Global Policy Forum

Sadr's Disciples Rise Again to Play Pivotal Role in Iraq


Freed Aides Join Newly Robust Movement

By Anthony Shadid

Washington Post
August 30, 2005

Hazem Araji's résumé reads like a story of Iraq's recent past -- and perhaps its near future. In the tumult that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, he hit the streets with a clique of fellow Shiite Muslim clerics to organize what became Iraq's first postwar popular movement. Their symbol was Moqtada Sadr, a young, radical clergyman and son of a revered ayatollah. The next year, Araji emerged as the group's public face, as it twice fought U.S. troops. He and others were arrested, and for nine months he languished in U.S. custody in Abu Ghraib prison, then at Camp Bucca.

Now, as the country enters a time as politically uncertain as any since the fall of President Saddam Hussein, Araji is a free man. So are a handful of Sadr's other closest, most dynamic aides, men in their thirties who have helped shape the organization's combustible mix of Iraqi and Arab nationalism, millenarian religious ideology, grass-roots protest and gun culture. With customary bravado, Araji and the others today are sending a message: They are ready to make up for lost time. "It's a new dawn," said the turbaned cleric, with a hint of a smile. He leaned against a wall plastered with Iraqi flags and portraits of the Sadrs and those killed in last year's battles. "People have been released, and they're working harder than before."

Long the bane of the U.S. project in Iraq, Sadr's movement returned to center stage last week, with what his aides describe as a new confidence following the release of Araji and other leaders, along with the experience of their sometimes quiet activism. In dramatic fashion over three days, the movement embodied virtually every aspect of power in today's Iraq: support in the street, an easily mobilized militia, and loyalists within the government that it often denounces.

After a clash Wednesday night in Najaf that they blamed on a rival Shiite militia, Sadr's armed followers poured into Baghdad and at least six other cities. Twenty-one members of parliament and three cabinet ministers loyal to him suspended their work in protest. Two days later, Sadr's followers organized some of the biggest demonstrations in recent years; ostensibly protests over government services, they were effectively shows of strength.

The newly freed aides say even they are surprised at the growing level of organization they have found within the group: clearer lines of communication, a more structured hierarchy and a sprawling social services network. In the Baghdad slum named after Sadr's father, the ramshackle headquarters that was wrecked repeatedly by U.S. troops last year only to be rebuilt sits next to the movement's newly completed, two-story stucco building with floodlights, air conditioners and seven agitprop-style megaphones clustered on the roof. A few miles away is a new office, trimmed in red and black, for the movement's social work, run by Araji. Across the street is an information center.

In a country whose sectarian and ethnic divides have relentlessly deepened, Sadr stands as a rare figure with support among both Sunnis and Shiites. At a protest Monday against Iraq's new constitution in Tikrit, near Hussein's home town, Sunnis held aloft pictures of the cleric. "Yes, yes to Sadr!" some of the 1,500 protesters shouted.

Ahead are difficult questions, namely about Sadr's still-undeclared stance on the proposed constitution: Support could anger Sunni allies, but opposition might endanger his Shiite support. One aide hinted that Sadr may leave his position ambiguous. But for the moment, Sadr officials say they are reaping the benefits of their position as a protest movement in a country with plenty to protest about. "As for energy, we have energy. As for followers, we have followers. As for ability, we have the ability," said Mustafa Yaqoubi, a senior Sadr leader in Najaf who was released from prison on Aug. 14. "We still remain."

