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    Middle East
     Apr 5, 2008
Muqtada out of step in Shi'ite dance
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Two years ago, Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was interviewed by La Republica, explaining his relationship with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Then, the two men were firmly allied in a friendship that was frowned on by almost everybody; the Americans, the Iranians, Arab states and Iraqi Sunnis. Muqtada's supporters were critical, claiming that by working with Maliki, their boss was legitimizing a US-backed prime minister.

Maliki's supporters were equally uneasy, claiming that Muqtada was an embarrassment and that they would never be taken seriously as statesmen, or be accepted by the regional neighborhood, as long as they relied on protection from Muqtada's militia, the Mahdi Army.

Maliki and Muqtada, however, thought otherwise. Maliki needed


Muqtada to win the hearts of grassroot Iraqis. Muqtada was popular among poor and young people, especially in the slums of Baghdad, where Maliki had virtually no powerbase. Muqtada had religious legitimacy, given the influence and standing of his father and family in the Iraqi Shi'ite community.

Maliki had none of that and needed a face-lift, having just been elected prime minister after many years of obscure service in the underground against Saddam Hussein. Nobody really knew him in Baghdad as he had spent most of the Saddam years as a refugee in Syria. Muqtada on the other hand needed protection from the American dragnet. The relationship was: "You protect me from US persecution, I legitimize you in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis."

The price for this marriage of convenience was having to tolerate the Sadrists in government, where they were given six important portfolios and 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament - meaning they had a paramount say in Iraqi decision-making and their militia, the Mahdi Army, would be preserved and protected.

Maliki lived up to this promise, going to great length at times - often at the expense of his own reputation - to talk the Americans out of raiding Sadr City. The George W Bush administration realized that in as much as it wanted to punish Muqtada for all the violence it blamed on him it nevertheless needed him on the safe side to prevent him from repeating violence which he had on occasions unleashed.

By bringing him into the political process and giving him money, authority and responsibility, the Americans thought they could clip his wings and pacify him, while simultaneously upholding the Maliki regime.

Trying to downplay all of that when speaking to the Italian daily, Muqtada said: "Between myself and Abu Israa [an alternate name for Maliki] there has never been much feeling. I have always suspected that he was being maneuvered, and I have never trusted him. We have met only on a couple of occasions. At our last meeting, he first told me: 'You are the country's backbone,' and then he confessed that he was 'obliged' to combat us. Obliged, you hear me?"

Nobody believed the young cleric, suspecting this was talk targeting the Western media. Had Maliki truly not trusted Muqtada, he would not have given him government office and prevented the US from cracking down on the Mahdi Army in 2006-2007. Had Muqtada truly believed that Maliki was being "maneuvered" by the Americans, he would not have legitimized him by taking part in his government, thereby effectively legitimizing the political process of post-2003 Iraq.

The Sadrists were treating government agencies like their own back yard, investing heavily in the Ministry of Education, for example, to indoctrinate young Iraqis with Sadrist propaganda. They used the Ministry of Health to provide services, medication and hospitalization - frequently for free - to poverty-stricken Iraqis, making them loyal supporters of the Mahdi Army.

Those Shi'ites who could not find jobs were given impressive salaries in the Mahdi Army - along with a gun and a license of kill. They created death squads at night and roamed Iraq's cities, targeting traditional enemies, mainly Sunnis, with no one to hold them accountable.

The relationship soured in December 2006 when Maliki refused to argue for a timetable for US troop withdrawal during his Amman meeting with Bush. Muqtada was equally disturbed by Maliki's alliance with the Kurds and his willingness to help them annex the oil-rich Kirkuk area to Iraqi Kurdistan, as a means of endearing himself to a powerful constituency in the Iraqi street, that had excellent relations with the Americans.

Muqtada wanted to uphold Iraq's Arab identity. That was not even on the agenda of the prime minister, him being more of a Shi'ite nationalist than an Iraqi one. Muqtada was opposed to the carving up of Iraq and the creation of an autonomous district for Shi'ites in the south. He was also opposed to too much emphasis being placed on Iran. He aimed at creating a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq, based on the Iranian model, but nevertheless wanted it to remain independent of the mullahs of Tehran.

Maliki on the other hand was cozying up to the Iranians. At one point, Muqtada withdrew his ministers from government, then froze the activity of his 30 deputies, effectively crippling the Maliki administration. He wanted Maliki to come back on hands and knees, begging him to reconsider. The premier saw this walkout as a blessing in disguise. Glad to see the end of the young rebel, he thanked him for his services and immediately snuggled up to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), headed by Muqtada's rival in the Shi'ite community, the pro-Iranian and yet pro-American cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

The Arab world had been haranguing the prime minister for his ties to Muqtada, especially after the Sadrists executed Saddam in December 2006. In black ski-masks, they chanted "Muqtada! Muqtada!" at the execution scene, looking more like gangsters than Iraqi officials carrying out a legal verdict passed by the Iraqi courts.

This enflamed Sunni emotions throughout the Arab world, who blamed Maliki for creating a Frankenstein out of Muqtada - one that could no longer be controlled. Maliki snubbed Muqtada, consolidated his ties to Hakim, and opened channels with the Iraqi Accordance Front (a Sunni coalition) and the Kurds. He began to brandish himself as an Iraqi nationalist, rather than a Shi'ite one, visiting Arab heavyweights like Syria and Saudi Arabia to cement ties with Arab officialdom.

