June 3, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 177

Muqtada Al-Sadr vis-à-vis the Shi'a Religious Establishment

June 3, 2004 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 177

Muqtada Al-Sadr is the fourth son of Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr. The elder Al-Sadr was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein between 1985 and 1992. Then, following the assassination by Saddam of a number of leading Ayatollahs of Iranian origin, Al-Sadr, aided apparently by Saddam himself, became the head of the Hawza in Najaf. Ayatollah Al-Sadr cultivated his relations with the tribes surrounding the city of Najaf and his popularity soared. Suspicious of the Ayatollah's growing power, Saddam's agents ambushed and killed Al-Sadr and two of his four children in 1999 near the Mosque of Ali, one of the holiest Shi'a shrines.

In his sermons, the senior Al-Sadr repeated the slogan "No No to America, No No to Israel." To this day, Al-Sadr's supporters believe that Saddam Hussein was a tool in the hands of America which ordered his assassination. The young Muqtada uses the same slogan in his sermons and he may also believe the allegation about American involvement in the assassination of his father. This may explain his intense hostility towards Americans. [1]

The Al-Sadr family traces its origins to "the House of the Prophet" and is one of the most distinguished families in Iraq. [2] This lineage is no small matter. Indeed, for large segments of the poor Shi'a population, the Al-Sadr name inherited by the young Muqtada may carry far more weight than the scholarship of the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is currently considered the most influential Shi'a figure in Iraq.

The Road to Resistance

Muqtada Al-Sadr has expressed himself on many political and social issues:

  • Denouncing Iraq's Governing Council (IGC) as illegitimate.
  • Inciting against the interim constitution of November 15, 2003.
  • Opposing female equality.
  • Rejecting the federal solution for Kurdistan.
  • Opposing the design of the new national flag and insisting on retaining Saddam's flag.
  • Demanding quick elections despite the lack of security and the absence of mechanisms for a properly-conducted balloting.
  • Preaching violence against the occupation forces.

However, it was not until his weekly, Al-Hawza, was closed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) on March 28, 2004 for inciting violence against the occupation forces that he took to the streets and began not only preaching, but actually practicing, violence.

Al-Sadr's Power Grab

In early April, taking advantage of a security lapse and aided by his so-called Mahdi Army, [3] Al-Sadr took control of the Shi'ites' most holy shrines in the cities of Najaf and Karbala and declared open rebellion against both the Marja'iyya (Shi'ite religious authority) and the CPA. It would take two months of military and political pressures to dislodge him and his army from these two cities, and the saga is far from finished.

The Nature and Actions of the Mahdi Army

As best as can be established, the Mahdi Army is a militia of 2,000-3,000, composed largely of fringe elements - criminals freed by Saddam Hussein en masse prior to his fall from power - and perhaps even foreign fighters and intelligence agents. According to a statement by a leading Shi'a group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Mahdi Army is led "by Saddam loyalists and by terrorists." It is accused of the assassination of SCIRI's former head Muhammad Baqir Al-Hakim in August 2003 and the earlier April murder and mutilation of another figure of famous lineage, the young Shi'a cleric Abd Al-Majid Al-Khoei. The SCIRI statement added pointedly, "We have a list of names to prove [the accusations]." [4] Perhaps as serious as the murders is the damage inflicted on the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf and the looting of some of the Shi'a religion's most ancient and valuable artifacts. The Mahdi Army also embarked on a systematic course to terrorize the local population and force them to adhere to an Islamist way of life. Violators were severely punished, often by public flogging; in some cases, executions, decreed by Shari'a courts under the authority of Al-Sadr, were carried out. [5] The residents of the city of Karbala went as far as declaring the Mahdi army as "worse than Saddam." [6]

The London daily Al-Hayat reported on the unhappiness in Najaf with the behavior of the Mahdi Army, which tried to impose strict Islamic law on the population. The Hawza ridiculed Al-Sadr's statement that his army was meant to protect the religious establishment. Al-Hawza told the press that it was in no danger and did not need the protection of Al-Sadr. The presence in the streets of thugs from the Mahdi army has also meant a lot of hardship for the many shopkeepers in the city who cater to the business of pilgrims, mainly from Iran, who can no longer safely tour the Shi'ite holy shrines. [7]

According to the Kurdish daily Al-Taakhi, the Al-Sadr movement "does not offer a clear social program, but expresses itself by protests and even by violence." The problem, the paper suggested, stems from the danger that the movement could easily find itself engaged in terrorism, which it has so far largely eschewed. [8]

The Reaction of the Marja'iyya and the Shi'a Political Establishment

The conflict between Al-Sadr and the Shi'a religious establishment has escalated sharply in the last few months. [9] The Shi'a religious establishment has escalated its hostile statements against Muqtada Al-Sadr. These statements have coincided with increased military action, which has inflicted heavy casualties on the Mahdi army.

