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    Middle East
     May 26, 2007
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Iraq's Sadrists follow Hezbollah's path

By Mahan Abedin

vast majority of so-called "Sadrists" are deeply loyal to Muqtada (whom they regard as the living symbol of the achievements and sacrifices of the two Sadr martyrs), at an organizational level substantial segments of the Sadr movement have fragmented into autonomous militias, criminal gangs and cult-like millenarian movements.

The first split in the movement occurred barely a few weeks after the ouster of Saddam. A serious dispute developed between Muqtada and Sheikh Mohammad al-Yaqubi over organizational

discipline and the distribution of decision-making in the movement. Muqtada's inability or refusal to instill more discipline in the movement led Yaqubi (who was a close companion of the slain Sadiq al-Sadr) to break away and establish the Hizb al-Fadila al-Islamiyah (Islamic Virtue Party).

Although a branch of the Sadr movement, Fadila has always acted independently. Now led by Abdel-Rahim al-Husseini, the party holds 15 seats in the Iraqi Parliament, where it operates under the rubric of the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance. The party's strongholds are in Basra and the surrounding areas, where they generally cooperate with the British military and other British agencies. Indeed, Fadila can be considered one of the very few British success stories in the south of Iraq.

But Fadila is very much an exception in the pattern of fragmentation and splinter groups over the past four years. Splits from the Sadr movement since the summer of 2003 have not led to the establishment of credible independent political organizations (as in the case of Fadila). Instead, dissident and rogue elements have opted to create small, autonomous militia structures while nominally swearing loyalty to Muqtada and his movement. Others have degenerated into millenarian cults that see military power as the most effective method of challenging the orthodoxy of Najaf's clerical elite.

Arguably the best example was Dhia Abdul Zahra's Soldiers of Heaven cult that engaged Iraqi and US forces in a fierce battle on the outskirts of Najaf in late January this year. The Iraqi government alleged that Abdul Zahra's forces intended to attack the seminaries of Najaf and assassinate top Shi'ite clerics on the eve of the Ashura commemorations. Abdul Zahra and more than 250 of his fighters were killed in the fierce battle.

Another major cult (and a splinter group from the Sadrist movement) is Sheikh Mahmud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi's Army of Hussein. Sarkhi's followers gained prominence after they attacked the Iranian consulates in Basra and Karbala last year in response to alleged Iranian "insults" directed at Sarkhi. Sarkhi calls himself an ayatollah, a title that the Iranians and a sizable number of religious Shi'ites in Iraq strongly contest.

Despite their different motivations, splinter groups from the Sadrists tend to have one common denominator: they are all strongly anti-Iranian. These groups accuse Muqtada and his close advisers of betraying the Iraqi nationalist credentials of the Sadr movement by getting too close to Iran. Ironically, the continuous splits have had the opposite effect (insofar as the Sadrist dissidents are concerned) of drawing Muqtada and the core of the Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) closer to Iran. Muqtada now looks to Iran as the movement's ultimate protector in the face of numerous and powerful enemies, which include the British and US militaries in Iraq, sections of the Iraqi government, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement and Sadrist dissidents.

At first glance there is no comparison between Hezbollah's military, political and socioeconomic organizations and Muqtada's movement. The former is a highly disciplined organization that uses the most sophisticated means and systems to win and hold support, while the latter is a large and divided set of components, factions and militias that is under intense pressure from a wide range of forces.

Leaving aside Hezbollah's military prowess (which humiliated Israel in last summer's war), there is no parallel between Hezbollah's political and socioeconomic structures and those of the Sadrists. Whereas Hezbollah is known for its incorruptibility and a steadfast refusal to play any dirty games in Lebanon's notoriously treacherous politics (for instance, Hezbollah scrupulously avoids assassinating political rivals in a country where such incidents are all too common), the Mahdi Army is widely believed to be the main force behind the sectarian Shi'ite death squads in Baghdad and elsewhere. Moreover, the Sadrist movement's religious-charitable organizations are nowhere near as sophisticated and prolific as Hezbollah's.

But a direct comparison is not necessarily the best way to clarify how Iran can use the Sadrist movement to advance its geopolitical interests in Iraq and beyond. Moreover, the Sadrist movement and its Mahdi Army are young and immature organizations, whereas Hezbollah has had more than 20 years to fine-tune its systems and politics. From an Iranian perspective, "functionality" is the key to designing and developing non-state actors in unstable countries where Iran has widespread and legitimate interests.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's military prowess and sophisticated socioeconomic, political and media infrastructures have transformed Iran into a Mediterranean power. Through Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic has not only inserted itself into the Arab-Israeli conflict (where it pulls the most important strings from a safe distance), but it has also managed to displace a significant amount of Iranian-US tensions on to the fabric of Lebanese politics.

In Iraq, the Islamic Republic can use the Sadrist movement to pursue at least five strategic objectives. In the short term, the Sadrists are an effective irritant to both the British and US occupation forces. Second, they are an effective counter to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and to a lesser extent the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement (which forms the backbone of the Iraqi resistance). In the longer term, the Sadrists can be used to balance the power and influence of the Iraqi government, which will likely remain weak for years (if not decades). While Iran has significant influence within the Iraqi government, it is conventional wisdom that the United States will be able either to blunt or circumvent this influence for a long time to come. After all, it is the United States that ultimately keeps the fledgling Iraqi government in power.

Fourth, the Sadrists can be used both to consolidate and contain the power of the Shi'ite clerical elites in Najaf. Much will depend on the evolution of the personal relationship between Muqtada and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (and his successor - in the event of his death). From an Iranian point of view, while it is important for the Najaf clerical elites to gradually expand their power and influence, it is equally important that they do not endorse policies that are antithetical to the interests of the Islamic Republic in Iraq or elsewhere.

Finally, the Mahdi Army and its associated militias enable the Islamic Republic to penetrate and influence the development of new Iraqi security structures; a process that has been well under way for at least three years.

From conversations with senior Iranian diplomats and other officials concerned with Iraq policy, four general conclusions keep recurring.

First, Iraq is heading toward "failed state" status. Second, a horrendous - but brief - civil war will erupt once a sizable number of US troops depart the arena. Third, no matter how unstable or bloody Iraq becomes, this is unlikely to affect Iran in any significant way. Fourth, the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq is likely to prove permanent. The so-called "Islamic State of Iraq" (a coalition of Salafi-jihadist outfits led by the remnants of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's network) is not as imaginary or elusive as it appears. Indeed, Salafi-jihadis will likely seize and hold large chunks of territory in western Iraq (once the Americans reduce their military presence) and will be able to use this as a base to plot against US and European interests in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly beyond.

As this scenario unfolds, the Iranians will give more importance to their relationship with Muqtada and the different components and factions of his movement. While Iran would prefer to exert influence in a unified and stable (albeit weak) Iraq, it can still manage an extensive network of patronage and influence in an unstable and bloody situation.

In the final analysis, the Sadr movement will likely play an important role in how Iran and the United States manage tensions and eventually reach some kind of broad understanding, without necessarily normalizing relations. While tension is unlikely to escalate into a shooting war, the Mahdi Army still gives the Islamic Republic potent leverage in the increasingly aggressive positioning that is likely to precede any significant breakthrough in the Iranian-US cold war.

1. Mahan Abedin, Dossier: The Sadrist Movement, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol 5, No 7, July 2003.

(This article first appeared in SaudiDebate.com. Published with permission.)

(Copyright 2007 SaudiDebate.com)

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