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memri
February 11, 2004 No.
161

Moqtada Al-Sadr: The Young Rebel of the Iraqi Shi'a Muslims – Iraqi Leadership Biographical Series

Moqtada Al-Sadr [1] was born in 1974, the son of one of the most illustrious Shi'a religious families in Iraq, the Al-Sadr family. His father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, was assassinated together with two of his sons by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1999. After the death of his father, Moqtada became a student of Iranian Ayatollah Kadhem Al-Ha'iri. Aside from his native country, Iraq, Iran is the only other country Moqtada is familiar with, and his relations with the Iranian religious establishment invite speculations about his politics. Moqtada Al-Sadr admitted that the situation in Iraq today differs from the situation that prevailed in Iran during the Islamic revolution in 1979. He said: "The political and social nature of Iraq will not allow the repetition of the Iran experiment." [2]

Moqtada Al-Sadr is a charismatic leader and gifted orator who delivers fiery speeches to his enthusiastic and loyal young followers. However, being young, he is still not sufficiently immersed in religious studies to be known as "mujtahid," the equivalent of a senior scholar with seasoned judgment on religious doctrines, or to issue Fatwas (religious edicts). He delivers his Friday sermons in the Kuffa Mosque in the city of Kuffa, where tradition has it that Ali bin Abi-Taleb, the fourth Caliph after Prophet Mohammad and his son-in law, and the first Imam of Shi'a Islam, used to address his followers. Like other Shi'a clerics, Moqtada Al-Sadr is bearded and turbaned. [3] For his sermons he and his close supporters don a white shroud in mourning for his father. In all of his sermons, the participants in the prayers must repeat after him three times: "No No to Israel, No No to America, No No to terrorism." [4]

Relations with the Shi'a Religious Establishment

Shi'ism in Iraq uses two designations, often interchangeably - Al-Hawza and Al-Marja'iyya - for the religious sites in the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Al-Hawza is the center of administration and finance, and the supervision of the holy sites, particularly the graves of Imam Ali and his two sons, Hassan and Hussein, whom the Shi'a consider martyrs. Al-Marja'iyyah refers to the source of spiritual and doctrinal authority, including religious interpretations, religious law, and the issuance of Fatwas. There are currently four Ayatollahs at the top of the pyramid but only one, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, has emerged as the recognized voice of the Shi'a in Iraq.

Moqtada Al-Sadr has had issues with both Al-Hawza and Al-Marja'iyya, but his criticism has been more of a temporal than a religious nature since he lacks the religious stature to challenge Al-Marja'iyya on doctrinal matters. In any event, he should be viewed more as a politician than a religious leader.

On the matter of Al-Hawza, Al-Sadr distinguishes between the Vocal Hawza ( Al-Hawza Al-Natiqa) and the Silent Hawza (Al-Hawza al-Samita). The vocal Hawza represents clerics like himself, who seek an active political role and advocate an Islamic republic in Iraq. The silent Hawza represents the seat of the senior Shi'a clerics like Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who has historically rejected the involvement of Shi'a clerics in the political life of the country. [5] However, the insistence of Al-Sistani that general elections take place before the transfer of authority to the Iraqis on June 30 may have rendered the distinction between the vocal and the silent Hawza quite immaterial. More importantly, perhaps, the political activism of Al-Sistani could be interpreted as recognition of the rising power of Al-Sadr, which Al-Sistani is trying to neutralize. Al-Sadr has said many times that Al-Sistani has rebuffed numerous attempts to meet with him.

The conflict between Al-Sadr and Al-Sistani has a practical basis. Al-Hawza, which is made up of a number of religious seminaries and grave sites of venerable Shi'a figures, collects large sums of money in charitable contributions from pilgrims and rich Shi'a donors. At the moment, Al-Sistani controls these contributions; Moqtada Al-Sadr, no doubt, would like a piece of them. The situation turned into an armed confrontation between the two sides when Al-Sadr's supporters attempted to take over the holy sites in Karbala, an incident in which tens of people were killed and many more injured. [6] Al-Sadr has also attempted to take over the grave site of Ali bin Abi-Taleb, the fourth Caliph, leading to bloody clashes between Al-Sadr's supporters and the Badr army, the militia of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shi'a group headed by supporters of Al-Sistani. The Governing Council sent a special delegation to resolve the conflict between the two sides. [7]

There may be another reason for the animosity between the two clerics. Al-Sadr is suspected of murdering the young and moderate cleric Abd Al-Majid Al-Khoui, upon the latter's return from England on April 10, 2003. Al-Khoui's father, the grand Ayatollah Abu Al-Qassem Al-Khoui, was Al-Sistani's mentor. Al-Khoui was murdered while meeting with Al-Sistani.

