Following are excerpts from an interview with Muqtada Al-Sadr, Leader of the Al-Mahdi Army in Iraq, which aired on Al-Jazeera TV on March 29, 2008.
Muqtada Al-Sadr: It's a little difficult to combine studying with the direct leadership of society. I can only move forward in one of these two directions. I have dedicated five years to society, and now I want to dedicate a few years to my studies, so I can be of more benefit to society. I am not secluding myself from society. I am fulfilling my duties to the best of my ability. As has been said in the communiqué, there is a committee that runs things, and I supervise it directly. However, at this point in time, I want to progress in my knowledge and faith.
It is the duty of the Al-Sadr movement and the Iraqi people to strive to gradually liberate Iraq. The liberation of Iraq does not mean only bearing arms. There is also cultural liberation, social liberation, military liberation, and so on. The assault against Islam is not only military. It is both cultural and military, and it requires, at any given period, diversification of the resistance. But the liberation of Iraq remains a national duty, and a primary goal of the Al-Sadr movement.
It is true that Saddam was occupying Iraq with his dictatorship and his reckless policies, which were hundreds of miles removed from reason – policies that were, in fact, devoid of any reason. However, the military intervention of the occupying forces of all nationalities does not constitute liberation. The proof is that we did not get rid of Saddam or the Ba'thists. They are still around and still have a negative influence in Iraq. The second this is that the American influence on the Iraqis is even more negative than that of the former Ba'th Party. The Iraqi people still suffers as it did in the days of the Saddam – there are no services, there is a lack of security, and we still suffer from all the things we suffered from in the past. Therefore, this was occupation, not liberation. I call it occupation. I have said in recent years: Gone is the "little Satan," and in came the "Great Satan."
Interviewer: After five years of war, do you still believe that Iraq is occupied?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Bush used to say that his picture would hang in all the Iraqi homes. No, sir. His picture is now trampled underfoot by the Iraqis.
Interviewer: But is Iraq still occupied by the American forces?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Yes, it is, and American popularity is dropping daily – why daily? It is dropping by the minute.
Interviewer: Do you consider acts of resistance to be legitimate when directed against these forces, which you call "occupying forces"?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: No one can deny [the right] to conduct resistance. No human mind would deny it. Resistance is the legitimate right of all peoples. Resistance automatically appears wherever there is occupation. Allah willing, the U.S. will be vanquished, just like it was in Vietnam.
Interviewer: Do you support any armed resistance against these forces, which you label "occupiers"?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: This is the reasonable right...
Interviewer: Do you support it? Do you support armed resistance against the forces you call "occupiers"?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Against the occupiers – yes, but not against others.
Interviewer: Since you claim that Iraq is now occupied, and that the occupiers are the Americans, do you support conducting acts of armed resistance, in order to liberate Iraq from the occupying American forces, as you call them?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: On condition that these acts do not harm the Iraqi people.
Interviewer: I will get to that. We will talk later about your general political position. Do you openly support these acts?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Yes, I do.
Interviewer: What do you mean when you say "on condition that they do not harm the Iraqi people"?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: For example, that the battles should not be waged within the city. This is just one example of how to avoid harming the Iraqi people. The targets should be hit accurately, so that others will not be harmed. The people who conduct resistance know these things better than me.
Interviewer: What we abroad understood was that you disbanded the Al-Mahdi Army, because you had lost control over it.
Muqtada Al-Sadr: The Al-Mahdi Army is under control, or at least most of it. They are obedient, loyal, and faithful. They are even capable of gradually liberating Iraq, Allah willing, along with some other resistance forces.
This will be the army of the Reformer [the Mahdi], Allah willing. At the end of time, the Mahdi will appear, and if by that time, we are still around, and if we are capable mentally, physically, militarily, and in terms of faith, we will all be his soldiers, Allah willing. Hence, the Al-Mahdi Army is a matter of faith, and it cannot be disbanded.
Interviewer: What is the strategic goal of the Al-Mahdi Army?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: At present, it is to liberate Iraq, and to defend the Iraqi people in times of crisis, and at the moment Iraq is in a crisis – it is occupied – and should be liberated.
Interviewer: So you state clearly that the goal of the Al-Mahdi Army is...
Muqtada Al-Sadr: To defend Iraq. I never have and never will deny this.
Interviewer: So you continue with this?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Of course, and if I’m not around – if I am killed, if I die, retire, or whatever – the goal of the Al-Mahdi Army will remain the liberation of Iraq.
Interviewer: Let me say that this comment might sound peculiar to many...
Muqtada Al-Sadr: It will sound peculiar only to the Americans.
Interviewer: The general belief abroad is that you are retiring...
Muqtada Al-Sadr: These are merely tactics... Allah willing, these tactics will not weaken our resolve to liberate Iraq.
There are plans to divide Iraq – to divide what has already been divided, if I may say so. The Al-Sadr movement must oppose this, and strive to maintain the unity of the Iraqi land and people under any circumstances. Another important goal is to make society religious, rather than secular. People keep talking about an “Islamic government” and so on. What is more important is to make society, not just the government, Islamic. An Islamic government without an Islamic society cannot...
Interviewer: You mentioned your opposition to the division of Iraq. What exactly did you mean? Did you mean the partitioning of Iraq into independent countries, or do you consider federalism and decentralization to be part of this division? People talk about a district in the south, another in the north, the center, the west... What do you mean?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: If federalism does not entail the division of Iraq, it is fine. The important thing is that the occupation is an obstacle to federalism. There can be no federalism as long as there is occupation. As long as there is occupation in Iraq, federalism will constitute the partitioning of the country, even if it is centralized.
Interviewer: You say this unequivocally?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Yes. If there was no occupation, my answer would be different. Then there would be room for discussion.
Interviewer: Do you fear there will be more sectarian violence in Iraq in the near future? I am not talking about the resistance, but about internal violence.
Muqtada Al-Sadr: Sectarian violence? It’s possible, because the Americans are in Iraq, and they are constantly touching on this sensitive spot – Shiites against Sunnis, Kurds against Arabs... They are always... I have seen this on TV or somewhere... The Americans are responsible even for the car bombs.
The Al-Sadr movement is Islamic even more than it is Iraqi. An attack against any Islamic country or people will mean that the Al-Sadr movement will become an interested party.
Interviewer: In what way?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: It will defend Islam however necessary. It will do whatever it can at the time. If any Islamic or Arab country is attacked, the Al-Sadr movement will be an interested party.
Obviously, I am close to the Shiites ideologically, but politically, I am close to the Sunnis and the decisions they make. Many of the decisions of the Al-Sadr movement correspond to those of the Sunnis.
Interviewer: How do you view Iran’s role in Iraq, and what are your relations with the Iranian leadership?
Muqtada Al-Sadr: First of all, I don’t do anything in secret. It is all out in the open. I try to maintain good relations with everybody. With regard to the Iranians and the Iranian Republic... In a previous meeting with Khamenei, during a pilgrimage, I told him that we share the same ideology, but that politically and militarily, I would not be an extension of Iran, and that there were negative things that Iran was doing in Iraq. I mentioned to him a few things that Iran needs to rectify with regard to Iraq. Iran committed mistakes that it should not have made.