In late summer 2003, I was living in Birmingham and every morning I used to go to its central library studying for my English language test. And one day in the Learning Centre I met a Sri Lankan young man, who was desperately trying, like me, to pass the language exam in order to find a job in his profession, Civil Engineering. I introduced myself as an Iraqi doctor, and once he heard the word “Iraqi” he was excitedly thrilled and admiringly said “Ohhh Iraq…Fallujah…Muqtada Al-Sadr”. Over the next few days I realised that my new friend knew nothing about Iraq apart from these two words “ Fallujah and Muqtada Al-Sadr” and of course “ Saddam” and he adamantly believed that the “Mujahidin of Fallujah and Muqtada are going to liberate Iraq from the American and British invaders”. I did not argue with him at that time and will not if I see him again.
I passed my exam and moved down to London and two days ago I read in the CBS news website that:
“The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said on Wednesday that all indications showed that radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remained in Iranian exile as of 24 hours ago”
I immediately remembered my old friend and whether he still accepts as true that Muqtada is capable of “liberating Iraq”. This incident took me again to the complex Iraqi situation and “Al-Sadr” phenomenon and its implications on the current circumstances and the future of Iraq. Nearly at the same time I was in contact with
A close friend, who I really respect his ideas and thoughts. He believes that we, Iraqis, can not live without a dictator and if we have not one, we will create it ourselves and I think many Iraqis share with him this opinion as a fact. I personally disagree with this view; however, it is very difficult to defend my case when it comes to Al-Sadr. There is no doubt that his rise after the demise of Saddam’s regime was unexpected for the Americans and most Iraqis as well. the collapse of the state and the resultant political vacuum set the stage for Al-Sadr Phenomenon to breed and flourish. On the other hand, most Shia Ulama kept silent or distanced themselves from the political life in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Al-Sadr played on the strings of National Islamism and resistance against the occupation in addition to the legacy of his family that he inherited from his father Mohamed Sadiq Al-Sadr. The charity network established by his father continued providing services at times when all government ministries was non- functioning. Other factors were involved as well, most importantly, the elimination of other rival Shia clerics from the political scene like Abdul-Majid Al-Khoei (brutally murdered by close aides of Al-Sadr himself) and later Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim (killed in a massive car bomb that Al-Qaeda claimed its responsibility). Leading two uprisings against the Americans in 2004 and opposing the political process at first and the idea of “federalising” Iraq, all these moves won him the support of the Iraqi Arab Sunnis and the wider Sunni Islamic world all backed by a very influential anti-American, national and Islamic-oriented, Al-Jazeera-like medias. But that was not going to last very long and I personally believe that we are now witnessing the downfall of Muqtada and his shambled movement. Certainly many Iraqis, especially those inside Iraq, disagree with this opinion, but considering the developments in Iraq over the last year since the destruction of Samara shrines, all refer to the fact that Al-Sadr movement is not as strong as it was two years earlier.
1. The United Shia Alliance is currently divided and its integrity is threatened. The row over appointing Al-Maliki as prime minister and most recently the withdrawal of Al-Fadhila Party of his 20 members from the alliance proved that the rifts among its different groups could no longer be ignored.
2. The unprecedented wave of sectarian violence that engulfed the country after the destruction of the shrines, in many of its ugly faces, was linked to Al-Sadr movement. His militias and death squads were responsible for taking lives of many Sunnis in retaliation to the unrestrained killing of Shias by suicide and car bombings. As a result, he no longer enjoyed the support of Sunni Arabs in Iraq or in the wider Muslim world.
3. Al-Sadr himself lacks the skills and the charisma required to lead a popular political movement. Unlike Khomeini and Nassruallah, He does not have the spiritual “halo” and even the basic theological and linguistic skill that enable him to maintain his position among his followers.
4. The pressure exerted by the Americans on the Iraqi Government, and particularly on Al-Maliki, to discontinue the his support to Muqtada and his movement, significantly narrowed the political space available for them (Muqtada and his followers) to work within and exploit it as they did before.
5. The success of the current Baghdad security plan, although very limited, was to a great extent due to the capture (e.g. Abdulhadi Al-Daraji) and killing (e.g. Sahib Al-Amri) of many aides of Al-Sadr and Jaish al-Mahdi leaders. Others, including Muqtada himself, fled to Iran. In addition, they avoided any confrontation, political or military with the American forces. This changed the belief of many people about the reality of Al-Sadr’s intentions and his movement’s ability to “liberate” Iraq from occupation.
But the most crucial factor that determines the future of Al-Sadr and his movement is the relation with Iran. There are several clues that he has links with different centres of power in Iran. On one hand, adopting a hard line political Shia Islamic views with anti-American sentiments serve the Iranian interests, but on the other hand, backing the democratic process endorsed by the Americans will also leave Iran as the main beneficiary, as any free elections will bring the majority Shia of Iraq to power. I personally think that Iran tried to transform Al-Sadr movement to an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hizbullah and so far this has failed. Also In the current international isolation of the Iranian regime, Iran is trying to open direct and indirect channels of communications with the Americans and the West in general in a desperate attempt to avoid the political, economic and may be military consequences of its hard position on sensitive issues like the nuclear power, the expanding Iranian influence in the region and most importantly its involvement in Iraq. Al-Sadr is not the right choice for such a mission. Alternatively, it seems that Iran now works with Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim and his Iranian-born SCIRI to do the required job. For the above reasons, I believe that Al-Sadr chances in the future Iraq are minimal and his influence will be limited. This proves the fact that the adopting a Shia identity on its own and trying to rule a country with a mentality of retaliation for hundreds of years of oppression will never lead to build a new free and stable Iraq. Hizb Al-Da’wa failed before and Al-Sadr too now. Our common “Iraqiness” identity is the only way to take the country and its people out of its hellish situation.