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    Middle East
     Feb 14, 2008
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Muqtada, the man who would be ayatollah
By Babak Rahimi

As a political and military force, Iraq's Shi'ite Sadrist movement has undergone a number of radical transformations since 2003, when its leader Muqtada al-Sadr surprisingly emerged as a leading political figure. Muqtada's recent decision to continue with his seminary studies and graduate as an ayatollah at the conservative seminary school of Najaf underpins a major change in the movement's structure that could have serious repercussions for the future of Iraq.

Against the backdrop of changing political alliances between Kurds and Sunnis, Muqtada is transforming his movement into a new political phenomenon with implications for the country's political structure and security dynamics. The consequences are

also immense for Shi'ite Iraq, posing serious challenges to the conservative clerical establishment in Najaf.

Muqtada's attempt to become an ayatollah follows his earlier call to suspend operations by his militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi (The Mahdi Army, or JaM) in the summer of 2007. Together with his decision to study in Najaf, this has marked a decisive new beginning in the organizational structure and leadership dynamics of the Mahdi militia.

The decision to suspend JaM was made largely because of the outbreak of violence between Mahdi forces and the rival Badr Organization in Karbala in August 2007. The incident was a major embarrassment for al-Sadr, who had been seeking the support of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shi'ite Iraq's grand cleric, and the conservative establishment in Tehran against the rebellious splinter groups within his own militia since 2005.

The suspension, which came in August 2007, was a way to ensure his Shi'ite partners that he was willing to restructure his forces for the sake of Shi'ite unity at a time when US - or Israeli - forces seemed to be on the brink of starting a major military conflict with Iran.

The call was welcomed by al-Sistani, who had been encouraging al-Sadr to arrive at such a decision since January 200. The two met in June to discuss the problem of JaM splinter groups.

Najaf and Tehran both share an interest in containing Muqtada and his militia, as well as bringing his paramilitary organization - and other shadowy anti-Najaf movements - under the control of the Shi'ite clerical establishment. For Najaf and Tehran, the best way to tame Muqtada is to chip away at his popular base through the electoral process and intra-Shi'ite negotiations, such as the October 2007 cooperation pact with rival Shi'ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. This would, accordingly, diminish his status as a charismatic militant leader defiant of existing institutions.

Muqtada's decision to become an ayatollah, along with his suspension of JaM, is an indicator of more complex transformations occurring within the Sadrist movement. Muqtada is not merely trying to gain religious legitimacy by becoming an ayatollah, but also access to a major source of religious and financial capital that is primarily under the control of high-ranking Shi'ite clerics in Najaf. Since his family legacy alone would not entitle him to what his father had acquired as a senior jurist (marja taqlid, or "source of imitation") in the 1990s, becoming an ayatollah would guarantee Muqtada access to religious capital that has been solely in the domain of high-ranking clerics for centuries.

The attainment of religious credentials through the traditional seminary complex can provide Muqtada with enhanced authority over spiritual matters, such as the ability to issue a fatwa (religious verdict) and control religious taxes, powers he now lacks as a junior cleric. If successful, Muqtada could extricate himself from the authority of Najaf with its strict hierarchical set of power relations and close familial ties to Iran and beyond. It could also help him get rid of the influence of Iranian-born clerics by refusing al-Sistani's mentorship, instead studying under an Afghan-born senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah, Shaykh Ishaq Fayyaz.

Muqtada 's new political strategy
How could these developments impact Iraq's security politics? First off, with an inflated religious authority, Muqtada could wield greater power in regions where he lacks influence. In Basra especially, Muqtada prepares to tackle his most powerful rival, the Badr Organization, by propagating his new image in tribal and urban regions of the province.

In a significant sense, Muqtada wants legitimacy in places where he is mostly viewed as a young cleric of low-ranking scholarly status. By flexing his muscle as a high-ranking spiritual leader, Basra may witness a new series of conflicts between rival Shi'ite groups with equal claim to religious legitimacy in the traditional Shi'ite sense.

But Muqtada also aims to consolidate his power by bringing together his followers and identifying himself as their sole spiritual leader. This would ultimately undermine Sistani's influence among his younger followers who may revere Muqtada but obey Sistani on matters of religious and potentially political importance. By further consolidating power in terms of attaining religious authority, Muqtada is preparing to revitalize his organization as a new religious-political movement with a highly centralized military branch. Under this new leadership, the political branch of the Sadrist movement will most likely be strengthened and the unruly JaM subordinated to the civilian - ie clerical - leaders of the movement.

Second, Muqtada 's rise to the rank of ayatollah will reinforce his Iraqi identity. The move towards nationalism should be seen as a way to challenge the transnationalism of Najaf by creating a new form of Shi'ite politics free from non-Iraqi influence. Aside from their plans to centralize control over oil reserves, one of the reasons Muqtada and his parliamentarian representatives have sided with the secular National List of former prime minister Ilyad Allawi and Sunni leader Salah al-Mutlak's National Dialogue Front is to create a new parliamentary bloc to challenge Najaf and its influence over the four-party alliance of Nuri al-Maliki by carving out a new political front of nationalist parties.

Muqtada is playing a delicate game of balancing his position between nationalism and sectarianism, though his appeal to Shi'ite factionalism is mainly aimed at bolstering his base where he is now seeking a new constituency and a more centralized political movement.

The focus on a nationalistic leadership strategy can also be attributed to the ongoing political transformation of Sunni politics on the parliamentary level. The new agreement signed between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) - which led to the formation of a new Kurdish-Sunni alliance - can further push Muqtada to the nationalist camp.

With the possibility of Ninawa province and the city of Mosul coming largely under the administrative control of Iraqi Kurdistan - as one of the key points of agreement between IIP leader Tariq al-Hashimi and the Kurdish parties and the ascendancy of Kurdish nationalism marked by symbolic events like the display of a Kurdish flag by the regional parliament of Kurdistan - Muqtada and his followers are bound to move to the nationalist and anti-federalist camp of the Iraqi Parliament.

In this altered political setting, the new JaM could emerge as a powerful militia, a fully organized, disciplined paramilitary force, vying not only for domination over other Shi'ite militias in the southern regions, but possibly challenging the Kurdish militias in Baghdad and northern Iraq. Due to the shadowy network apparatus of the militia, the military might of the new JaM should not be underestimated. It may help to better understand how the new JaM may emerge as a new military force by briefly reviewing its formation since 2003.

The transformation of a militia
When dozens of young Shi'ite volunteers responded in June 2003 to a fiery call by the maverick cleric to join JaM, the US administration and the coalition authorities dismissed the new paramilitary force as nothing more than a nuisance. The militia, the Coalition Provisional Authority argued, would disappear - along with the insurgency - once the coalition troops completed the process of de-Ba'athification and the institutionalization of democracy in the country.

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