Highlights of Al-Sadr's Actions and Views on Central Issues of Post-Saddam Iraq

Unlike Al-Sistani, who has not left his home in six years and who has communicated with the outside world through intermediaries, Moqtada Al-Sadr is media savvy. While he does not shy away from conflicts, he is careful not to go overboard. With name recognition, thanks to his father, whose photographs adorn every store front in the Al-Sadr city, he is capable of attracting tens of thousands of followers from across Iraq. His greatest appeal is to the poor and the disenfranchised, and not a few of Saddam's former supporters who share his abhorrence of the Governing Council. [8]

Base of Power: Al-Sadr City – an Autonomous Entity

Since the defeat of Saddam, the city named after him, Saddam City, has become Al-Sadr City, named after Moqtada Al-Sadr's father. [9] Inhabited by more than one million Shi'a loyal to Al-Sadr, the city has developed its own municipal, educational, medical, and social services. In addition, there are "courts" presided over by young judges, followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr, who adjudicate conflicts between people, and whose verdicts are carried out by "security committees." The courts follow the Shari'a (Islamic law), and those who refer to them accept their verdicts as binding. There are observers who compare these young student-judges to the students of the religious schools in Pakistan who later became the nucleus of the Taliban movement. [10] As part of the Islamization of life in Al-Sadr City, Al-Sadr issued a Fatwa forbidding the sale of videos and of liquor. [11]

The Creation of the Al- Mahdi Army

While most Iraqis were still celebrating the fall of the Saddam regime, as early as mid-July Moqtada Al-Sadr was delivering Friday sermons in his mosque calling on his followers to join a new army, the Al-Mahdi army, [12] named after a mythical Imam who will return one day in messianic form. In practice, the Mahdi army is nothing more than a manifestation of muscle flexing on the part of Al-Sadr. Some observers say it was meant to be something akin to Saudi Arabia's special religious police whose name and responsibility is "The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice."

Attacks on the Governing Council

Moqtada Al-Sadr was not included among the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council (GC) appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). It is not surprising that Moqtada questioned the legitimacy of the GC from day one, and referred to its members as lackeys of the occupation forces. Seizing upon the opportunities offered to him by Al-Jazeera TV, he lashed out at the GC as "a U.S. toy" and "the most preferred agent of Americans." He criticized the government appointed by the GC as being founded on sectarianism and the separation between the Sunna and the Shi'a. The government is the result of an illegitimate order by the GC, which in itself is illegitimate because it was appointed by illegitimate occupation. He said, "We do not recognize the occupation directly or indirectly since it is contrary to the views of the Iraqis, and their political and religious leadership rejects it totally." [13]

Al-Sadr threatened to appoint a shadow government that would represent the Iraqi people. In a sermon at his mosque in Kuffa, he announced: "I have established a government comprising the ministries of justice, finance, information, interior, and foreign affairs, and 'The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.'" The sermon was followed by demonstrations in the streets of Najaf in support of this initiative. [14] However, this initiative has petered out because the CPA has threatened to take Moqtada Al-Sadr to court for the murder of Abd Al-Majid Al-Khoui, as referred to earlier. [15] Al-Sistani's aide denounced Al-Sadr's initiative, [16] and the CPA has not pursued the case.

Rumor Mongering

As a politician, Moqtada Al-Sadr does not shy away from spreading anti-American rumors. He told the pro-Saddam London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi that "Americans use sick soldiers to spread disease inside the Iraqi society." He demanded that sick soldiers should be expelled and that health centers should be established to examine those who arrive, and expel the sick among them. [17]

Earlier, Al-Sadr called for "bringing American soldiers to trials according to the Shari'a for their abuse of the Iraqi people." [18] He has also threatened to take revenge on "the monkeys and pigs [i.e. Jews] that come from America." [19]

Always the contrarian, and in direct challenge to Al-Sistani and the CPA, Al-Sadr said that he opposed holding elections in Iraq under the supervision of the United Nations. [20]

The Aftermath of Saddam's Departure

When asked to respond to those who argue that Iraq would have been better off if Saddam had remained he replied forcefully: "They are ignorant. But the departure of Saddam was supposed to be followed by freedom and democracy. It is not desirable that a small devil will go to be followed by a larger devil. The mistake is not the departure of Saddam but what came after him in terms of despotism and terrorism." [21]