Today, the two sides engage in combat that quiet unintentionally crowns Muqtada as Shi'ite king in Iraq, greatly damaging the reputation of the prime minister. Scores of Iraqi troops have laid down their arms after one week of combat and simply refused to open fire against the Sadrists. Many have mutinied and joined the Mahdi Army. Some are saying that instead of using all this force against the Sadrists - fellow Iraqis and fellow Shi'ites - it would be wiser for Maliki to train his guns against the Americans.

The war between Maliki's troops and Muqtada's militiamen has led to the killing of nearly 300 people in Sadr City, Basra and Karbala. Maliki described the Sadrists - his former allies - as "ignorant", adding that they were "paid agents who corrupted all posts they had assumed". He added, "We spoke before about al-Qaeda, but there are among us those who are worst then al-Qaeda."

The Shi'ite divide
For many years now, the West has watched the world through the narrow parameter of Sunni vs Shi'ite. At one point from the 1970s onwards, it was Muslims vs Christians. Apparently today, the relationship stands as Shi'ite vs Shi'ite. The Muslim group can no longer be viewed as one big family - thanks to the preferences of Iran and the existence of people like Muqtada.

One year ago, the Iranians started to deal with the Sadrists in a more favorable manner. They were afraid that their traditional proxies in the Arab world, being Hezbollah and the Badr Brigade of the SIIC, were facing an uncertain future. Hezbollah was locked into a vicious feud within the Lebanese political system, and United Nations forces on the border prevented it from carrying out its traditional resistance role against the Israelis.

There was much speculation that Hezbollah might depart the scene - at least as an effective player - due to domestic restrictions, an upcoming war with Israel, or a new Lebanese civil war. On the other hand, the Badr Brigade was simply unable - despite all the money pouring into it from Tehran - to compete with the Sadrist network.

Muqtada had studied the Hezbollah model in Lebanon and created a system of charity and patronage among ordinary Shi'ites that made Hakim's men look like amateurs. He generously dished out money, sent personal gifts to Shi'ites in need, protected them from harm's way, sent them to school, and found jobs for all able young men.

Hakim too had money, plenty of it, but it was used to enrich himself and his limited circle of supporters, never the grassroots level (although commanders of the Badr Brigade are well paid). Muqtada became king in districts such as the southern city of Basra and Sadr City, imposing his version of Islam on everybody and everything, with much support from the local population.

He enforced Islamic dress code, banned the sale of alcohol, and banked on "Iraqism" rather than "Shi'itism". He trashed Badr for being "not Iraqi enough". He trumpeted how during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s they had fought with the Iranian army against fellow Iraqis, claiming they were more bonded by Shi'ite blood than Iraqi nationalism.

In as much as this annoyed the Iranians, they nevertheless had little means of keeping him quiet. Writing him off the political scene would be political suicide, since he was too powerful - and well protected - to be killed. Assassinating him would only make a martyr out of him. With him gone, and the Badr Brigade in uncertain waters, it was feared that their political and military arm in the Arab world would be amputated.

Hakim was recently diagnosed with cancer - making things all the more difficult - and his son Ammar would be unable to rule the SIIC after him, especially when challenged by somebody like Muqtada. Therefore, just like the Americans had reasoned before them, the Iranians decided to deal with Muqtada - although this might upset Hakim - with the aim of bringing him under their wing.
The Iranians began investing in the Mahdi Army - shyly at first - with the hope of creating either another Badr Brigade or another Hezbollah. As the situation intensified in Lebanon, they increased their efforts, supplying him with money, arms and orders. Muqtada froze activity of the Mahdi Army with the aim of revamping it and dismissing all undisciplined members.

One theory says that Imad Mughniya, the Hezbollah commander who was assassinated in Damascus in February, had been charged by Iran to restructure the Mahdi Army. He had been one of the architects of Hezbollah in 1982 and was asked to do the same to professionalize the Sadrists. While all of this was being done, Muqtada was asked to return to his religious studies so he could rise to the rank of ayatollah and therefore gain a much stronger role in Shi'ite domestics. He would then be authorized to issue religious decrees and answer religious questions related to politics - just like Hakim.

Then suddenly something went wrong, and last week Maliki (who is now equally close to the Iranians) went to war against the Sadrists. Some claim that an under-the-table deal was hammered out in Baghdad in March between the Americans, Maliki and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leader would let the Americans have their way - and crush the Sadrists - in exchange for softening pressure on the Iranian regime. In return, Ahmadinejad would help them bring better security to Iraq through a variety of methods stemming from Iranian cooperation.

This would please the Americans, Maliki and the Iranians, who in exchange for Muqtada's head would enter a new relationship with the Americans. This might explain why the only people who have been lobbying heavily with Maliki - to stop the war on Muqtada - have been those opposed to Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs, mainly Sunni tribes, ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (who refused sanctuary in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war) and the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmud Mashadani.

Other Shi'ite heavyweights in the Arab world, like Hasan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who are both very close to Iran, have been relatively silent over the ordeal. Syria, which is a traditional friend of Iran and has good relations with Muqtada, has also refused to comment. Are all Shi'ites two sides of the same coin, or has this long-held belief been shattered by the war - and mutiny - in Basra?

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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