Global Policy Forum

Sadr Strikes


By Rod Nordland

April 10, 2006

Deadly Vision: U.S. forces once had the renegade cleric in their cross hairs. Now he's too strong—and too popular—to confront.

At one time—it seems like a bloody eternity ago—there was a murder warrant out for the arrest of Moqtada al-Sadr, on the charge of killing an ayatollah in 2003. U.S. Army Gen. Ricardo Sanchez later publicly vowed that coalition troops in Iraq would "kill or capture" Sadr, and not rest until they had destroyed his militia. American diplomats routinely dismissed him as a no-account thug, a minor cleric with a ragtag band of undisciplined followers. He could get a few thousand angry young Shiites into the streets, demanding immediate U.S. withdrawal. But ultimately, that didn't matter. All the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani had to do was lift a little finger, and hundreds of thousands of Shiites would turn out.

Those were the days. The moderate Shia political leadership of the country, with Sistani's support, was all for a long-term U.S. presence. Sadr, pudgy and histrionic but a poor public speaker, was only 32 years old—a cleric of minor standing in a society that reveres its seniors, especially the learned ones. He was a sideshow, and little more. After fighting to a standstill in two engagements with the Americans, Sadr was forced to stand down by Sistani, and his militiamen began obediently turning in their weapons. Sadr had so faded from the scene by early 2005 that moderate Shiites joked he spent his days playing video soccer on his PlayStation.

Today his militia is back, and bigger than ever: He is now estimated to have 15,000 armed followers, three times as many as when he fought U.S. forces in 2004. He still espouses an Iranian style of theocratic government, with Sharia courts and Islamic law. He's so reflexively anti-American that he even blamed the United States for allowing the terrorist bombing of the revered Al Askari mosque in Samarra, which set off a wave of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Much of that violence seemed to be carried out by Sadr's Mahdi Army, which occupied Sunni mosques. As for the old murder warrant: it was never formally dismissed, but no one mentions it anymore. (Spokesmen for the Iraqi court concerned did not reply to queries about what had happened to it.)

The American military no longer talks about killing or capturing Sadr; in fact, they're careful to not even point a finger of blame at him. Why not? In part because Iraq has become an unstable democracy, and Sadr has massive support where it counts—in the streets. He has also learned the art of crafting different messages for different audiences. Even while his black-clad militiamen struck at Sunni targets recently, Sadr took the moral high ground and appealed for calm. "It is one Islam and one Iraq," he said.

Sadr has joined the political process, with stunning results. The current prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, effectively owes his job to the renegade cleric. "Despite the fact that Sadr was not himself an elected official, he and his followers were able to play the role of 'kingmaker' within the Shiite coalition," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sadr's group has 30 seats in the new assembly that was elected last December, but the Sadrist party is allied with a larger Shia coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. With Sadr's blessing, his followers cast the deciding vote making Jaafari the choice of the UIA for prime minister.

That has everyone else alarmed. Sunnis don't want a prime minister beholden to the man they believe is responsible for sectarian hit squads, which are now claiming as many as 70 lives a day in Baghdad. Kurds are wary of Sadr's anti-federalist stance, which could limit Kurdish autonomy in the north. The result has been to stymie formation of a new government three and a half months after elections were held. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been urging moderate Shia leaders to join with Kurds and Sunnis to break the deadlock by choosing a compromise candidate. But the situation is stalemated.

All of which makes Jaafari more dependent than ever on Sadr's support—and that comes at a price. Fatah al-Sheikh, a Sadr spokesman and editor of the party newspaper, says Jaafari has promised that if Sadr helps him win re-election as prime minister, Jaafari will demand a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. "Dr. Jaafari submitted himself as an obedient soldier of Sayyid Moqtada," al-Sheikh said in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "Moqtada in turn showed his respect and support for this man." A spokesman for Jaafari's Dawa Party saw things differently: "They are both adults," said Jawad al-Maliki. "One doesn't guide the other. Their relationship is built on mutual respect."