From the outset, the opposition of Al-Marja'iyya and Al-Hawza (the religious seminaries, finance and administration) to Muqtada Al-Sadr has been consistent. [10] At the start of Al-Sadr's rebellion in April, Al-Hawza called on him to preserve the holiness of Najaf and Karbala and avoid subjecting their residents to unnecessary risks. It stressed that Al-Sadr should take his army outside the cities "if he insisted on his mistaken bloody choice which is destined for failure." It also called for removing all weapons from mosques and holy places. [11]

Al-Sadr Denounced

The Hawza denounced the threat by "Al-Sadr and those speaking for him" that they could permit their supporters "to blow themselves up against the coalition forces should they enter Al-Najaf." It said Al-Sadr has not attained a religious rank that allows him to issue a Fatwa to that effect. The Hawza emphasized that it has issued no Fatwa allowing such an act by the Believers, should the occupation forces enter Karbala or Najaf.

While the Hawza has declared the two cities as red lines, they stressed this should not be interpreted to mean that Al-Sadr can blow up himself or authorize such an act by others "regardless of the circumstances." The Hawza went on to explain: "The blood that will be shed in the absence of legitimate and religious Fatwa will become the responsibility of whoever authorized it until the day of resurrection." [12] This was in response to a statement by one Al-Sadr's assistants, Qais Al-Khaz'ali, that the number of young men seeking martyrdom and who are willing to blow themselves up is growing rapidly. [13]

Demonstrations in Support of Al-Sistani

Demonstrations were held in a number of Baghdad neighborhoods which denounced terrorist attacks against Ayatollah Al-Sistani in Najaf, and the assassination of Izzidin Salim, the president of IGC. Sayyed Sami Al-Kifa'ee, Imam of the Al-Immam Mosque in Baghdad, claimed, "Our demonstration today is to show our support for our top clergy in Najaf." [14]

There were also demonstrations in Karbala organized by supporters of Al-Sistani and by SCIRI calling for the exit of all armed men from the city. The demonstrators chanted "No No to Bloodshed, Yes Yes to Peace." Shortly before the demonstration proceeded, Al-Sistani's aide Sheikh Ahmad Al-Safi thanked the people of Karbala "for not following the heresy." [15] At the same time, one of the leaders of the Iranian reformist movement, Hujjat Al-Islam Ali Shirazi, accused the Mahdi army of bombing the top of Imam Ali's shrine and firing on the home and office of Al-Sistani. [16]

Editorials Join the Campaign against Al-Sadr

An editorial in Al-Istiqama (which is associated with SCIRI) titled "The Wisdom of Al-Marja'iyya – Its Support is Required and is an Obligation" refers to Al-Sistani's Fatwa which required all armed forces to leave the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. It says that listening to the wisdom of Al-Marja'iyya will help extricate the country from crisis and severe pressures. [17]

Another editorial in an Iraqi daily which speaks for the political movement, the National Accord, "Al-Wifaq Al-Watani" which is headed by Iyad Al-Allawi, the new prime minister of Iraq during the transition period, criticized those who incite violence against the coalition forces and the people of Najaf and Karbala. "It is fortunate," the editorial wrote, "that the majority of the Iraqis have discovered the dangers and the provocations of Al-Sadr's activities and his Saddamist-Iranian army, which is supported by Iran and a number of Gulf countries which gives al-Sadr a breathing space to rejuvenate his forces." The editorial also criticized the leftist movement in Germany which was seeking contributions in support of the "Iraqi resistance" which means support for the car bombings and the terrorism of Al-Sadr, Abu Musab Al- Zarqawi, and the remnants of Saddam's supporters. [18]

Criticism of Muqtada Al-Sadr by his own Spiritual Mentor

Al-Sadr's tactics were also criticized by his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Kadhem Hussein Al-Ha'iri,who resides in the Iranian city of Qum. The thrust of the criticism raised two issues: first, while Al-Sadr was authorized by Al-Ha'iri to act as a religious representative in Najaf for the Ayatollah, he has failed to coordinate his activities with Al-Ha'iri's office in Najaf. Second, no religious leader has declared Jihad against the occupying forces, and therefore "we have no right to attack the occupation forces unless they attacked Iraqis. In that case, they [the Iraqis] have the right for self-defense." For balance, Al-Ha'iri, 67, living in Iran since 1976, said the Americans must leave Iraq as soon as possible because "the infidels cannot rule an Islamic state." [19]

A more forceful criticism of Al-Sadr came from a reformist cleric, also residing in Qum, Hujat Al-Islam Ali Al-Shirazi. He blamed "hundreds of Saddam's feda'yoon" and criminals who were freed by Saddam for joining "the so-called Al-Mahdi Army." They are the ones who fire RPGs at the Ali's Mosque and they are behind the firing at the home and office of Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani and the offices of Ayatollah Fayadh and Sayyed Sa'id Al-Hakim.