A Revitalization

A few hours before dawn on April 3, 2004, U.S. forces arrested Yaqoubi, a quiet, lisping cleric, on charges stemming from the killing of a Shiite cleric in Najaf a year earlier, in the days after Hussein's fall. The detention sparked the battle between Sadr's militia and U.S. forces that dragged into that May, quieted, then flared again that August, wrecking parts of Sadr City and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Nearly two months after Yaqoubi's arrest, on May 23, Riyadh Nouri, another young cleric and Sadr's brother-in-law, was arrested. In a prison in Mosul, the two clerics' cells were next to each other. For a few hours in the morning and evening, they paced the courtyard together. Otherwise, they spent their time praying and reading the Koran. Yaqoubi developed a fondness for Agatha Christie and read a translated version of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." Nouri focused on his state of mind. "I didn't think about tomorrow," he said at his house in Najaf. "If you think that way, it will wear you out."

Two weeks ago, a Baghdad court unexpectedly dropped the charges against the two. On their return from the capital to Najaf a day later, both said they were struck by the changes during their absence. "In the past, people were working for the present. There was no sense of the future," Nouri said. "Now there's organization. There's a program, there's discipline and there are policies behind our work."

In all, six of Sadr's senior leaders were arrested last year. Four have been released: Araji, Nouri, Yaqoubi and Mohammed Tabatabai. Of those, Nouri, Yaqoubi and Tabatabai were the most influential. In the years between the assassination of Sadr's father in 1999 and the ascendance of Sadr himself after Hussein's fall, they kept the movement alive, working underground. "For sure, we've been revitalized," said Araji, as aides whispered questions into his ear.

Since his release, Araji has taken over the social affairs committee, one of the movement's more than half-dozen branches. (Others include tribal affairs, politics, culture, religious education and information, and the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia.) As he sat at his office, Araji described some of his panel's activities, including distribution of millions of dollars to the poor in southern cities to purchase cattle for farms and supplies for small grocery stores, and the provision of food, medicine and clothes to 30,000 families.

Both Nouri and Araji called the emphasis on social demands the movement's priority. They said it reflected the ministry of Sadr's father, whose grass-roots movement in the 1990s catered to the poorest and most disenfranchised Shiites. "The fighting prevented what we were thinking from the start," Nouri said. Araji was blunter: "The Mahdi Army, it's finished."

An Incendiary Rivalry

Abu Muamil Kurdi and Abu Muqtada Dulaim are fighters in the Mahdi Army. In their estimation, it is stronger than ever. When the clash in Najaf erupted Wednesday night, Kurdi, 35, was at Sadr's residence; Dulaim, 30, was at the organization's office near the shrine of Imam Ali. The three-story brick office served as the headquarters for Sadr's father in the 1990s, and today his followers treat it almost as a shrine. It was closed last year, but authorities in Najaf allowed it to reopen this month. That angered some residents who still blame Sadr and his men for the destruction wrought by last year's battles. About 200 of them gathered Wednesday night. Their numbers grew as the protest headed toward the office. Fistfights soon broke out; some people threw stones.

Unexpectedly, the police force, controlled by a rival Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, withdrew. Armed guards from the nearby office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani then fired on Sadr's men, witnesses said. Troops arrived, mainly from the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the Supreme Council. In the melee, four of Sadr's followers were killed. Amid the chaos, some protesters entered Sadr's office and set furniture and carpets on fire. The arson enraged Sadr's men. After 10 p.m., they were working the phones, calling followers in Najaf and offices in Baghdad and southern provinces. "Each person called another," Dulaim said. "From the hour of the event, until the morning, we were on the phone." The response was swift, igniting long-smoldering differences between Sadr's movement and the Supreme Council, which is led by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the oldest surviving son of Muhsin Hakim, one of Iraq's most respected grand ayatollahs.

Like much in Iraq, the rivalry draws on history and power. To varying degrees, both groups draw legitimacy through family names, and both claim leadership of the country's long-repressed Shiite community. The Supreme Council has sought that role through engagement in the U.S.-backed government, exercising influence over Iraq's security forces. Sadr's movement is represented in the government, too, but it has fashioned itself as an outsider. Its rhetoric is anti-occupation; its constituency is the street.

