Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Moqtada al-Sadr: Islamic Revolutionary or Political Catalyst?

by Jonathan Feiser

Regardless of the recent political overtures offered by Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, the leader appears willing to continue his course of violent struggle against U.S.-led coalition forces. It is through this struggle that al-Sadr claims to see the protection and freedom of the Iraqi people. Clearly, the removal of al-Sadr from the Imam Ali Mosque by any hostile powers of authority -- whether it be the Iraqi Interim Government (I.I.G.) or, especially, the United States -- is out of the question.

Nevertheless, there should be a legitimate concern over the consequences al-Sadr may have -- and indeed thus far has inflicted -- upon the Shi'a of Iraq. At present, many Shi'a, while disappointed with al-Sadr for his garrisoning of the Imam Ali Mosque, do support his position and feel that the cleric has yet to be given the legitimate opportunity to join the political government of Iraq. That being said, there is a question concerning the forces that are currently working within the Shi'a political arena. Thus far, other Shi'a political groups have bided their time with the intention of possibly allowing al-Sadr to undermine his own position of legitimacy and trust within the minds of Iraqi Shi'a.

Three primary Shi'a groups make up the ideological political landscape of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The first group is the Hizb al-Da'wa. Historically, this party held and continues to hold the highest confidence and legitimacy amongst Iraqi Shi'a. Al-Da'wa was founded in 1958 by Moqtada al-Sadr's father, the late Ayatollah Baqr al-Sadr -- executed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein -- with an original mandate of countering secularization in government. Today, the party now makes up a collage of factions with differing agendas and questionable allegiances -- many that, in one form or another, transcend the borders of Iraq.

Regardless of the outcome at the Imam Ali Mosque, ruling factions of al-Da'wa will retain their political influence in the development of the Iraqi state. However, the group will continue to be plagued by its internal divisions and its sources of loyalty.

The last two groups are Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (S.C.I.R.I.). Since the fall of Saddam's Ba'athist regime, both have maintained an uneasy relationship of which in the past year has reverted into a series of serious accusations and violent exchanges. Last year, the S.C.I.R.I. blamed al-Sadr for the murder of the formerly exiled Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim, an allegation that followed with numerous assassination attempts on al-Sadr's life that following December. Nevertheless, at least temporarily, the old Middle Eastern maxim that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" found relevance in the relationship between these two Shi'a groups in their efforts to counterbalance the influence of U.S.-led coalition forces.

But a closer look reveals this suggestion may be critically flawed. The S.C.I.R.I. possesses a political platform that reveals a vested interest in the functionality of the I.I.G. that may lead to some form of stable government for Iraq. In the meantime, al-Sadr has yet to manifest any form of a long-term political message, much less any realistic vision short of the struggle he continues to fight today. Thus, while al-Sadr seeks to utilize this armed struggle using the notion of an Islamic revolution as the surrogate for progress, the S.C.I.R.I., despite its controversial Iranian relations, may yet reap political benefits.

Like Macedonia and Kashmir, most Iraqis in general and Iraqi Shi'a in particular have no desire for a neighboring power to represent or dictate their native interests. The poisoning effect of foreign influence has not faded with the dusk of colonial empires; indeed, it has flourished in the contemporary status quo of global geopolitics. Evident in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of proxies by foreign entities has sewn local rivalry by not only exporting foreign agendas, but also fusing the causes of local groups into ever expanding international rivalries. It is important to note that in Iraq, none of the three Shi'a groups mentioned here are innocent of this association.

On the other hand, one particular dangerous -- and increasingly realistic -- scenario that threatens Iraqi sovereignty may not reside in the success and eventual "politicalization" of al-Sadr, but instead in his failure. Upon al-Sadr's failure, the group that would likely be in the position to be perceived as a likely alternative to his power faction is the S.C.I.R.I. and its power arm, the al-Badr Corps.

The al-Badr Corps answers directly to the S.C.I.R.I. and are charged with the establishment of support cells and operations networks all throughout Iraq. The primary mission of the al-Badr Corps remains to facilitate the S.C.I.R.I. political blueprint through subversion, intelligence gathering, and establishing local support. These unconventional forces possess the linguistic, tribal, familial, and political connections to Iraq and have capitalized upon these advantages now and before the U.S. invaded the country. Indeed, this group's ranks remain predominantly composed of ethnic Iraqis who fled during the era of Saddam.

In addition, political intrigue remains at the center of predicting where the friction between al-Sadr and the S.C.I.R.I. will develop. Since before the invasion of Iraq, the theme of polarization for Iraq's Shi'a was centered in the struggle for legitimacy between the S.C.I.R.I. and the Mehdi Army. In this context, it has always been Moqtada al-Sadr who has held the cards. But, despite this and other advantages, he continues to marginalize his long-term influence -- the very influence that would be a tremendous asset in the growing pains to come.

In the early 20th century, the British Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener became convinced that his strategy against the Ottoman Empire was hinged to an Arab rebellion that would ultimately lead to the possession of the Islamic Caliphate. To Kitchener, the Caliphate was one-dimensional and whoever controlled it, controlled Islam. Like al-Sadr, Kitchener's conclusions were incorrect because they were based on his limited perception of a world he only thought he could comprehend. As a result, Lord Kitchener's strategic goal of overthrowing the Ottoman Empire -- which he ardently believed was under the influence of Zionists -- never materialized because of the lack of popular support for the contending forces of the Allied-backed Shariff Hussein.

In this same approach, al-Sadr may have made the same fateful error. His analysis of current events remains stridently confined, and thus increasingly limited, by the present struggle. It is in this context that although al-Sadr's appeals to the current military struggle still contribute to his own legitimacy, these same appeals also inevitably box him in over the long run. In sum, it is where these two themes meet that al-Sadr has succeeded as a transitional figure, but failed as a post-occupation leader.

It is also in this moment that groups like the S.C.I.R.I., reacting to their own political instincts, would likely move to secure the shift of power and confidence in the vacuum left behind. As a result, what began in Iraq as a war against neo-colonialism with clearly drawn lines has evolved into a revolt based on an acceleration of the "Afghanistan model" where resistance initiated in response to a foreign occupation has now begun to collapse violently inward with old divisions becoming new.

- The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of comments should be directed to

Published on August 26,2004



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