If the Iranians refer to America as the "Great Satan," Moqtada Al-Sadr refers to it as the "Bigger Satan," with Saddam being the smaller one. When the CPA threatened to arrest Friday sermon preachers if they incited violence, Al-Sadr told his followers from his podium at the Kuffa Mosque: "The small devil has gone and the bigger devil has come." [22]

Federalism in Iraq

Al-Sadr rejects the idea of a federal government which will grant the Kurds the measure of autonomy for which they have yearned for decades and which they, in practice, obtained under American protection following the 1991 Gulf War. He argues that the concept is understood only by a few, and that once it is explained it will be rejected. Unlike the United States, Iraq will not have independent regions, and the partition of Iraq is not acceptable. He has organized demonstrations in Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf to condemn the idea of federalism demanded by the Kurds. One of Al-Sadr's representatives at the demonstration in Baghdad said: "We are demonstrating against federalism because we have seen what happened in Yugoslavia. Federalism is an Israeli idea to divide us." [23]

Al-Sadr also sent one of his assistants, Abd Al-Fattah Al-Mousawi, to Kirkuk, a rich oil city, to incite the Arabs and Turkemans against the Kurdish population. He declared that "the presence of Muslims in the city is weak." He went on to say that Kurds "are not Muslims even if they pretend to be," and accused them of stealing "the Iraqi wealth." [24]

Resistance and Jihad

Despite his fiery character, Al-Sadr has been very careful not to invoke the concept of Jihad against the occupation. In response to a question during an interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, Al-Sadr was very careful. He said, "the resistance is not limited to Jihad. There are other methods before taking a decision on Jihad. We shall use peaceful resistance first which has begun to show some fruit… Besides, [the declaration of] Jihad is in the hands of the religious ruler or the marja'iyya in the Sh'ia community. If we declared Jihad at this time it will cause harm because of imbalance between the two sides [occupation forces and the Shi'a Muslim community]. [25]

Peace with the American People

Moqtada Al-Sadr's youth and inexperience show in his contradictory statements. While he has often denounced the Americans, he has shown no hesitation in addressing them as "guests in our big home … peace lovers as we are." In his message to the American people during the month of Ramadan, which is a month of fasting and reflection, Al-Sadr wrote: "My greetings to the American people, these are the greetings of the lover…" He emphasized the need to avoid bloodshed and to maintain distance from aggressions, wars, and terrorism to allow the unity between the two peoples and the two communities." He added: "If you agree with this, allow me to be present in your councils, meetings, military camps and churches. I yearn for this… Help me by declaring your peace in Iraq and deter war and terrorism except [a war] on a wicked criminal like destructive Saddam and his followers among the atheist Ba'ath party." [26] Moqtada Al-Sadr's apparently contradictory statements may reflect his own dilemma of having to walk a tight rope between his youthful rebellion and his desire to play a key role in shaping the future of Iraq which, at least for the short term, must avoid unnecessary confrontations with the occupation forces.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a Senior Analyst at MEMRI.


[1] For previous issues of MEMRI's Iraq Leadership Biographical Series, please see MEMRI's Baghdad Dispatch Series, which can be found among http://www.memri.org/iraq.html.

[2] Al-Zaman (Iraq), November 6, 2003.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 6, 2003.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 5, 2003.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 5, 2003.

[6] Al-Zaman (Iraq), October 14, 2003.

[7] Al-Ra'i Al-Aam (Kuwait), January 30, 2004.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 17, 2003.

[9] Al-Sadr City was originally built by the Iraqi leader Abd Al-Karim Qassim as a suburb of Baghdad to accommodate poor people. It was called at the time as Madinat Al-Thawra (Revolution City), later changed by Saddam to Madinate Saddam (Saddam City). After the fall of the regime, the residents changed the name one more time into Al-Sadr City in honor of Moqtada Al-Sadr's father.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), November 8, 2003.

[11] Al-Hayat (London), July 11, 2003.

[12] Al-Aswaq (Baghdad), July 21, 2003.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 20, 2003.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 12, 2003.

[15] Al-Hayat (London), November 8, 2003.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 16, 2003.

[17] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 9, 2003.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 2, 2003.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), October 15, 2003.

[20] Al-Hayat (London), January 24, 2004.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 4, 2003.

[22] Al-Hayat (London), November 11, 2003.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 21, 2004.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 23, 2003.

[25] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 4, 2003.

[26] Al-Zaman (Iraq), November 4, 2003.