To Sadr's followers, the Supreme Council is beholden to Iran, where it was based in exile, its members living in relative security while the Sadr group suffered in Iraq under Hussein, the Sadr men contend. To the Supreme Council, Sadr is a lightweight, lacking the religious credentials, seasoning and political savvy to navigate the challenges the Shiite community faces. Even now, many are reluctant to even mention Sadr's name, fearful of giving him credibility.

As the calls went out, the Supreme Council's offices were targeted in Amarah, Diwaniyah, Basra and Baghdad. In the mixed Sunni-Shiite town of Baqubah, Sadr's men attacked another office. As they headed toward it, the loudspeaker at a Sunni mosque urged the militia to fight against "those who want to divide Iraq." "If they attack our symbols," Kurdi said, "they should know there's going to be a reaction."

As the clashes erupted, Iraq's Kurdish president personally appealed to Sadr to intervene. Sadr called his forces back by the next morning and asked the ministers and parliament members to resume their duties. For his part, Hakim denounced the attack on the office in Najaf and, in a rare acknowledgment, praised Sadr's restraint. But virtually no one in Najaf or elsewhere thought the fight was over. "We stand against them," said Murtadha Hajjaj, the Sadr representative in Basra. "Their ideas are Iran first, then Iraq." Added Kurdi, the militiaman: "It depends on them, whether they got a lesson or not."

An Ardent Believer

A few days before the clash in Najaf, a call went out from Sadr: The time for the government to deliver electricity, water, fuel and other necessities was up. The next step, he said, was protests. If those failed, he promised, more would follow. One of those who answered the call was Hamid Abdel-Hussein, a slight, 22-year-old psychology student with 13 brothers and sisters. He showed up early at the outdoor prayers in Sadr City on Friday, passing the time by reading devotional prayers to a Shiite saint.

In the Sadr movement, Abdel-Hussein is what might be termed a target for its message. He studies at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, but he said he has no hope of a job. The government, he said, "claimed it was here to serve us, and now it works against us." Sadr stands alone in defending his interests, he said; he made no distinction between the father and the son.

"We were waiting for someone," said Abdel-Hussein, his beard still tentative, as he sat barefoot on a worn red prayer rug. "We were lost and he came to save us. Sayyid Moqtada, all his steps and actions come from God," he added, using an honorific for the cleric. "Sayyid Moqtada is paving the road ahead for the people," Abdel-Hussein said. "He's surrounded by enemies. You can see. He's the only one who speaks about what's right. He stands alone. His line is sharp, and he never compromises his position."

There are moments in conversations in Iraq when politics transcend the rules the Americans and their allies play by: The questions are not about negotiations, compromises and bargains. Terms like "democracy" and "individual rights" ring hollow. Abdel-Hussein's words were infused with something larger and more mystical. They had an unyielding quality to them, the absolutism of faith. "God instructs Sayyid Moqtada to do his work," he said.

At 1 p.m., the prayers began. There were 20,000 people, perhaps more. Afterward, the protest began, a silent march as Sadr ordered. At the same time, others took place in at least eight other Iraqi cities, drawing thousands more. "The country of two rivers is without water, a country of oil is without fuel," one banner read. "Iraq will remain without fuel, water and electricity as long as the occupation remains," another said. A sign behind it declared: "Oh occupier, our oil is for us, not you."

As they tramped the streets, clouds of dust swirled under a relentless sun. "Apparently words are useless," Abdel-Hussein said, "so silence is better." He walked past carcasses of vehicles destroyed in last year's fighting, still strewn across the street. Past a mosque where Hussein's forces crushed an uprising by Sadr's followers in 1999. Past a burst water main. Past the slum's ubiquitous green sewage. The protest to Abdel-Hussein was not a call for action; on their own, no one would answer their demands. Their audience, he said, was God.

"He will bring mercy," Abdel-Hussein said, "and force the people who see our protests to accept our demands." He gazed across the crowds of people, marching ahead. "God," he said, "is the first and the last."

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