Talking to the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, he said that Al-Sadr is "but a front behind which elements of the 'Istikhbarat' [secret service] of the former regime, Saddam's Feda'yoon, and criminals sought by justice." He went on to ridicule the Mahdi Army because some of its elements have given themselves such titles as "Abu Bazoon" [the father of the cat], "Abu Al-Bunduqiya" [the father of the rifle], and "Abu Al-Battin" [the father of the stomach] and other such titles commonly used by Saddam's men. Al-Shirazi also complained about elements of the Mahdi army "which arrest people arbitrarily, impose taxes on small businessmen, and threaten students and clerics who do not support Al-Sadr." [20]

A close aide of Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, Hujjat Al-Islam Muhammad Al-Abtahi has taken from the outset a negative attitude toward Al-Sadr "considering his behavior and eccentric activities [which are] a big blow to the reputation of the Shi'a and their role in Iraq and elsewhere. [21] It is not surprising that Khatami refused to meet Al-Sadr when he visited Iran early this year.

A blow to Al-Sadr was the flight of the director of his office in Kadhemiyya, Nadhim Al-A'araji, who was granted political asylum in Canada.

Pressures by Tribal Chiefs

The tribal chiefs in the vicinity of Najaf and Karbala threatened to bring four thousand armed men to defend the two cities while at the same time offered to act as mediators between Al-Sadr and Al-Sistani. Their efforts bore some fruit as Al-Sadr's army withdrew from the center of Karbala in mid-May, but it still maintained armed militia men in the center of Najaf when a cease fire was negotiated between Al-Sadr and the coalition forces. However, in the words of coalition spokesman General Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. will pursue Al-Sadr until June 30. [22] It is not clear, however, who will pursue Al-Sadr, if anyone, after June 30, should he succeed to evade the pursuing coalition forces.

The Cease Fire Agreement

On May 27, a cease fire was reached between Muqtada Al-Sadr and the coalition forces that called for the withdrawal of the armed elements of the Mahdi Army from Najaf. The coalition forces agreed to withdraw their heavy equipment and to patrol the streets of Najaf together with Iraqi police. The cease fire was negotiated with the help of Shi'a clerics who prevailed upon Al-Sadr to suspend military action in Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa. [23] Mass media reported clashes between the Mahdi army and the coalition forces shortly after the cease fire was concluded. The violations by the Mahdi army were attributed to the delay in transmitting the order from Al-Sadr to his units in the field.

It should be pointed out that at no time during the confrontation between Al-Sadr and Al-Marja'iyya and indeed at no other time did the most senior member of the Hawza, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, agree to meet Al-Sadr.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the few expressions of support for Al-Sadr came from Hassan Nassrallah, the leader of Hizbullah.


As the process of transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis by the occupation authority rapidly approaches its deadline at the end of this month, there remain many problems that could derail it. One such problem is Muqtada Al-Sadr.

The cease fire recently negotiated by Al-Sadr represents a tactical setback for him in the short-run but perhaps a strategic victory in the long-run. The threats by the coalition forces to "capture or kill" Al-Sadr is now all but forgotten. Being media smart, Al-Sadr may eventually use the threat to kill him as a badge of honor for having survived the threats of the most powerful army on earth.

According to the terms of the cease fire, Muqtada Al-Sadr did not have to dismantle his Mahdi army. On the contrary, the cease fire might afford him an opportunity to expand his recruitment base, which is potentially enormous given the high rate of unemployment among Iraqi youth. In today's Iraq, supplying his new recruits with weapons is no problem, and he can count on Iran for money. Most importantly, Al-Sadr continues to rule Al-Sadr City, with its 2 million residents. It serves as his own fiefdom with his own police, prison, and social services. Above all else, Ali Al-Sistani is 75 and Muqtada Al-Sadr is 31. Time may be on his side.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] See the biographical article on Al-Sadr by Hazem Amin in Al-Hayat (London), May 11, 2004.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), May 11, 2004.

[3] According to the Shi'a religion, Al-Mahdi is the missing Imam who disappeared in 874, and his return will signify the return of justice to the world.

[4] Al-Mashriq (Baghdad), May 30, 2004.

[5] Al-Ittihad (Baghdad), May 30, 30, 2004.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), May 24, 2004.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), April 23, 2004.

[8] Al-Taakhi (Iraq), April 7, 2004.

[9] Please see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 170, April 9, 2004, 'Muqtada Al-Sadr Not Supported by Other Iraqi Leaders,' Muqtada Al-Sadr Not Supported by Other Iraqi Leaders.

[10] Al-Marja'iyya and Al-Hawza are often used interchangeably since the highest Marja', or spiritual leader, is also the head of Al-Hawza, therefore playing the role of a spiritual as well as temporal roles.

[11] Al-Ittihad (Iraq), April 28, 2004.

[12] Al-Ittihad (Iraq), May 3, 2004.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 30, 2004.

[14] Al-Shira' (Baghdad) May 22, 2004.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 21, 2004.

[16] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 21, 2004.

[17] Al-Istiqama (Baghdad), May 20, 2004.

[18] Baghdad (Iraq), May 20, 2004.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 30, 2004.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 21, 2004.

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

[22] Al-Mashriq (Baghdad), May 23, 2004.

[23] Al-Hayat (London), May 28, 2004.

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