As it is, Sadr's followers have control of two ministries—health and transportation—and have banned American advisers from entering ministry buildings. The Ministry of Transportation "has no relations nor contracts with any American side," said its spokesman, Ahmed al-Mousawi, who added: "This is due to the orders of our Sadrist minister, Salam al-Maliki, who hates the Americans." When the MOT took charge of Baghdad International Airport, alcohol was banned from the duty-free shop, and Mousawi says the MOT is canceling the contract of the British firm that now runs security there.

To underscore Sadr's entry to the halls of power, he went on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East in February, and was received by the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Along the way he praised the Syrians, denounced the Iraqi constitution, and told the Iranians he would fight by their side if attacked by America. The performance wasn't warmly received by moderate Shia leaders, who complained he was acting as if he were on an official mission. That was fine by Sadr. "The media covered Sayyid Moqtada's tour thoroughly, and the Americans were worried about it," said al-Sheikh.

Ambassador Khalilzad believes that Sadr must moderate his rhetoric. "Coalition forces are present in Iraq on the basis of an invitation from the government and you are part of it," he said in a statement on Sadr to al-Hayat newspaper in Baghdad. "You cannot be a part of the government while at the same time you issue statements demanding that we leave." The envoy went on to say that "Moqtada al-Sadr should be grateful to us for what the American people did," in part because "Saddam's regime killed his father." It is widely believed that Sadr's father, a grand ayatollah, was assassinated by Saddam in 1999.

Sadr has proven adept at trying to have it both ways. He opened negotiations with Sunni insurgents during the siege of Fallujah, even as Sunni extremists were calling for the extermination of the Shiites. "He's the only one whom the Shia mobs will listen to, and he's on good terms with the Sunnis," says Shia parliamentarian Ali al-Dabbagh. Now, at a time of sectarian crisis—which Sadr's militia is helping to fuel—he is positioning himself as a true nationalist.

Recently, Sadr has reached out to Kurdish leaders, among the biggest critics of his deal with Jaafari. Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said that Sadr had taken the initiative, visiting Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, then inviting them down to see him in Najaf. "They [the Sadrists] have to be reckoned with," said Othman. "Hopefully they'll go the quiet way." There's some evidence of that. For all the tough talk from his ministers, Sadr hasn't closed Baghdad airport to the Americans—who still hold meetings with ministry officials regularly.

But it's just as likely that Sadr will find it more useful to stir up trouble. When a combined Iraqi special forces and American unit attacked a compound in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Ur last week, the Americans said they were busting a kidnap ring—killing 16 insurgents and arresting 18 in the process. Sadr's followers immediately cried foul, claiming the Ur complex had been a mosque, and the victims innocent worshippers, even if they were mostly Mahdi Army members. American military spokesmen said they rescued a dental technician, held for ransom, who had been tortured with an electric drill—though the spokesman carefully declined to identify the culprits as Mahdi Army. The next day, Baghdad's Sadrist governor, Hussein al-Tahan, announced he was breaking off relations with the Americans over the "cowardly attack."

Whatever the truth in Ur, the incident provoked widespread criticism of the Americans among Shia leaders—many of them already upset at pressure from the U.S. embassy to compromise with the Sunnis to form a national unity government. The Americans have also been pressing Shia leaders to rein in death squads and militias—like the Mahdi Army—to prevent the current violence from degenerating into full-scale civil war. At Friday prayers last week, Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yacoubi accused Ambassador Khalilzad of siding with the Sunnis and their "terrorist blackmail," and demanded the ambassador's dismissal. Sadr has been making similar demands for months. He's probably just playing politics—knowing that the ambassador isn't going anywhere, but that someday, the whole American enterprise in Iraq will have to come to an end.

With Scott Johnson and Mohammed Hayder Sadeq in Baghdad and Ayad Obeidi in Najaf.

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