presiding judge. "This is a very disrespectful way to deal with a Hawza student," Haidar complained, but the judge said nothing, merely gesturing with his finger to the guards that Haidar should be taken away. He was placed in an underground prison, where he spent six days and five nights, living off of soup and some bread.

There are two forms of punishment in the court, had, meaning fixed or limited punishment for specific crimes such as adultery (100 lashes) or stoning, and taazir, meaning unlimited punishments, subject to the judge's discretion.

Haidar, the father of two children, was already a frail man with an attenuated body made to appear even smaller by the immense turban he wears that presses down on his large ears. Wide eyes and a long nose protrude from his lengthy thin face - which appears even longer because of his beard. Haidar said he was chained to a column and beaten. He claims electrical torture was also used. Haidar's forehead is now scarred - a result of having his head bashed into a column. He also claims there were about 35 inmates in the prison, including a 12-year-old accused of homosexuality and a 14-year-old who stole money.

Haidar, who was known publicly to believe that Muqtada's men were responsible for the murder of Abdul Majid Khoei last April, was released after he was shown on television as a missing person and representatives from the Hawza pressured Muqtada's office. Haidar has since returned to being a student.

Najaf's chief of police was forced to pay more than US$200 to release a police officer who was held in the jail. Najaf police fear Muqtada's Army of the Mahdi has even infiltrated their ranks. The Army of the Mahdi has used grenades to blow up over seven video-compact-disc shops in Najaf, accusing them of selling pornography. The police received support from coalition forces and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) finally to shut down the court in Najaf and release the prisoners, though in Baghdad the courts and prisons still operate in the city's Shi'ite bastions.

The Mahdi Army has been assuming the role of government elsewhere, exhuming 40 bodies from a mass grave between Karbala and Najaf after an old man who discovered the bodies notified the Sadr office in the town of Kifil. They continue searching for mass graves in the region and have publicly announced that neither Iraqi police nor coalition forces are helping them.

In his Friday sermons at the Kufa Mosque near Najaf, Muqtada has derided every decision made by the coalition forces as well. "I ask the UN to take care of the Iraqi people and not the occupying forces and ask the Organization of Islamic [Conference] and the Arab League to work with the UN to supervise the elections so the Arab and Muslim leaders will cooperate to supervise elections, and the people should know that the protests are in demand of elections - not in demand of UN supervision."

After the United States gave former president Saddam Hussein prisoner of war (POW) status, Muqtada and his representatives assailed the decision. "Saddam is a war criminal," Muqtada shouted, "and there are no two people who can argue over this."

Sheikh Abdul Hadi al Daraji, a representative of Muqtada in Baghdad and the Khatib of the Muhsin mosque in Sadr City, spoke to thousands, saying that "at a time when no two people can argue about Saddam's crimes and his crimes against the Iraqi people and other countries, the American leadership declares - according to its arrogant, racist politics - that the infidel Saddam is a prisoner of war. Saddam is a war criminal and not a prisoner, and we should treat him accordingly, and the Iraqi people should judge him so he can face justice from here. We ask the Iraqi people to voice their opinion about this bad decision."

Muqtada has also been competing with more accommodating Shi'ite clerics such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani. On January 16, Muqtada called for a demonstration to be held on January 20 to protest against Saddam's prisoner status. Sistani called for one on January 19. The next day, on Saturday the 17th, Sistani's office called for a demonstration in support of free elections. Not to be outdone, Muqtada's men took four ambulances with loudspeakers attached and drove through Baghdad's Sadr City on Sunday the 18th announcing that the Monday the 19th demonstration (Sistani's) had been postponed until Tuesday (Muqtada's).

The demonstration on the 19th started in a hospital in Sadr City and proceeded to Mustansiriya. Many protesters held pictures of Muqtada, and there were even Muslims holding posters of Jesus Christ to convey interfaith support. They claimed there were Christians taking part in the demonstration, but none could be seen. That day and the next, thousands of Muqtada's supporters demonstrated throughout the country, condemning Kurds for seeking a federal system in Iraq which they blamed for "dividing the country".

In one such demonstration in Baghdad's Fardos Square, a Muqtada representative said that "we are demonstrating against federalism because we saw what happened in Yugoslavia, and federalism is an Israeli plan to divide us!" They held banners saying "no to dictatorship, no to racism and yes to freedom". Demonstrators also opposed the POW status given to Saddam and shouted "death to Saddam". In Karbala thousands of Muqtada supporters demonstrated and Jalal Hasnawi, the Muqtada spokesman in Karbala, told the demonstrators that "we are against Kurdish federalism and we support Sistani's call for general elections". In Najaf, thousands of demonstrators shouted "down with the USA, yes to Iraq", calling for elections and opposing federalism and also demanding an Iraqi trial for Saddam. Muqtada supporters in Kut called for power to be handed over to Iraqis and they demanded a united Iraq as they held anti-occupation slogans.

In late January, Muqtada rejected the United Nations supervision of elections or participation in them because he claimed the UN had legalized the occupation of Iraq. He added that the Shi'ite clergy was able to supervise the elections and he called for all Islamic parties to establish an Islamic constitution for Iraq that would guarantee the rights of the Iraqi people.

Aiham al-Samarrai, interim minister of electricity, later announced that although Iraq would not buy electricity from Israel, it might in the future be willing to sell electricity to Israel, but "at three times the price. We will extract money from Israel for the benefit the Iraqi people." Muqtada, in turn, addressed al-Samarrai in his Friday sermon in Kufa: "We won't have any objection at all once we send you and your followers to hell."

In Nasiriya, a demonstration a few days later forced Sabri Hamid Badr al Rumayadh, the governor of the Dhiqar province, to resign, though he changed his mind a few days later, provoking a large protest of thousands led by Muqtada representative Sheikh Aws al Khafaji on February 7, including members of the Mahdi Army, who surrounded the governor's headquarters and called for dissolving the appointed city council and establishing an elected council.

Two weeks later in Kufa, Muqtada threatened armed opposition to the occupation, claiming that "America came to harm the Iraqis but it will not be able to destroy Islam".

In late February, after a grenade was launched at the shrine of Imam Kadhim one night, Muqtada's associate Seyid Hazim al Araji spoke angrily, demanding that "we want the tanks to be far from our holy city. The missile did not come from Muslims, it came from the enemy of Islam. We oppose terrorism in Iraq and we think the Americans know the people who did this but they want to hide it. They hide it to make a sectarian war. They should stop playing the sectarian card." He urged religious leaders to take advantage of the holidays to make important decisions and demanded that the US should hand power to Iraqis on June 30, permit elections by the end of the year, increase the size of the IGC and end its delays.

In Baghdad on February 17, Abdel Mahdi Daraji, a Sadr office representative, said that although Muqtada had not yet called for an armed resistance, "it supports a peaceful resistance against the occupation using protests". Daraji refused to comment on armed operations - though he did not condemn them - adding that "only the marja is authorized to decide the time of the resistance, and also Shi'ite marjas see that at this time resistance is not good because it prolongs the occupation, but American hesitation in handing over power and prolonging the occupation may change the people's position on resistance".

Several days later, in Kufa, Muqtada railed against US administrator Paul Bremer's announcement that Islam would not be the main source of the new Iraqi constitution. "We want to advise everybody," Muqtada said, "that the Iraqi people have the ability to attack their enemies, and the revolution of 1920 is the best example, and the Shaaban intifada [the 1991 uprising after the Gulf War] is not far from us, and we oppose statements interfering in our internal national affairs. Just because Iraq is under occupation does not justify them interfering in internal affairs. Bremer's statement is a declaration of hate against Islam and an attempt to erase the hopes of the Iraqi people to obtain a constitution that is based on Islam. The Iraqi people have an Islamic identity even if many of them do not apply Islamic rules in their behavior."

In an interview with the Iranian News Agency, Muqtada said: "I will only negotiate with the Americans if their country says that it has come here to liberate us, not to occupy us. That is because occupying a country is incompatible with the very principle of holding negotiations. We are not hostile to America, but we are the enemy of occupation." He added that the UN did not have the right to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs either, and added, "The UN has agreed to the occupation of Iraq." He concluded, "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 peaceful means."

After the Ashura attacks in Karbala and Baghdad on March 2 in which more than 100 people were killed in a series of suicide bombings, Muqtada's Mahdi Army increased its "security-providing" role. Muqtada compared the attacks to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, saying, "America stirred up the whole world over what happened at the twin World Trade [Center] towers, and it must be aware that our holy places have been attacked and that their accusation of [Ayman] al-Zawahiri is nothing but a game." He said: "We will not be silent after that event unless we are given more clarifications." Muqtada said the killers were followers of Yazid and Muawiya (figures in Islamic history hated by Shi'ites for opposing the rule of Ali and descendants and killing Hussein) and that they were serving the infamous triangle of Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom. He added: "The Koran says you must terrorize the enemy of god, and the Mahdi will terrorize his enemies. I call on the officials and politicians in Iraq not to be satisfied with slogans alone."

After the interim constitution was signed last week, Muqtada fumed, comparing it to the British 1917 Balfour Declaration "which sold off Palestine. We are on the way to selling Iraq and Islam. It is a bad omen."

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Mar 18, 2004

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